1570 – The Excommunication of Elizabeth I

Pope Pius V by El Greco
Pope Pius V by El Greco

On 25th February 1570, Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, was excommunicated by Pope Pius V.

Here is the text of the Regnans in Excelsis, the papal bull, which was then published and copied in the months following:

“The Damnation and Excommunication of Elizabeth Queen of England and her Adherents, with an Addition of other punishments

Pius Bishop, Servant to God’s Servants, for a perpetual memorial of the matter.

He that reigneth on high, to whom is given all Power in Heaven & in Earth, committed one Holy, Catholick and Apostolick Church (out of which there is no Salvation) to one alone upon Earth, namely to Peter the Prince of the Apostles, and to Peter’s Successor the Bishop of Rome, to be governed in fulness of Power. Him alone he made Prince over all People, and all Kingdoms, to pluck up, destroy, scatter, consume, plant and build, that he may contain the faithful that are knit together with the band of Charity, in the Unity of the Spirit, and present them spotless and unblameable to their Saviour.

In discharge of which Function, We which are by God’s goodness called to the Government of the aforesaid Church, do spare no pains, labouring with all the earnestness that Unity, and the Catholick Religion (which the Author thereof hath for the trial of his Childrens Faith, and for our amendment, suffered to be punished with so great Afflictions) might be preserved uncorrupt: But the number of the ungodly hath gotten such power, there is now no place left in the whole World which they have not assayed to corrupt with their most wicked Doctrines: Amongst others, Elizabeth, the pretended Queen of England, a Slave of Wickedness, lending thereunto her helping hand, with whom, as in a Sanctuary, the most pernicious of all men have found a Refuge.

This very Woman having siezed on the Kingdom, and monstrously usurping the place of Supream Head of the Church in all England, and the chief Authority and Jurisdiction thereof, hath again brought back the said Kingdom into miserable destruction, which was then newly reduced to the Catholick Faith and good Fruits.

For having by strong hand inhibited the exercise of the true Religion, which Mary lawful Queen of famous memory, had by the help of this See restored, after it had been formerly overthrown by Henry the Eighth, a Revolter therefrom; and following and embracing the Errors of Hereticks, she hath removed the Royal Council consisting of the English Nobility, and filled it with obscure men being Hereticks, oppressed the Embracers of the Catholick Faith, placed impious Preachers, Ministers of Iniquity, abolished the Sacrifice of the Mass, Prayers, Fastings, Choice of Meats, Unmarried Life, and the Catholick Rites and Ceremonies. Commanded Books to be read in the whole Realm containing manifest Heresie; and impious Mysteries and Institutions, by her self entertained, and observed according to the Prescript of Calvin, to be likewise observed by her Subjects; presumed to throw Bishops, Parsons of Churches, and other Catholick Priests, out of their Churches and Benefices, and to bestow them and other Church Livings upon Hereticks, and to determine of Church Causes, prohibited the Prelates, Clergy and People to acknowledge the Church of Rome, or obey the Precepts and Canonical Sanctions thereof, compelled most of them to condescend to her wicked Laws, and to abjure the Authority and Obedience of the Bishop of Rome, and to acknowledge her to be sole Lady in Temporal and Spiritual matters, and this by Oath; imposed Penalties and Punishments upon those which obeyed not, and exacted them of those which perservered in the unity of the Faith and their Obedience aforesaid, cast the Catholick Prelates and Rectors of Churches in prison, where many of them, being spent with long languishing and sorrow, miserably ended their lives. All which things, seeing they are manifest and notorious to all Nations, and by the gravest Testimony of very many so substantially proved, that there is no place at all left for Excuse, Defence, or Evasion.

We seeing that impieties and wicked actions are multiplied one upon another; and moreover, that the persecution of the faithful, and affliction for Religion, groweth every day heavier and heavier, through the Instigation and Means of the said Elizabeth; because we understand her mind to be so hardened and indurate, that she hath not only contemned the godly Requests and Admonitions of Catholick Princes, concerning her healing and conversion, but also hath not so much as permitted the Nuncios of this See, to crosse the Seas into England; are constrained of necessity to betake our selves to the Weapons of Justice against her, not being able to mitigate our sorrow, that we are drawn to take punishment upon one, to whose Ancestors the whole State of all Christendom hath been so much bounden. Being therefore supported with his Authority, whose pleasure it was to place Us (though unable for so great a burthen) in this Supream Throne of Justice, we do out of the fulness of our Apostolick Power, declare the aforesaid Elizabeth, being an Heretick, and a favourer of Heriticks, and her Adherents in the matters aforesaid, to have incurred the sentence of Anathema, and to be cut off from the Unity of the Body of Christ.

