25 February 1570: The Excommunication of Elizabeth I

Elizabeth I

Elizabeth I c1575

Henry VIII’s decision to break the Church of England away from Rome set in motion a series of events that were central to the political and religious life of the Tudor era and beyond. Today marks the 440th anniversary of one of those events, the excommunication of Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth I.

The religious attitudes of the last four Tudors were very different. Although Henry had broken the English church from Rome, his religious observances were still essentially Catholic. Edward VI, under the influence of his mother’s family, the Seymours, took the country down a Protestant route during his short reign.

After Edward’s early death, Mary I, a devout Catholic, reversed all of his religious reforms and pursued a bloody crusade to stamp out Protestantism in England. The religious tide turned again on Mary’s death when Elizabeth’s first parliament passed a new Act of Supremacy naming her supreme governor of the Church of England.

Elizabeth’s religious settlement was opposed not only by Catholics, who saw the changes as moving too far away from Rome, but also by Puritans, who thought the reforms were too little and too slow. Both groups were fined for non-attendance at Church of England services but were safe if they did not pose a threat.

This situation changed on 25 February 1570 when Pope Pius V issued his papal bull, Regnans in excelsis. The bull excommunicated Elizabeth and anybody who remained loyal to her. It also deposed the queen and called for Catholics to remove her, releasing them from any oaths they had sworn to Elizabeth.

Although the bull was an attempt to return England to Catholicism it actually weakened the Catholic position. Most Catholics were loyal subjects, but after 1570 they could no longer remain loyal to their queen and their church.

The immediate result of Elizabeth’s excommunication was, on the Catholic side, a new push to reconvert England and, on the Protestant side, a harder line against recusancy, ultimately leading to trials and executions of priests. In the longer term, it led to a marginalisation of Catholicism in England that would continue long after the end of the Tudor age.

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