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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.
More specifically, the Penal laws were a set of laws which punished nonconformism in the United Kingdom.
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:
- the law of praemunire
- the series of Test Acts
- Conventicle Act
- Five Mile Act
- Act of Uniformity
- Education Act 1695
- Disarming Act 1695
- Marriage Act 1697
- Banishment Act 1697
- Registration Act 1704
- Popery Act 1704 and 1709
- Occasional Conformity Act 1711
- Disenfranchising Act 1728
While some of the Penal Laws were much older, they took their most drastic shape during the reign of Charles II, when they became known as the Clarendon Code, after Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon, their author.
In Irish history
In Ireland these laws were also in force, where they had a pronounced effect, disenfranchising the majority of the Irish population who were Roman Catholic or Presbyterian in favour of the much smaller established Church of Ireland. Though the laws also affected the major religious faith, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, in the area of the island later to become Northern Ireland, its principal victim was the Roman Catholic Church, which was the religion of over three quarters of the people on the island, and the faith of the overwhelming majority of the mere Irish (in contemporary English, 'mere' meant 'pure' or 'fully').
Among the discriminations faced by victims of the Penal Laws were:
- Exclusion from membership in either the Parliament of Ireland or the Parliament of Great Britain;
- Exclusion from voting;
- Severe property restrictions, notably
- the ability of any member of the Church of Ireland to seize property from any Catholic, without compensation;
- the ability of any landlord to raise rents without restriction, and to evict at will.
The Penal Laws were gradually repealed at the end of the eighteenth century and beginning of the nineteenth century.
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