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The first statute in which the term "Popish Recusants" is used is 35 Eliz. c. 2, "An Act for restraining Popish Recusants to some certain place of abode", which was passed in 1593. The statute defines a recusant as one "Convicted for not repairing to some Church, Chapel, or usual place of Common Prayer to hear Divine Sevice there, but forbearing the same contrary to the tenor of the laws and statutes heretofore made and provided in that behalf". The Recusancy Acts are: 1 Eliz. c. 2, 23 Eliz. c. 1, 29 Eliz. c. 6, 35 Eliz. c. 2, 3 Jac. I. c. 5, 7 Jac. I. c. 6, and 3 Car. I. c. 2. But several statutes declare that other offenses shall be deemed acts of recusancy, and that those convicted of them shall be deemed "popish recusants convict".
As time went on there were other recusants who were not Catholics, but who for one reason or another refrained from attending the Church of England services. This fact must be remembered in dealing with the Recusancy lists, though, of course, far the larger number of recusants were Catholics. The number of recusants was very great, as may be seen by one instance adduced by J.S. Hansom in his preface to the list of convicted recusants in the reign of Charles II, where on one day (24 Feb., 1690) the names of 1755 recusants were presented in he single town of Thirsk. The recusancy laws were in force from the reign of Elizabeth to that of George III, though they were not always put into execution with equal vigour. Lists of recusants for various counties exist in the Pipe Rolls preserved in the Record Office, Longon. Others are to be found in the British Museum, Bodleian Library, and in various local archives.