Elizabeth I excommunicated by the Pope
The 25th of February 1570 AD
Never in British history have politics and religion been more entwined than in Elizabeth I's reign.
Mary Tudor , with her sickeningly bloody attempt to turn England back to the Catholic Church, had instead strengthened the hands of the Protestant cause. Elizabeth chose the way of moderation for the earlier years of her reign, although statutory instruments were in place to levy huge fines on Catholics (and Puritans) refusing to attend Church of England Services. The saying of mass was in theory punishable by death, but a blind eye was repeatedly turned to contraventions of these laws: the country wanted stability and calm, and so did the government of Elizabeth . Indeed, the services Elizabeth attended at court were more Catholic than Protestant in flavour.
Matters changed somewhat after the deaths of Pope Paul IV in 1559 and his successor Pius IV in 1565. Pius V was far more aggressive than either of these figures, and seems to have developed an active dislike of Elizabeth, in spite of both France and Spain being content at her moderation and the balancing role she was happy to play between those two more powerful states. But still there was no spark to ignite the fires of Catholic aggression against Elizabeth.
In 1568, however, two significant events provided just such a spark. England felt forced to support the Dutch rebels being countered by Spain, the Duke of Alva heading a powerful force intended to quell their revolt. And most dangerously, a rallying point for Catholic discontent arrived in England that same year, with Mary Queen of Scots forced to flee Scotland. As a refugee in England the Catholic Mary became a magnet for Catholic plotters, a situation she naively encouraged, blithely ignoring the likelihood that such plots were known to Elizabeth's spies.
The chance of religious tolerance and balance being maintained were damaged by the Rebellion of the Northern Earls in 1569. They burned English bibles and symbolically celebrated mass in the great cathedral of Durham . With the suppression of this rebellion it was clear to the Pope that the Catholic cause had taken a step backwards. Pius V chose to end all pretence of diplomacy, and excommunicated the Queen already regarded as illegitimate by Catholics.
On February 25 Pius V issued a papal bull Regnans in Excelsis (He who rules on high). All Catholics were told not only that she was a heretic, but that they were not to obey her, as to do so would see them excommunicated too. The excommunication was an open invitation to any Catholic ruler to attack England, not only absolving them of any possible wrongdoing in the eyes of the church, but making an attack a laudable act.
After this emphasis on Elizabeth's illegitimacy (in the eyes of Catholics) Mary Queen of Scots became even more of a danger, as she was the natural Catholic alternative, the true Queen as far as they were concerned (her infant son being brought up a Protestant was disregarded by them).
Although no immediate danger presented itself on publication of the bull, from 1570 onwards Elizabeth faced constant plotting by Catholic extremists, their work made easier by the tacit support of many more moderate members of their faith. She would face assassination attempts and plots with courage, but of necessity her moderation had to end.
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