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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