The word derives from the universality of faith in the Christian church, but since the 16th cent. has referred to the portion of Christianity accepting papal authority. It delineates the distinctive post‐Reformation communities in Britain which rejected the assertion of royal supremacy over the church in England. These communities survived legal proscription by penal laws, eventually lifted in the late 18th and early 19th cents. That process can be understood in a series of phases, beginning with the period of survival as recusant communities during the 17th cent. Up to 1688, catholics launched a missionary campaign to maintain catholic life and worship. The sacramental nature of catholicism meant that the congregations were dependent on priests who had to be trained in missionary seminaries in Europe. The first of these was founded by Cardinal William Allen at Douai in Flanders and in Rome in the 1570s. The priests, subjected to the law of treason, went in fear of their lives and depended on the protection of lay families, mostly gentry. Lay and clerical catholics were executed up to the 1680s. The extent to which the penal laws were imposed varied according to the circumstances of the day and in some areas catholicism flourished unmolested. Parts of Lancashire, the north‐east, and the midlands became relatively safe territory. In Ireland, catholics formed the great majority outside Ulster, and in Scotland were strong in the Highlands and Islands.
In these areas it became possible, in the second phase from 1688 to the mid‐18th cent., for catholic life to establish its existence. The mood of the early 18th cent. turned against religious persecution and few of the laws were enforced. By the mid‐18th cent., catholic practice was largely tolerated and life for the small congregations, served by travelling missionaries or gentry chaplains, fell into a pattern of quiet independence.
The final defeat of the Jacobite cause in 1745 removed the political animus against catholicism, though not until 1829 was the prohibition on catholic MPs lifted. In the 1740s catholics were a negligible fraction of the population of England and Wales, but from that time they entered a new phase of modest growth. The drift to the towns began and urban catholicism in London, the midlands, and parts of the north emerged. Chapels and schools, though still technically illegal, began to appear. Numbers were increasing rapidly, from around 80,000 at the end of the 18th cent. to nearer 700,000 in the 1851 religious census. This growth was partly endogenous and partly due to massive migration of impoverished Irish catholics. Clerical training had been forced back onto British soil by the French Revolution and clerical numbers, organization, and ecclesiastical authority were increasing.
The restoration of the catholic hierarchy to England and Wales in 1850 gave English catholicism a sense of belonging fully to the universal church under papal authority. The task after 1850 was to rebuild English catholicism in the image of European catholicism and to create the churches, schools, devotions, and loyalty which built the powerful, close‐knit catholic culture characteristic until the middle of the 20th cent.