1. Introduction: ‘a body that would not know how to live without drinking or eating’
We would die rather than abandon God and our religion, which we cannot uphold without its exercise, in the same manner as a body would not know how to live without drinking or eating.
These are the words of Queen Jeanne d’Albret, the Calvinist ruler of the Lower Navarre, who was trying to ascertain the Reformed character of her measures against the disapproval of Catherine de Medici and the violent opposition of Pope Pius V. The quote encloses the tragedy of the religious upheavals of sixteenth-century Europe: similar arguments with an absolute character were adduced by both sides of the conflict. This kind of religious discourse was not the only common trait to Protestants and Catholics, for intolerance was also the general rule. Europe was immersed in a struggle in which matters temporal and spiritual were hardly ever – and if so, confusedly – separated. The background of this struggle – which had its expression in wars, theological debates, and an explosion of cultural writings – was the gradual consolidation of European nations. In this process, as Patrick Collinson has pointed out, ‘religion was politics, as indispensable a component as military capacity, or bureaucracy or the power to tax’.
In 1526, the Diet of Speyer had introduced the principle of cuius regio eius religio (‘whose realm, his religion’), according to which it was the responsibility and prerogative of a ruler to decide which religion should be established in his lands. This principle had guided many European rulers, such as the German princes – for whom it had been initially intended -, the Scandinavian kings, the Hungarian nobility and, since his first challenge to papal authority in 1528, King Henry VIII. The struggle for power with Rome was thus not unknown to English monarchs when Elizabeth I was excommunicated by Pius V in 1570. Indeed, her father had broken with Rome after many difficult years, and Pope Clement VII had issued a bull in May 1533 exhorting Henry to halt his Reformation and take back Catherine of Aragon on pain of excommunication, but it had never been enforced. Elizabeth’s bull of excommunication was, of course, issued in a very different context and it exhorted her subjects to renounce the allegiance owed to her and depose her, something that eventually never happened. It would seem, at first, that there was a pattern of inertia when it came to papal reactions regarding the reinforcement of the English crown. The bull, known as Regnans in Excelsis because of the opening sentence of the bull, in which Pope Pius describes God as ‘He who reigns in the highest places’, has been referred to by Diarmaid MacCulloch and Geoffrey Elton as ‘unfortunate’, by Christopher Haigh as ‘belated’, by Alexandra Walsham as ‘clumsy’, and by Joseph Lecler as ‘tragic’.  There is a general consensus among historians portraying the bull as mistimed, out of touch with its times, a diplomatic failure, ultimately ineffectual, the end of the Queen’s cherished status quo with her Catholic subjects and the beginning of the harshening of attitudes in England towards the latter.
The existing historiography has not varied very much from the interpretation of the bull’s significance that Elton gave in his 1955 work England Under the Tudors. Indeed, his description of it appears to have been the source from which many other historians have fed their views on the publication of Regnans in Excelsis ever since. In his work, Elton states that:
In many ways it [the bull] was an unfortunate document. It was incorrect in canon law, inasmuch as it failed to give Elizabeth a chance to defend herself and pronounced the deposition at once instead of letting a year pass after excommunication; the explanation that Elizabeth was only a ‘pretended’ queen was made nonsense of by the recognition she had received from Rome between 1559 and 1570. The bull displayed a painful ignorance of English affairs, denouncing Elizabeth for taking a title (supreme head) which she had been careful to avoid. The pope published it without reference to Spain, thus depriving himself of the only champion remotely capable of executing it; [...]. Pius V, an austere and passionate Dominican, acted from conviction rather than sense. [...] It involved the English catholics in a dreadful dilemma by ending the long years of compromise. [...] Adherence to the queen meant denial of the bull and the papacy; obedience to Rome meant rejection of Elizabeth and active or passive treason.
