Catholics in Virginia

statue honoring Brent family on Route 1 in Stafford County inscription on statue
inscription on statue honoring Brent family on Route 1 in Stafford County

When Virginia was started as a colony, religious differences were political differences. Religous dissent was potentially treason.

Political authority and religious authority had been centralized in England since Henry VIII had rejected the authority of the Pope in the 1530's and established himself as the head of an Anglican Church. The English monarch was the head of the church as well as head of the state, and all government officials had to take the Oath of Supremacy.

When Queen Mary assumed the throne, her Catholic faith created political conflict. She was the daughter of Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon - a Catholic from Spain. Queen Mary sought to re-establish the Catholic faith as the state religion, following the tradition in Europe that the religion of the monarch became the established religion of the country, but died before completing the process.

Queen Mary was replaced by Queen Elizabeth I. The "virgin queen" restored Protestantism as the official religion, but the threat of another Catholic ruler throughout the 1600's exacerbated the political differences between the king and Parliament. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 finally established the primacy of Parliament, and the 1701 Act of Settlement blocked any Catholic from becoming a monarch in England.

James I died soon after revoking the charter of the Virginia Company in 1624, so his son ended up becoming the first English king with control over the Virginia colony. Charles I made two key decisions affecting religion in Virginia. In 1632, he reduced the size of Virginia by granting land north of the Potomac River to create the Catholic colony of Maryland. In 1643, Charles I appointed Sir William Berkeley as governor, and he proceeded to force out of Virginia the Puritans, Quakers, and others who did not conform to the Anglican style of worship.

The marriage of Charles I had been a matter of foreign policy rather than love. The priority of James I was for his heir to marry a Catholic, to increase the potential of gaining control over lands in Europe. An area in the Palatinate claimed by the son-in-law of James I, Frederick the Elector, had been occupied by the Spanish Army during the Thirty Years War. James I's daughter Elizabeth had married Frederick the Elector, and a century later her grandson would become King George I.

Charles I traveled secretly to Spain, but efforts to negotiate a marriage to the daughter of King Phillip III collapsed and he returned to England in humiliation. He then pressured his father, James I, to create an alliance with Catholic France and to support military conflict in Europe in order to expel the Spanish from territory along the Rhine River. The French alliance could be secured by a marriage between Charles I and Henrietta Maria, daughter of King Henry IV of France and sister of King Louis XIII of France.

The relationship started off with some difficulty. Charles I did not actually travel to France for the wedding. He sent a representative, which was an acceptable practice rather than a snub. Charles' proxy did not enter Notre Dame Cathedral to witness the ceremony. He did not attend the Catholic rite in person because England was officially a Protestant nation. Though the marriage was arranged for political reasons, to encourage an alliance between those rival governments, the two later fell into love.

The reverse occurred when Charles was crowned as king. Maria was unable to attend the coronation in person, since it was a Protestant ceremony and she was a Catholic.1

English rulers always insisted on one and only one official church in Virginia; Catholics never were welcomed in the colony. Even for a decade after the start of the American Revolution, there was no guarantee of religious freedom in Virginia.

Religious conflict was still a factor in Virginia politics, but colonial leaders minimized the Anglican-Catholic conflict by excluding non-Anglicans. On September 10, 1607, the first president of the Council in Virginia was forced to step down and imprisoned. Others on the Council accused Edward Maria Wingfield of being an atheist or Catholic sympathizer sympathetic to Spain, though his arrogant style of leadership might have spurred a desire to force him out of his leadership role. The religious charge was a serious affair. When Christopher Newport returned to the colony in January, 1608, he released Wingfield from prison but kept him off the Council, then took him back to England for trial in April 1608.

More seriously, Captain George Kendall was forced off the Council in 1608 and executed after being accused of being a Catholic. A tiny crucifix discovered by archeologists at Jamestown in 1607 documents the presence of Catholics in the colony, but they had to keep their religious beliefs a secret in order to avoid punishment.

When archeologists excavated the grave of Captain Gabriel Archer in 2013, a Jamestown leader buried in 1609 within the walls of the first church, they discovered a silver "reliquary" which had been placed on top of his casket. Inside the silver box was a tiny lead vial ("ampulla") and seven bone fragments. Catholcs traditionally were associated with reliquaries, using them to contain holy relics such as an ampulla holding holy water, oil, or blood.2

Source: Jamestown Rediscovery, Finding Captain Gabriel Archer

Starting in 1607, the only ministers sent by the Virginia Company were Anglican. Under Queen Elizabeth I and then King James I, that denomination was "established" as the official church of England. When it became a royal colony after the Virginia Company's charter was revoked in 1624, the connection between church and state was even more official. Virginia was always an Anglican colony.

After 1634, however, there were always Catholics on the northern Virginia border.

