The period between the reign of Elizabeth and about 1791 is often referred to as the Penal Times and it was a period when it was dangerous to be a Catholic priest in England and therefore dangerous to keep records.Any Catholic records generated could have been used against individual Catholics, or the Catholic community. The main records of Catholics in this period are ‘hostile’ records, records made by the state or its agents the Anglican clergy. It is only from about 1791 that Catholic clergy felt sufficiently confident about civil legislation that mission registers could be maintained. If you are seeking information from these registers, the best place to start is a set of books by Michael Gandy published originally in 1993 that list all the known surviving registers for Catholic missions in the UK for the period 1700 to 1880. Some of these volumes have been revised as old registers have surfaced and more parish registers have been deposited in places of safety..
In the late Victorian time, there were groups in most counties who were transcribing Anglican parish registers, one example being the Lancashire Parish Register Society that is still operating today. There was a move among Catholics to do the same for Catholic registers and this resulted in the formation of the Catholic Record Society. This initially was concerned with the preservation and transcription of Catholic records and among its early volumes are Catholic registers from across England and Wales. Many of these are now out of copyright, particularly outside the UK, and have been made available on the internet.
There is a guide to Catholic Records on a site “GenGuide” ( http://www.genguide.co.uk/source/roman-catholic-registers-and-records/30/ ) and this has lists of books, CDs, internet sites. and on-line databases. Some may lead to pay-to-view sites. This site is as good a collection of basic information as I have been able to find
This site is comprehensive but not complete, and you will find that different parts of the country have different densities of Catholics and hence more or less interest in the Catholic community. Different counties may have different facilities. Lancashire is particularly well served. I have mentioned the Lancashire Parish Register Society that has transcribed most of the early Anglican registers. This are the major records of Catholic marriages between 1756 and 1837, though Catholic marriages may not be clearly identified. There is the Lancashire On-Line Parish Clerk Project (http://www.lan-opc.org.uk/ ) which is transcribing parish registers and making them available on the internet. Again it is mainly Anglican church registers that have been transcribed but there are increasing numbers of non-Anglican registers including Catholic ones. For post-1837 births marriages and deaths there is the LancashireBMD site (http://www.lancashirebmd.org.uk/ ). This site is transcribing the Local Registrar’s Indexes and where possible upgrading them. Again it is useful for marriages, though non-Anglican marriages appear as Registrar marriages until an Authorised Person was appointed by the church to act for the Registrar. This became possible in 1898 but was not taken up by many Catholic parishes until 1960+.
The Manchester & Lancashire FHS has developed an index of Manchester Catholics from material that it had produced and from transcripts made available to it (www.mlfhs.org.uk/data/catholic_search.php ). There is a similar site for Liverpool – Liverpool History Projects (http://www.liverpoolhistoryprojects.co.uk/ ) but for some items there may be a charge. For the more northern parts of Lancashire, around Preston, Blackburn and Burnley, the Lancashire Family History & Heraldry Society have published a large number of fiche of Catholic registers. In recent years, the Catholic Family history Society has published a number of CDs and details are to be found at http://www.genfair.co.uk/supplier.php?sid=227