Pope Pius V's Bull Against Elizabeth I

views updated

Pope Pius V's Bull Against Elizabeth I

"Pope Pius V's Bull Against Elizabeth"

   By Pope Pius V

   Originally written in 1570

   Available online at http://tudorhistory.org/primary/papalbull.html

One of the first matters to which Elizabeth I (1533–1603) turned her attention after taking power in 1558 was the problem of religious conflict. Elizabeth had been raised as a Protestant after her father, Henry VIII (1491–1547), had officially severed ties with the Roman Catholic Church in the 1530s. This action, which Henry took in order to legalize his divorce from his first wife and marry Elizabeth's mother, Anne Boleyn (c. 1507–1536), firmly established the Protestant Reformation in England. (The Protestant Reformation was a sixteenth-century religious movement that aimed to reform the Roman Catholic Church and resulted in the establishment of Protestant churches.) Though Henry did not care much about reforming traditional religious beliefs and practices, he did worry about losing the loyalty of his subjects. He demanded that they recognize his authority as head of the English church. Those who refused to do so were seen as a political threat, and they were subjected to fines and other punishments.

"We charge and command all and singular the nobles, subjects peoples and others afore said that they do not dare obey [Queen Elizabeth I's] orders, mandates and laws."

The new Protestant church became more firmly established during the reign of Henry's son, Edward VI (1537–1553). Since Edward was only nine years old when he became king, a group of influential nobles were appointed to govern the country on his behalf. These nobles strongly supported religious reforms that, in their view, would return the church to the original teachings of Christ and eliminate traditions that had become part of Catholic practice but were not mentioned in the Bible. Religious officials led by Thomas Cranmer (1489–1556) wrote a new order of worship, The Book of Common Prayer, to replace the Latin liturgy used by the Catholic church. When Edward died, his half-sister, Mary I (1516–1558), reversed English policy and reinstituted Catholicism as the country's official religion. Devoutly Catholic, she believed that the English people would happily return to Catholicism once she had eliminated the leaders who had initiated Protestant reforms. But England did not welcome this abrupt change. As she faced continued resistance from Protestants who refused to reject their beliefs, Mary launched an aggressive campaign against heretics, or people who express an opinion that opposes established church doctrines (principles). During her reign she ordered approximately three hundred Protestants to be burned at the stake for their beliefs—a number that far exceeded executions for heresy during the previous several decades. Far from unifying the country, Mary's harsh policies only worsened England's religious conflicts.

Inheriting the throne after Mary's death, Elizabeth sought to end the persecution and violence that had tormented the country for so long. She realized that England needed to be united under one church, the Protestant Anglican church. Yet she did not want to provoke Catholics who wished to maintain their own traditions of worship. The queen effected a compromise that became known as the Religious Settlement. This settlement had three parts: the Act of Uniformity (1559) established The Book of Common Prayer as the official order of worship in England; the Act of Supremacy (1559) declared the queen the supreme governor of the English church; and the Thirty-Nine Articles (1563) established official Anglican doctrine. The Religious Settlement required outward conformity to the Church of England, but it tolerated Catholics so long as they kept their beliefs to themselves. After Mary's merciless persecution of Protestants, the English people were relieved that Elizabeth's policy aimed for tolerance.

Despite this spirit of compromise, support for the Catholic cause remained strong in many parts of the country, particularly in the north. Many Catholics considered Elizabeth's claim to power illegitimate, since her parents' marriage had not been sanctioned according to Catholic law. In their view, Elizabeth's Catholic cousin, Mary Stuart (Queen of Scots; 1542–1587), was the legitimate heir to the English throne. Various conspiracies arose to overthrow Elizabeth and put Mary in power. The first major plot occurred in 1569 when a group of nobles led by the earls of Westmoreland and Northumberland raised an army in the northern counties. Though Elizabeth's government suppressed the rebellion, the incident, known as the Northern Rising, contributed to growing fear and distrust of Catholics.

To support the Northern Rebellion, Pope Pius V (1504–1572) issued an official proclamation, known as a papal bull, that excommunicated Elizabeth and absolved her Catholic subjects from any requirement to obey her. (Excommunication officially deprives a person of church membership.) In fact, the bull commanded English Catholics to resist the queen's rule, and it stated that those who remained loyal to Elizabeth would also be excommunicated. This placed English Catholics in a very difficult position, in effect requiring them to become traitors in order to remain loyal to their faith. The bull did not arrive in England, however, until after the rebellion had been suppressed.

