Elizabeth II’s Reign Reflected a Change in Britain’s Relationship With the Church, Says UK Ambassador to the Vatican

Queen Elizabeth II’s faith and fidelity to her role ushered in a high point in relations between the crown and the Church.

Queen Elizabeth II and Pope Benedict XVI meet schoolchildren outside the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Queen's official residence in Scotland, on Sept. 16, 2010, in Edinburgh, United Kingdom.
Queen Elizabeth II and Pope Benedict XVI meet schoolchildren outside the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Queen's official residence in Scotland, on Sept. 16, 2010, in Edinburgh, United Kingdom. (photo: Dan Kitwood / Getty Images)

Few heads of state ever receive the rare honor of meeting a pope, and even fewer get to meet two. Yet, in her lifetime, Queen Elizabeth II met with five popes, four during her 70 years on the throne.

More than only a testament to the longevity of her reign, British Ambassador to the Holy See Christopher Trott told the Register that Queen Elizabeth’s meetings with popes, which began when she met Pope Pius XII as a princess in 1951, demonstrated the evolution of the crown’s relationship with the Catholic Church through modern history.

“Over the life of Queen Elizabeth, we saw the relationship go from a sort of second level to a full ambassadorial-level relationship,” said Trott. “It reflected a change in the relationship between Britain and the Catholic Church.”

Diplomatic relations between the Catholic Church and the countries that make up Great Britain fell apart amid the Protestant Reformation. In England, King Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church in 1534 and established the Church of England. Although subsequent Catholic monarchs reestablished relations with Rome, the rift expanded during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, who banned official relations with the Papal States in 1570 after Pope Pius V excommunicated her. The practice of Catholicism itself was illegal in England from 1559 to 1791, save for the three-year reign of the Catholic monarch James II (1686-88).

The United Kingdom maintained infrequent contact with the Vatican and eventually reestablished diplomatic relations after the outbreak of World War I in December 1914. However, the two governments did not exchange ambassadors until 1982, after Pope St. John Paul II visited the U.K. on a pastoral visit and met with the queen on British soil. The trip marked the first time that a pope set foot in Great Britain, though the trip was organized by the Catholic Church rather than the British government.

It wasn’t until 2010 that a pope made a formal state visit to the United Kingdom. Pope Benedict XVI traveled to the country and met with Queen Elizabeth at Holyroodhouse, the official residence of the British monarch in Scotland, along with all the pomp and circumstance that is afforded to guests of the crown.

“The Vatican, in many ways, probably understands a country with a monarch rather more than maybe most countries do,” observed Trott. He said that the image of the German pope and the British queen shaking hands in Scotland is “as high as it gets, in terms of a relationship.”

Most recently, Queen Elizabeth met with Pope Francis in 2014 while in Rome. Although not on a state visit to the Vatican, the meeting was significant, in that it marked 100 years since the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the United Kingdom and the Holy See.

The ambassador said that this recent chapter of Vatican-British diplomacy has been strong, fueled especially by the high regard the queen and recent popes have had for each other.

“The respect that the popes had for Her Majesty, and the respect she had for them, made it easier for me as her representative, and for my predecessors as representatives to the Holy See, to feel that the head of state was fully supportive of what we are seeking to do here,” said Trott.

The fruits of those efforts are evident today. Ambassador Trott pointed to the United Kingdom’s close work with the Vatican to promote the COP26 climate summit hosted in Glasgow last October. In the weeks leading up to the summit, the British Embassy to the Holy See collaborated with the Italian embassy to organize a meeting of global scientists and religious leaders at the Vatican.

At the root of renewed collaboration between the United Kingdom and the Holy See, said the ambassador, was the queen’s unwavering commitment to Christianity and its ideals.

“It was always very clear to the British people that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II was a deeply committed Christian,” said Trott.

Since her death, the Catholic Church in England has widely praised Queen Elizabeth’s unassuming-yet-constant example of faith. Cardinal Vincent Nichols, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, said in a statement that the “wisdom, stability and service which she consistently embodied, often in circumstances of extreme difficulty, are a shining legacy and testament to her faith.”

Indeed, in his telegram to now-King Charles III expressing condolences over the passing of the queen, Pope Francis praised Elizabeth’s “steadfast witness of faith in Jesus Christ and her firm hope in his promises.”

“The popes that she has met, they respected her as someone of faith, of Christian faith,” Trott told the Register. “I think that’s something that really resonates with the Holy See.”

Christian Continuity

It’s also something that Trott said Elizabeth seems to have passed on to her son and heir. In particular, the British ambassador praised King Charles’ mention of faith in his first public statement since acceding to the throne. The new monarch noted his special responsibility to the Church of England, “the church in which my own faith is so deeply rooted.”

That faith could offer a thread of continuity as the U.K. witnesses the first transition of its monarch in 70 years.

“[Charles] has reiterated the commitment he has to his Christian faith and the fact that his faith will guide him in the same way that it guided his mother,” stated Trott, “while acknowledging also that he is king of all British people, regardless of what their faith may be, or none.”

Prior to becoming king, Charles has spoken about the British monarchy as grounded in Christianity, yet precisely for that reason concerned with protecting the free practice of all religions in the United Kingdom. “It has always seemed to me that, while at the same time being ‘Defender of the Faith,’ you can also be protector of faiths,” he said in a 2015 BBC interview.

While the British monarch’s authority over the Anglican church is largely symbolic, kings and queens have taken their role of “Supreme Governor of the Church of England” seriously, and King Charles has expressed his intention to maintain it.

“I think it has been very powerful for people, actually, of all faiths in the U.K. to see Her Majesty the Queen, and now His Majesty the King’s, openness to dialogue among faiths, particularly dialogue between the Anglican church and the Catholic Church,” said Trott. “They’ve put a lot of emphasis on that.”

Just as the crown’s relationship with the Anglican church will remain unchanged with a newcomer to the throne, Britain’s top diplomat to the Vatican says the good relationship with the crown and the Catholic Church will also continue through this period of transition.

“My government recognizes the global stature of Pope Francis and his diplomats and the reach and activity of the Catholic Church globally,” he said.

But after 70 years with a beacon of constancy for Great Britain, a transition in monarch won’t come without some changes.

“My job title changed last Thursday,” Trott explained. “I stopped being Her Majesty’s ambassador, but I automatically became His Majesty’s ambassador.”