Support our Work

Global Link needs your help to continue working on community history projects.


Religious Dissenters


In the 16th and 17th centuries the adage ‘Cuius regio, eius religion’ (the ruler dictates the faith of the subjects) had sharp application in the North of England. Under the reigns of different monarchs, or parliaments, and prevailing political concerns for unity, people of faith – Quakers, Catholics and Protestant Nonconformists – found themselves to be dissenters from the status quo, and enemies of the state.  >> READ MORE

Recent Examples of Religious Freedom Violated

The violation of the right to practice ones religion freely is violated in many parts of the world in our own time. Here are just two stories which give examples from two very different countries show...


In this article the main subject is a village – Aldcliffe, a small hamlet close to the city of Lancaster. iIs story over two centuries, reveals much about religious rights and changing political tim...

The Quakers and Lancaster Castle

The early history of the Quaker movement centred on the North West of England. There are therefore strong connections with Lancaster Castle which, as a court and prison, served as the regional seat of...

Pendle Witch Trial 1612

Were the men and women accused of witchcraft in Lancaster Castle on trial for their religious beliefs or because they represented a threat to the State? In this article, Oscar Thynne considers the con...

Quaker Women Prison Reformers at Lancaster Castle

Margaret Fell and Elizabeth Fry are two significant female figures in Quaker history and both passed through Lancaster Castle: Fell was tried and imprisoned here as a religious dissident in the 1660s ...

The Arrest of John Woodcock

This article tells the story of a 17th century Catholic priest who was pursued, arrested and executed for being at odds with the official religion of his day....

Thewlis And Wrennall

Two men are accused of dissent because of their Catholic faith. This article tells the story of their capture, their escape and their eventual fate...

Religious Dissent and Lancaster

Posted by Anthony Finnerty

The Act of Supremacy passed by parliament in 1534 declared the king to be ‘the only supreme head on earth of the Church in England’. Overt loyalty to Rome [i.e. the Pope] in spiritual matters and any act of allegiance to the Roman Church, was now considered treasonous. An early protest against this legislation came in the form of the Pilgrimage of Grace, one leading figure of which was Abbot Paslew of Whalley who was executed in 1537.


Many others suffered the consequences of this change in the law, for example those 15 men executed at Lancaster between 1584 and 1646 [The Lancaster Martyrs article], (see also the story of Thewlis and Wrennel). This Act was repealed in 1554 by parliament under Henry’s Catholic daughter Queen Mary who reinstituted Catholicism as England’s official religion. Around 300 Protestants were burned during her reign. In 1559, under Henry’s other daughter, Elizabeth I,  parliament passed a new Act of Supremacy,  along with an Act of Uniformity which made worship in the Church of England compulsory.


In this period, some houses became secret venues for Catholic worship as in the story of Aldcliffe Hall and altars were designed which could be readily disguised and easily transported to safe houses, as in the case of the Burgess Altar. Throughout much of the Tudor, Stuart and into the Hanoverian periods English and Welsh Catholics were subject to the accumulation of legislation that discriminated against them and their priests in their lives, property and civil rights. Dissent in matters of religion for individuals and groups not belonging to a larger church remained perilous.

One of the other founders of Quakerism, Margaret Fell was both an inmate and a critic of Lancaster’s gaol

From the time of Henry onward, non-conformist groups of every shade might be identified as dissident and subject to officially sanctioned persecution. The unfortunate group known as the ‘Lancashire Witches‘, hanged in 1612 under the laws of James I, fell afoul of the anxiety over difference, and the fear that individuals who are not involved in the prayers, customs and ceremonies prescribed by parliament are enemies of the crown.


A very different example of this is The Religious Society of Friends, formed under leadership of George Fox who began his work in the North-West of England in 1652 and who was imprisoned in Lancaster castle in 1660. One of the other founders of Quakerism, Margaret Fell was both an inmate and a critic of Lancaster’s gaol. Quakers, as the Friends were known, refused to pay tithes to the Church of England and refused to swear oaths, including an oath of loyalty to the crown, and were thereby subject to arrest and trial. Their dissent was more knowing than that of the ‘witches’ and their intention in dissenting was more articulate. Indeed, individual Quakers were often determined to have their voices heard as they protested against the injustices of legal systems in England, such as the slave trade. A modern day inheritance of this spirit can be seen today in the Fair Trade movement which has a home in Lancaster’s neighbouring town of Garstang.


In modern times the British state has shown respect for and protection of the rights of individuals to worship as they think best – independent of the denominational colour of the governing authority. It is not so in every country of the world. The stories in this section illustrate the complexity of the relationship between civil laws and personal faith, and the echoes of religious intolerance which continue to the present day.