Post-classical history


Winter 1538–Summer 1539: Cardinal Pole’s Last Throw

‘to declare that he would be a King.’

Sir Thomas Wriothesley on Reginald Pole, to Lord Cromwell, March 15391

The end of December 1538 found Reginald Pole struggling across the Apennines through deep snow. Disguised as a layman, he was riding a horse astride – instead of on a mule side-saddle as a cardinal would normally have done – and escorted by only a small party of horsemen, since he did not want to attract the attention of English assassins who were known to be lurking in Italy and might try to ambush him. Never strong, he found the cold and the bad road exhausting, particularly the descent to Bologna, commenting that any additional snow or rain might have prevented his journey altogether. He had further mountain roads to travel before he reached Spain, through the Alps and the Pyrenees. Storms made a Mediterranean voyage impossible during the winter, however, and his mission was so pressing that he had to take this arduous route.

In the summer of 1538 King Henry’s foreign policy had suffered a severe setback when Francis I and Charles realized that he had been playing them off against each other and began to negotiate an agreement by which both promised not to make any alliance with England. Henry also learned that in the near future Pope Paul intended to publish a bull excommunicating him. Always a fervent supporter of the king, Edward Hall complained that ‘the cankered and cruel serpent the Bishop of Rome’ (egged on by Pole) was asking foreign powers to attack England and ‘utterly to destroy the whole nation’.2 The invasion scare lasted until the spring of 1539, alarming the king to such an extent that he spent huge sums on building a dozen new castles along the coast. He also took steps against the White Rose.

In December 1539 Paul III created a new Scottish cardinal, David Beaton, ordering him to publish in Scotland the bull that excommunicated Henry VIII. Reginald, who had already written to congratulate Beaton on his promotion, was so encouraged that he asked the pope to let him have another try at toppling the king. His eloquent arguments were strengthened by sensational reports of Henry’s latest outrages: not only had he desecrated Thomas à Becket’s shrine at Canterbury and burnt the saint’s bones, but he was said to have put the bones on trial and ensured they were found guilty of treason. (The king had the shrine’s most famous jewel, an enormous ruby, made into a thumb ring.)

This was why Pole, with the pope’s approval, was on his way to the Spanish court at Toledo to ask for Charles V’s help. He had not wasted any time, leaving Rome just after Christmas, regardless of the weather. He must have known that his chances were even more slender than they had been in 1537. Since then it had become clear that Northern England had been cowed, while not only had men like Darcy gone to the scaffold but the White Rose families had been eliminated. The birth of a Prince of Wales meant that the Lady Mary was no longer heir to the throne. Yet he did not give up hope of overthrowing Henry and may have envisaged some sort of regency under Mary. Despite the odds, the legal murder of his brother and of his friend Exeter strengthened his determination.

As in 1537, King Henry and Cromwell took Reginald’s new mission very seriously indeed. In January the king’s envoy at Brussels, Sir Thomas Wriothesley, reported that he had heard the cardinal was losing favour with the pope and was ‘not in such esteem at Rome as he was’, implying there was nothing to worry about.3 But by February Wriothesley – an unbalanced creature who would one day take his own life – was panicking, convinced that war between the empire and England was imminent, already imagining himself in a dungeon. ‘Mr Wriothesley, your last letters of the 25 ult, show that to fair weather is succeeded, beyond all men’s expectations, very cloudy weather,’ Cromwell wrote to him.4 Two months later Wriothesley reported wildly that Pole was coming to Flanders ‘to declare that he would be a King’. He also hinted that when the cardinal arrived he would poison him.5 In his fear, Wriothesley had mentioned the unmentionable – that Reginald Pole was a rival for Henry VIII’s throne. Such a thought must have been in the minds of other well-informed Englishmen. (Two other sixteenth-century cardinals were to become kings – Henry I of Portugal and ‘Charles X’ of France.)