Things to remember while reading "Pope Pius V's Bull Against Elizabeth":

  • The pope is the head of the Roman Catholic Church. His authority on church matters is supreme. Faithful Catholics are obligated to obey his pronouncements.
  • The Northern Rebellion, an uprising led by Catholic nobles in the north, was the first serious threat to Elizabeth's power. The pope's bull was issued to support this rebellion.
  • The papal bull excommunicated Elizabeth and stated that English Catholics were not required to obey her. Those who continued to support her, it added, could also be excommunicated.

Pope Pius V's Bull Against Elizabeth

Pius Bishop, servant of the servants of God, in lasting memory of the matter.

He that reigneth on high, to who is given all power in heaven and earth, has committed one holy Catholic and apostolic Church, outside of which there is no salvation, to one alone upon earth, namely to Peter, the first of the apostles, and to Peter's successor, the pope of Rome, to be by him governed in fullness of power. Him alone He has made ruler over all peoples and kingdoms, to pull up, destroy, scatter, disperse, plant and build, so that he may preserve His faithful people (knit together with the girdle of charity) in the unity of the Spirit and present them safe and spotless to their Saviour.

1. In obedience to which duty, we (who by God's goodness are called to the aforesaid government of the Church) spare no pains and labour with all our might that unity and the catholic religion (which their Author, for the trial of His children's faith and our correction, has suffered to be afflicted with such great troubles) may be preserved entire. But the number of the ungodly has so much grown in power that there is no place left in the world which they have not tried to corrupt with their most wicked doctrines; and among others, Elizabeth, the pretended queen of England and the servant of crime, has assisted in this, with whom as in a sanctuary the most pernicious [harmful] of all have found refuge. This very woman, having seized the crown and monstrously usurped [siezed] the place of supreme head of the Church in all England together with the chief authority and jurisdiction belonging to it, has once again reduced this same kingdom—which had already been restored to the Catholic faith and to good fruits—to a miserable ruin.

2. Prohibiting with a strong hand the use of the true religion, which after its earlier overthrow by Henry VIII (a deserter therefrom) Mary, the lawful queen of famous memory, had with the help of this See restored, she has followed and embraced the errors of the heretics. She has removed the royal Council, composed of the nobility of England, and has filled it with obscure men, being heretics; oppressed the followers of the Catholic faith; instituted false preachers and ministers of impiety; abolished the sacrifice of the mass, prayers, fasts, choice of meats, celibacy, and Catholic ceremonies; and has ordered that books of manifestly heretical content be propounded to the whole realm and that impious rites and institutions after the rule of Calvin, entertained and observed by herself, be also observed by her subjects. She has dared to eject bishops, rectors of churches and other Catholic priests from their churches and benefices, to bestow these and other things ecclesiastical upon heretics, and to determine spiritual causes; has forbidden the prelates [bishops], clergy and people to acknowledge the Church of Rome or obey its precepts and canonical sanctions; has forced most of them to come to terms with her wicked laws, to abjure [renounce] the authority and obedience of the pope of Rome, and to accept her, on oath, as their only lady in matters temporal and spiritual; has imposed penalties and punishments on those who would not agree to this and has exacted then of those who preserved in the unity of the faith and the aforesaid obedience; has thrown the Catholic prelates and parsons into prison where many, worn out by long languishing and sorrow, have miserably ended their lives. All these matter and manifest and notorius among all the nations; they are so well proven by the weighty witness of many men that there remains no place for excuse, defence or evasion.

3. We, seeing impieties and crimes multiplied one upon another the persecution of the faithful and afflictions of religion daily growing more severe under the guidance and by the activity of the said Elizabeth—and recognising that her mind is so fixed and set that she has not only despised the pious prayers and admonitions with which Catholic princes have tried to cure and convert her but has not even permitted the nuncios sent to her in this matter by this See to cross into England, are compelled by necessity to take up against her the weapons of justice, though we cannot forbear to regret that we should be forced to turn upon one whose ancestors have so well deserved of the Christian community. Therefore, resting upon the authority of Him whose pleasure it was to place us (though unequal to such a burden) upon this supreme justice-seat, we do out of the fullness of our apostolic power declare the foresaid Elizabeth to be a heretic and favourer of heretics, and her adherents in the matters aforesaid to have incurred the sentence of excommunication and to be cut off from the unity of the body of Christ.

