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Transmitting and Translating the Excommunication of Elizabeth I

  • Aislinn Muller (a1)


In 1570 Pope Pius V issued the bull Regnans in Excelsis, which excommunicated Queen Elizabeth I, deprived her of her right to rule, and released her subjects from obedience to her. This article attempts to trace the transmission of Regnans in Excelsis in the English realms during Elizabeth's reign, considering where possible the bull's publication and dispatch to different courts in Europe. It assesses efforts to distribute both publications of the excommunication, in 1570 and 1580, and what the continuity of these efforts suggests about the bull's reception amongst Elizabeth's subjects. By tracing literal translations of the bull and persistent attempts to smuggle it into the English realm, it also argues that Elizabeth's excommunication was of greater importance to her subjects than has previously been supposed.


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*Girton College, Huntingdon Rd, Cambridge, CB3 0JG. E-mail:


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1 No evidence appears in the works of Bossy and Haigh, for instance: Haigh, Christopher, ‘The Continuity of Catholicism in the English Reformation’, in idem, ed., The English Reformation Revised (Cambridge, 1987); Bossy, John, The English Catholic Community 1570–1850 (London, 1979). Other works by Clancy, Morey and Holmes discuss the bull but similarly offer no evidence for its circulation and distribution: Clancy, Thomas, Papist Pamphleteers (Chicago, IL, 1964); Morey, Adrian, The Catholic Subjects of Elizabeth I (London, 1978); Holmes, Peter, Resistance and Compromise: The Political Thought of Elizabethan Catholics (Cambridge, 1982).

2 Julian Lock, ‘“Strange Usurped Potentates”: Elizabeth I, the Papacy, and the Indian Summer of the Medieval Deposing Power’ (DPhil thesis, University of Oxford, 1992).

3 Tutino, Stefania, Law and Conscience: Catholicism in Early Modern England (Aldershot, 2007); McCoog, Thomas, The Society of Jesus in Ireland, Scotland, and England, 1549–1588 (Leiden, 1996), 140–1.

4 Questier, Michael, ‘Conformity, Catholicism, and the Law,’ in Lake, Peter and Questier, Michael, eds, Conformity and Orthodoxy in the English Church, 1560–1660 (Woodbridge, 2000), 237–61; idem, Catholicism and Community in Early Modern England: Politics, Aristocratic Patronage and Religion (Cambridge, 2006).

5 Walsham, Alexandra, ‘Translating Trent? English Catholicism and the Counter Reformation’, Historical Research 78 (2005), 288310; eadem, ‘“Domme Preachers?” Post-Reformation English Catholicism and the Culture of Print’, P&P 168 (2000), 72–123; eadem, ‘Unclasping the Book? Post-Reformation English Catholicism and the Vernacular Bible’, JBS 42 (2003), 141–66.

6 Walsham, Alexandra, ‘“The Spider and the Bee”: The Perils of Printing for Refutation in Tudor England’, in King, John, ed., Tudor Books and Readers: Materiality and the Construction of Meaning (Cambridge, 2010), 163–90.

7 Marotti, Arthur, Religious Ideology and Cultural Fantasy: Catholic and Anti-Catholic Discourses in Early Modern England (Notre Dame, IN, 2005); Pollard Brown, Nancy, ‘Paper Chase: The Dissemination of Catholic Texts in Early Modern England’, English Manuscript Studies 1 (1989), 120–43; Havens, Earle, ‘Notes from a Literary Underground: Recusant Catholics, Jesuit Priests, and Scribal Publication in England’, Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 99 (2005), 505–38.

8 Kesselring, Krista, The Northern Rebellion of 1569: Faith, Politics, and Protest in Elizabethan England (Basingstoke, 2007), 56–8.

9 The rebellion in England had been subdued by crown forces by the end of December: Kesselring, Northern Rebellion, 88–90. News of the rebellion had been sent to Rome from early December; Pius V wrote to the duke of Alba about his concern for the rebels in early February: Hicks, J. M., ed., Calendar of State Papers Relating to English Affairs Preserved Principally at Rome in the Vatican Archives and Library, 1, Elizabeth 1558–1571 [Hereafter: CSP Rome] (London, 1916), 315–16, 324–5.

