The ‘1676 Compton Census’ was the first comprehensive survey of the numerical strength of Catholic and Protestant Nonconformity in England that can be used on a comparative basis for the whole country. Whilst it does not give personal names, at a county and parish level it does give an insight into the growing strength of these sects that flourished in the next two centuries.
The Northamptonshire returns for the 1676 Compton Religious Census are included with all the other surviving county returns in Anne Whiteman’s The Compton Census of 1676.1
In these two maps, the actual totals are presented by parish. There appears to be some correlation between areas known to have nurtured Nonconformists in earlier centuries in the county and indeed these areas also became the focus of the growth of Nonconformity in the 18th and 19th centuries.
England’s Civil War and the Commonwealth between 1641 and 1660 unleashed the religious pressures in society that had been building for over 100 years. It allowed many diverse Christian sects to develop. Some of these thrived and can be traced to nonconformist denominations that exist today.
Before the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Charles II had made a public commitment to freedom of conscience in religious matters. The reality though was very different and the parliaments between 1661 and 1665 passed five pieces of legislation penalising Nonconformists and restricting their activities.
It was clear to Charles though that the legislation of the 1660s had failed to crush religious dissent. N 1672 Charles issued his Declaration of Indulgence. This relieved some of the constrictions for all dissenters and permitted licensing of Nonconformist (but not Catholic) meeting houses and teachers. The consequence was a rapid increase in dissenter numbers. There were 1,609 ministers’ licences granted, three-quarters of those being to Anglican clergy who had been ejected from their livings in 1662. This was a short-lived reprieve for Nonconformists since in 1673 Parliament considered that the king had acted beyond his powers and withdrew the Indulgence. It had though, given Nonconformists an opportunity to exercise some freedom and regroup. Several meeting houses were built and nearly 500 Nonconformists were released from prison.
During this time Parliament also introduced the 1672 Test Act, this required insisted that civil and military officials of the crown receive Anglican communion at least once a year, take the oath of ‘supremacy and allegiance to the crown, and make a declaration against 2. They also had to submit a sacrament certificate within six months of taking office to show that they had met the requirement.
In the second 1678 Test Act Catholic peers were removed from the House of Lords. These Test Acts remained in place until they were repealed in 1828.
Compton Census of 1676
During this period of religious tension, there were fears within the Church of England concerning the resurgence of Catholicism, as well as the need to assess the true extent of nonconformity after the relaxation of conditions as a consequence of Charles II’s Declaration of Indulgence in 1672.
Lord Danby, Charles II’s Lord Treasurer wanted to pursue a pro-Anglican policy. However, Charles was sceptical of this, fearing it would unite the Nonconformists into a faction that would be too strong to be overcome. Danby devised an ecclesiastical census of the population to demonstrate the numerical inferiority of Nonconformists. Normally this would have been sanctioned by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Gilbert Sheldon, but he was too ill, so Danby turned to the Bishop of London, Henry Compton.
It was authorised by Archbishop of Canterbury, Gilbert Sheldon who wanted to show that the extent of Nonconformity was not as great as was commonly supposed.
Compton’s instructions to the clergy were:
First, What number of persons or at least families are by common account and estimation inhabiting within each parish subject under them [i.e. the Bishops]. Secondly, what number of Popish recusants, or such as are suspected of recusancy, are there among such inhabitants at present? Thirdly, what number of other Dissenters are resident in such parishes, which either obstinately refuse, or wholly absent themselves from, the Communion of the Church of England at such time as by law they are required?
The administration of the census and the collation of the results appears to have been relatively effective and complete for the majority of England except the North East, the North West, Somerset, Dorset and parts of Suffolk. Two copies of the collated data have survived one The Bodleian Library, Oxford3 and The William Salt Library, Stafford4. Some local record offices also hold partial records in the Diocesan collections.
At face value, the census appears to be a useful resource for understanding the growth of Nonconformity, but when scrutinising the numbers some significant issues arise. First, it asked for the total number of persons or at least families, this raises a problem for the incumbent who was collecting the data – which was he to use and was the total to include those in the next two parts of the census? If it was the number of persons, was the total to include children, as common practice at the time seems to only include those over 16 years? Some incumbents would subtract the recusants and Nonconformists and report the number of (Conformists) for this answer. The second question referred to the “number of Popish recusants, or such as are suspected of recusancy”, so not just those who are openly Catholic but also those that are suspected of being so. The third category was the Dissenters (Nonconformists), but it includes those that refuse or simply absent themselves from communion with the Church of England. Reviewing the numbers by parish as a whole it is clear that there are a lot of estimates or at least roundings in the returns. There is also the issue of bias, was the incumbent inclined to submit totals that suggested there was not a significant number of Catholics or Nonconformists in their parish. Just because the data collected might not meet modern standards for a census it is reasonable to suggest that it did at least give an indication of where Catholics and Nonconformists were distributed across a county.
- Whiteman, Anne, and Mary Clapinson. The Compton Census of 1676: A Critical Edition. British Academy, 1986
- Catholic Church teaches that, in the Eucharistic offering, bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Christ.
- William Salt Library reference: S. MS 33 www.staffordshire.gov.uk/leisure/archives/williamsalt/home/aspx.
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