RECUSANT are persons who refuse or neglect to attend divine service on Sundays and holidays, according to the forms of the Established Church. Before the Reformation, ecclesiastical censures wore directed at different times by provincial councils against those who absented them selves from the services of the church. But the noticing of recusancy in the temporal courts, and probably the use of the term itself, cannot be traced higher than the MXteenib century. Ky the 1 Khz., c. 2, it is enacted 'that all pctsous shall diligently and faithfully, having no lawful or reasonable excuse to be absent, endeavour to resort to their parish church or chapel accustomed, or upon reasonable let < hindrance) thereof, to some usual place where common prayer. &c. shall be used, in time of such let, upon every Sunday and other days ordained and used to be kept as holy days, in J then and there to abide orderly and soberly during the time of the common prayer, preaching, and other service of God there to be used and ministered, upon pain of punishment by the censures of the church, and also upon pain thai every person so offending shall forfeit for every such offence twelve pence.' By 23 Elii., c. 1. it is enacted, 'that every person above the age of sixteen years who shall not repair lo some church, chapel, or usual place of common prayer, but forbear the same, contrary to the tenor of the statute of I Eliz., c. 2, and being thereof lawfully convicted, shall forfeit for every month which he or she shall so forbear, twenty pounds.' This statute has been held not to dispense with the forfeiture imposed by the former statute. By 35 El in., c. 1, it is enacted, that if recusants, within three months after conviction, refuse or neglect to submit, they may, upon the requisition of four justices of the peace, be compelled in abjure and renounce the realm; and if they do not depart, or if they return without licence from the crown, they are guilty of felony, and to suffer death as felons without benefit of clergy.
The law recognised four classes of offenders under the statutes against recusancy:—those who absented themselves from the public service of the church from in difference, irreligion, or dissent, were termed 'recusants'simply—af;« conviction they were styled 'recusants convict;' thoae absentees who professed the Roman Catholic religion were called' Popish recusants;' and those who had been convicted in a court of law of being Popish recusants were called 'Popish recusants convict.'
The laws against Popish recusants convict were of a very severe character. Montesquieu characterises them as so rigorous, that though not professedly of the sanguinary kind, they did all the hurt which possibly could be done in cold blood. The answer of Blackstono to this charge is rather a strange one, namely, that these laws were seldom executed to their utmost rigour, or, in other words, that they were enacted principally in terrorem. The truth appears to be that the first penal statutes parsed for lhepurpose of compelling the adherents of the old religion to adopt the new, provoked resistance on their part; and Ifc.i resistance caused severer enactments, producing in tbeir lam increased resistance, followed by the imposition of still mm rigorous penalties.
Popish recusants, in addition to the general penalty* enacted against recusants, were disabled from taking laneeither by descent or by purchase, after eighteen Tears ■.' age, until they renounced their errors. They were bound at the age of twenty-one to register the estates which lb** had already acquired, and were bound also to register all future conveyances and wills relating to them. They were and are [quare Impedit] incapable of presenting to i t advowson, and of making a grant of the right of presenting at any avoidance of the benefice. They could not keep or teach any school, on pain of perpetual imprisonrami. Fur the offence of saying mass, the Popish recusant forfr.:<-i 200 marks, or 133/. 6*. 8rf. For the offence of wilfully heannj mass, he forfeited 100 marks (66/. 13». Ad.), and was in c»vi case subjected to a year's imprisonment.
Popish recusants convict incurred additional disabilities. penalties, and forfeitures, They were consideied is person excommunicated: they could not hold any public office or employment; they were not allowed to keen arms in tbnr houses ; they were prohibited from coming within ten mile* of London, under the penalty of 100/. ; they could bnog Bj action at law or suit in equity; they were not permitted t come to court, under pain of 100/., or to travel abotv fte miles from home except by licence, upon pain of foHaim^ all their goods. Severe penalties were imposed in re*prr: of the marriage or burial of the Popish recusant cv>imci. or the baptism of his child, if the ceremony were performed by any other than by a minister of the Charrfc of England. Such a recusant, if a married woman, forfrttea two-thirds of her dower or jointure, was disabled fcora befog executrix or administratrix of her husband, and from having any part of his goods, and she might be kept in prison, unless her husband redeemed her at the rate of 10/. per month or by the profits of the third part of all his lands.
Protestant dissenters were relieved from the penalties of recusancy at the Revolution, by the Toleration Act, 1 William & Mary, c. 18. This statute contained a proviso (s. 17) that nothing therein contained should extend to give any ease, benefit, or advantage to any Papist or Popish recusant, or to any person that should in his preaching or writingdeny the doctrine of the Trinity. But in 1791, by 31 Geo. III., c. 32, Roman Catholics taking a certain oath therein presented (altered in 1829, by the Catholic Relief Act, 10 George IV., c. 7) wore exempted from prosecution, for being Papists and for not resorting to church ; and in 1813, by 53 George 111 , c. 160, the exemption in the Toleration Act, as to persons denying the doctrine of the Trinity, was repealed. The statutes against recusancy, though seldom enforced, nre still subsisting with respect to persons who, not being Roman Catholics or Protestant dissenters, absent themselves from the service of the Established Church.
Note - this article incorporates content from The Penny Cyclopaedia of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (1840)