From the early days of Quakerism, Friends were subjected to persecution, which at times was violent and in some cases led to death in prison or on release from prison. In the 1660s, a series of acts aimed at quelling Quaker and other non-conformist dissent were passed, with failure to comply punishable by fines and six months imprisonment. The acts banned those not attending a parish church from holding a position of office in local government or the church (Corporation Act, 1661 and Act of Uniformity, 1662), required everyone to swear an oath of allegiance to the king (Quaker Act, 1662), prohibited meetings for worship of more than five people over the age of 16 except in the Church of England (Conventicle Act, 1664 and 1670), and made it unlawful for non-conformist ministers to live, visit, preach or teach within five miles of a town or parish where they had previously ministered (Five Mile Act 1665). In addition, under earlier laws originally introduced against Roman Catholics by Elizabeth I and James I, anyone not attending church on Sundays or receiving holy communion at least once a year faced monthly fines and loss of land.
As elsewhere, Quakers in Warwickshire found themselves being prosecuted for not attending church and holding their own meetings for worship, as in this example from the Central England Area Meeting archives, pictured above and transcribed below:
Thomas Russill being at his owne house &
Jane Kedes &
Thomas Wincote being met together at th[e] abovesaid Thomas Russill[‘]s house to worshipe th[e] lord according to th[e] Requireinge of his spirit in use [us], were 7 of use [us] taken out of our peaceable meeting & Required to Sweare which for Contions sake we could not doe & therefore we were sent to prison where we Remained 5 weakes & then were discharged from our imprisonment
They were also prosecuted for refusing to pay tithes and church rates, and for refusing to swear oaths which they saw as unnecessary because truthfulness at all times is an integral part of Quaker practice. This can be seen in the following minute recording that 120 Friends were imprisoned for 10 weeks:
Another common prosecution, shown in the following example, was for contempt of court because Friends refused to remove their hats, a practice which they perceived contradictory to their belief that all people are equal and should be treated equally.
In addition, Quakers were prosecuted for travelling and opening their shops on Sundays and religious holidays, days which they saw as equal to all other days. The following minute, transcribed below, described the treatment Friends received when they opened their shops on Christmas Day 1660.
Thomas Wincote[,] John medly[,] brigitte nicoles & Richard Kedes & severall others had our shops broaken and our goods spoyled and our selves in danger to be sla[i]ne and having durt & stones throwne at us in our owne shops for working and opening our shops upon th[at] idolliy[s]ed day which th[e] World calles Cristmasse day 1660 William Coocke otherwayes Cowdrey being then ba[i]life
Although the 1689 Toleration Act permitted greater freedom to worship and removed some of the restrictions, Quakers continued to be prosecuted and distrained upon (seizure of a person’s property for payment of money owing) until the 19th century for their refusal to pay tithes and church rates. They were also fined from the 18th century for their refusal to take up military service.
It was not until the 1779 Dissenters’ Relief Act that teachers and school masters were permitted to teach without a bishop’s licence, and the Conventicle and Five Mile Acts continued to be upheld until 1812. From 1835, non-conformists were granted the right to hold office in local government and from the mid-1850s they were permitted to attend university as students but they were not allowed to take up posts as academics until 1871.
The Religious Society of Friends carefully recorded all cases of prosecution or distraint, which they called ‘sufferings’. From 1790 these were recorded in ‘books of sufferings’ which were kept until 1828 by quarterly and monthly meetings. The quarterly meeting compiled these into annual returns which were then sent to Yearly Meeting in London where they were copied into ‘the great book of sufferings‘ which today is kept by Friends Library London.
As well as being a wonderful source for researchers interested in the history of non-conformist persecution across Warwickshire, the books of sufferings in the Central England Area Archives are also an excellent source for family historians and those interested in researching social and economic history of the area.
Eleanor (Project Archivist: Birmingham and Warwickshire Quakers)