In February 1539 Cardinal Pole arrived at Toledo. Despite the attempts of Sir Thomas Wyatt, the English envoy in Spain, to persuade Charles V not to see him, he was given an audience that lasted for an hour. He begged the emperor to help with the deposition of Henry VIII, arguing that he was a far worse threat to Christendom than the Turks.

Pole then set out his case in an Apologia that listed the King of England’s iniquities and his own reactions. He described in detail the martyrdom of Fisher, More and the Carthusians, the destruction of monasteries and shrines, the persecution of dead saints. The king was now turning on the English lords, having first killed the finest of them all, his kinsmen, ‘who had no peers in nobility of blood’ – a reference to their royal ancestry. Henry had even jeopardized the succession by rejecting those nearest to him, by which Pole meant the Lady Mary. He compared Cromwell to the demoniac in the Gospel, whose devils had entered into a herd of swine.6

In further letters, Reginald denounced Henry to other rulers besides the emperor. The King of England’s attacks on the Church were not only damaging his afflicted island but might easily be copied all over the entire Christian world, he warned. After killing so many priests, he was turning on the no less defenceless nobility, whom he intended to annihilate. The cardinal also complained, with reason, that Henry was plotting his own death and had assassins waiting for him in France.

On 18 March Henry VIII’s envoy in Spain, Sir Thomas Wyatt, sent him a disturbing message. Reginald had asked Charles to send 8,000 landsknechts and 4,000 Italian mercenaries to Flanders, for an invasion, expecting ‘the wounded minds in England [the Pilgrims]’ to join them.7 Wyatt did not yet know that, unmoved by the cardinal’s denunciation of Henry, the emperor had declined to take any action: after promising an embargo in Flanders on imports from England, he changed his mind. Nor would he allow publication in his domains of the bull excommunicating Henry. The English king’s wily diplomacy had succeeded in turning Charles against Pole, by portraying him as a man who was trying to set a people against their ruler, someone who undermined the royal authority. It was a bitter blow for Pole, as Francis I had promised to move against Henry if Charles would do so. Avoiding Wyatt’s hitmen, he left Spain and waited in vain at Carpentras for another six months before returning to Rome.

In April Reginald wrote an impassioned letter that was addressed to the Imperial Chancelllor Granvelle but was meant for Charles. ‘God is my witness that once I loved and revered Henry,’ he said. ‘But no good can be expected from him or his island while he stays King.’ Knowing how deeply Pole loved his family, Henry had cunningly tried to use them as tools to bring him round to his way of thinking, making them write letters that accused him of betraying his king. His brother Montague’s death was a call from God to fight for His cause more effectively; by killing Montague, Henry had taken away the person he loved best in the world apart from his mother.

If they did not choose me, then every decent man in England would choose some one else from my family to ask the Emperor for help because no family has endured more for his kindred … his aunt [Queen Katherine] used to say that all the trouble dated from the time when she heard that my mother was no longer the Princess’s governess. She had been so anxious for my mother to become the child’s governess that she had gone to visit her with the King, in order to persuade her to take the post. The Queen’s physician, who is now at the Imperial court, can testify to this. My family suffered a very great deal for her … and the Queen often declared how deeply she was obliged to us. I am saying all this to demonstrate just how much our island deserves [the Emperor’s] help when it is asked for by the English family best qualified to do so. 8

But it was in vain. Charles had made up his mind not to intervene in English affairs.

Just how frightened of an invasion Henry had been was revealed by the great ‘muster’ in the city of London on 8 May, which took place after the scare was over but it was too late to cancel. Most able-bodied male Londoners between sixteen and sixty took part, 15,000 marching to Westminster where the king reviewed them from his new gatehouse at Whitehall and the more skilled demonstrated their aptitude as archers or arquebusiers. Similar musters took place all over the country. Making ‘very laborious and painful journeys towards the sea coasts’,9 Henry had also visited all the major ports to inspect defence works.