And moreover, we do declare Her to be deprived of her pretended Title to the Kingdom aforesaid, and of all Dominion, Dignity, and Priviledge whatsoever. And also the Nobility, Subjects, and People of the said Kingdome, and all others, which have in any sort sworn unto her, to be for ever absolved from any such Oath, and all manner of Duty, of Dominion, Allegiance, and Obedience; As we also do by Authority of these Presents absolve them, and do deprive the same Elizabeth of her pretended Title to the Kingdom, & all other things abovesaid. And we do command and Interdict all and every the Noblemen, Subjects, People, and others aforesaid, that they presume not to obey her, or her Monitions, Mandates, and Laws: And those which shall do the contrary, We do innodate with the like Sentence of Anathema.

And because it were a matter of too much difficulty, to convey these Presents to all places wheresoever it shall be needful; our will is that the Copies thereof, under a publick Notaries hand, and sealed with the Seal of an Ecclesiastical Prelate, or of his Court, shall carry altogether the same Credit, with all People, Judicial and Extrajudicial, as these Present should do, if they were exhibited or shewed.”

As you will notice, not only did this bull excommunicate Elizabeth I, it also declared that she was a pretender and released her subjects from their allegiance to her. It absolved them “from any such Oath, and all manner of Duty, of Dominion, Allegiance, and Obedience” and actually commanded them to “not to obey her”. This bull made life very difficult for Catholics in England because their spiritual leader was now calling on them to disobey their queen and calling her a pretender, and it led to Elizabeth I’s government passing harsher recusancy laws tp protect the queen.

An excellent book on what it was like for English Catholics living in England in Elizabeth I’s reign is Jessie Childs’ God’s Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England. I highly recommend it. Click here to read my review of it.

Notes and Sources

  • Thomas, Lord Bishop of Lincoln, Brutum Fulmen: or, The Bull of Pope Pius V concerning the damnation of Q. Elizabeth; as also the absolution of her subjects of their Oath of Allegiance, with a peremptory injunction, upon pain of an anathema, never to obey any of her laws or commands…, p. 1-6 – you can read this in English and in Latin at https://archive.org/stream/brutumfulmenorbu00barluoft#page/n25/mode/2up

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26 thoughts on “1570 – The Excommunication of Elizabeth I”
  1. My biggest takeaway is that the Pope has no idea that he’s already lost this war. England isn’t going back. All he did was put the Catholics in England in more danger than they were before. My feeling is Elizabeth didn’t care what people believed as long as they believed she was queen. Other than that, Catholic vs. Protestant wasn’t that big a deal.

    I am amused that they are basically kicking Elizabeth out of something she never actually belonged to.

    The other thing I note is that the Pope seems furious that a woman would head a church. It really does amaze me that this didn’t bother more people. It was unprecedented. Both the Catholic and the COE had an all male priesthood, and here was Elizabeth suddenly being the Supreme head of the COE.

    One of the ironies in the situation is that the Catholic church could have avoided all this if it had just given Henry his divorce. Protestantism was spreading, but Henry deciding it was in his best interest to change how England worshiped made it virtually certain that England would become Protestant.

    1. Well, to be fair they wouldn’t grant Elizabeth the title of Supreme Head of the Church of England they made her be “Supreme Governor”

    2. Well Elizabeth did belong to it – she was baptised into it and observed all the requirements until 1548 – and again after 1554 – she did not resist the Mass in her household as Mary had done the Prayer Book rite under Edward…..and accepted the restoration of papal primacy of Nov 1554 and all the legal processes which flowed therefrom…whether her conformity was sincere can be debated but it was quite complete. At her accession whilst she cavilled at the elevation she did not seem to bothered about the rest of the mass. The Prayer Book of 1159 i largely the much more Calvinist one of 1552 = though it is said the queen was herself keener of that of 1549 but the resistance of the Marian bishops made that impossible to gain. however, she used most often the Latin Book of common Prayer rite she commissioned – and which very interestingly uses most of the Canon from the 1549 prayer book rather than the communion service of 1552….what seems in hindsight to be straightforward was far from straightforward and this partly explains why the papacy was so slow to excommunicate her….