4. And moreover (we declare) her to be deprived of her pretended title to the aforesaid crown and of all lordship, dignity and privilege whatsoever.

5. And also (declare) the nobles, subjects and people of the said realm and all others who have in any way sworn oaths to her, to be forever absolved from such an oath and from any duty arising from lordship, fealty and obedience; and we do, by authority of these presents, so absolve them and so deprive the same Elizabeth of her pretended title to the crown and all other the abovesaid matters. We charge and command all and singular the nobles, subjects peoples and others afore said that they do not dare obey her orders, mandates and laws. Those who shall act to the contrary we include in the like sentence of excommunication.

6. Because in truth it may prove too difficult to take these presents wheresoever it shall be necessary, we will that copies made under the hand of a notary public and sealed with the seal of a prelate of the Church or of his court shall have such force and trust in and out of judicial proceedings, in all places among the nations, as these presents would themselves have if they were exhibited or shown.

Given at St. Peter's at Rome, on 27 April 1570 of the Incarnation; in the fifth year of our pontificate.

What happened next …

Pope Pius V's bull only made things worse for England's Catholics. By encouraging them to disobey their monarch, he created suspicion against them as potential traitors. And some English Catholics were indeed intent on overthrowing their Protestant monarch. In 1570 the Ridolfi plot was discovered. Led by Italian banker Roberto di Ridolfi (1531–1612) and Thomas Howard (Duke of Norfolk; 1536–1572), this conspiracy aimed to assassinate Elizabeth and place Mary Stuart, whom Howard planned to marry, on the throne. Philip II (1527–1598), the king of Spain, supported this plot. He also sent troops to Ireland in 1579 to support the second Desmond rebellion against the English. In the 1570s Elizabeth abandoned her earlier policy of religious tolerance, and she began to enforce harsh anti-Catholic legislation.

In 1580 Pope Gregory XIII issued a formal clarification of the original bull, stating that Catholics should obey the queen in all matters except those relating to religion. He hoped that this would rescue English Catholics from automatic suspicion of treason. He also sent two Jesuit priests who had fled England for Europe, Edmund Campion (1540–1581) and Robert Persons (1546–1610), back to England to begin secretly ministering to the needs of the Catholic community there. When Campion was captured and charged with treason, he explained that the pope's orders forbade him to become involved with any political matters. His mission, he insisted, was solely to serve Catholics' religious needs and not to incite rebellion. Elizabeth's advisors, however, did not trust the motives of the pope or of the English Catholics who were living in exile in Europe. The government assumed that the priests were part of a mission to incite Catholics to rise up against the Protestant queen. Tried and convicted of high treason, Campion was the first of several English Jesuits who were executed during Elizabeth's reign. As was customary for those found guilty of the most serious crimes, he was hanged until nearly dead, then he was cut down and disemboweled before his arms, legs, and head were hacked off. Campion's punishment only strengthened the determination of the Catholic community in exile to resist the queen.

During the 1580s tensions between England and Spain rapidly intensified. Catholic Spain was the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world. Under terms of the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) it had enjoyed exclusive rights, along with Portugal, to trade in the Western Hemisphere, and Spain had siezed vast amounts of gold, silver, and other treasure from the Americas. When English seafarers attempted to trade in the Caribbean in the 1560s, Spain attacked them and confiscated their cargoes. After discovering Spain's support for the Ridolfi plot, Elizabeth gave secret permission to English sea captains to raid Spanish ships and territories in the Americas. She hoped to weaken Spain's power and grab as much treasure as possible for England.

Meanwhile, Catholic dissidents continued to plan conspiracies against Elizabeth. In 1583 the Throckmorton Plot was discovered; its organizers had hoped to persuade France to send troops to England to assassinate the queen and place Mary Stuart on the throne. In 1586 a conspiracy led by Anthony Babington (1561–1586) was discovered. This plot, to which Spain had pledged support, resulted in Mary Stuart's execution for treason in 1587.