His relief was evident in his noticeably relaxed behaviour a week after the muster. ‘This present Holy Thursday eve the King took his barge at Whitehall and rowed up to Lambeth,’ wrote John Worth to Lord Lisle at Calais. ‘He had his drums and fifes playing, and rowed up and down the Thames for an hour after evensong.’ The same writer notes Henry’s edifying care for his subjects’ morals and spiritual life, now that he was free from worry:

The recorder of London’s servant Ball showed me that last week there was one hanged for eating flesh on a Friday against the King’s command … It is said there is another Act passed that if any priest or married man be taken with another man’s wife he shall suffer death. God save the King. His Grace receives holy bread and holy water every Sunday, and daily uses all other laudable ceremonies. In all London no man dare speak against them on pain of death.10

The cardinal’s defeat was neatly underlined by the inclusion of ‘Reynold Pole, late dean of the cathedral church of Exeter’ in the Bill of Attander that was enacted in May, which conveniently lumped together the leaders of the Pilgrimage with those of the so-called ‘Exeter Conspiracy’. His own official crime was to ‘have taken and pursued worldly promotions in the gift of the … Bishop of Rome’.11 In July Pole was still hoping for the Earl of Kildare to start a rising in Ireland, but nothing came of it. His second mission had ended in utter failure.

Henry’s obsessive hatred of Reginald as one of those pretenders to his throne whom he had feared ever since childhood had been particularly evident during the first half of 1539. In a letter of 13 February, clearly written in a towering rage, Henry had ordered Sir Thomas Wyatt to tell Charles V that the cardinal was ‘so lewd and ingrate that no prince should esteem him worthy to be spoken with … his words (such traitors being commonly hypocrites) may be fair and pleasant; but howsoever the head be coloured the tail thereof is always black and full of poison’. Revealingly, Wyatt was also ordered to say that the king had raised Pole’s entire family ‘from nothing’.12 Their Plantagenet mother’s origins could scarcely be described as ‘nothing’, and it was the kind of abuse to be expected from an insecure parvenu rather than a great monarch.

Sir Thomas told everyone at Toledo who would listen to him that if Henry gave him 10,000 gold crowns and publicly proclaimed Pole a traitor, then he would wager his entire estate at home in England that he could easily arrange for the man to be killed within six months. He suggested that Rome was the best place to do the job. But this was just a piece of calculated sycophancy on the part of Wyatt, who was merely trying to please the king. He must have known all too well that plenty of other Englishmen had tried and failed to assassinate the cardinal.

Henry VIII was justified in fearing Reginald Pole. In the eyes of many Englishmen, he stood not only for the old religion and for the old nobility, but also for the old royal family. When the Book of Common Prayer was introduced in 1549 the West Country rose in their own Pilgrimage of Grace, carrying the banner of the Five Wounds and calling for the return of the Mass, as the new service ‘is but like a Christmas game’. Among demands made by the rebels was that ‘because the lord Cardinal Pole is of the King’s blood [he] should not only have his free pardon, but also sent for to Rome and promoted to be first or second of the King’s Council’.13

29. Winter 1538–Summer 1539: Cardinal Pole’s Last Throw

1. LP Hen VIII, op. cit., vol. XIV (i), 456.

2. Hall, op. cit., p. 823.

3. LP Hen VIII, op. cit., vol. XIV (i), 114.

4. Ibid., 405.

5. Ibid., 456.

6. Ibid., 200.

7. Ibid., 560.

8. Mayer, Correspondence of Reginald Pole, op. cit., vol. 1, p. 222.

9. Hall, op. cit., pp. 828–9.

10. LP Hen VIII, op. cit., vol. XIV (i), 967.

11. Mayer, Correspondence of Reginald Pole, op. cit., vol. 1, p. 228.

12. LP Hen VIII, op. cit., vol. XIV (i), 280.

13. Transcript from Lambeth Palace Library, in Fletcher and MacCulloch, Tudor Rebellions, p. 141.

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