10 Ibid. 332.

11 Ibid. 335.

12 Ibid. 336.

13 Kew, TNA, State Papers (SP) 53/8, fol. 112, ‘Matters wherewith the Queen of Scots may be charged’, 11 June 1572.

14 TNA, Privy Council Registers (PC) 2/10, fol. 11, meeting at Oatlands, 25 June 1570. See also ODNB, s.n. ‘Felton, John (d. 1570)’, online at: <>, accessed 7 November 2014.

15 Historical Manuscripts Commission, Calendar of Manuscripts of the Most Honourable Marquis of Salisbury, preserved at Hatfield House, part 2 (London, 1888), 555, examination of the bishop of Ross, 1571.

16 TNA, SP 63/32, fol. 169, Thomas Butler, earl of Ormond to Sir Henry Sidney, 11 June 1571.

17 TNA, SP 52/25, fol. 149, Sir Henry Killigrew to Sir Thomas Smith, 13 June 1573.

18 Lewes, The Keep, Rye 7/47/15/15, Mayor of Rye to Lord Cobham, 23 April 1577.

19 TNA, SP 78/2, fol. 12, letter from ‘Monsieur Berny’, 10 February 1578.

20 Wright, Anthony, The Early Modern Papacy: From the Council of Trent to the French Revolution (London, 2013), 44.

21 See Dillon, Anne, The Construction of Martyrdom in Early Modern England, 1558–1603 (Farnham, 2002), 13; Challoner, Richard, Memoirs of Missionary Priests, and other Catholics of Both Sexes that have suffered Death in England on Religious Accounts from the Year 1577 to 1684, 2 vols in 1 (Philadelphia, PA, 1839), 1: 23–7.

22 McCoog, Society of Jesus, 140–5.

23 Ibid. 140–1.

24 TNA, SP 78/4A, Lord Cobham to Sir Francis Walsingham, 29 February 1580.

25 Brown, Rawdon and Bentinck, G. Cavendish, Calendar of State Papers Relating to English Affairs in the Archives of Venice, and in other Libraries of Northern Italy, 7: 1558–1580 (London, 1890), 651.

26 TNA, SP 63/68, fol. 8, Mr Herbert's notes on the earl of Desmond's camp, 1579.

27 London, LPL, Carew MS 607, fol. 35, declaration of James Fitzgerald to the people of Ireland. George Carew served as an army captain in Ireland from 1579--80.

28 Hume, Martin A. S., ed., Calendar of Letters and State Papers Relating to English Affairs in the Archives of Simancas, 1580–1586, vol. 3 (London, 1896), 20.

29 Morgan, Hiram, ‘Faith and Fatherland in Sixteenth-Century Ireland’, History Ireland 3/2 (1995), 1320, at 16. On the second Desmond Rebellion and the English response, see McCormack, Anthony, ‘The Social and Economic Consequences of the Desmond Rebellion of 1579–83’, Irish Historical Studies 34 (2004), 115.

30 The first publication of Regnans in Excelsis was not translated fully into English, although parts of it appeared in Protestant polemics.

31 LPL, Carew MS 607, fol. 37b.

32 TNA, PC 2/9, fol. 74, meeting at St James, 16 September 1564; TNA, SP 12/103, fol. 124, John Vaughan to Lord Burghley 6 June 1575; SP 63/112, fol. 13, Sir Richard Bingham to Sir Francis Walsingham, 14 October 1584.

33 London, BL, Lansdowne MS 40/20, fol. 47, report of Thomas Egerton and Thomas Fenshaw on customs abuse in Chester, 1583.

34 TNA, SP 78/4A, fol. 17, Lord Cobham to Sir Francis Walsingham, 20 February 1580.

35 TNA, SP 53/19, fol. 109, confession of Christopher Byers, 21 September 1586.

36 BL, Lansdowne MS 33, fols 147–147a, 143a–144 respectively, letters to the earl of Leicester, 1581.

37 Hicks, Leo, ed., Letters and Memorials of Father Robert Persons (London, 1942), 164–5.

38 Pollen, J. H., Unpublished Documents Relating to the English Martyrs (London, 1908), 26106. At least ten priests captured in the 1580s used this strategy.

