top of page

The Recusants: The Story of English Catholics in America

“I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first”; these were the last words uttered by Saint Thomas More on the day of his execution in 1535. What his enemies did not know at the time was that this would prove to be the rallying cry for the Catholics of England for centuries to come. In a sense, it was their creed. For while the English people had always been loyal to their kings, they were above all loyal to the King of Kings. This “recusancy”, as it came to be called, persisted for centuries and would play a significant role in England’s history, despite its rejection of the Roman Catholic Church.

The recusants spread so far and wide that at one point they came very close to bringing the Crown back to Old Religion of Saint Edward the Confessor. This perseverance in Faith, however, did not just remain in the British Isles. As the English and later British Empire expanded across North America, so did these Catholics settle in these newly created extensions of the mother country.

When discussing the history of Catholicism in America, people often point towards the Spanish, French, Italians and Irish as being the pillars of American Catholicism and rightfully so. However the English recusants who bravely upheld the Faith in the face of persecution are rarely mentioned. This is despite the fact that American Culture is deeply rooted in English Culture, as pointed out by late traditional Catholic Associate Justice of the United States, Antonin Scalia. If we want to bring about a complete and total conversion of the American nation in the name of Holy Mother Church, it is important that we learn about the story of these brave souls so that we can have a better understanding of American Catholic identity.

In order to understand how recusancy arrived in America, we must first understand how recusancy arose in the first place. During the 1530s, King Henry VIII of England started to pass numerous laws that stripped the Papacy of its power in the English Church. This was the result of a dispute between the English Crown and the Pope over the Church’s refusal to annul Henry VIII’s marriage to the saintly Catherine of Aragon. As a result, the King declared himself the supreme head of the Church in England in the Act of Supremacy and made it a crime to dissent from this settlement in the Treasons Act. Subsequently, many people found themselves to be in opposition to Henry VIII when they remained loyal to the Holy Roman Church.

Some, like Saint Thomas More and Saint John Fisher, resisted the King through political means while others resorted to uprisings to restore the Catholic Faith to England, an example being the Pilgrimage of Grace, which was the largest Catholic rebellion against the Crown during the Tudor Period. After Henry VIII’s death, more laws were passed to further suppress English Catholics as shown by the Acts of Uniformity which were implemented by Queen Elizabeth I, Henry VIII’s daughter. The Catholic hierarchy in England would not be restored until 1850 and the last anti-Catholic recusancy laws were not repealed until 1888. So in the face of these persecutions and hardships, many English Catholics began to evaluate the safety of remaining in Protestant England.

Ever since the discovery of the New World, English Catholics had a keen interest in what this new continent could offer. Pre-Reformation England under King Henry VII funded multiple voyages to North America in order to evaluate the merits of creating a colony in the region. These first expeditions were led by the Italian navigator John Cabot and took place between 1497-1500. As a result, the English managed to explore and map much of what we would call the Maritimes, Newfoundland and quite possibly New England. At one point, Cabot and his men even set foot on the North American continent, claiming the land for the King of England and the Roman Catholic Church.

Despite this landing, Cabot vanished without a trace sometime around 1498, and it is presumed that he died around this time. Cabot’s expeditions are significant because some historians speculate that one of the friars who came with Cabot, Father Giovanni de Carbonariis, actually stayed in North America, where he founded a mission alongside his brother friars. This gives rise to the possibility of a medieval English colony and Church in North America a full century before Jamestown. John Cabot’s son, Sebastian, would continue exploring North America for the English Crown throughout the first decade of the 1500s. These expeditions would take him as far south as Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay, and significant progress was being made. But, this halted with the ascension of the young King Henry VIII to the English throne in 1509, when interest in exploration stopped and thus any form of English colonization prior to the Reformation.

English interest in North America would only be revived in the late 1500s and early 1600s when both Queen Elizabeth I and King James I started to realize the merits of an English colony in North America.

By this point, Catholics were already suffering under Protestant rule, and this period of English history was a time of religious strife, as many Catholics sought to overthrow the Protestant pretenders and replace them with Catholic claimants to the throne, like the saintly Mary Queen of Scots. Her position on the throne was only made far more fragile after His Holiness Pope Saint Pius V promulgated a Papal Bull releasing all English Catholics from their oaths to her. This was also accompanied by an attempt to restore Catholicism to England by the Spanish via military conquest. As a result of all this tension, Queen Elizabeth and King James both started to realize the merits of establishing an English colony to strengthen Protestant England in the New World.

After much trial and tribulation, Protestant England managed to establish a colony in 1607, called Jamestown, which is now present-day Virginia. However, what the Protestant crown did not realize is that in their attempt to solidify the Protestant position, they had given Catholic recusants the opportunity to establish themselves in the New World. For the longest time it was thought that Jamestown was a predominantly Anglican colony, however this view has been challenged in recent years.

