Post-classical history


Summer 1535: A New White Rose?

‘I am sure [the Lady Mary] will never consent to marry anyone in this country, save perhaps Master Reginald Pole, now at Venice, or the son of Lord Montague.’

Eustache Chapuys on the Lady Mary, 8 July 15361

Reginald Pole (called ‘Reynold’ by his family) had been born in 1500, the third son of Sir Richard Pole and Margaret, Countess of Salisbury, and therefore a nephew of the Earl of Warwick. His elder brother, created Lord Montague by Henry VIII, was married with children, which was why the White Rose party placed their hopes in an unmarried younger son as a husband for the Lady Mary: Montague would certainly have made no difficulty about renouncing his own claims to the throne. In any case, Reginald was a most suitable choice for a king consort. His abilities had long been recognized, in particular by Henry VIII.

At a very early age Reginald decided to enter the Church. He attended the small Carthusian school at Sheen, and possibly one run by Benedictines at Canterbury, before going up to Magdalen College, Oxford when he was thirteen, where he was given a taste for humanist learning by such brilliant tutors as Thomas Linacre and William Latimer, who later ensured that he became a friend of Sir Thomas More. The king took genuine interest in his progress, paying £12 a year towards his education – the only member of the nobility whom he ever favoured in this way. At eighteen the highly promising young man was ordained as a deacon, Henry granting him the deanery of Wimborne Minster and a prebend of Salisbury Cathedral, which provided him with further income.

When Reginald was twenty-one, the king encouraged him to go to Italy and pursue his studies, subsidizing them lavishly. He spent six years at Padua, one of the most distinguished universities in Europe (known by its students as the ‘Bo’), installing himself in Palazzo Roccabonella. Here he was taught Greek, reading Plato and Aristotle, besides acquiring a mastery of elegant Ciceronian Latin from the great Pietro Bembo. During his time at the university, Reginald became known to Erasmus, still reckoned the leading intellectual of the day, who corresponded with him and regarded him as a friend. In 1523 he was elected to a fellowship at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, which provided him with yet further funds, supplemented by a clutch of benefices, such as Harting rectory in Sussex. In 1525–6 he made a lengthy visit to Rome, where he acquired influential friends.

In 1527 he returned to England, to live in a little house (built by Dean Colet of St Paul’s) in the garden of the Carthusians at Sheen. Here, by his own wish, he led a solitary, studious life that was dedicated to scholarship, concentrating on theology and adding Hebrew to his languages. Further signs of royal favour followed – the deanery of Exeter and a canonry of York Minister.

Despite his seclusion, Pole sometimes visited Cardinal Wolsey’s palace of York Place, where one day he was accosted by a vulgar-looking, middle-aged man with a round, thin-lipped, porcine face and sharp, very watchful, eyes. This was Thomas Cromwell, who in those days was just one of Wolsey’s minor officials. Reginald always remembered their conversation. Cromwell asked him what qualifications were needed by men who advised rulers, but Pole guessed that the real object was to discover what he thought about the king’s divorce, which was still dividing the Privy Council.

Cromwell had been born near Putney during Richard III’s reign. His father was said by some to have been an armourer although Chapuys believed he was a blacksmith, while Pole records contemptuously, with more accuracy, that he was‘a man of no pedigree; and that his stepfather earned his living as a fuller [cloth-maker]’. Yet the great nobleman with royal blood and the upstart from the back streets had at least something in common, which was Italy. As a young man Thomas had worked in Venice as a bookkeeper for a merchant of Reginald’s acquaintance and, after a spell as a clerk at Antwerp, he returned to fight as a mercenary. (One source says he was serving with the Duke of Bourbon’s army when it sacked Rome.) He then came home to be a scrivener, a combination of solicitor and money-lender, without much success, before entering Wolsey’s service.

In answer to his enquiry about what advice a counsellor should give a king, Reginald was carefully noncommital, replying that it must be to act honourably. Cromwell then gave him the benefit of his own ideas on the subject. If he really wanted to succeed, a prince should concentrate on getting exactly what he wanted, without letting himself be hampered by scruples – although outwardly, of course, he should make a show of being absolutely devoted to religion and virtue. Years after, Pole told Charles V that had Thomas Cromwell been Nero’s adviser he would certainly have approved of the emperor’s decision to murder his own mother.

Seeing the horrified look on Pole’s face, Cromwell told him he was handicapped by his lack of experience of the real world, having wasted too much time studying philosophy. He recommended a book by a modern writer who did not fool about like Plato by describing dreams, but provided rules for politicians that worked. Cromwell offered to send him a copy if he promised to read it. (This was Machiavelli’s Il Principe, which Reginald later read, observing that it must have been ‘written by the Enemy of the human race himself’ – meaning Satan.) They said goodbye amiably, remembered Pole, who commented that Cromwell only survived Wolsey’s fall by buying friends with money he had made from dissolving some small monasteries for the cardinal, adding, ‘He was certainly born with an aptitude for ruin and destruction’.

