|The "cathedra" of Saint|
Augustine, the seat of
the Archbishop of
Canterbury in his
Reginald Pole was the grandnephew of Edward IV and Richard III, the great-great-great-great grandson of Edward III and one of the few Plantagenets to survive the War of the Roses. His mother, Margaret Pole—through whom he had the royal blood—was the 8th Countess of Salisbury and one of only two women in 16th century England who were peers in their own right (as opposed to sharing their husband’s titles.) He was born at Stourton Castle on March 12, 1500. He was educated by the Carthusians at Sheen and matriculated at Magdalene College, Oxford where he received his BA in 1518. Although not yet ordained a priest (he would not be ordained for many years to come) he was given a number of prelacies by Henry VIII, including the Deanery of Exeter Cathedral and a canonry at York. He studied Law at Padua where he fell in with a group of ecclesiastical reformers including Peter Martyr Vermilgi who would be one of the chief advisors to Cranmer in the English Reformation. Henry VIII financed his studies and in return Pole represented the King’s cause for divorce from Queen Katherine to the faculty of the Sorbonne.
While Pole was willing to argue in favor of the required annulment of the King’s marriage to Katherine, he saw early on where the royal policy was headed. When Wolsey fell, Henry offered Pole the choice between the Archbishopric of York (the number 2 Churchman in England) or the Bishopric of Winchester (the richest bishopric), but Pole declined and went abroad for more studies. He did return briefly but in 1536, realizing that he was going to be required to foreswear his loyalty to the Pope, he left England into voluntary exile. Pole saw the problem—and saw it correctly—as the King’s fracturing the Unity of the Church and while he might support the royal divorce and other policies of Henry, he could not go against the unity of the Body of Christ. Henry took revenge on Pole whom he regarded as ungrateful for all the King had done for him. His older brother Henry, Baron Montagu, and his mother, Margaret, Countess of Salisbury, were both executed for treason, their only “treason” being Reginald’s refusal to accede to the King’s claim to be Head of the Church. The Spanish Ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, tried to arrange for a marriage between Henry’s daughter, Mary (the grand-daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella and niece of Chapuys’ master, Charles V) and Pole which—given Pole’s royal descent and Plantagenet blood—would have had great dynastic legitimacy: more than any other child of Henry’s could claim. Pole was not interested however as he saw his future in the Church. Moreover, it was all theory as Henry would not allow Pole to return to England and he would not permit Mary to go abroad.
Paul III made Pole a Cardinal in 1537, though he was only in deacon’s orders. He was commissioned to try to organize support for the “Pilgrimage of Grace,” a popular uprising against Henry’s suppression of the monasteries and break with Rome. The “Pilgrimage” was a desperate failure and this was probably the cause for Henry’s vengeance on Henry Pole and the Lady Margaret. Henry tried, unsuccessfully, to have Pole assassinated.
Reginald Pole, meanwhile, was appointed one of the three papal legates for the Council of Trent. His support for the doctrine of justification by faith led to accusations of heresy, but nothing came of the charges. Indeed in the conclave of November 1549-February 1550, Pole was almost elected Pope, being only two votes short of the required 2/3 majority. As it turned out, the opposition of the French King and his cardinals, moved the election in another direction, but Pole maintained his influence and reputation—especially given the scandalous behavior of Cardinal Giovanni del Monte who had been elected as Julius III.
Pole had been appointed Papal Legate to England as early as 1537 but was unable to take up the post as Henry had broken communion with the See of Rome and was not interested in having a legate. Moreover, Pole’s role in supporting the Pilgrimage of Grace had left him attainted for treason as well as costing his mother and brother their lives as we have seen. However with the death of Edward in 1553 and Mary’s accession to the Throne, Pole was now welcome in his native land to reconcile it to the Church.
Well, actually, welcome but not quite yet. Mary and the Emperor Charles V both feared that Pole would oppose—and try to block—the marriage of Mary to Charles’ son, Philip, which, as we saw in an earlier post, was part of Mary’s strategy to provide a Catholic heir in place of her Protestant half-sister, Elizabeth. Mary and Charles were correct in their estimation and Pole was opposed to the marriage, but the Queen was successful—with Charles’ help—in delaying Pole’s ability to reach England until November 20, 1554: sixteen months after Mary’s accession and four months after the marriage.
As Legate Pole had extraordinary authority. He was no mere nuncio but had quasi-papal powers, a sort of vice-Pope for England. The major roadblock to reconciling the Church of England to the Roman Communion involved the extensive properties Henry had confiscated from the Church, especially in the suppression of the monasteries. These lands had been handed out to the King’s political allies and the powerful magnates who now held these lands did not want to loose them. They would never support a return to Rome if the price came at the loss of their estates. Pole knew he had to cut his losses and accept the fact that the great wealth of the Church had been severely reduced. He also believed that in time the Church would regain land and wealth as new bequests were made. Had Catholicism taken root in England again that may have been the case, but the Marian restoration was all too short.
On November 30, 1554, ten days after his arrival back in England, the papal legate lifted the excommunications and restored the Church of England to the Roman Communion. It would last less than five years.
Mary, for her part, was savoring her revenge on Archbishop Cranmer who was imprisoned but whom had not been deprived of his See of Canterbury. In November Mary had him deprived of his bishopric and named Pole as his successor. Pole, though a Cardinal, was not yet a priest. He was ordained on March 20, 1556 and on the 22nd was consecrated as Archbishop of Canterbury.
Mary was ramping up her persecution of Protestants by this time and Pole cautioned her to moderation, but without much success. Pole himself tended to be very lenient with those accused of heresy, pardoning those whose appeals reached him but Pole’s health was failing and his tenure as Archbishop was not marked by an aggressive approach to Catholic restoration.