Opinion Articles


Visiting the Pope the monarchs private visit


It would be easy to mistake the Queen’s forthcoming visit to the Pope as an event no more significant that the many other state visits that Elizabeth II undertakes as part of her duty. However, this could not be further from the truth: in many ways this is one of the most difficult visits for a British monarch. This is because the Pope and the Queen are not merely meeting as world leaders, they are also meeting as the heads of two branches of the Christian faith. As well as being the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis is head of the Vatican City state. As Queen of the United Kingdom, Elizabeth II is also Supreme Governor of the Church of England.

Historically the British monarch’s dual identity has caused several difficulties when meeting with the Pontiff, many of them dating back to the reign of the present Queen’s great-grandfather, Edward VII, who was the first British sovereign to visit the Pope at the Vatican for centuries. As King /Emperor of the British Empire, Edward ruled over peoples of different faiths and prided himself, as did his mother Queen Victoria and son George V, on not judging a man based on race or religion. Likewise the present Queen regularly meets with leaders of different faiths in Britain.

When Edward VII expressed his intention of visiting Pope Leo XIII in 1903, as part of a wider visit to Rome, it was met with dissatisfaction in the Cabinet. Ministers felt this was inappropriate because it was impossible for the King to travel in his identity as King/Emperor of the British Empire as this can only be done for a state visit and the Pope was not a head of state in 1903. The monarch would only be able to meet the Pope in Rome in his role as the head of the Church of England. But the Cabinet felt this was also inappropriate due to Britain being a Protestant nation. Consequently the Cabinet advised the King not to visit the Pope.

However, the King’s Catholic subjects, particularly the Duke of Norfolk, felt it would be an insult to their faith if the King was to snub the Pope when in Rome. After much debate, it was concluded that Edward would meet with the Pope as a private visitor and not as King or the head of the Church.

This solution has been used on all subsequent visits of the British monarch to the Pope in the Vatican. Thus, recent BBC reports of the Queen preparing for a ‘relaxed’ meeting with Pope Francis at his private residence within the Vatican are nothing out of the ordinary. However there are differences: the meeting will not take place in the Pope's official receiving rooms and nor will the Queen wear black, according to the Vatican tradition. Traditionally, British royal women do not wear black unless the court is officially in mourning. On previous occasions, the Queen wore black because she met the Pontiff as a private individual, not as a head of state, and therefore eschewed British royal tradition in favour of that of the Vatican. Likewise Edward VII met with the Pope Leo XIII in 1903 with neither the trappings of a monarch nor that of the head of a Church.

Today it is much easier for a British monarch to visit both the Italian Head of State and the Pope than it was before 1929. The Lateran Treaty of that year, negotiated by Prime Minister Benito Mussolini, recognised the Vatican City as a separate state, which is the smallest independent state in the world. Until then the Pope had refused to acknowledge the state of Italy due to his anger at the loss of the Papal Lands, which had been taken from him after the capture of Rome during the Italian wars of unification. The Pope refused to meet with those who visited him after being received by the King of Italy. This left many foreign leaders with a difficult choice: either snub the King by visiting the Pope first, or risk upsetting Catholics at home by not visiting the Pontiff. One solution for a visiting head of state was to visit the King Italy, return to his/her embassy - which was considered national soil and not part of Italy - and then travel to the Vatican in a carriage of non-Italian manufacture, therefore theoretically avoiding Italian soil between the embassy and the Vatican. This was seen as the only way of pleasing both parties and was practised by most visitors, even those from Catholic countries such as the President of France. One notable exception was Wilhelm II of Germany who paraded down the streets to the Vatican in a great spectacle, treating the occasion as a full state visit. This was a curious decision as it was he who had advised Edward VII on the 'embassy method' of visiting the Pope. Wilhelm’s parade was ill received by the Vatican and the King of Italy, and was noted for its lack of respect to either institution. An element of this remains today as the Queen pays a state visit to the Italian President and an informal visit to the Pope when she is in Rome, so as to not create friction over the precedence and duration of each visit.

With the Queen passing on many of her foreign state visits to her son and heir, Prince Charles, it is interesting to note which she undertakes herself. Visiting the Pope it is still seen as one of the most important for a British monarch and the Queen has enjoyed audiences with five Popes during her reign. These occasions are seen as important by the British royal family to promote and maintain good inter-faith relations, especially within the international community.

About the author


Matthew Glencross is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of Contemporary British History, King's College London, and has just completed his thesis on 'The influence of Royal tours on British Diplomacy 1901-1918'. matthew.glencross@kcl.ac.uk

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