It has been suggested that this meeting with Thomas Cromwell was a figment of Pole’s imagination, yet there is no reason for doubting his account in his Apologia to Emperor Charles V. Admittedly, he is rather unfair to Cromwell, who had his own ideals – such as blind loyalty to his sovereign.2 It is significant that Cromwell, the political opportunist looking for useful contacts who might advance his career, spared so much time talking with such a little known figure – he recognized ability when he saw it.

Aware of the quality of his cousin’s mind and his growing reputation in academic circles, the king hoped to make use of his gifts. Reginald had gone to Paris in 1529 to study at the university, and the following year he was asked to obtain – with the help of hard cash – judgments from the canon lawyers at the Sorbonne that Henry’s marriage to Katherine was invalid. Although Pole obeyed his instructions, securing helpful ammunition for the king, privately he did not agree with the Sorbonne’s interpretation.

Soon after Reginald returned to England, the king sent the Duke of Norfolk to offer him the archbishopric of York, insuccession to Wolsey who had just died. When he declined, he was summoned to an audience with Henry, who received him alone in a private gallery at York House and asked his opinion on the divorce. Pole had come full of answers in favour, but instead found himself arguing against it. This was not surprising as his mother was the queen’s best friend. He recalled how the king grew red with fury and clapped his hand on his dagger, then left the gallery, banging the door. Afterwards, Henry said he had been so angry that he thought of killing him there and then.

Some months later Reginald wrote a letter to Henry, in which he explained as tactfully as he could, why he did not think the royal marriage invalid. He pointed out that the king’s father, Henry VII, and the queen’s father, Ferdinand of Aragon, had both approved of it. Another reason he gave was that if Henry had heirs by different wives it might lead to the same sort of rivalry that had existed between York and Lancaster – the Lady Mary was extremely popular in England and the emperor was certain to support his niece’s claim. The king showed the letter to a new adviser, an obscure Cambridge don called Thomas Cranmer (who had recently gained the royal favour by arguing that the marriage was invalid. ‘This man, I trow, has got the right sow by the ear,’ Henry commented delightedly when he heard his argument.) Cranmer warned him that Pole’s letter must never be made public because it made such a good case for Katherine.

During the spring of 1532 Reginald left England again, still on friendly terms with the king and still being paid an income from his English benefices. He was just in time to avoid the dangers that threatened every critic of Henry’s break with Rome. Had he stayed, he would almost certainly have ended on the scaffold like Thomas More and John Fisher. Before setting off, Reginald had a meeting with another kinsman, the Marquess of Exeter, of which he was to give an account in a letter to Exeter’s son in 1553. ‘Lord Cousin Pole, your departure from the realm at this present time shows in what a miserable state we find ourselves,’ the marquess told him. ‘It is to the universal shame of all us nobles, who allow you to absent yourself when we ought most to avail ourselves of your presence, but being unable to find any other remedy for this we pray God to find it himself.’3 The note of deference is revealing – Exeter saw him as a leader.

After a year at Avignon, Reginald returned to Padua where he became a distinguished theologian, joining a circle of gifted young clerics whose plans to renew the Church led to the Counter-Reformation. Meanwhile, he and his friends tried to build bridges with the Lutherans and understand their point of view. Years later, his preference for compromise and lack of ambition showed themselves when he failed to be elected pope by one vote, then forbade his supporters to arrange a second round of voting that would have secured his election. These were not the best qualities for a new White Rose.

Master of the King’s Jewels in 1532 and Principal Secretary in 1534, then Lord Privy Seal in 1536, Thomas Cromwell became Henry’s first minister. He was also appointed ‘The King’s Vicegerent in Spirituals’ or vicar-general in everything that concerned the Church. A political genius, he was even better than Wolsey at making his master’s wishes come true; more powerful than the cardinal had ever been because of his administrative reforms and centralization of the government. Yet he never quite enjoyed Wolsey’s freedom of action as Henry now played a much greater part in policy-making, if behind the scenes, content that his minister should take the blame for unpopular measures; indeed, Cromwell was blamed throughout England.

Early in 1535 Reginald Pole, studying at Padua, received a letter from his old friend Thomas Starkey, who had recently become a chaplain and a trusted confidant of King Henry. At one time Starkey had been a student with Pole at the ‘Bo’, and later acted as his chaplain-secretary in France and Italy. Theletter contained an urgent request from the king for Reginald’s opinion on the royal divorce. Henry believed that support from so respected a scholar would be particularly valuable.

Later, in October 1535, Reginald wrote to thank Cromwell for having ensured that the king still regarded him with favour, insisting that he was always ready to serve Henry ‘as payment for my education’.4 Shortly after writing this, however, he decided that Mr Secretary was a messenger of Satan. According to Pole, when Henry had said that if Rome refused to let him divorce Queen Katherine he would abandon the idea, it was Comwell who suggested he should make himself head of the Church in England and transform any criticism of the divorce into treason.