Recent discoveries made in the colony have found items that indicate a strong Catholic presence in the colony from the beginning. Items such as crucifixes and rosaries have been found in the colony, as well as countless other medallions and sacramentals that have been found, which further prove the presence of a recusant community. Some examples are medals depicting the Blessed Virgin, Saint Joseph of Arimathea, Saint Charles Borromeo and Saint Nicholas which have been identified as being owned by colonists. One of the most interesting finds amongst all these sacramentals is the medal of the Five Joys, a devotion that was unique to pre-Reformation England.But by far the most important find regarding the Catholic community in Jamestown is the tomb of a man who is believed to be Captain Gabriel Archer.

When digging up his body, two things of note were discovered that shocked researchers. The first being that next to him was a box that contained a Catholic reliquary, this is very interesting because it is well known that Anglicanism vehemently rejects the veneration of relics and gives zero importance to them whatsoever. The second is that, unlike other bodies, Archer was facing East, which is the traditional way in which clergymen are buried. This has led to speculation amongst historians and researchers that Archer was not just a Catholic but also a priest. Archer’s death is presumed to have come about from one of the many famines which plagued Jamestown, sometime around 1609, due to a lack of supplies. Ultimately, the fate of the Jamestown Catholics remains unknown.

The situation for English Catholics would improve after the death of King James I and the ascension of his son, King Charles I, to the English throne in 1625. The new King was more sympathetic to the Catholics than his father, and he himself adopted many Catholic practices into the Anglican Church. As a result of this, when the son of his Catholic former Secretary of State, a man by the name of Lord Baltimore, asked him for the opportunity to create a colony for English Catholics in America, he obliged.

This wasn’t Lord Baltimore’s first attempt at a Catholic colony, as he had tried establishing one in Newfoundland called Avalon, which ultimately ended in failure. But Lord Baltimore wanted to keep trying. On June 20, 1632, King Charles granted the original charter for the Colony of Maryland and on November 22, they set sail for America. After a long voyage, they landed on what is now Saint Clement’s Island on March 25th, 1634. Not long after disembarking, Holy Mass was celebrated by Father Andrew White, to give thanks to God for protecting them on their voyage.

Father White was the spiritual leader of the colony, and is now known as the Apostle of Maryland, because he worked to spread the Faith not only to the Indians they encountered, but also to the Protestants that came with them, many of whom converted not long after they landed. The colony was a massive success for English Catholics, as they had finally established a home where they could practice their faith freely, unlike Jamestown. Better yet, they did so under the protection of the King which meant their rights would be protected by him. Everything seemed to be going smoothly until things took a turn for the worse.

Back in England, King Charles had been dragged into what is now known as the English Civil Wars or the War of The Three Kingdoms (1639-1653). It was an almost 15 year long conflict which put the King’s Coalition of Anglican and Catholic Royalists against the Puritan Parliamentarians and their Presbyterian allies. This conflict naturally spilled over into the colonies, which meant that Maryland had to defend itself against Protestant raiders. The situation only became worse when King Charles lost the war in England and was executed by the Parliamentarian Leader, Oliver Cromwell.

Maryland managed to defend itself for a long period of time, until they were ultimately defeated by the Protestants at the Battle of the Severn in 1655, which ended the War of the Three Kingdoms. This proved to be a dark time for Catholics as once again they were driven underground, Father White was imprisoned and died in exile back in England. There seemed to be no hope for five years, until 1660, when the Puritan Commonwealth was dissolved and the monarchy was restored.

The young King Charles II, Charles I’s son, and an even greater Catholic sympathizer than his father, was quick to restore Lord Baltimore’s charter, giving the Catholics of Maryland freedom once again. Throughout the reign of King Charles II, who converted to Catholicism on his deathbed, the Maryland Colony prospered and the English Catholics were able to create a Catholic aristocracy and a society which had not been seen since the Reformation. It was also during this time that Catholics spread to other colonies in America, most notably to Pennsylvania and New York. Pennsylvania welcomed them, because of their laws regarding religious toleration, while New York accepted them because the colony was under the control of King Charles’ Catholic brother, the Duke of York.

It would be the Duke of York who would ascend to the throne in 1685 as King James II. The King was quick to solidify the position of Catholics in America by making the famed Catholic Royalist Thomas Dongan the Governor of New York. The period of 1660-1688 could be considered a golden period for recusants, with all the gains being made for Catholics in America.But unfortunately, it wouldn't last long. King James II was hated for his Catholic Faith which led to several Protestant conspirators inviting William of Orange, Stadtholder of the Netherlands, to usurp the English Throne. This Protestant Revolution was successful and King James fled to France where he would die in 1701. William of Orange would go on to repeal Maryland’s charter and any other law giving freedom of Catholics in America. Dongan fled to England after the revolution while the recusants in Maryland, led by Henry Darnall and William Joseph, revolted to defend their rights. This ended in failure. So the recusants were once again driven underground.

