Pius V Excommunicates Elizabeth I Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Elizabeth’s excommunication by Pope Pius V did little for the position of the Catholic Church in England and instead instilled even deeper anti-Catholic resentment as the English stood by their queen. Elizabeth’s excommunication consolidated her position as the undisputed leader of European Protestants.

Summary of Event

Elizabeth I’s preference for a modified form of Roman Catholic worship during the early years of her reign created problems for some English Catholics. In general, their lives were not in danger, although known recusants in areas where the magistrates were unsympathetic to Catholicism were often subject to fines and imprisonment for failing in the minimum attendance required at Church of England services. Occasionally, laypeople who concealed priests were charged with treason and executed. Protestantism;England Elizabeth I Pius V Pius IV Philip II (1527- 1598) Ferdinand I (1503-1564) Gregory XIII Mary, Queen of Scots Elizabeth I (queen of England) Pius V Pius IV Philip II (king of Spain) Ferdinand I (Holy Roman Emperor) Mary Tudor (queen of Scots) Gregory XIII Pius V

A lack of priests compounded the problems of English Catholics. The majority of the clergy adhered to the Elizabethan Settlement of 1559 Elizabethan Settlement (1559) ; those who did not were deprived of their livings and compelled to retire or enter secular life. Although the Catholic laity were not subject to the death penalty for the practice of their faith, the clergy were. Celebration of the Mass and the hearing of confession were legal grounds for execution, although these stringent regulations were rarely enforced.

In the decades following Elizabeth’s accession, recusants who did not go so far as to assert their principles boldly were sometimes troubled by the proper attitude they were required to assume toward the queen. Most Catholics were reluctant on principle, and for the sake of expediency, to repudiate their loyalty to Elizabeth. At the same time they regarded her as a heretic; thus, according to the dogma of the Roman Catholic Church, her regal authority was suspect. Catholicism;England

As early as 1561, Pope Pius IV considered excommunicating Elizabeth as a heretic because of the religious changes the queen had made since her accession. He was dissuaded from doing so by Philip II of Spain, the widower of Queen Mary I, Elizabeth’s half sister and predecessor. Philip argued that the sentence of excommunication implied deposition and was consequently unenforceable. Besides, Philip hoped to marry Elizabeth, and such a marriage would have been impossible if she were a declared heretic.

At the request of the pope, the matter was discussed at the Council of Trent Trent, Council of (1545-1563) . According to canon law, there was little doubt that Elizabeth had rendered herself subject to excommunication, and a group of English Catholic refugees on the Continent presented the council with a petition demanding such action on the grounds that failure to act would further mislead the English nation.

The Habsburg rulers, Philip II and his uncle, Ferdinand I, the Holy Roman Emperor, again played major roles in preventing the council from acting, with the same arguments Philip had used two years earlier. Ferdinand pointed out that many German princes deserved excommunication as much as Elizabeth did, but to pronounce sentence against all of them would invite chaos. Like Philip, the emperor was optimistic about securing a marriage between Elizabeth and a prince of his own imperial house.

Pope Pius IV died late in 1565 and was succeeded by Pius V, a former head of the Inquisition. Pius V saw an opportunity to proceed against Elizabeth in 1569, when she confined her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, who had fled to Elizabeth for protection. Soon suspected of involvement in Catholic intrigues, Mary was placed under house arrest and appeared to Catholics to be a martyr for the religion that Philip II had sworn to defend. After 1569, when English vessels began regularly to prey on Spanish treasure ships sailing from the New World, Philip’s patience was tried further.

On February 5, 1570, the case against Elizabeth was formally opened in Rome. She was charged with assuming authority over the English Church, depriving and imprisoning bishops, denying the authority of the Papacy, and encouraging heresy. English exiles were summoned as witnesses, and the bull of excommunication, Regnans in Excelsis, was issued by the pope on February 25, 1570. Despite worsening relations with England, Philip and Ferdinand protested strongly, but the pope remained adamant.

There was, however, a legal flaw in the process of excommunication, since no advance warning of the sentence had been given to the queen. Moreover, the bull declared her deposed as a ruler as well as excommunicated, and canon law provided the former sentence only if a ruler did not seek relief from excommunication within a year. English Catholics, placed by the bull in the difficult position of having to repudiate their loyalty to Queen Elizabeth and risk charges of treason, seized on these flaws to reaffirm their allegiance to her.

The bull had little effect in England except to deepen anti-Catholic feeling and thus strengthen Elizabeth’s position with the nation. The year before the condemnation, there had been a feudal uprising in the north, the Rebellion of the Northern Earls, Northern Earls, Rebellion of the (1569) which had strong Catholic overtones, but it had been crushed and some of the participants executed. The Catholic faction no longer had any hope of armed rebellion, as Pius’s decree envisioned. Actually, there were few English Catholics who seriously desired revolt or the overthrow of the queen. Although their situation was perplexing, it was not hopeless, but they realized that any suspicion of political disloyalty would lead to harsher measures.

The pope attempted to persuade Philip to institute a blockade against England, but Philip declined, claiming that France would not cooperate. In general, the papal bull also had a negligible effect in terms of international affairs. The Roman Catholic nations continued their diplomatic and economic relations with England without regard to the sentence against Elizabeth.

The spiritual condition of English Catholics began to improve about 1575, with the arrival of the first seminary priests, Englishmen trained at the English College, established in 1568 at Douai in France. Although there were never more than a few dozen seminary priests working in England at one time, they enjoyed considerable success reconciling lapsed Catholics to the Church and establishing pockets of firm recusancy, centers to which priests could regularly come in safety. While they encouraged Catholic laity not to participate in Anglican worship, for the most part they did not encourage disobedience to the queen in other matters.

