Today Britain's rich mix of ethnic groups with its numerous religious minorities can worship in relative freedom. Such tolerance has not always existed. The Jews were temporarily expelled from this country in 1273, and in the late 14th and early 15th centuries the English Crown took a harsh line with the Lollards, who questioned the practices and beliefs of the Catholic church.
Throughout the Middle Ages England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland had owed allegiance to the Pope as head of the Catholic church; then during the Reformation Henry VIII broke with Rome, becoming head of the Church of England. The Act of Supremacy (1534) and Elizabeth I's Act of Uniformity (1559) meant that the remaining Catholics in England and Wales (now in a minority) came to be persecuted and lost significant rights. In Scotland, the Reformation led to the establishment of a Protestant church run on Presbyterian lines.
The rise of nonconformity
The 17th century witnessed the emergence of a number of 'nonconformist' congregations, consisting of Protestants who did not conform to the practices and discipline of the established Church of England. By 1700 the four main nonconformist denominations - Presbyterians, Independents (Congregationalists), Baptists and Quakers (the Society of Friends) - were attracting large numbers. For the next three centuries, they were to play an important part in the life of the country, adding enormously to its cultural and social activities.
Meanwhile, plots against James I - including the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 - resulted in further discrimination against Catholics. In 1609 a statute required candidates for British citizenship to take the sacrament according the Anglican rite. This was designed to prevent the admission of foreign Catholics, but also deterred many Jews from becoming British subjects.
The Declaration of Breda and after
During the Civil War, most Catholics avoided taking sides, though many rich Catholic gentry did follow the king. Cromwell's period of republican rule provided a more favourable climate for religious toleration, and in 1657 Jews were allowed to resettle. Charles II's Restoration in 1660 resulted in the Declaration of Breda, which promised freedom of conscience for differences of opinion in matters of religion so long as they did not disrupt the kingdom. It was, however, followed by a series of measures known as the Clarendon Code which severely limited the rights of Catholics and nonconformists, effectively excluding them from national and local politics. By 1662 thousands of nonconformists were in prison. In Scotland, the whole Presbyterian system, in spite of English opposition, was re-established.
In 1673 Parliament repudiated the Declaration of Breda and passed the 1672 and 1678 Test Acts requiring holders of public office to receive the sacrament, to take the oath of supremacy (recognising the sovereign as supreme governor of the Church of England), and to make a declaration against transubstantiation (a belief held by Catholics concerning the sacrament). The part of the Acts discriminating against nonconformists who failed to take the sacrament was not repealed until 1828, and it was only in the following year that Catholics were again permitted to enter Parliament and hold municipal, judicial and public office.
The so-called Toleration Act of 1689 mitigated the religious (but none of the political) disabilities of some of the nonconformists, while ignoring Catholics, Jews, Unitarians and atheists. Nonconformists still could not attend Oxford and Cambridge universities - a restriction not lifted until the 19th century.
The involvement of Catholics in the 1715 Jacobite risings resulted in Catholics having to register their names and estates. There was also some sporadic violence against Catholics after the 1745 Jacobite rebellion; and the passing of the first Catholic Relief Act in 1778 led to the Gordon Riots (1780), in which a number of Catholic chapels were destroyed. Nevertheless, by 1780 there were 80,000 Catholics in England, and the 1778 and 1791 Catholic Relief Acts resulted in many of the disabilities against Catholics being removed.
The number of nonconformists had meanwhile continued to grow, and their legal position was now much more secure. Eventually, in 1767, Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice, decided that nonconformity was no longer a crime. The 18th century also saw the emergence of Methodism - a new movement within the Anglican church that was to become a popular denomination in its own right - and in 1753 the Naturalisation Act permitted Jewish immigrants to be naturalised.