    3. Percysowner,
      I feel exactly the contrary : the Pope acted like this just because he had lost the fight.
      And because everyone was being aware about it.
      He was sort of “obliged” to excommunicate Elizabeth I after many negotiation.
      At the time all that was very public .
      Catholic Church could not give K H his divorce without aknowledging it lost it’s morals.
      I think catholic church proposed KH and queen Catherine a bias : he, being re-married and her, given to God – as if she had never been a queen, nor a married woman before – it is not a matter of it was welcome or not, it is to indicate that the pope wanted to make european courts peaceful .
      So, his mission had failed and he had to show his power.
      Excommunication, beginning and end

    4. ‘Governor’, rather than ‘head’, i think you’ll find. God is the ‘head’ of the Catholic & Apostolic Church of England…..

      1. God might be the Head of the Catholic Church but you seem to forget that Our Lord Jesus Christ appointed Peter, and his successors the Head of HIS Church on earth. “Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build My Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” I would like to know how it is that an adulterer, rake, and debauched king could call himself the head of the church in England. Surprising that his grandmother Margaret Beaufort considered herself “the chosen one” and was prima facie; an ardent Roman Catholic. Henry VIII was so conceited that he considered himself an expert theologian and quoted Deuteronomy which he says that “one shall not uncover the nakedness of his brother’s wife. Yes that is true but it meant that you should not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife whilst your brother is still alive. Henry didn’t read Leviticus too well because it states that upon the death of a man’s brother if that union is childless, it is incumbent on the surviving brother to marry his brother’s widow and have children by her in order to perpetuate his brother’s name. Read the story of Onan and his brothers. Because Onan and his brother’s spilled their seed on the earth rather than impregnate Tamar his wife, God struck Onan dead and did the same to his brothers who married Tamara and followed suit by spilling their seed upon the earth. Tamar was deemed a righteous woman because she opted to disguise herself as a prostitute and wait by the market gate for Judah who was the father of Onan and subsequently Tamar’s father in law, and mated with him. The result of that union was a child though whom was descended King David and through that line; Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself. Tamar was deemed a righteous because she enacted God’s Law by perpetuating the name of her husband.

        Henry VIII by his own reasoning, broke God’s law when he “married” Anne Boelyn. By his reasoning, he was Statute Barred if you like from marrying Anne because he had carnal relations with Anne’s sister Mary Boelyn and most likely Anne’s mother. In other words; he shot himself with his own gun. He was also an adulterer much in the vein of his maternal grandfather Edward IV, as he “married” Anne Boelyn whilst his first wife Katherine of Aragon Queen of England was still alive, which technically made Elizabeth a bastard. Henry’s third wife Jane Seymour was a legal wife as Queen Katherine and Anne Boelyn were both deceased when he married Jane.

        1. Grant Armstrong,
          Thank u for this so-to-say exegesis – quite unexpected for me, as french and not accustomed to holy books.
          I guess ur comment perfectly gives an idea of how horrible queen Catherine (born princess of Aragon) could feel about the stuff.
          What u tell about K H’s supposed morals is a matter of debate rather.
          The stone – “Pierre tu es et sur cette pierre (Peter or “petra” in latin), je bâtirai mon église…” – happens to be rather frail because human.
          I mean the pope himself when he was nothing else than a prisoner in the hands of Charles V’s violent troops.
          I wont say anything about The Vatican being enclaved in Italy when Mussolini ruled .
          If u are called “rock”, u have to pay the price, not for being as motionless as stones (or rocks), but for being above any laic power, on a moral level.
          When the pope, fearing both Charles V and KH “proposed” (not to say “ordered”) queen Catherine – weakest link ideed by then as a prisoner in her husband’s realm –
          to take the veil and disappear in a convent, what do u think on a exegetical point of view ?
          U are right quoting the first 3 wives.
          The first could not accept sth so obviously against her own morals (and common people’s morals by then, that we must not forget, KH’s divorce shocked, horrified, nearly any of his subjects, these living with christian rules).
          The second being the reason of this change of “head” – or governor.
          The third, trying to restore – queen Catherine’s memory and – old customs.
          The others have nothing to do with that matter.
          Anne of Cleves – a marriage of convenience, short-lived.
          Catherine Howard – lust (and will to sire male heirs).
          Catherine Parr, a wife of low rank (when compared with others), so grateful and quiet woman (she could not know she was to marry her crush, Seymour by then).
          The secular had won, no doubt