In 1580, the Jesuits Jesuits also began to send missionaries Missions;Jesuits in England to England. Two of them, Robert Parsons and Edmund Campion, obtained from Pope Gregory XIII a declaration that stated that as long as Elizabeth’s deposition was unenforceable, English Catholics were not bound by the decree. As a result, Gregory was able to partially mitigate the work of his predecessor without repudiating it. Henceforth, virtually all priests captured and charged with treason insisted that they acknowledged Elizabeth as their ruler in all matters of state.

Elizabeth’s government pursued alternately strict and lax policies toward English Catholics, according to internal affairs such as Puritan agitation and Catholic plots. Most wealthy Catholics were forced to pay large fines, while their poorer brethren were often left alone. The prohibition against the mass, however, continued to be enforced rigorously.

On several occasions Catholics, especially from among the nobility, were involved in plots against Elizabeth. The missionary priests, with few exceptions, remained aloof from such schemes. In 1586, one such plot led to the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, whom the plotters hoped to place on the throne of England.

The Papacy knew of several of these plots and encouraged them. Gradually, relations between Spain and England deteriorated to the point of intense and bitter rivalry. Philip II increasingly came to regard himself as the champion of the Roman Catholic Church in Europe; he determined to punish Elizabeth for her heresy and set his own daughter on the English throne. Finally, in 1588, Philip launched the reputedly invincible Armada Armada, Spanish (1588) against England. Attacked by Sir John Hawkins and Sir Francis Drake, and wrecked by storms off the British coasts, the Armada failed to defeat England. Anglo-Spanish War (1587-c. 1600)[Anglo Spanish War (1587-c. 1600)]


The excommunication of Elizabeth I in 1570 proved a pivotal event in the history of England and of Europe. Not only was the loyalty and devotion of the English people to their sovereign reaffirmed by this event but also Elizabeth came to be regarded as the leader of the Protestant cause. Thus, Pope Pius V unwittingly provided Protestants with a living symbol of resistance to Roman Catholicism.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brigden, Susan. London and the Reformation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. An essential work for understanding the forces that shaped Elizabethan religious opinion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Doran, Susan. Queen Elizabeth I. New York: New York University Press, 2003. Portrays Elizabeth as a flawed but brilliant manipulator who used this ability to protect her country and to steer it safely through a host of dangers. Includes illustrations, map, bibliographic references, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Haigh, Christopher, ed. The Reign of Elizabeth I. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985. An excellent collection of revisionist essays concerning the Elizabethan Age.
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    xlink:type="simple">Haynes, Alan. Invisible Power: The Elizabethan Secret Service, 1570-1603. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. Haynes provides a fascinating examination of those responsible for the security of England.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hughes, Philip. The Reformation in England. Vol. 3. Rev. ed. Reprint. Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, 1993. The most thorough study available on the English Reformation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">MacCaffrey, Wallace T. Queen Elizabeth and the Making of Policy, 1572-1588. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981. McCaffrey presents a thorough examination of the queen’s role in making foreign policy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">MacCulloch, Diarmaid. The Later Reformation in England, 1547-1603. 2d ed. New York: Palgrave, 2001. Study of the major events of the Reformation in England after Henry VIII’s death, together with a discussion of the reception and understanding of those events by the English people. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marshall, Peter. Reformation England, 1480-1642. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Extremely detailed, meticulously supported argument that the English Reformation should be understood to begin in the late fifteenth century and to last well into the seventeenth century. Explicates the specific meanings of Protestantism and Catholicism to the major players and to laypeople during the Renaissance. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Parker, Geoffrey. The Grand Strategy of Philip II. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998. Contests the traditional view of Philip as conducting his empire by reacting to events as they occurred without any grand plan to guide him. Uses correspondence and other historical documents to delineate a “strategic culture” informing Philip’s decisions and his reign. Includes illustrations, maps, bibliographic references, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rendina, Claudio. The Popes: Histories and Secrets. Translated by Paul D. McCusker. Santa Ana, Calif.: Seven Locks Press, 2002. Massive, comprehensive study of the biographies, historical significance, personal experiences, political and religious milieus, and controversies surrounding each of the popes from Saint Peter to John Paul II. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ridley, Jasper G. Elizabeth I: The Shrewdness of Virtue. New York: Viking Press, 1988. Among the more up-to-date biographies, this work is one of the best because the author fully analyzes the personality of the queen.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shagan, Ethan H. Popular Politics and the English Reformation. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Study of the way in which ordinary English subjects interpreted and reacted to Protestantism. Argues that religious history cannot be understood independently of political history, because commoners no less than royals understood religion and politics as utterly intertwined. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Trimble, William Raleigh. The Catholic Laity in Elizabethan England. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1964. An exhaustive study of the Catholic population in England during the time of Elizabeth I.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wright, A. D. The Early Modern Papacy: From the Council of Trent to the French Revolution, 1564-1789. New York: Longman, 2000. Examination of both the scope and the limitations of the powers of the popes after the Council of Trent. Emphasizes the multiple, potentially conflicting obligations of the popes to the city of Rome, the Italian church, the transnational Catholic church, the Papal States, and other specific religious and political entities.

Oct. 31, 1517: Luther Posts His Ninety-five Theses

Apr.-May, 1521: Luther Appears Before the Diet of Worms

Mar., 1536: Calvin Publishes Institutes of the Christian Religion

1545-1563: Council of Trent

Jan. 25-Feb. 7, 1554: Wyatt’s Rebellion

1558-1603: Reign of Elizabeth I

Jan., 1563: Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England

Nov. 9, 1569: Rebellion of the Northern Earls

Apr., 1587-c. 1600: Anglo-Spanish War

July 31-Aug. 8, 1588: Defeat of the Spanish Armada

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