Celebrating the reestablshment of diplomatic relations between the UK and the Holy See
This year, we are rightly commemorating the outbreak of the First World War, a pivotal moment in world history. Celebration would be the wrong word for the anniversary of a conflict that caused so much misery and bloodshed. However, something positive can come even out of the greatest calamities. One such modest benefit of the First World War was the restoration of official diplomatic relations between the United Kingdom and the Holy See, after 350 years of estrangement.
When my last Renaissance predecessor, Sir Edward Carne, died in Rome in 1561, there was no replacement. The brief recovery in bilateral relations between the Crown and the Holy See under Queen Mary ended with her death in 1558, at the same time as that of her Archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal Reginald Pole. Within a short time, England and the Holy See were on opposite sides of the Wars of Religion devastating Europe. The excommunication of Queen Elizabeth I in 1570 by Pope Pius V through his Bull, Regnans in Excelsis, set the seal on a turbulent period that had opened in 1534 with the passing of the Act of Supremacy in Parliament. Scotland had also broken with Rome in 1560 when the Reformation Parliament in Edinburgh repudiated the Pope’s authority. The Union of Crowns in 1603 under James VI and I ensured that both countries would march under the Reformation banner.
There were relations of a sort, “a long history of subterfuges and evasions” as one historian has characterized them, from then until 1914. At times they were even close, such as during the brief and unfortunate reign of the Roman Catholic King James VII and II, or at the time of the Napoleonic wars when Britain and the Holy See united against a common enemy. Cardinal Ercole Consalvi, Secretary of State to Pope Pius VII, was in 1814 the first Cardinal to set foot on British soil since Cardinal Pole 256 years before, to renegotiate the return of the Papal States. But at no time were relations placed on an official footing, even after Catholic emancipation was achieved across the United Kingdom in the 19th century.
The restoration of official diplomatic relations required WWI. This week’s Mass at the Basilica of St Paul Outside-the-Walls on 3 December , celebrated by the Secretary of State Cardinal Parolin in the company of bishops from all corners of the British Isles, recalls that moment in December 1914 when a British diplomat — with credentials granted by his sovereign, offering Pope Benedict XV “the cordial congratulations of His Majesty the King on the occasion of his election” — finally returned to the Vatican.
Sir Henry Howard, my first modern predecessor, was a descendant of the 4th Duke of Norfolk, a Roman Catholic educated by the Benedictine monks of Downside Abbey. An experienced diplomat who had begun his career in Washington D.C. during the American Civil War, he was appointed “His Majesty’s Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary on a Special mission to His Holiness the Pope” by Sir Edward Grey, the great Liberal Foreign Secretary who tried, and failed, to prevent the catastrophic unraveling of the European Concert of Nations in 1914. Poignantly, Sir Henry’s instructions noted that “His Majesty’s Government are anxious” to explain to the Pope that they “used every effort to maintain the peace of Europe which his Holiness’ venerated predecessor had so much at heart”.
We have come a long way since 1914, but the reasons why we restored diplomatic relations then still, in large part, hold good today. The historian R.A. Graham has commented that: “Britain had nothing to lose and much to gain by sending Sir Henry Howard to Rome in 1914”. At the end of the war, in 1919, the future Foreign Secretary Sir Samuel Hoare wrote that: “The only relevant fact is that the Vatican is a centralized great system of government and that the Pope, recognized by many countries as a Sovereign Power, is acknowledged by all to be a ruler of wide influence”. Today, as a century ago, we have an embassy to the Holy See because of the extent of the Holy See soft power network, the influence of the Pope, and the global reach and perspective of Papal diplomacy focused on preserving and achieving peace, on the protection of the planet, and on bringing people out of poverty.
In 1815, Pope Pius VII spoke of the United Kingdom as “that generous nation". Those qualities were, I believe, on show in 2010, during Pope Benedict XVl’s extraordinarily successful State Visit, when large and welcoming crowds turned out to see, listen to and pray with the Pope from Edinburgh to Birmingham and London. Welcoming Sir Mark Heath as he presented his credentials as ambassador in 1982, Pope John Paul II called for "still closer collaboration in the future”. Our bilateral history stretches back to Pope Gregory the Great and the evangelizing mission of St Augustine of Canterbury, or even to Pope Siricius and the evangelization by St Ninian of the Britons and Picts in what is now Scotland. Whether evangelization is still required remains an open question. But our diplomatic collaboration continues to get closer, and in that sense we continue to fulfill the mission entrusted to Sir Henry Howard one hundred years ago.
*British Ambassador to the Holy See