    5. I too thought that Elizabeth was caught up in her fathers politics and really didn’t care that much about what church her subjects went to as long as they saw her as Queen and paid their taxes….I stifll for what ever it’s worth could never forgive Henry for all the nonsense he pulled….his one saving grace was the great Queen–
      Anne gave him…Did Henry really believe in what he was doing or was he thinking with his “little brain” alone…

  2. Elizabeth always said she had no wish to make windows into men’s souls, she was saying how they worshipped God wasn’t that important she was head of the Church Of England therefore that was what mattered to her, so I’m sure the Pope in far of Rome didn’t matter to her either, her father had defied Rome to marry her mother and had Elizabeth been in a similar situation I’m sure she would have done the same either.

    1. She did say that but she had to act against the Catholics in the end because of this excommunication. Although it may not have affected her in a personal religious way, this bull gave Catholics in England the Pope’s blessing, and in fact his encouragement, to rise up against this pretender and remove her from the throne. The bull was a nightmare for Catholics who just wanted to live their lives and keep their faith in private, it led to persecution.

      1. Elizabeth did not persecute Catholics because of their religion. There were no heresy trials during her reign. Treason was her motivation not faith. She punished Catholics for what they did not for what they thought

        1. I didn’t say that she did, but that didn’t stop Catholics living in fear and being treated as the “enemy” for simply being Catholic, and suffering at the hands of her government. For example, Margaret Clitheroe who was pressed to death under “seven or eight hundred weight” in York for her faith and for refusing “to plead to the charge of priest-harbouring”. The houses of Catholics were raided, priests were hidden in priest holes and could starve there, people did live in terror because that bull made them appear as traitors even if they actually wanted to live their life quietly and not rise against the queen. Jessie Childs’ book “God’s Traitors” is a brilliant examination of what Catholic families went through at that time.

        2. That is not correct. Elizabeth made it treason to practice the Catholic faith, to be a priest and preach the Catholic faith, causing people to hide their religious advisors, priests could be killed on sight, arrested on sight, legally tortured and were forced to be in hiding for days at a time in terrible conditions, just to stay alive one more day. The law of treason and heresy had the same effect, they authorized the persecution of people who believed differently to the King or the Pope. Protestants and Catholics held heresy trials, there were heresy trials under Elizabeth, mostly of none conformist Puritans, but it does not matter, both motivations were a fatal mix of political paranoia and religious fundamentalism. In the sixteenth century there was no such thing as toleration, this is a modern concept. The treason laws that got harsher and harsher condemned Catholics to being second class citizens until 1829. Catholics were defined as traitors, partly in reaction to the Bull, partly because of increasing paranoia. However it was because of their beliefs, not their actions, in the same way that so called heretics were persecuted for their beliefs, not their actions. No freedom of speech or religious belief existed, treason was not always a matter of choice, in this case it was a matter of conscience.

      2. I’m not particularly religious but I have a certain belief, i found religion throughout the centuries has been responsible for lots of wars and persecution, yes Elizabeth’s Catholic subjects were held in suspicion because of this and iv heard the story of Maragret Clitheroe, many houses of the time had priests holes which during renovation in this modern age many have been discovered, it also made the supporters of Elizabeth’s prisoner Mary Of Scots more rebellious and of course later in her reign there was the Babington plot, Elizabeth lived in fear of Catholic uprisings but she was the most tolerant Monarch out of all the Tudors, I’m just wondering had her brother lived how he would have dealt with them, after all he was born in wedlock so no problem there as the Pope and all the Catholic world thought Elizabeth a bastard but he was a fanatical Protestant, I think Edward would have viewed his Catholic subjects with terrible mistrust and suspicion.

