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Forty Years: The Historic State Visit of The Queen to the Vatican

Picture by Stephen Lock / i-Images

Forty years ago, on 17 October 1980, Queen Elizabeth II made history as she became the first British Monarch to make a state visit to the Vatican. The visit was seen as a chance to forge relations between the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church.

The Queen, who was accompanied by her husband the Duke of Edinburgh, dressed in a long black taffeta gown in line with Vatican protocol. The Pope welcomed Her Majesty and the Duke for what was described as a “warm and relaxed visit.”

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Trumpets sounded and the royal procession moved slowly along the corridor into the Clementine Hall. The Queen and the Duke were then welcomed by John Paul II at the door of his private library. Following her meeting, the Queen opened her speech with assurances of good will and sincere friendship.

Private talks followed during the Queen’s visit. She was presented with a facsimile of the manuscript of Dante’s Divine Comedy with its illustration of the Order of the Garter in the time of Edward IV. In return, the Queen gave the Pope a book about Windsor Castle by St John Hope and two signed photographs.

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Following the private conversation, the Queen and the Duke met with the Pope’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Casaroli, at the home of the British Minister to the Holy See, Mark Heath.

Two years later, the Queen would invite the Pope to England but it was made clear it would not be a State Visit but, a visit “to the Roman Catholic community in Great Britain where some four million of my people are members of the Roman Catholic Church.”

“We support the growing movement of unity between the Christian Churches throughout the world and we pray that your Holiness’s visit to Britain may enable us all to see more clearly those truths which both unite and divide us in a new and constructive light.”

In response, the Pope welcomed the opportunity saying:

“I render homage to the Christian history of your people, as well as to their cultural achievements. The ideals of freedom and democracy, anchored in your past, remain challenges for every generation of upright citizens in your land.”

In the years following, Pope John Paul II and the Queen would continue to build their friendship. In 1982, the Pope made a historic visit to Buckingham Palace and, in 2000, the Queen returned to the Vatican to mark the 20th anniversary of their first meeting.

The Pope said of their relationship: “Relations between the United Kingdom and the Holy See have not always been untroubled; long years of common inheritance were followed by the sad years of division. But in recent years there has emerged between us a cordiality more in keeping with the harmony of earlier times and more genuinely expressive of our common spiritual roots.”

Pope John Paul II died on Saturday 2 April 2005 after he failed to recover from a throat operation. The Prince of Wales attended his funeral after postponing his wedding to the Duchess of Cornwall by 24 hours to attend.

About author

My name is Sydney Zatz and I am a University of Iowa graduate. I graduated with a degree in journalism and sports studies, and a minor in sport and recreation management. A highlight of my college career was getting the chance to study abroad in London and experiencing royal history firsthand. I have a passion for royals, royal history, and journalism, which led me to want to write for Royal Central.