The Georgian Period in America (1714-1783) would prove to be the lowest point for English Catholics. They were completely excluded from British Society and penal laws against them only increased. Hatred of Catholics was constantly being fueled by suspicion that they were constantly plotting to overthrow the colonial governments. This suspicion was only reinforced by the Jacobite Uprisings of 1715 and 1745 where several people in the colonies were arrested for alleged sympathies for the House of Stuart. The only colony in which they could practice their Faith somewhat openly was in Pennsylvania, where the religious laws were more sympathetic towards them.

Back in Maryland, the descendants of Lord Baltimore renounced the Catholic Faith in order to gain control of the colony again. This was a huge blow for the recusants as the Calvert Family, of which the Lords Baltimore hailed from, were one of the biggest protectors of the Faith in Maryland. But despite this, the recusants found another Catholic aristocratic family that was capable of protecting them, the Carrolls.

The Carrolls first arrived in Maryland before the 1688 Protestant Revolution with the help of Henry Darnall, one of the aforementioned leaders of Catholic uprising in Maryland during that period. Despite laws barring Catholics from holding political offices and publicly practicing their faith, the Carrolls went on to become the richest family in the Maryland colony. They used this wealth to help the underground Catholic community in many different ways. The Carroll Estate had a private chapel that served as the primary meeting place for the local Catholic community until as late as 1855 and it continued to be open to the public on Sunday mornings for Mass until the 1990s.

As the Georgian period progressed, the idea of independence from the Hanoverian Crown became more and more appealing to many Americans. Amongst those who were interested in this idea was a man who would go on to be last leader of the English recusants in America. Charles Carroll III was born in 1737 and was the heir to the Carroll Family Estates. He obtained his education in the Kingdom of France and was a very gifted and smart young man who was well researched on history, philosophy and theology.

When he returned from France, he quickly became interested in politics and saw the movement of American independence from Britain as a way to obtain freedom for his fellow Catholics. He would go on to write articles under the pseudonym “First Citizen”. During the American War of Independence, he would go on to become the sole Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence, despite the fact many of his contemporaries were heavily anti-Catholic and opposed the King’s pro-Catholic Policies in Quebec and Ireland. Carroll would go on to become one of the most well respected men of his time, which changed the opinions of many regarding Catholic recusants. This change was also aided by General Washington’s suppression of the anti-Catholic holiday known as Pope Night alongside a successful Franco-Spanish Intervention in the War of Independence on behalf of the Americans.

After the War of Independence, Catholics were guaranteed the freedom to practice the Faith publicly in the new American Republic, and Carroll’s dream of freedom for Catholics finally became true. American Catholics got their first diocese in 1789 led by Bishop John Carroll, Charles Carroll’s cousin. Not long after, the first Catholic College in the country was founded and it took the name Georgetown College. It would also be during this time that English recusants would expand westward, founding settlements in Kentucky. These pioneers would go on to build churches and even a college operated by the Dominicans, and interestingly, this college would be where a certain Jefferson Davis, future President of the Confederate States, would go on to receive his education.

Charles Carroll would go on to join the Federalist Party, the more Conservative Traditionalist faction in American politics that sought to make America a Traditional Aristocracy with a traditional Christian social order. Carroll’s vision for America was an imitation of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Alfred the Great. Although the country was still mostly Anglican, he believed that the Federalist’s defense of Natural Law and traditional Christian principles could provide the perfect grounding for his vision of America. However, this dream was quickly torn to shreds, as the Federalist order was overthrown by Thomas Jefferson and his Democratic Republicans in 1800. The Republican order cemented itself and initiated policies to further democratize, secularize and liberalize the country.

This liberalism and republicanism would also fuel anti Catholic hatred once again as many believed that the Pope stood in direct opposition to the liberal republican values of this new vision for America. Carroll was distraught by what he saw, and America was no longer the country he once knew as a young man. He lived the rest of his life in obscurity, regretting the role he played in the revolution. He ultimately passed away in 1832 at the age of 95, the last of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence. With his death, English recusants slowly faded away, as the identity of the American Church evolved into something different, with the introduction of non-English Catholics immigrants such as the Irish and the Italians.

The story of the English recusants is one of most interesting yet obscure parts of American history. Most people, even many Catholics, are under the impression that the religious struggles that occurred in Europe never touched this side of the Atlantic, which couldn’t be further from the truth. This memory loss is a result of a skewed winning side perspective imposed by Liberal Whig Historians following the Jeffersonian Revolution. Only now have many Americans started to realize the connection they have with Old Catholic Europe, and the story of the English recusants is just another part of this grand rediscovery.


bottom of page