In 1961, Muriel St. Clare Byrne would write, following the same line, that with the 1570 excommunication, Pius V had been ‘the individual who made the greatest mistake of all’, ‘playing into Elizabeth’s hands’, and forcing English Catholics to choose between their faith and their state. In his 1967 Papists and Puritans under Elizabeth I, Patrick McGrath reached the same conclusion, calling the bull ‘a stark, uncompromising document’, ‘intended simply to reassure the consciences of Englishmen, who were thought to be eager to rise in rebellion’, and not directed at other rulers with whom the papacy would then organise a joint invasion of England. McGrath also ascribes the ultimate reason for the bull’s publication to the Northern Rebellion – the failure of which the Pope was not yet aware of – and concluded that it posed a conflict of loyalties for English Catholics, who widely ignored it. In a wider, European context, Leonard Cowie wrote in 1977 that Pius V ‘was a poor diplomat; his excommunication of Queen Elizabeth of England and support for Mary, Queen of Scots, his encouragement of Philip II’s policy of religious persecution in the Netherlands and his exhortation to Charles IX of France to take action against the Huguenots, all had disastrous consequences’. This was, too, the conclusion that Patrick Collinson reached much more recently, stating that the bull was ‘a futile gesture, for it did little but increase the insecurity of English Catholics’. In his impressive work on the European Reformations of 2003, MacCulloch considers Pius V’s actions as pope to be ‘marked by political misjudgements born of misplaced zeal’, underlining specifically as such Queen Elizabeth’s excommunication, which was ‘unfortunate’, as ‘it provided a new embarrassment for Catholics instead of helping them’. Richard Rex, in his reference work of 2006 on the Tudors stresses the importance of how, after 1570, ‘it was possible to argue that no good Catholic could be a loyal subject of the queen’. Independently of the consideration of these interpretations as right, wrong, or open to the debate – and we will explore these options shortly – a common trait is plainly visible: none of these interpretations are taking the political background and mindset of the papacy into account. Elton does concede that the papacy considered itself to have been defied and attacked since Elizabeth’s accession, but he does so in passing.
Some efforts have been made, however, to place the excommunication and deposition in their Roman context. In 1955, French Jesuit Joseph Lecler contributed to the debate stating that it was tragic that the Pope was blind to an incipient nationalism – surely an anachronistic concept in this context – that made the bull a document ‘out of date and ineffective’ and ‘a terrible weapon’ in the hands of the Queen that could, and was, used against her Catholic subjects. This was in line with the premises established by Elton, but Lecler then goes on to ask:
What line could he [Pius V] take, indeed, with an opponent [Elizabeth I] who herself on principle confused the spiritual with the temporal? If he limited himself to spiritual sanctions, could he not play the game of a government which threw the whole weight of its political power into the service of heresy?
And he concludes:
[...] to the spiritual revolution manoeuvred by a temporal power the supreme leader of Christendom opposed the use of both spiritual and temporal weapons in defence of the Church [...]. In 1570 Pius V was above all aware of the fact that peaceful means had failed.
This, in the eyes of the Pope, was undeniably true; the Queen was usurping the real power of the Church and God’s representative on Earth, and whether she was calling herself ‘supreme head’ or ‘governor’ of the Church – a point that Elton sustains as crucial in the conflict – was irrelevant from Pius V’s point of view; a mere terminological nuisance. What mattered to him in a practical sense was that Elizabeth had taken over certain powers that pertained only to the heir of the Chair of Saint Peter. And she had done so to promote what was considered by him as heresy and sectarian, divisive schemes. However, Lecler drops the subject soon after having raised it, failing to identify the weight that Tridentine guidelines on matters of such import must have had in the taking of the Pope’s decision.
In agreement with Lecler, Dures stated in 1983 that what the Pope was doing was to exercise the ‘traditional claim of the papal “fullness of power” [the Latin expression in potestatis plenitadine that appears in Regnans in Excelsis]’ when it came to deposing rulers who did not act in accordance with the precepts of the Catholic Church. Much earlier, in the 1920s, Ludwig von Pastor had expressed his own insight into Pius V’s mindset when he wrote that
[...] it was notorious that the English queen could no longer be looked upon as a member of the Catholic Church; according to the medieval idea none but a member of the Church of Christ could rule over a Christian people and in those days of transition medieval ideas still swayed many people even in England.
Pastor’s version is not entirely incorrect, but it is inaccurate in its terminology. In a similar context, the term ‘medieval idea’ was picked up by José Ignacio Tellechea Idígoras in his article on Paul IV’s excommunication process – later aborted – against Charles V and Philip II in the late 1550s. However, the concepts of the Pope’s responsibility towards the Empire and the ‘Universal Monarchy’ of Christendom, and of his supremacy over all matters spiritual – impossible to disentangle from matters temporal in the sixteenth century – were concepts with which the mentalities of both Catholic and Protestant Europeans were very much imbued. Paul IV had refused to acknowledge Charles V’s abdication in 1556 and the subsequent proclamation of Ferdinand I as the new emperor. It was this sort of political interference that Henry VIII had deplored and gotten rid of, and Elizabeth I had taken the English Reformation a step further within months of Mary Tudor’s death. The Pope’s position as the ultimate protector of Christendom, with powers to ‘extirpate, destroy, dissipate, disperse, plant, and build, to the end that he may keep His [i.e. Christ’s] faithful people united in spirit’, as Regnans in Excelsis states, was not alien to Early Modern mentalities. Whether enthusiastically supported, grudgingly accepted, or utterly rejected, the concept was by no means obsolete, out of touch with the times or ‘medieval’. It was, in fact, very much present in the experience of the Counter-Reformation, and the publication of the bull conditioned England’s relations with Rome and Spain for the rest of the century and beyond.
