CHAPTER VI. THE EXCOMMUNICATION OF ELIZABETH. (1570.)
St. Pius V needs no apologist! But as his policy towards Elizabeth is even now called in question by Catholics of repute, it will be well to consider briefly the plain facts of the case:
(1) the action of St Pius ;
(2) what Elizabeth had done to merit that action.
On 25 February, 1570, the Pope issued a Bull of Excommunication and Deposition against Elizabeth, absolving her subjects from their allegiance; and on 2 5 May a copy was nailed to the door of the Protestant Bishop of London by John Felton, an heroic Catholic gentleman, who was captured, tortured, refused to admit from whom he had received it, and who was finally hanged and butchered in St. Paul's Churchyard, 8 August, 1570. He has been beatified.
Why did the Supreme Pontiff think it right to proceed to so severe a measure? We have the testimony of contemporary documents and state-papers to prove that he had not acted hastily, but had been kept continually informed of all that was passing in England, and had taken every means in his power to stave off the inevitable crisis. Kindness, as St. Pius was only too well aware, had been tried by his predecessor ten years before, and had failed lamentably. On 5 May, 1560, Pope Pius IV. had written Elizabeth a letter so beautiful in its mildness, so generous in its promises, that it might have touched any heart less stonily selfish. "If," said the Pontiff, "as We desire and hope, you return into the bosom of the Church, We shall be ready to receive you with the same love, honour and rejoicing as the father in the Gospel did his son returning to him, although Our joy is like to be the greater." 1 He beseeches Elizabeth " to take the fear of God into council" with her, and promises her in return for her submission " whatsoever you shall desire from Us, for the establishing and confirming of your princely dignity." At this letter the Queen had merely mocked, refusing to allow the Nuncio who brought it even to land in England. 2
St. Pius himself had made every possible generous overture towards a reconciliation. It will be remembered that Elizabeth's title was but a Parliamentary one, as she was the illegitimate daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, born during the lifetime of the true Queen, and had subsequently, on Henry's marriage with Jane Seymour, been declared illegitimate by Act of Parliament, at her father's command. St. Pius had offered to legitimize her. On 2 December, 1566, the Spanish ambassador in England writes to King Philip that the Pope, hearing that Elizabeth was well-disposed towards Catholicism but " dared not show it," had declared that "if she wished to reform he would legitimize her, and, if necessary, again invest her with the Kingdom Da Silva adds that he mentioned the matter to Elizabeth, who said she " was much obliged. She . . . praised the good and pious character of the Pope, and then said laughing she thought he and she would get married." 3 Thirteen days later the ambassador warned Elizabeth that if the present state of things continued unchecked the Pope might " take steps " which he had not done hitherto. He renewed the promise already made. " She said it was true the Pope offered what I said, but he asked for everything and left her nothing. I said . . . he . . . would only ask for what was fitting, particularly seeing the character of the present Pope." But all was vain. Affairs went from bad to worse till, in the Pontiffs opinion, only one course of action was possible, for the glory of God and the honour of Holy Church, and he took it
It is of course immediately evident that it is the Deposition, not the Excommunication of Elizabeth which has been called in question. " I presume," says Bishop Milner, 4 " that you will not dispute the Pontiffs right to declare who are, and who are not, members of His communion?" It is perfectly clear to any unprejudiced person who has carefully studied the question, whether Catholic or Protestant, that St. Pius could not have done otherwise than excommunicate the apostate Queen, whose private as well as whose public life had become the scandal of Christendom. On that point there is no doubt. But in the matter of the Deposition it is not so easy to decide. Not only the Pope's wisdom in deposing, but his actual right to depose is called in question. Many, judging post factum declare plainly that to take so momentous a step against a powerful and practically despotic sovereign (as a result of which no English Catholic could be loyal at once both to Church and Queen) was something more than unwise.
This may be said at once: (1) St. Pius himself was convinced of his power as Supreme Pontiff both to depose and to confer rank (cf. his creating Cosmo de Medici Grand Duke of Tuscany); and (2) it was with him a case of conscience. Had he failed in what he believed to be his duty towards England he would have regarded himself as sinning against light.
That the Bull, as regards the Deposition, failed in its effect, as did that of Paul III against Henry VIII, is due not to St. Pius, but to those princes who, nominally Catholic, passed it over in silence, politically ignoring it from the lowest motives of self-interest, instead of courageously uniting with the Holy Father to enforce it upon Elizabeth and England. Here again we may be certain from contemporary evidence that (at least at this stage of the Queen's career) threats would have been sufficient. Temporal weapons were the only ones feared by Elizabeth, and the knowledge that the great Powers of Europe stood prepared to support the Holy Father in his sentence against her would speedily have brought her to her knees, and certainly altered the whole course of history. On them the blame of failure—if it was failure—must be laid! If through them Elizabeth had been coerced even into a semblance of obedience we should probably hear no criticisms of the Saintly Pope's action I But, alas! " by foreign Powers the Bull was suffered to sleep in silence Elizabeth, while affecting to disregard it, in reality felt both uneasiness and alarm.