As part of the English-French marriage treaty for the son of James I, Charles I secretly promised to relax restrictions on Catholics in England. His willingness to support Catholics, perhaps influenced by his wife, was revealed in part when he granted a charter for the colony of Maryland. The charter was originally intended to be a grant to George Calvert, who had served as Secretary of State and Privy Councillor to James I. George Calvert converted to Catholicism and resigned his official positions in 1625, but the king created the title of Baron Baltimore for him.

Soon after being appointed to high office by James I, Calvert was granted land in Newfoundland in 1620. He sent colonists to "Ferryland" in 1621, and obtained more land in 1623 for the Province of Avalon. It acquired a reputation as a haven for Catholics fleeing England. There were 100 colonists there, making a living from fishing, when Calvert personally moved to it in 1627.

By 1629 George Calvert had determined that the winters were unbearable. He requested Charles I to provide a new land grant further south in Virginia after experiencing:3

...air so intolerable cold as it is hardly to be endured...

I am determined to commit this place to fishermen, that are able to encounter storms and hard weather, and to remove myself with some 40 persons to your Majesty's Dominion of Virginia, where if your Majesty will please to grant me a precinct of land with such privileges as the King, your father, my gracious Master, was pleased to gaunt me here.

George Calvert died just before Charles I issued his 1632 charter for the requested proprietary colony. The king gave the charter to his son, Cecil Calvert, Second Lord Baltimore. Charles I requested that the new colony be named after Queen Maria, and "Maryland" was from the beginning a place where Catholics were welcome.

The Ark and Dove landed at St. Mary's Island in 1634. However, the start of the journey reflected the suspicion of Catholics in England at the time. Soon after sailing out of the Thames River, the Ark and Dove were intercepted by a ship with the "London Searcher," the man empowered to identify those who might threaten Charles I. The ships were required to return, and everyone had to sign a written oath declaring loyalty to the king.4

the Ark and Dove had to return to the Thames River and everyone had to sign a loyalty oath, before the ships could sail to Maryland
the Ark and Dove had to return to the Thames River and everyone had to sign a loyalty oath, before the ships could sail to Maryland
Source: James Otis, Calvert of Maryland; a story of Lord Baltimore's colony (p.27)

On March 25, 1634, Cecil Calvert's immigrants held what the state of Maryland calls:5

...the first Catholic mass in the Colonies.

That claim carefully excludes Catholic masses held in Florida by Spanish settlers even prior to the settlement of St. Augustine in 1565, and Catholic masses held by Spanish Jesuits who settled in Virginia at Ajacan in 1570. In 2018 archeologists discovered the site of the fort built by colonists who included Jesuit priest, Father Andrew White. He held the "first Catholic mass in the Colonies" in 1634.6

The settlers in Virginia did not appreciate the creation of Maryland. It gave to the Calverts valuable lands that the Virginians considered to be within their colonial boundaries, based on the Third Charter issued by James I in 1612. Economic interests, more than religious differences, may have shaped the initial hostility from the Virginia leaders.

The Virginia colonist most affected by the creation of Maryland was William Claiborne. He had arrived in Virginia in 1621 as the colonial surveyor and established a fur trading post on Kent Island in 1631. Claiborne was evicted by the Calverts. He appealed to Charles I that his pre-existing claim to the island should be exempted from the grant of "a Country hitherto uncultivated" to the Calverts, but Charles I backed Cecil Calvert instead of William Claiborne.

Claiborne had partial revenge against the Calverts. He spurred the Susquehannock to take their fur trading business to the Swedes in Delaware, rather than do business with the Maryland colony. Claiborne's dispute with the Calverts did not end there, however. He participated in the 1644 revolt against Leonard Calvert, seizing St. Mary's City for several years. Later, from 1652-57, he served on the Parliamentary commission that governed Maryland under Cromwell. Despite those moments of revenge, Claiborne was never able to regain control of Kent Island.

The English Civil War between Charles I and the Puritans, led by Oliver Cromwell, was a war for power and control. International alliances were based on personal connections such as who was married to whom, and national religions could change with new rulers. Charles I's perceived support for Catholicism was a threat to the Puritans, and led to the king's execution in 1649.

Maryland passed the Act of Toleration in 1649 to minimize disruption by religious conflict within the colony. That act included:7

...noe person or persons whatsoever within this Province, or the Islands, Ports, Harbors, Creekes, or havens thereunto belonging professing to beleive in Jesus Christ, shall from henceforth bee any waies troubled, Molested or discountenanced for or in respect of his or her religion nor in the free exercise thereof within this Province or the Islands thereunto belonging nor any way compelled to the beleife or exercise of any other Religion against his or her consent"

This legislation was not based on an ecumenical movement or modern perception that each religion has value. Instead, it was a political move to attract new settlers and to minimize the threat of charter revocation by Cromwell's new government.

