The Tudor Society

25 February – Elizabeth I is excommunicated

On this day in Tudor history, 25th February 1570, Pope Pius V issued the papal bull “Regnans in Excelsis”. This bull not only excommunicated Queen Elizabeth I, it also freed her Catholic subjects from their allegiance to her and called on the English people to disobey her orders, mandates and laws. It threatened excommunication for those who did obey her.

It put Elizabeth I in danger and it put Catholics in an impossible situation.

Find out more about the bull and its impact in today's talk.

Read the bull of excommunication at

Book recommendation - “God’s Traitors: Terror & Faith in Elizabethan England” by Jessie Childs.

You can find out more about the Ridolfi Plot in this video:

Also on this day in Tudor history, 25th February 1601, Elizabeth I's former favourite, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex was executed by beheading. Find out more in last year’s video:

Also on this day in history:

  • 1567 (24th or 25th) – Burial of Sir Thomas White, founder of St John's College, Oxford, in St John's College Chapel. The famous Roman Catholic martyr and Jesuit priest, Edmund Campion, gave his Latin funeral oration.
  • 1618 (24th or 25th) – Death of Elizabeth Carey (née Spencer, other married name Eure), Lady Hunsdon, literary patron and wife of Sir George Carey, 2nd Baron Hunsdon, from “a palsie”. She was buried at Westminster, in the Hunsdon family vault. Hunsdon died in 1603, and Elizabeth married Ralph Eure, 3rd Baron Eure, in late 1612 or early 1613. She is known for being a literary patron and had works by Edmund Spenser, Thomas Nashe, Thomas Churchyard, Thomas Playfere and Henry Lok dedicated to her.


On this day in Tudor history, 25th February 1570, Pope Pius V issued the papal bull “Regnans in Excelsis”. This bull excommunicated Queen Elizabeth I from the Catholic Church. I’ll give you a link to read the bull in full online, but here are some excerpts:

“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 of all have found refuge. This very woman, having seized the crown and monstrously usurped the place of supreme head of the Church in all England to gather 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.”

“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.”

“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.”

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

The Pope went on to state that those who had made any sworn oaths to her were now absolved from those oaths, and he called on the English people to disobey her orders, mandates and laws, and threatened excommunication for those who did obey her.

The pope’s orders put English Catholics in an impossible situation – if they obeyed the Pope, God’s representative on Earth, then they had to disobey their queen. If, however, they continued to be loyal to their queen, then they were deemed heretics by the Pope and could be excommunicated.
Even though the queen had declared previously that she had “no desire to make windows into men’s souls”, i.e. she did not want to prescribe what someone’s personal faith should be, this bull described her as a usurper and pretender and was supporting rebellions against her. Elizabeth and her government were forced to act against the Jesuits, the Catholic society committed to bringing people back to Catholicism, seeing them as enemies of the state. A number of Jesuits, and those who harboured them, ended up being executed.

The publication of the bull of excommunication was soon followed by trouble for Elizabeth, with the Ridolfi Plot, a Catholic plot to assassinate Elizabeth and to replace her with Mary, Queen of Scots, being uncovered just a year after Elizabeth was excommunicated.

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  1. R

    The Catholics under Elizabeth were not unmolested in her early reign and they were fined or imprisoned if they didn’t pay them. Everyone had to attend their local parish church and a list of why people didn’t in the magistrates and sheriff’s records show both ordinary people and gentry refused to go. The majority conformed but didn’t take communion but the gentry from many of the older families refused to go full stop, had private chapels, the local government turned a blind eye, but if they could not pay or refused then more fines or imprisonment followed.

    Elizabeth wasn’t making windows but she was sure making spy holes. Relations with Rome for the last decade had been kinda o.k but then went sour with the need for this Excommunication.

    What changed?

    Two main things. The Northern Rebellions 1569 temporarily restored the Mass in the North and threatened to sweep over London. Elizabeth responded and military action defeated the rebels. Over 700 were executed in good old Tudor style, double that of her father and far more than that of her sister. Elizabeth wasn’t just going to get away with it as far as Rome was concerned and she had Catholic nobles who were prepared to go further in favour of Mary Queen of Scots, her recent unwelcome guest.

    A new Pope was elected and saw Elizabeth as a heretic and now apostate and an enemy. He was far more intolerant of heresy than his predecessor who had cordial correspondences with Elizabeth. He was prepared to back any plots to remove her although the Bull doesn’t say to kill her. Things were worse for Catholics who now could not conform and thus were suspected of being traitors. The Jesuit mission was a direct response to new laws against Catholics and the Jesuits saw the dilemma people had first hand. It was illegal to leave the country or enter it as a priest, to reconcile anyone to the Catholic Church, to be reconciled to the Catholic Church, to be a Catholic priest, to hide a Catholic priest and to help them. Even private Mass now became impossible. The numbers of people killed for the Catholic Faith under Elizabeth and later James is hard to pinpoint. Between 100 and 200 priests were executed or died from torture. Another 100 plus lay people died for various offences, hiding priests included, refusing to be tried, etc and another unknown number died in prison. Another string of people died because they were connected to alleged plots, most were innocent. Elizabeth faced at least a dozen or more known plots but the number of individuals who wanted to get rid of her was considerably higher. However, the vast majority of her Catholic subjects wanted to just get on with their lives. After the Excommunication that was impossible. The Ridolfi Plot followed in 1572 involving members of the Court, including Norfolk. He wasn’t even a Catholic but was drawn into an alleged attempt to kill Elizabeth in favour of Mary Queen of Scots.

    That was the main problem now. From the moment she crossed the border in 1568 and was imprisoned in the North and then the Catholic Midlands, Mary who had a better claim to the crown than Elizabeth because nobody doubted her legitimacy, was a focus for Catholic discontentment and with Elizabeth declared unfit to rule, an apostate, deposed, illegitimate, a usurper and so on, Mary was also a potential replacement. The English people were released from their allegiance to Elizabeth, she could be deposed. Not that the majority of people wanted that, but some of the young, restless, sons of the gentry, who were unemployed because Elizabeth overlooked their talents, were only too willing to get themselves drawn in to attempts to release Mary and put her on the throne. However, it was again a vicious circle because every time the plot failed, the laws tightened, another batch of innocent people were executed and the more there was resistance and another mission in response.

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25 February – Elizabeth I is excommunicated