The "1558 Recusancy Acts" began during the reign of Elizabeth I, and while temporarily repealed during the Interregnum (1649–1660), remained on the statute books till 1888. They imposed various types of punishment on those who did not participate in Anglican religious activity, such as fines, property confiscation, and imprisonment. The suspension under Oliver Cromwell was mainly intended to give relief to nonconforming Protestants rather than to Catholics, who some explicit restrictions still apply through the Act of Settlement 1701, despite the 1828 Catholic Emancipation.
In some cases those adhering to Catholicism faced capital punishment, and a number of English and Welsh Catholics executed in the 16th and 17th centuries have been canonised by the Catholic Church as martyrs of the English Reformation.
As far as the term is used in the present day, recusant applies to the descendants of Roman Catholic British gentry and peerage families. Catholicism was the majority religion in parts of Lancashire, Yorkshire and Cumbria, and in Scotland in parts of the Highlands (i.e. the Rough Bounds and Banffshire) and the Southern Hebrides (i.e. South Uist, Benbecula, Eriskay, Barra and Vatersay).
The term recusant is also used more generally to refer to non-compliance with a perceived innovation of questionable orthodoxy, which had become the status quo. Some traditional Catholics have used the term following Vatican II, particularly in defence of the Latin mass and sacred tradition.
After the English Reformation, from the 16th to the 19th century those guilty of such nonconformity, termed "recusants", were subject to civil penalties and sometimes, especially in the earlier part of that period, to criminal penalties. Catholics formed a large proportion, if not a plurality, of recusants, and it was to Catholics that the term initially was applied. Non-Catholic groups composed of Reformed Christians or Protestant dissenters from the Church of England were later labelled "recusants" as well. Recusancy laws were in force from the reign of Elizabeth I to that of George III, but not always enforced with equal intensity.
The first statute to address sectarian dissent from England's official religion was enacted in 1593 under Elizabeth I and specifically targeted Catholics, under the title "An Act for restraining Popish recusants". It defined "Popish recusants" as those
convicted for not repairing to some Church, Chapel, or usual place of Common Prayer to hear Divine Service there, but forbearing the same contrary to the tenor of the laws and statutes heretofore made and provided in that behalf.