        1. If I know few (or nothing) about english history by then, I am very aware that England and France got on rather well (there are some times when it is not unuseful to recall these days 😉 ) .
          Elizabeth did what she thought relevant on religious matters.
          Non believer and foreigner, I am not allowed to judge the facts on these standards .
          French kings at the same time were being weakened by these inner religious struggles (they lasted from 1562 to 1589, if not later in different forms).
          They were under many influences (their foreign allies happened to be rather protestant, when not muslim if we remember that Soliman the Magnificent was strong enough to frighten austrian emperors).
          Elizabeth Tudor was one of these allies against Habsburgs’ forces .

    2. At the same time – or about, in 1511 and 1589 – France had two kings excommunicated .
      The first one – always campaigning in Itlay, like his predecessor and successor, he held italian places sought after by the pope himself.
      The second, for having duke of Guise murdered (the latter was nephew to a cardinal).
      The 2d case is more relevant ; France was already a battlefield between Catholics and Protestants (it had to do with king François I’s alliances with some protestant princelets in order to fight against Charles V’s power and due to his own private set; his 2d mistress Anne of Etampes, his sister Marguerite and sister-in-law, Renée being much friendly to calvinism – BUT François himself was never excommunicated for that; Catherine of Medicis lead the same politics or about as him, although being herself grand-niece and cousin to two popes).
      In both cases, nothing really changed in royal politics or people condition .
      The only thing – not the least – is that a young hot-head Jacques Clément murdered king Henri the III for what he considered his unholy crimes .
      But it appears from enquiries it had more to do with the Lorraine family revenge, rather than with that excommunication .
      Because the poor fool was linked to the “Saint League” (dominated by the Guise relatives).
      Seemingly papal bulls had very different effects in France and in England.
      In France, Catholics did not suffer more after these bulls.
      As was the case later when king Louis XIV (in 1687) himself was excommunicated for settling “gallicanism” (independence from Rome on different matters, like “anglicanism”). He had already persecuted Religion Prétendument Réformée (Protestants) and Catholics did not suffer the least after 1687 …
      But it is true since then in french minds, people are used to think rather differently from pontifical tenet (that is long before the 1905 law definitely getting rid off catholicism – and any faith at all – from republican institutions).
      I happen to hardly understand Elizabeth I’s reaction .
      Due to my lack of knowledge in english history, I guess …

        1. Hi Gail Marion, and thank you so much for your kind word.
          Aware that my comments can rather deserve some irony now and then.
          Because of they being somewhat “heavy”, due to my poor english, but also my lack of knowledge in english or british history – that point makes me draw parallels with the few I know in french data . And this can sound (or IS, sometimes) somewhat artificial.
          But I enjoy learning from this site when reading high-quality remarks.
          So I hope I can read you soon … 😉

  3. Elizabeth I at first had a good relationship with the Pope as some of their letters show. They were complimentary. However, the political agenda changed, a new Pope would not tolerate the penal laws and Elizabeth I as a Protestant monarch, who was also in the eyes of most European princes illegitimate and a usurper, apostate, etc, was excommunicated. Please note, however, that although the Bull excuses the subjects of Elizabeth from being loyal, from their alliance, it does not mean that they were a threat to her. In fact the Bull does not tell them to kill or harm her. However, it was later interpreted as that anyone who did could be absolved if they did. A Catholic Monarch could legally invade England and remove Elizabeth. The Bull was brought to England and anyone with a copy could be arrested and executed. The Bull created a terrible dilemma, but it was Elizabeth I who passed the laws, who was responsible for the hundreds of executions by being hung, cut down alive, your body cut open, your organs removed and burnt before your eyes, then your head cut off and body cut up, probably after you have been tortured for months, not the Pope.

