The Pole family descended from Margaret, Countess of Salisbury (the daughter of the duke of Clarence who was allegedly executed in a vat of malmsey and Isobel Neville – elder daughter of the earl of Warwick a.k.a. The Kingmaker). She had four sons; Henry (Lord Montagu), Arthur, Reginald and Geoffrey. There was also a daughter called Ursula. Had Richard III won the Battle of Bosworth and remained childless and Margaret’s brother the young earl of Warwick been deemed unfit to rule then his heirs would have been the Poles.
Young Reginald was born in about 1500. He was educated by the Carthusians in Sheen and from there studied at the universities of Oxford and Padua and from there to Paris; all at the expense of his royal cousin King Henry VIII. There is a note in Henry’s accounts describing him as “Mr Pole, the king’s scholar.”
In the summer of 1530 he became caught up in the King’s Great Matter. In addition to using the Leviticus 20:21 and checking with Jewish communities in Europe as to their interpretation of the Old Testament in order to undermine Catherine of Aragon’s countering Deuteronomy argument, Henry also sent messengers to the great university to elicit their opinions on the matter. On May 1 Henry asked the University of Paris for an opinion and made Reginald his “dearest relative” the chief correspondent on the matter.
Reginald seems initially to have backed his cousin. His letters record that Paris found in Henry’s favour but that the other faction were looking for a counter-opinion. (Bernard: 214). By the end of the year, however, Reginald appears to have been having second thoughts. It was perhaps his concern over the divorce that led him to turn down Henry’s offer of the archbishopric of York following Wolsey’s demise. Henry must have thought that Reginald would be in favour of the divorce to offer him the post. He needed as many bishops on his side as possible. Henry offered the post to Reginald for a second time and saw him in person to discuss the matter. Apparently the sight of Henry was enough to convince Pole that he couldn’t go agains this own heart on the matter. He even sent a lengthy apology on the subject which no longer exists. In it he warned of the dispute that might arise if Princess Mary was disinherited and reminded Henry of the Wars of the Roses – which was perhaps not an entirely sensible thing to do as it reminded Henry about who had the Plantagenet blood flowing through their veins and who might have been monarchs in other circumstances.
In January 1532 Pole went off to Europe to continue with his academic studies and to keep a low profile which he did until 1535 when Henry demanded that he wanted Reginald’s opinion on the subject of Henry’s supremacy, the divorce and the break with Rome. Henry helpfully sent him some books on the subject. By the time Henry had his answer Sir Thomas More and Bishop Fisher were dead as were the Carthusian monks of the Charter House in Sheen who’d taught him as a boy. Reginald described Henry as a ‘wild beast’; being like a dirty barrel and incestuous (perhaps a reaction to the fact that Henry had an affair with Anne Boleyn’s sister Mary). It was perhaps not a response designed to win friends and influence people nor was it a very private response as it was soon published all over Europe; later Reginald would claim that it was without his consent.
Henry politely suggested that Reginald return home for a face to face discussion.
By now Pope Paul III was in charge and he suggested that perhaps Reginald’s welcome would be rather too warm if he set foot on English shores. It can’t have helped that the Imperial Ambassador, Chapuys, had suggested that perhaps Reginald might be able to marry the Princess Mary and take the crown from Henry in 1534. The small matter of Pole’s religious orders seems not to have worried the ambassador unduly (though Pole didn’t celebrate his first mass until Queen Mary was on the throne). Chapuys had already told the Pole family to keep Reginald in Europe rather than at home where he’d most likely have ended up in the Tower at the very least.
On 22nd of December 1536 Reginald was made a cardinal having made a name for himself in Rome where his humanist education leant itself to the reform of the Catholic Church from within. To add insult to Henry VIII’s injury Reginald was made papal legate of England in February 1537.
Reginald’s actions reminded Henry that there was such a thing as a ‘white rose faction’. The Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536 was ultimately used to round up Reginald’s mother and brothers following the Exeter Conspiracy. It hadn’t helped Lord Montagu that he’d sent a letter to Reginald berating him for the contents of his book on the subject of Henry’s supremacy and the break from Rome. The poor man must have squirmed horribly when Thomas Cromwell turned up to visit him especially to read chunks of his brother’s rebuttal of Henry’s actions. Even the Countess of Salisbury had written to Reginald demanding that he come home and face the music. Both these letters had been seen by the King’s council before they were sent to Reginald (Seward: 295). By 1539 Geoffrey was in the Tower and he in his turned implicated the rest of his family. He, his brother and his mother would be executed.
Reginald, in Europe, found himself facing assassination attempts that would continue throughout Henry’s life was increasingly disturbed by the extent to which the Church in England faced destruction. Ultimately he sought the help of Francis I of France and also Catherine of Aragon’s nephew, Charles V, arguing that Henry was worse than the Turkish threat. Charles chose not to invade England and Reginald’s name found its way onto a bill of attainder in 1539. Henry VIII had come to hate his Plantagenet cousin. For Englishmen who didn’t want to lose their catholicism he became an alternative to the Tudors.
It was only when Henry VIII’s daughter Mary took the throne after the brief reigns of her half brother Edward VI and the nine days queen Lady Jane Grey that Pole returned to England after a long career as a papal diplomat. He’d even been suggested as pope. Mary wrote to her cousin asking for spiritual guidance, his attainder was reversed and despite a lack of concord with Mary’s spouse Philip II of Spain he stepped foot on English soil once more at Dover in 1554. The country was Catholic once more. He sought now to heal the breach with Rome – notable amongst the victims of Mary’s determination to wipe Protestantism from English thoughts included the burning of Thomas Cranmer who Pole replaced as Archbishop of Canterbury.
Reginald Pole died on the 17th November 1558 on the same day as Queen Mary. Their plan to return England and Wales to Catholicism bound to fail as Protestant Princess Elizabeth was now hailed Queen Elizabeth I.
The portrait of Pole pictured at the start of this post may be found at Hardwick Hall, a National Trust property, in Derbyshire.
Bernard, G.W. (2005) The King’s Reformation. New Haven and London: Yale University Press
Seward, Desmond. (2010) The Last White Rose: The Secret Wars of the Tudors. London: Constable