39 Gerrard, John, Autobiography of an Elizabethan, transl. Philip Caraman (London, 1951), 98; TNA, SP 12/144, fol. 130, examination of John Hart, 1580.

40 TNA, SP 12/211, fol. 93, Lord Burghley to Sir Francis Walsingham, 24 June 1588.

41 Allison, A. F. and Rogers, D. M., eds, The Contemporary Printed Literature of the English Counter-Reformation Between 1558 and 1640, 2 vols (Aldershot, 1989–94), 2: 10.

42 A declaration of the sentence and deposition of Elizabeth, the vsurper and pretensed quene of Englande (Antwerp, 1588).

43 Lock posited that many of these proclamations were destroyed after the invasion failed, but quotes no evidence for this suggestion: ‘“Strange Usurped Potentates”’, 351–471.

44 Walsham, ‘The Spider and the Bee’.

45 Questier, Michael, Conversion, Politics, and Religion in England, 1580–1625 (Cambridge, 1996), 1–11.

46 Notably John Jewel, bishop of Salisbury, Richard Cox, bishop of Ely, and John Parkhurst, bishop of Norwich: Robinson, Hastings, ed., Zurich Letters; comprising the Correspondence of several English Bishops and others, with some of the Helvetian Reformers, during the Reign of Queen Elizabeth, 2 vols (Cambridge, 1846), 1: 221–66.

47 Bullinger, Heinrich, A Confutation of the Popes Bull, transl. Arthur Golding (London, 1572), 1–2.

48 Robinson, ed., Zurich Letters, 1: 266.

49 While little work has been done on such appropriation of polemical works, literature on the appropriation of devotional works provides a useful model, particularly with respect to the Jesuit Robert Southwell: Marotti, Arthur, ‘Southwell's Remains: Catholicism and Anti-Catholicism in Early Modern England’, in Brown, Cedric and Marotti, Arthur, eds, Texts and Cultural Change in Early Modern England (Basingstoke, 1997), 3765; Monta, Susannah, ‘Uncommon Prayer? Robert Southwell's Short Rule for a Good Life and Catholic Domestic Devotion in Post-Reformation England’, in Gallagher, Lowell, ed., Redrawing the Map of Early Modern English Catholicism (Toronto, ON, 2012), 245–71.

50 Strype, John, Annals of the Reformation and Establishment of Religion and various other Occurrences in the Church of England during Queen Elizabeth's Reign, 4 vols in 7 (Oxford, 1824), 1/ii: 355.

51 A number of letters and memoranda written by and to members of the Privy Council in the 1570s and 1580s point to this: TNA, SP 12/153, fol. 147, Notes by Lord Burghley on the Bull of Pius V, 1582; SP 15/19, fol. 39, the bishop of Carlisle to the earl of Sussex, 16 October 1570; SP 52/29, fol. 36, ‘Offers of Queen Elizabeth to James VI’, 17 February 1581; SP 78/7, fols 38, 43, Lord Cobham to Sir Francis Walsingham 12 and 28 March 1582; BL, Cotton/Caligula MS C/II, fol. 125, the bishop of Ross's audience with Queen Elizabeth, 28 June 1570.

52 Field, John, A caueat for Parsons Howlet, concerning his vntimelye flighte, and schriching in the cleare daylighte of the Gospell (London, 1581), 87–8.

53 Sander, Nicholas, De Visibili Monarchia (Louvain, 1571), 730.

54 A Particular Declaration or Testimony, of the Vndutifull and Traiterous Affection Borne Against Her Maiestie by Edmond Campion Iesuite, and Other Condemned Priestes (London, 1582), bii.

55 Jewel, John, Viewe of a Seditious Bul Sent into Englande, from Pius Quintus Bishop of Rome, anno. 1569, ed. Garbrand, John (London, 1582).

56 Walsham, ‘The Spider and the Bee’.

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Transmitting and Translating the Excommunication of Elizabeth I

  • Aislinn Muller (a1)


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