St. Pius, then, believed that he possessed the Deposing Power and the right to use it. In 1559 Pope Paul IV had issued a Bull declaring heretical sovereigns incapable of reigning; and it was universally admitted by mediaeval statesmen and rulers that in disputed cases of succession, etc., the Pope was the final arbiter. 5
The real difficulty can be put into a nutshell: Is the Deposing Power of the Pope of Divine Right? And it is impossible authoritatively to answer this question in the affirmative, because it is still a matter of controversy among theologians. In the Middle Ages the nature of this power was warmly debated, some holding that the power of the Pope in temporal affairs is a Divine Right inherent in the spiritual power; and others that it was a right tacitly conceded to the Pope by all mediaeval princes and rulers. The weight of opinion certainly favours the former view.
And in any case, whether the Deposing Power was an inherent part of the Papal Power or merely a tacit concession of mediaeval princes, the point is that the Power was recognized. The whole question in the Middle Ages seems to be inseparably part of the Feudal System. The Pope was a spiritual Lord Paramount; Kings and rulers, in a spiritual sense, his vassals; and while it was their business to look after the temporal affairs of their subjects it was his to see that they did their duty wisely and well; keeping the Coronation oaths they had sworn at their accession; and if they failed, to remove them. In their turn, temporal rulers were not ashamed openly to acknowledge that their power came from God through His Vicar on earth, and this, broadly speaking, was the state of things from the beginning of the ninth century, when we first find special exercise of the Deposing Power, right up to the rising of that turbid flood of slightly artificial Paganism which we call the Renaissance, which swamped so many of the old landmarks, and changed the face of so many of the countries over which it swept in the sixteenth century,—countries which, like Italy, have never since recovered from its effects.
This, of course, is the general aspect of the question. As regards the particular case of St. Pius and Elizabeth it is possible to give two explanations of the Pope's action: (1) he deposed the Queen in virtue of what he firmly believed to be his Divine right to do so; (2) he released her subjects from their allegiance—from the implicit contract into which they entered with their Queen at her coronation—because she had failed to keep her own promises.
In this second hypothesis the Pope would merely be acting as arbiter between Queen and people, since on the principle that no man is judge in his own cause, the latter were not themselves in a position to take definite action.
What, then, are the facts as to Elizabeth?
She had been crowned by a Catholic prelate, with Catholic rites, had taken the tremendous oath of Catholic sovereigns—the last of the royal line of England to do so—and had received Holy Communion in one kind during the Coronation Mass. She had promised to govern as a Catholic Queen. Ten days later, Parliament (always Elizabeth's servile tool) met, and proceeded to pass the first of that series of laws by which the reigning sovereign was made head of the Church of England, " Supreme Governor in all ecclesiastical and spiritual things ... as well as temporal"; 6 the Papal authority repudiated, 7 Mass " abolished," the Catholic Bishops deprived, imprisoned and exiled, while their sees were filled by "certain hungry companions from Geneva, shaped into sheepskins". 8 Before the first year of Elizabeth's reign was over the acts of Queen Mary and Cardinal Pole had " vanished into smoke," and before ten years had passed the Penal Laws were in full force; the fervent exhortations of Cardinal Allen against any appearance of outward conformity to Elizabeth's new religion having done much to increase their severity. The words "traitor" and "Catholic" had become synonymous, and priests were drawn, hanged and quartered for saying Mass. The " Book of Common Prayer " had been substituted for the Missal; the Thirty-nine Articles passed as they now stand in 1562 (in which year it was proposed in Convocation to " abolish" Saints' days); and Protestantism, henceforth "by law established," was now the recognized State religion of England. When St Pius ascended the Papal throne Elizabeth the apostate had for seven years been trying to uproot the Catholic Faith. But still he held his hand, watching the tragedy deepen, as the unhappy nation accepted in sullen resentment the new religion forced upon it by the rope and knife, until the moment came for him to strike a decisive blow.
Queen Mary Stuart, Elizabeth's cousin, and heir-apparent to the crown of England, driven from Scotland by the appalling disloyalty of the powerful Calvinist party, had thrown herself upon her rival's mercy, against the advice of all her friends, in May, 1568, Elizabeth having promised "all aid for the recovery of her kingdom ".