In the 1640's, the population of Virginia and Maryland increased through immigration more than through "natural increase" (births from existing colonists). Recruiting new settlers to serve as indentured servants was not easy. The Calverts recognized that they could attract more European immigrants, and even dissatisfied settlers from Virginia, by minimizing the threat of discrimination against Protestants by the Catholic proprietor and Catholic leaders in the Maryland General Assembly.

In contrast, colonial officials within Virginia harassed religious dissenters. In the mid-1600's, those dissenters were primarily Puritans; few Catholics tried to immigrate into Virginia. The Catholic officials of Maryland wanted to increase the population of their colony and stimulate more economic growth with greater tobacco exports, and religious conformity was a secondary concern.

Though the Puritans in England were clearly anti-Catholic, the Calverts planned to steer the Virginia Puritans to settle on the edge of their existing population centers, including Anne Arundel County. That location would make the Puritans into a buffer between the existing settlements and the Native Americans, primarily Susquehannocks living nearby and Iroquois raiders from the north. Virginia did the same thing a century later, welcoming the Scotch-Irish immigrants and the "Pennsylvania Dutch" to the Shenandoah Valley as a buffer against the threat of the French beginning to occupy the Ohio River valley.

Catholics were not officially granted the right to worship as they pleased in Virginia until after the General Assembly passed the "Act for Establishing Religious Freedom" in 1786. They were present in the colony long before then, of course, starting with the Spanish missionaries in 1570 and perhaps some of the first leaders at Jamestown in 1607.8

Sailors on ships brought cultural diversity to all the Tidewater ports and plantation wharves in the colonial era. Virginia's colonial officials were concerned about possible attack by Catholic Spain or France in the 1600's and 1700's, but paid no attention to the religious beliefs of individual sailors.

Settlers received closer scrutiny. Those who were Catholic were automatically viewed as people unwilling to accept the English monarch's primary role as Defender of the Faith. That made them potential traitors, possibly unwilling to accept the monarch's political as well as religious authority. Individual Catholic families were vulnerable to fines or censure until James Madison maneuvered the approval of religious freedom legislation that Thomas Jefferson had first introduced in 1779.

The Act for Establishing Religious Freedom was proposed by Madison in the General Assembly when it appeared the "United" States which had been created in the American Revolution might fail. The law was adopted three years before the Constititution was ratified, and six years before the First Amendment made the Federal protection of religious freedom explicit with very clear language:9

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech...

In 1796, the first Catholic Church was completed in Virginia. The Church of Saint Mary was in Alexandria, a port city visited by sailors of my faiths. The first priests there were Jesuits from Maryland.10

The Brent Family

The First Catholic Church in Virginia

Margaret Brent

Parson Waugh's Tumult

Religious Toleration/Intolerance in Colonial Virginia

Virginia-Maryland Boundary

The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and the First Amendment



1. Robert E. Shimp, "A Catholic Marriage for an Anglican Prince," Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church, Volume 50, Number 1 (March, 1981),; "Charles I and Henrietta Maria wed by proxy," Philippa Gregory, May 1, 2019, (last checked March 25, 2021)
2. Natalie Zacek, "Wingfield, Edward Maria (1550–1631)," Encyclopedia Virginia, Virginia Humanities, February 12, 2021,; "Jet Crucifix," Historic Jamestowne,; "Reliquary," Jamestown Rediscovery,; "Jamestown excavation unearths four bodies - and a mystery in a small box," Washington Post, July 28, 2015,; "Captain Gabril Archer," Jamestown Rediscovery, (last checked February 28, 2024)
3. "Sir George Calvert, Lord Baltimore; 19 August, 1629," Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage,; "Sir George Calvert and the Colony of Avalon," Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage,, (last checked March 25, 2021)
4. Jams Otis, Calvert of Maryland; a story of Lord Baltimore's colony, 1910, p.23, (last checked February 28, 2024)
5. "Maryland's History," Maryland Secretary of State,'s-History.aspx; "The Dove Story," Maryland Dove, (last checked February 28, 2024)
6. "Archaeologists find earliest colonial site in Maryland after nearly 90-year search," Washington Post, March 22, 2021, (last checked March 25, 2021)
7. "Maryland Toleration Act; September 21, 1649," The Avalon Project, Yale Law School,; "Two Acts of Toleration: 1649 and 1826," Maryland State Archives, (last checked June 21, 2017)
8. John Ragosta, "Virginia Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom (1786)," Encyclopedia Virginia, Virginia Humanities, December 7, 2020, (last checked February 28, 2024)
9. "The Bill of Rights: A Transcription," National Archives, (last checked February 28, 2024)
10. "Part I: Origins of the Church in Northern Virginia," Arlington Catholic Herald, January 1, 1999, (last checked February 28, 2024)

roadside historical marker for statue honoring Brent family on Route 1 in Stafford County
roadside historical marker for statue honoring Brent family on Route 1 in Stafford County

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