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In the most general sense, penal is the body of laws that are enforced by the State in its own name and impose penalties for their violation, as opposed to civil law that seeks to redress private wrongs. This usage is synonymous with criminal law and is covered in that article.

In some jurisdictions, such as Canada, penal law is distinct from criminal law even if it encompasses this last field. This is a result of federalism: only the federal Parliament has the legislative power to enact criminal law statutes, yet provinces can also attach penal dispositions to their non-criminal statutes so they will be respected.

More specifically, the Penal laws were a set of laws which punished nonconformism in the United Kingdom and Ireland.

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English statutes on religious nonconformity

In English history, penal law refers to a specific series of laws that sought to uphold the establishment of the Church of England against Protestant nonconformists and Roman Catholics, by imposing various forfeitures, civil penalties, and civil disabilities upon these dissenters. Some examples of these laws are:

Clarendon Code

While some of the Penal Laws were much older, they took their most drastic shape during the reign of Charles II. Four of them became known as the Clarendon Code, after Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon, though he was not their author and did not fully approve of them. These included:

  • Corporation Act, 1661. This first of the four statutes which made up the Clarendon Code required all municipal officials to take Holy Communion according to the rite of the Church of England and formally reject the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643. The effect of this Act was to exclude Nonconformists from public office.
  • Conventicle Act, 1664. This Act forbade conventicles (meetings for unauthorized worship) of more than five people who were not members of the same household. The purpose was to prevent dissenting religious groups from meeting.
  • Five Mile Act, 1665. This final Act of the Clarendon Code was aimed at Nonconformist ministers, who were forbidden from coming within five miles of incorporated towns or the place of their former livings. They were also forbidden to teach in schools. Most of the Act's effects were repealed by 1689, but it was not formally abolished until 1812.

In Irish history

The Penal Laws were introduced into Ireland in the year 1695 (having been in use in other countries before this). They had a pronounced effect, disenfranchising the majority of the Irish population, who were Roman Catholic or Presbyterian and in favour of the minority established Church of Ireland. Though the laws also affected adherents of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (who were concentrated in Ulster), their principal victims were members of the Roman Catholic Church, meaning over three quarters of the people on the island. The British had punished the faith of the overwhelming majority of the "mere Irish" (in contemporary English, 'mere' meant 'pure' or 'fully').

The laws were eventually repealed largely due to Irish political agitation organised under Daniel O'Connell in the 1820s, but effects of the laws in terms of sectarianism between Catholics and Protestants can still be seen, particularly in Northern Ireland, today.

See also

External links

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