No sooner was she in England than the Queen of Scots was made a close prisoner, and henceforth, till her execution in 1587, her life is a record of plots, intrigues and slanders. St. Pius had long taken the strongest paternal interest in the widowed Queen. During her imprisonment his beautiful letters to her were her greatest comfort, and hers to him perhaps some of the most touching ever written. He granted her the unspeakable blessing of receiving Holy Communion (though she was never allowed to see a priest) by sending her a golden pyx containing consecrated Hosts. This unique favour shows his opinion of her, though Elizabeth spread a report even in Rome that Mary had apostatized! He appealed continually, but vainly, to the great Catholic Powers to come to the rescue of the captive Queen. But the age of chivalry, as well as that of Faith, was dead! All, for political reasons, declined to interfere. Mary herself had appealed passionately to France, to Spain, even to Elizabeth ... all in vain.
St. Pius saw what others did not—the true nature of Elizabeth. He knew that no reliance could be placed on her. What the ambassadors discovered by a slow series of painful surprises he knew by intuition. "The moment he knew Elizabeth had committed the cognizance of [Mary's] cause to the Commissions at York and Westminster, 9 he [commenced] proceedings against her in the Papal Court." 10
In October, 1569, a great rising took place in the North. Its primary object was the release of Mary Stuart, "but to have put this idea prominently forward would be to sign her death-warrant, and the proclamation merely set forth that [the Catholics] had taken up arms in defence of the true religion The tragic story is too well known to need repetition. Mass was celebrated—for the last time—in Durham Cathedral, in the presence of crowding thousands, and a few weeks later the Northern Rising was drowned in a sea of blood. All prisoners were butchered, and about a thousand suspects " strung up " without benefit of clergy. Hundreds more were beaten, starved and tortured. The condition of pardon was the taking of the Oaths of Supremacy and Allegiance.
The Bull of Excommunication was already drawn up, but " forcible objections . . . were urged, and St. Pius himself hesitated to confirm it with his signature. When, however, he heard the piteous story of the awful cruelties perpetrated by Elizabeth on the Northern Rising; when the cry of thousands of his children, martyrs for the cause of God and the Faith, wrung his heart, he hesitated no longer. The Bull 11 was signed, 25 February, 1570.
"To his fiery faith," says a non-Catholic historian 12 " every means of warfare seemed hallowed by the sanctity of his cause. . . . The force of the Pope's effort lay in its concentration of every energy on a single aim. . . . What raised the warfare of Pius into grandeur was the scale upon which he warred. His hand was everywhere throughout Christendom. ... Its history of the Papacy widened again, as in the Middle Ages, into the history of the world." " Nowhere in the page of history is . . . fatherly character more visibly traced than on the calm steadfast brow which bears the brunt of Protestant and infidel hostility as that of the stern Inquisitor,the furious bigot, the fomentor at once of persecution and rebellion, who roused the gentle spirit of Elizabeth Tudor to the reluctant retaliation of the gibbet and the axe!" 13
It should be unnecessary to add that the action of St. Pius cannot be judged by its results. These, in a question of right or wrong are negligible. It is enough to know that the Saint, guided by the light of the Holy Spirit, believed that, come what might, to depose Elizabeth was the only course open to him. The alternatives were to wait—for what ?— and to refuse to exercise the Deposing Power altogether. Had he weakened, from fear of consequences, Elizabeth would have been the first to deride him. Like her father, she mistook lenity for cowardice, and she had incurred with her eyes open the penalty of excommunication since the first year of her reign. How else could St Pius have defined the policy of the Catholic Church ? Could St. Dominic's noblest son, the Father of Christendom, have waited silently in Rome while priests and nobles, men, women, and even children were daily butchered in England for no other crime than that of loyalty to the Catholic Church of which he was the Head ?
We wait—we must continue to wait for the answer to the question: What else could St. Pius have done ?
1 On account of the return of the nation.
2 The popular belief among Anglicans that Pius IV offered to authorize the " Book of Common Prayer " is absolutely untrue (see Dr. F. G. Lee's valuable work for this, and translation of letter, from MS. Vatican, 2896, No. 214, Brit. Museum).
3 Spanish State Papers, 1566.
4 Letters to a Prebendary," vi. p. 154.
5 One of the most familiar cases of the deposition of a King by the Pope is that of John of England (1199-1216). For gross political, social, and religious offences Pope Innocent III first excommunicated him, and then laid the country under an Interdict. John attempted to brazen the matter out, but on the Pope's calling on the King of France to support his sentence King John, terrified, made immediate submission to the Papal Legate, yielded his crown for a day to the Pope, in admission of his right to_bestow it, and received it back as the Holy Father's vassal. Here was the Deposing Power rightly and nobly used by a fearless Pope supported by a loyal Catholic King. To say that this took place in the ages of Faith, and is therefore not a case in point, is surely to beg the question.
6 Stat. I Eliz. Cap. I.
7 Stat I Eliz. Cap. I.
8 "Apologie for the English Seminaries," CIII.
9 July, 1568.
10 Lingard, "History," Vol. VI., 222.
11 Regnans in Excelsis."
12 Green, "A Short History," etc., Vol. II, Bk. iv., p. 367.
13 " Dublin Review,'' " St. Pius V.," October, 1866.