Of Catholics, Riots, and the Theatre in Bath

What happened to the Catholics in England after the Reformation, when Henry VIII made England Protestant?


Catholics and other non-Anglicans went through uneasy times, when sometimes they had to worship secretly and sometimes they had more freedom. The English Civil War in the 1600s was followed by the Act of Uniformity in 1662, which said all churches had to use the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and all clergy had to be ordained by the Church of England.  Anyone who did not take Communion in the Anglican Church could not hold any government, military, or church offices or receive university degrees from Oxford or Cambridge. Those who did not “conform” to the established church, including Catholics and many others, were called Nonconformists or Dissenters.

In 1688, the Protestants William and Mary became king and queen.  The next year the Act of Toleration was passed, which gave most Dissenters the right to meet publicly for worship, under certain restrictions. However, Catholics were not included. Some of their beliefs were specifically denied in the Articles of Religion they had to agree to. (Unitarians, who did not accept the Trinity, were also not included, but the other major groups, such as Baptists and Quakers, were given the right to worship publicly.)


Catholics were feared for political reasons. For many centuries, church and state were deeply connected. Because Catholics were loyal to the Pope, a foreign ruler, many thought they could not be loyal to the English king. In 1605, Guy Fawkes, a Catholic, tried to overthrow the government. This increased fears of Catholics. (The discovery of this “Gunpowder Plot” is still celebrated by burning Guy Fawkes in effigy each year.) Later the French Revolution and war with Catholic France further increased prejudices against Catholics.

In Austen’s England, men who wanted to be ordained as ministers in the Anglican Church (like Edward Ferrars and Edmund Bertram in Austen’s novels) had to know their church’s doctrine well enough to defend it against three enemies: “papists [Catholics], sectarians [Dissenters], and enthusiasts1 [Methodists].” (Brackets added).

Gaining Rights

In 1778, Catholics won the right to inherit property, but still could not hold public offices. (The restrictions on Catholics were especially controversial in Ireland, where Irish Catholics could not hold government positions.) In 1780 there were about 69,000 Catholics worshiping at 200 chapels in England. These chapels were not yet legally allowed, but in some places they were tolerated.

Gordon Riots

However, there was still a lot of opposition and fear of Catholics. In Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen apparently refers to a riot against Catholics in Northanger Abbey. (Roger Moore points out this reference in his book.)

When Henry, his sister Eleanor, and Catherine are walking on Beecham Hill, Catherine says that something “shocking” will be coming out soon in London, and Eleanor thinks she means an actual riot.  Henry explains to Eleanor that Catherine is talking about a new Gothic novel, and tells Catherine that Eleanor thought she meant actual rioting.

Henry says Eleanor “immediately pictured to herself a mob of three thousand men assembling in St. George’s Fields, the Bank attacked, the Tower threatened, the streets of London flowing with blood . . .”.

This describes an anti-Catholic riot that happened some years earlier. In 1780, Lord George Gordon tried to get the 1778 act (which gave Catholics some basic rights) repealed. He assembled a mob to loot and pillage in London. They shouted “No Popery!” as they burned down Catholic chapels and priests’ houses, attacked the Bank of England, and destroyed prisons. The rioting lasted for about a week. Over 400 rioters were killed during the riots or executed afterwards.

“The Gordon Riots” by John Seymour Lucas, painted 1879
Anti-Catholic rioting also erupted in Bath at that time (1780). Rioters burned down the Catholic chapel in St. James Parade, Bath, as well as the bishop’s house and the priest’s house.  The city of Bath responded strongly, hanging the ringleader, a “gentleman’s servant . . . taking up the infuriate rancour of the times.” A tax was levied on the city to pay for the damages, and a new, “less conspicuous” Catholic chapel was built in Corn-street, where three services were offered on Sundays (New Bath Guide, 1819, 34).

Finally in 1791 Catholics officially obtained the right to meet for worship, under certain conditions, and to offer Catholic schools.

On this map of Bath, Dissenter chapels are marked. The Catholics were first at C1 in St. James’ Parade (burned by rioters), then at C2 in Corn Street, and then at C3, the Old Orchard Street Theatre. (Other labels are: CH= Countess of Huntingdon’s Chapel; I=Independents; WM=Wesleyan Methodists; M=Moravians; U=Unitarians; Q=Quakers; B=Baptists. Those labeled in orange can still be visited today.)

Old Orchard Street Theatre

As Bath grew, the number of Catholics also grew. In 1809 they converted the old Theatre in Orchard Street “into a neat, spacious and convenient Chapel; where there is an excellent organ, aided by a brilliant choir”. Jane Austen had gone to plays in this theatre. Since the first version of Northanger Abbey was written around 1798-9, Austen was no doubt also picturing Catherine Morland going to the Old Orchard Street Theatre. It closed in 1805 when the current Theatre Royal opened in a better part of town.

The Old Orchard Street Theatre, as it was when Jane Austen visited it
When the Catholics took over the theatre, they removed the galleries and some of the boxes, leveled and raised the theatre floor, and added pews. It could seat over 1000 people. The dressing rooms became school rooms. Catholics worshipped there from 1809 to 1863. From 1865 until the present the former theatre has been a Masonic Hall.

In 1829 the Roman Catholic Relief Act was passed. It allowed Catholics to take seats in Parliament and other government posts. It also allowed the Orchard Street chapel to be called a Catholic Church, rather than chapel. (Before that, as we have seen, a “church” could only refer to a Church of England parish church.) Bishops were later ordained there. It is now a Masonic Hall, and Catholics worship elsewhere in Bath.

The Old Orchard Street Theatre, which you can tour today in Bath

A Mecca for Catholics

Some people in Bath converted to Catholicism. One Bath convert was attracted by the “pageantry and pomp of her worship, which were constantly exhibited, as much as they could be, in that small chapel.” The Catholics were known for their “excellent organ and brilliant choir,” and in 1817 Father Baines added “eloquent and earnest” preaching to the Catholic services. Catholics in Bath had a small school for Catholic children, even before the 1791 law allowed it. One priest called Bath a “Mecca for Catholics” in the eighteenth century; prominent Catholic families settled there, perhaps finding more toleration and acceptance than elsewhere in England.

Sadly, through the ages different groups of Christians have violently opposed one another. The Bible, however, commands us to love one another—not just to love those we agree with. I am happy to see, in the area where I live, churches that host meetings of people from different denominations, different ethnic backgrounds, even totally different religions. What examples have you seen of people who disagree in some important points still loving and accepting one another?


Converts to Catholicism: J. Anthony Williams, Ed., Post-Reformation Catholicism in Bath, Vol. 1 (Catholic Record Society, 1975), quotes from pages 53, 82, 75.

Smaller riots in Bath and Hull: “Gordon Riots.” New Catholic Encyclopedia.

Requirements for ordination: Sutherland, History of the University of Oxford,  405.

Riots in Bath, and descriptions of Catholic chapel in Bath: Original Bath Guide, 1819, 34.

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