 Jean-Pierre Babelon, Henri IV, (Paris, 1982), p. 160. “Nous mourrons tous plutôt que de quitter Dieu et notre religion, laquelle nous ne pouvons pas tenir sans exercice, non plus qu’un corps ne saurait vivre sans boire et manger”.
 Patrick Collinson, ‘The Politics of Religion and the Religion of Politics in Elizabethan England’, Historical Research, vol.82, no. 215 (2009), p. 76.
 Ibidem, pp. 76-77; Diarmaid MacCulloch, Reformation: Europe’s House Divided, 1490-1700, (London, 2003), pp. 164, 274-75, 356; G. W. Bernard, The King’s Reformation: Henry VIII and the Remaking of the English Church, (London, 2005), pp. 26-58, 68-73.
 Elizabeth’s siblings had also experienced problematic relations with the papacy. During the reign of Edward VI, they appeared to have been nonexistent or dismissive in both wats, even if the tone of the successive governments of the Dukes of Somerset and Northumberland was unmistakably and aggressively Protestant. Both England and Rome must have been waiting to see what would happen when Edward came of age, an event that would never materialise. In the case of Mary I, it is ironic that her zealously Catholic reign was shadowed by her disagreements with Pope Paul IV, who was intransigently anti-Habsburg and anti-Spanish and would regularly raise objections to some of the Queen’s procedures. See Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Boy King: Edward VI and the Protestant Reformation, (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2002) and Eamon Duffy, Fires of Faith: Catholic England under Mary Tudor, (London, 2009).
 MacCulloch, Reformation, p. 334.; Geoffrey Elton, England under the Tudors, (London, 1955), p. 303; Christopher Haigh, English Reformations: Religion, Politics, and Society under the Tudors, (Oxford, 1993), p. 260; Alexandra Walsham, Church Papists: Catholicism, Conformity and Confessional Polemic in Early Modern England, (UK, 1993), p. 13; Joseph Lecler, Toleration and the Reformation, Vol. II, (London, 1960), p. 359.
 G. R. Elton, England Under the Tudors, (London, 1955), pp.. 303-304.
 M. St. Clare Byrne, Elizabethan Life in Town and Country, (London, 1961), pp.187-88.
 Patrick McGrath, Papists and Puritans Under Elizabeth I, (London, 1967), pp. 69-71.
Leonard W. Cowie, Sixteenth Century Europe, (Edinburgh, 1977), p. 214.
 Patrick Collinson, Elizabethan Essays, (London, 1994), p. 231.
 Diarmaid MacCulloch, Reformation, pp. 279-80, 334.
 Richard Rex, The Tudors, (Stroud, 2006), p. 244.
 Elton, England Under the Tudors, p. 303
 Joseph Lecler, Toleration and the Reformation, p. 359
 Alan Dures, English Catholicism, 1558-1642: Continuity and Change, (Harlow, 1983), p. 15.
 Ludwig von Pastor, The History of the Popes From the Close of the Middle Ages. Drawn From the Secret Archives of the Vatican and Other Original Sources. Volume XVIII: Pius V (1566-1572), (London, 1929), p. 196. My italics.
 José Ignacio Tellechea Idígoras, ‘Lo que el Emperador no supo. Proceso de Paulo IV a Carlos V y Felipe II’ in José Martínez Millán (coord.), Carlos V y la quiebra del humanismo político en Europa (1530-1558), Vol. IV, (Spain, 2001), p. 182. ‘Era ciertamente no poco medieval la concepción del Papa sobre su responsabilidad frente a la institución imperial’.
 Calendar of State Papers and Manuscripts, Relating to English Affairs, Existing in the Archives and Collections of Venice,and in other Libraries of Northern Italy, Vol. VII, 1558-1580, Rawdon Brown and G. Cavendish Bentinck (eds.) , (London, 1890), p. 448-451. See the Appendix for the complete text of the bull of excommunication and deposition in English, extracted from the mentioned source.
 Excommunication was also used by the Elizabethan Church. It appears that, at least in the diocese of Gloucester, it was done somewhat arbirarily, affecting negatively the reverence shown to clerics. F. Douglas Price, ‘The Abuses of Excommunication and the Decline of Ecclesiastical Discipline under Queen Elizabeth’, The English Historical Review, Vol. 57, (1942), pp. 106-115.