    1. Bandit queen, you certainly have no need of my poor knowledge in english history, but sth makes me think you are perfectly right in writing Elizabeth I was fully responsible when reacting in such a way at the papal bull.
      In France the famous massacre of Saint Bartholomew, was not, as has been proved since, ordered by the french king (Charles IX), but a popular reaction to the wedding of a royal princess (Marguerite) to a calvinist prince ie Henri, king of Navarra (a realm inherited from his mother, niece of François I).
      The image of Elizabeth being tolerant, opposed to her sister’s as a “bloody queen” is probably just a commonplace, depending on whom history finally answered for.
      About the man we (french) call “le bon roi Henri”, we have to admit he was object of much hatred by then (by catholics as well as by protestants, thinking that this past calvinist had become too friendly – even he probably never said “Paris vaut bien une messe” – to main stream, ie catholics in France by then).
      Of course from abroad, these persecutions seem all the more horrible that needless.
      Mary Tudor rather persecuting protestants, Elizabeth rather catholics.
      I guess u are right writing “paranoia” as a cause of this human waste, when u need to show how powerful u are, all means are welcomed.
      Non catholic and republican, I happened to see your comment on Mary’s birthday and was very moved by your tribute to queen Mary I Tudor.
      As I already noticed, your knowledge is vast, allowing u to analyse much historical facts, but your comment was very stirring then.
      What makes me confident in human nature is when people, having nothing to win in doing that, can plead for dead characters.
      I won’t say it is historical truth, but there is some need of an advocate for each soul.
      And I take for sure it is the way to a historical progress.
      When a child, I had to learn these “commonplaces” .
      As adults, we have to fight not for what we believe is true, but take lessons from historical facts.
      Everyone is responsible for that, I guess

      1. Hi Bruno, thank you for your very kind words, very much appreciated. Henry iv of France, no matter his difficulties in his marriage, his sudden conversion, the trauma of the Saint Bartholomew Day Massacre, took a brave step with his declaration of religious toleration. It was shocking that it then led to his own murder on his way to Mass, for as you say people could not think that way and reacted with hatred. The use of fear is a poor excuse even today, only now it is people of different races that sadly become targets. I agree with you, these things were much more complex, often taking on a life of their own.

        1. It is me who feel grateful for your always sagacious comments and accurate information.
          Yes we french tend to see Henry IV of France’s reign as the first step to national union.
          His famous “Edit de Nantes” was just a try of it on religious matter.
          But never accepted by most people – his grandson “le roi soleil” when he cancelled it was highly approved by the major part of the population by then.
          Even if this fact is of course analysed now with so much sorrow for french families obliged to go abroad to settle (some of them, allying with your King William against french troops, just 5 years later).
          What you add about use of fear “even” now, I’d rather say things seem to go still faster (with facebook, twitter and so on – but the worse is that when problems are raising, it is exactly as if lall these “past” facts had been totally forgotten – and so definitely useless.
          I don’t think of Calais (dear to Mary I’s heart if she ever pronounced the famous word).
          I think on a more general level, when seeing how bad prepared national heads seem to be (when I was a pupil, I had been told about how predictable these massive immigrations).
          When the world is as open as it is, use of fear is irresponsible indeed.
          Education – even when it is seen as “too late” (after tragic events)…

  4. Whichever way you discern what was right or wrong with the papal bull I too think it made life more difficult for Catholics. As has already been pointed out, Elizabeth was more focussed on acts of treason to disempower her and get her off the throne. Thankfully she continued to reign and made the country United and wealthy. I also feel that poor Anne Boleyn was dreadfully wronged and the false allegations against her seem to rankle still today.

  5. It is unlikely Elizabeth had any fear of this Papal Bull of Excommunication in regards to her soul. She recognized that none of what the Pope said, nor most of Catholic doctrine, was in the Bible and saw the Catholic religion as a man-made fraud.

    From what I have read though, she was very much aware of Catholic recusants, as well as Mary, Queen of Scots potentially plotting against her, and thereby was on high alert with the watch of Walsingham, and for which Mary ended up paying for that very thing with her life in 1587 after being implicated in the Babington plot. Things grew very tough for Catholics in that time.

    I think Elizabeth actually demonstrated a quiet faith in God and did a pretty good job keeping her country together while the fires of Reformation were blowing through with both groups hostile to each other. Her faith did not depend on the opinion of man, but was centered on having a clear conscience toward her Creator and thereby being just and fair toward her fellow man as much as possible.

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