Pole did not complete his reply until the following year. He did so in an entire treatise with the title of Pro Unitatis Ecclesiasticae Unitatis Defensione (A Defence of the Church’s Unity), which he had written for royal eyes alone. In this little book, which is generally known as De Unitate, he begins by thanking Henry for having singled him out from all other English noblemen by ensuring he received a superb education. Otherwise, the work is violently critical of his former patron. He was brutally frank about the royal divorce, insisting that Henry’s scruples about the validity of his marriage were a disguise for his lust. His true motive, said Reginald, was desire for Anne Boleyn. In addition, Pole suggested it was Anne herself who had come up with the idea of pretending the marriage was invalid, which was ‘how the whole lying business first began’.

He did not restrict himself to the divorce. The king had ‘repaid with death those who tried to teach him’, said the author in the first section. During the last twenty-six years he had wrung more money out of his people and clergy than any king in five hundred: ‘I know because I’ve seen the accounts,’ he told Henry.

No one thought of pouring expensive wine into a barrel empty for a long time without cleaning the barrel first, wrote Pole, and Henry’s mind was like an uncleaned barrel. He had destroyed his lords on the flimsiest pretexts, he had packed his court with vile men. His public works were pleasure-houses for himself, together with ruined monasteries and wrecked churches. His butchery and ghastly executions had turned England into a slaughterhouse for innocent people. Yet the King was the man who claimed that the Pope could not be head of the Church because of his moral turpitude.

Henry had made civil war inevitable by disinheriting the Lady Mary, Pole continued, because so many English noble families would fight for her rights. Why for the past three years had Henry been taking these rights away from a daughter who had been his heir for the past twenty? What sort of a parent was it who could confiscate a lawfully begotten child’s inheritance and give it to one begotten of a concubine? If the king’s father came back, would he not be astonished to find that Pole – a nephew of an innocent man [Warwick] whom he had sent to his death because he was too near the throne – was having to defend the Tudor succession? After all, Pole belonged to the same man’s family.

He went on to say that the present king was more dangerous for Christendom than the Sultan of Turkey, and that his kingdom ought to be taken away from him. Even if the emperor had been fighting the Turks and on the point of conquering the Bosphorus, Reginald would have asked Charles to make his ships alter course for England, where ‘there is a worse enemy of the Faith and a greater heretic than any in Germany’. His final gibe was to remind Henry of what had happened to Richard III.5 A little surprisingly, he ended by offering to submit to the king if he would take his advice.

Pole wrote so emotively because he believed the previous pope, Clement VII, had been too weak in dealing with Henry. Instead of listening politely to his threats, Clement should have excommunicated the king early on in the divorce dispute. The treatise was designed to remedy the pope’s mistake. Reginald insisted on sending it despite his friend Cardinal Contarini’s attempts to dissuade him. Later, he explained he had sent it to Henry, ‘just after he got rid of the woman who was reckoned to be the cause of this calamity for the whole kingdom [Anne Boleyn], for though he had bought her at such a price, his love was soon sated and turned into hatred. Everybody expected a change for the better.’6

However, Reginald had altogether misread Henry. Quite apart from the abuse, it was particularly unwise to compare him with Richard III, while in view of the king’s increasing girth, likening the royal mind to a barrel was no less tactless. Only Luther had been so rude to Henry, in his diatribe against ‘Junker Heinrich’, but he was a German – no Englishman had ever dared to address the king in such a way. What made it worse was that Pole, a man whose scholarship was admired by the king, owed his education to royal generosity. Yet Reginald saw his book as an appeal, not a denunciation, begging Henry to change his misguided ways – as ‘your friend, your physician, your former favourite’.

The book arrived in June 1536. Although the king did not read it at once and it was given to a committee of scholars to study, he obtained a good idea of what was in it from a synopsis by Richard Moryson, one of Cromwell’s experts. Both the king and the new Lord Privy Seal realized the impact it might have on public opinion.7 Graciously, Henry invited Pole to return home, where more learned men than he would be able to put his own point of view. Reginald declined, privately quoting the parable of the fox refusing an invitation to visit the lion’s cave after noticing that no animal that did so ever came out. In writing his treatise he had hoped the king might still be redeemable, but by now Pole was convinced that Henry really was a monster. As for the king, he realized there was a new White Rose.

25. Summer 1535: A New White Rose?

1. LP Hen VIII, op. cit., vol. V (ii), 72.

2. Mayer, Reginald Pole: Prince and Prophet, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, p. 98.

3. CSP Ven, vol. V, 806.

4. T.F. Mayer (ed.), The Correspondence of Reginald Pole, Aldershot, Ashgate, 2002, vol. 1, p. 86.

5. For De Unitate, see T.F. Mayer, Reginald Pole, Prince and Prophet, Cambridge, Cambridge University Presss, 2000, pp. 13–61; also see the summary in LP Hen VIII, vol. X, p. 975.

6. LP Hen VIII, op. cit., vol. XIV (i), 200.

7. T.F. Mayer, ‘A Diet for Henry VIII: The Failure of Cardinal Pole’s 1537 Legation’, in Journal of British Studies 26 (1987), p. 305.

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