Penal Laws, in English and Irish history, term generally applied to the body of discriminatory and oppressive legislation directed chiefly against Roman Catholics but also against Protestant nonconformists.
The Penal Laws grew out of the English Reformation and specifically from those acts that established royal supremacy in the Church of England (see England, Church of) in the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. Under Henry VIII and Edward VI civil disabilities were imposed on those who remained in communion with Rome, thus denying the king's spiritual headship. Elizabeth I made it impossible for Catholics to hold civil offices and imposed severe penalties upon Catholics who persisted in recognizing papal authority. Fines and prison sentences were prescribed for all who did not attend Anglican services, and the celebration of the Mass was forbidden under severe penalties.
The excommunication (1570) of Elizabeth by Pope Pius V, the Catholic plots to place Mary Queen of Scots on the English throne, and the attempted Spanish invasion by the Armada roused the government and public opinion to an intensely anti-Catholic pitch, and the Penal Laws were extended. Jesuits and other priests were expelled (1585) from England under penalty of treason, and harboring or aiding priests was declared a capital offense. Although a number of Catholics (e.g., Edmund Campion) were executed for treason, these laws were never thoroughly administered except against prominent people who refused to conform.
Under James I the Gunpowder Plot resulted in added severity, but the official attitude softened after 1618, as James sought friendly relations with Spain. Charles I's wife, Henrietta Maria, was a Catholic, and her position made easy some open disregard of the restrictive laws. In the English civil war the Catholics sided with the king, and Oliver Cromwell punished them, along with royalist Anglicans, by wide confiscations, but few were executed.
After the Restoration of Charles II, Parliament passed the series of laws known as the Clarendon Code (1661–65) and the Test Act (1673), which required holders of public office to take various oaths of loyalty and to receive the sacrament of the Church of England. These laws penalized Protestant nonconformists at whom, principally, they were aimed, as well as Roman Catholics. However, the Protestant dissenters continued in their vehement anti-Catholicism and formed the backbone of the Whig party, which coalesced (1679–81) in the attempt to exclude the Catholic James, duke of York (later James II) from the succession to the throne. The anti-Catholic movement culminated in the overthrow of James II in the Glorious Revolution (1688), and the Bill of Rights (1689) and the Act of Settlement (1701) excluded the Catholic branch of the house of Stuart from the throne.
A Toleration Act (1689) relieved the Protestant nonconformists of many of their disabilities (although they remained excluded from office), but the Catholics were now subjected to new laws limiting their property and means of education. The Jacobites, in their attempts to restore the Catholic Stuarts, kept the politico-religious issue of Roman Catholicism alive until 1745. By this time the relatively small number of Catholics remaining in England and Scotland made the anti-Catholic laws there a minor issue, but Catholic Emancipation was delayed until 1829.
In Ireland, where the population was predominantly Roman Catholic and the Glorious Revolution had been vigorously resisted, the Penal Laws were extended and made extremely oppressive during the 18th cent. After the Treaty of Limerick (1691), the Irish Parliament, filled with Protestant landowners and controlled from England, enacted a penal code that secured and enlarged the landlords' holdings and degraded and impoverished the Irish Catholics.
As a result of these harsh laws, Catholics could neither teach their children nor send them abroad; persons of property could not enter into mixed marriages; Catholic property was inherited equally among the sons unless one was a Protestant, in which case he received all; a Catholic could not inherit property if there was any Protestant heir; a Catholic could not possess arms or a horse worth more than £5; Catholics could not hold leases for more than 31 years, and they could not make a profit greater than a third of their rent. The hierarchy of the Catholic Church was banished or suppressed, and Catholics could not hold seats in the Irish Parliament (1692), hold public office, vote (1727), or practice law. Cases against Catholics were tried without juries, and bounties were given to informers against them.
Under these restrictions many able Irishmen left the country, and regard for the law declined; even Protestants assisted their Catholic friends in evasion. In the latter half of the 18th cent., with the decline of religious fervor in England and the need for Irish aid in foreign wars, there was a general mitigation of the treatment of Catholics in Ireland, and the long process of Catholic Emancipation began.
See B. Magee, The English Recusants (1938); E. I. Watkin, Roman Catholicism in England from the Reformation to 1950 (1957).