Philip II had long believed that a Spanish invasion of England would be necessary to end the war and to restore Catholicism in Elizabeth's realm. After years of planning, he decided to launch a huge naval attack in 1588. He sought support from Pope Sixtus V, who agreed to renew the bull of excommunication against the queen. This action was intended to rouse Catholics in England to join the invading Spanish and overthrow Elizabeth. As it turned out, however, the threat of invasion—which ultimately failed—brought the English people together. The safety and independence of their country proved more important to them than their religious identity. Most Catholics in England remained loyal to the government during this crisis; it was from the community of English Catholic exiles in Europe that serious plots against the queen arose.

Religious tensions continued into the early 1600s. Elizabeth's successor, James I (1566–1625), adopted policies that were basically tolerant in matters of religion, but they did not go far enough to satisfy either the Puritan faction or the Catholic extremists. (Puritans were a group of Protestants who followed strict religious standards.) In 1605 Catholic plotters attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament, hoping to kill the king and his council and install his oldest daughter, who they expected to convert to Catholicism, on the throne. The Gunpowder Plot, which got its name from the 2.5 tons of gunpowder the conspirators had stored in a cellar under the House of Lords, was discovered at the last minute and the plotters were executed.

By urging English Catholics to commit treason, Pius V's bull contributed to lasting anti-Catholic feeling in England. Catholicism remained a minority religion, and for centuries Catholics in England suffered restricted rights. It remains a legal requirement that the heir to the English throne must be a Protestant. Moreover, anyone married to a Catholic is prohibited from ascending to the throne.

Did you know …

  • A papal bull is a formal public communication from the pope. Its name comes from the special seal (bulla) at the end of the document that verified its authenticity. This seal was most often made of lead, but gold could be used as well. Since the late 1700s a red ink stamp has replaced the metal seal.
  • Elizabeth's father, Henry VIII, had been excommunicated by Pope Clement VII (1478–1534).
  • In 1571 English law made it an act of treason to introduce papal bulls or call the monarch a heretic. In 1581 it became an act of treason to convert someone, or be converted, to Catholicism. Other laws deprived Catholics of property and the right to inherit land or hold public office.
  • Not until 1778, when the Relief Act was passed, were Catholics in England legally permitted to own land. A further act in 1791 allowed Catholic priests to perform their clerical duties. In 1829 the Emancipation Act allowed Catholics to hold public office and serve in Parliament.

Consider the following …

  • If you had been the head of a Catholic family in England, how would you have responded to Pope Pius V's bull excommunicating Elizabeth? Would you have supported your sons if they chose to join an army against the queen? Write a letter to your children explaining in detail the actions you would hope they would take.
  • The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution forbids the establishment of any national religion in the United States. Did the framers of the Constitution succeed in creating a society that would be free of the kinds of religious strife that England experienced in the 1500s?

For More Information


Brigden, Susan. New Worlds: The Rule of the Tudors, 1485–1603. New York: Penguin Books, 2000.

Bryant, Arthur. The Elizabethan Deliverance. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1981.

Hogge, Alice. God's Secret Agents: Queen Elizabeth's Forbidden Priests and the Hatching of the Gunpowder Plot. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.

Starkey, David. Elizabeth: The Struggle for the Throne. New York: Perennial, 2001.


"Elizabethan Church and Catholics." Elizabeth I. http://www.elizabethi.org/us/elizabethanchurch/catholics.html (accessed on July 24, 2006).

"Elizabethan Plots and Rebellions." http://hfriedberg.web.wesleyan.edu/wescourses/2005f/engl205/01/histories/plotsandrebellions.htm (accessed on July 24, 2006).

"Pope Pius V's Bull Against Elizabeth." http://tudorhistory.org/primary/papalbull.html (accessed on July 24, 2006).

"Protestant England." http://www.wsu.edu/∼dee/REFORM/ENGLAND.HTM (accessed on July 24, 2006).

See: Jurisdiction of the pope.

Propounded: Put forward.

Calvin: John Calvin (1509–1564), Protestant leader.

Ecclesiastical: Relating to a church.

Temporal: Relating to the material world.

Nuncios: Papal ambassadors.

Fealty: Allegiance.