FOUR hundred years ago, on February 25. 1570, Pope Pius V excommunicated the Queen of England. There had been a formal trial before the Rota and she had been adjudged a heretic sovereign who by her heresy had broken the unity of Christendom.
Evidence was given at the trial by Englishmen, the head of an Oxford college, Sir Richard Shelley and various divines. She was described in the Bull as Queen of England, but no mention was made of Ireland.
She was excommunicated and deprived as Queen of Ireland? A nice legal question, but one which has not caught the attention of historians. None the less, it did not pass unnoticed at the time.
Nicholas Ormaneto, a papal diplomat who had been Cardinal Pole's man of confidence during the reign of Mary Tudor, was speaking to Philip of Spain (where he was now Nuncio) in October 1574 about the Bull and its ill effects upon the Catholics of England: "We were talking about the deprivation of the kingdom of England which Pius V had carried out against the person of that lady for her being a heretic. I said that it was true that she was deprived of England but not of Ireland. Those two kingdoms were separate; to be deprived of the one did not entail being deprived of the other. His Majesty then remarked to me: 'His Holiness could deprive her of that kingdom too, and keep the Bull of deprivation secret until it was time to make use of it.'
"Pius V, as Your Excellency must be aware (he was writing to the papal Secretary of State), was wont to do things without much discussion, It is then not at all surprising that, being badly informed, he omitted to deprive her of Ireland.
"As I understand the affair, His Holiness speaking after the event wished to remedy certain disorders which had arisen because of that Bull. It ought never to have been published unless an army was going into England ... "
Ireland had been held by English kings up to Henry VIII under the papal grant (made by the English Pope, Adrian IV), but Henry, after his break with Rome, had begun calling himself King of Ireland and not simply Lord (Dominus) as hitherto. Edward VI and Mary had both kept up the kingly style, but Mary (not being happy to copy her father) had put a request to Pope Paul IV for a grant of the full title.
Paul IV agreed and the grant was made to her and to her husband Philip. This led among other things to the "new counties", "Queen's" and "Kings," which are at the present day restored to their old names of Leix and Offaly.
When Mary died, Elizabeth's title to Ireland was thus very much in question. "The Irish say in public," reports Ormaneto in a letter of 19 December 1575, "that their country is 'under the jurisdiction of the Apostolic See." The Irish exiles in Madrid were thus refusing to acknowledge the English government.
The adventurer, Thomas Stukeley, had already proposed to lead a papal army to Ireland and would have done so had he not been drawn aside to fight the Moors on behalf of Portugal and thus lose his life. Clearly, if the Pope could give a kingdom (and had so recently been asked to do so), he could take one away.
Legally, Pius V may have felt himself on strong ground. and he may even have been content to issue what was in effect only half an excommunication. If Ormaneto is right, he did not think of Ireland. but who knows? He may have kept that problem in reserve.
Pius V had other grounds for proceeding against Elizabeth which are not often appreciated. At the origin of the House of Tudor, Henry VII and his wife Elizabeth Woodville had petitioned the Pope of the time (Innocent VIII) for a dispensation from consanguinity, so that by their marriage the Wars of the Roses could be brought to an end. Not only this. but they asked the Pope to confirm the Act of Parliament by which the succession was settled on Henry Tudor and on the heirs that might be born of his marriage.
This the Pope did in March 1486, adding a sanction against rebellion. Ormaneto had seen a copy of this document when in England, for he writes: "When Henry VII and Elizabeth of York married, they made a declaration wherein there appears the authority of the Pope even in temporal matters such as succession to the Crown. I made a copy of that document and of many other things, but they were all lost when Cardinal Pole died and I was absent from England."
If Papal authority had thus been invoked at the beginning of Tudor rule, it must have seemed even to the councillors of England in 1570 that they were now paying the price for what Henry Elizabeth I was not deterred by her excommunication from writing to the Pope in 1579, as if nothing had happened nine years earlier. She was almost forced to write, for she was in debt to Horatio Palavicino, an Italian financier who operated in England and Flanders and who controlled much of the alum trade. The source of supply for this trade was in the Papal States.
The Pope had not imposed economic sanctions against Elizabeth, and the Palavicino family were busy making money out of alum. The brother of Horatio had been put in prison by the Pope, and so Horatio had induced his royal debtor to write to the Pope asking for his release.
Elizabeth could hardly refuse, since she was not in a position to pay the debt. A Latin letter was sent, somewhat curt and formal, but making no mention of her status in the eyes of the Church. It was published from the Vatican archives a few years ago.
Elizabeth's title to rule in Ireland remained obscure. She could not appeal to a papal grant; all that was left was to claim that it was from God. Divine right of kings had thus a murky origin.