Reginald Pole

Reginald Pole

Reginald Pole, the third son of Sir Richard Pole and Margaret Pole, was probably born at Stourton Castle, Staffordshire, in March 1500. His mother was the daughter of George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence and of his wife, Isabel Neville. His grandfather was the younger brother of Edward IV and Richard III. His grandmother was the eldest daughter of Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick. (1)

After being educated at Christ Church, Canterbury, Pole went to Magdalen College. In 1512 Henry VIII paid him a pension of £12 and repeated the gift in the following year. On 12th February 1518 the king granted him the deanery of Wimborne Minster in Dorset. (2)

In 1521 Pole went to University of Padua with a £100 stipend from the king. During this period he met and befriended Pietro Bembo, Gianmatteo Giberti, Jacopo Sadoleto and Gianpietro Carafa. Pole visited Rome in 1524 and 1525. He returned to England in 1527.

Pole held a series of important posts in the Church and in October 1529 was sent to Paris in order to help secure a favourable opinion from the university doctors on Henry's divorce from Catherine of Aragon. The historian, Jasper Ridley, has argued he used his great intellectual abilities and his theological knowledge to argue the case for Henry at the Sorbonne." (3)

Reginald Pole & Henry VIII

In the summer of 1531 Reginald Pole began to have doubts about Henry's proposed divorce. "Pole gave Henry an analysis of the political difficulties in the way of a divorce, particularly the dangers to the succession and from foreign princes. Pole told various stories, and his biographers added their versions, of what he did before offering that opinion, but none can be corroborated; it is clear only that Pole left England again in January or February 1532 without the promotion, perhaps even the archbishopric of York, that had seemed certain." (4)

In March 1534 Pope Clement VII announced that Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn was invalid. Henry reacted by declaring that the Pope no longer had authority in England. In November 1534, Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy. This gave Henry the title of the "Supreme head of the Church of England". A Treason Act was also passed that made it an offence to attempt by any means, including writing and speaking, to accuse the King and his heirs of heresy or tyranny. All subjects were ordered to take an oath accepting this. (5)

Sir Thomas More and John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, refused to take the oath and were imprisoned in the Tower of London. More was summoned before Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell at Lambeth Palace. More was happy to swear that the children of Anne Boleyn could succeed to the throne, but he could not declare on oath that all the previous Acts of Parliament had been valid. He could not deny the authority of the pope "without the jeoparding of my soul to perpetual damnation." (6)

On 15th June, 1534, it was reported to Thomas Cromwell that the Observant Friars of Richmond refused to take the oath. Two days later two carts full of friars were hanged, drawn and quartered for denying the royal supremacy. A few days later a group of Carthusian monks were executed for the same offence. "They were chained upright to stakes and left to die, without food or water, wallowing in their own filth - a slow, ghastly death that left Londoners appalled". (7) Cromwell told More that the example he was setting was resulting in other men being executed. More responded: "I do nobody harm. I say none harm, I think none harm, but wish everybody good. And if this be not enough to keep a man alive, in good faith I long not to live." (8)

In April 1535 the priors of the Carthusian houses, in Charterhouse Priory in London, Axholme Priory in North Lincolnshire and Beauvale Priory in Nottinghamshire, refused to acknowledge the King to be the Head of the Church of England. They were hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn on 4th May. (9)

In May 1535, Pope Paul III created Bishop John Fisher a Cardinal. This infuriated Henry VIII and he ordered him to be executed on 22nd June at the age of seventy-six. A shocked public blamed Queen Anne for his death, and it was partly for this reason that news of the stillbirth of her child was suppressed as people might have seen this as a sign of God's will. Anne herself suffered pangs of conscience on the day of Fisher's execution and attended a mass for the "repose of his soul". (10)

Thomas More

Henry VIII decided it was time that Thomas More was tried for treason. The trial was held in Westminster Hall. More denied that he had ever said that the King was not Head of the Church, but claimed that he had always refused to answer the question, and that silence could never constitute an act of high treason. The prosecution cited the statement that he had made to Thomas Cromwell on 3rd June, where he argued that the Act of Supremacy was like a two-edged sword in requiring a man either to swear against his conscience or to suffer death for high treason. (11)

The verdict was never in doubt and Thomas More was convicted of treason. Lord Chancellor Thomas Audley "passed sentence of death - the full sentence required by law, that More was to be hanged, cut down while still living, castrated, his entrails cut out and burned before his eyes, and then beheaded. As he was being taken back to the Tower, Margaret Roper and his son John broke through the cordon of guards to embrace him. After he had bidden them farewell, as he moved away, Margaret ran back, again broke through the cordon, and embraced him again." (12)

Reginald Pole
Reginald Pole (c. 1540)

Jasper Ridley, the author of Henry VIII (1984) has argued: "It was the executions of the Carthusians and Fisher and More which decided Pole to come out into the open and to become Henry's greatest enemy. He was conscious of the dept of gratitude which he owed to Henry for his education; he was, indeed, being constantly reminded of it by Henry's counsellors and spokesmen. But he became more and more convinced that his duty to God required him to denounce his benefactor as a bloody tyrant who had martyred the champions of the Faith in England." (13)

Reginald Pole was now seen as leader of the opposition to Henry VIII. Ambassador Eustace Chapuys suggested that Pole marry Princess Mary and draw on his family's base of support in Wales. It was probably this dynastic threat which gave most concern to Henry. In 1536 Pole wrote Defence of the Unity of the Church. Pole argued that the leadership of Europe resided in the Pope, to whom all things spiritual and temporal must be referred. (14) It also provided a very positive picture of Thomas More and John Fisher (his biographer describes it as hagiography). The book concluded with an extended call to Henry to repent. (15)

Pilgrimage of Grace

On 22nd December 1536 Pole was made a cardinal by Pope Paul III and appointed Papal Legate, though he was not an ordained priest. The Pope sent him to persuade Emperor Charles V to abandon his war against the Turks and to invade England, or at least to prohibit his subjects in the Netherlands from trading with England. (16)

His real assignment was to assist the Pilgrimage of Grace. He was given permission to supply funds to the rebels and the Pope gave Pole a letter of full papal credit in order to raise money in Flanders. Geoffrey Moorhouse has argued: "Pole... openly advocated foreign intervention in the affairs of his own native land and claimed that Englishmen would be totally justified in taking up arms against their king. Henry, understandably enraged, did what he could to entice Pole back to England, where he would undoubtedly have been charged with treason, but Pole was at least worldly enough to realise the gravity of his situation and stayed put. (17)

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Henry VIII now ordered the arrest of Reginald's brother, Sir Geoffrey Pole. He revealed all that he knew of his family activities. As a result, his brother, Henry Pole was arrested and executed in January 1539. Four months later, Margaret Pole was also taken into custody. Geoffrey, who admitted guilt at his trial for treason was pardoned and given his freedom. (18)

Margaret's interrogation began on 12th November and was carried out by William Fitzwilliam, earl of Southampton, and Thomas Goodrich, bishop of Ely. Innocent of any treasonous activity, she responded with firm and clear answers to all questions. (19) Antonia Fraser, the author of The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1992) points out that Margaret Pole had in fact written letters denouncing her son's book, Defence of the Unity of the Church. However, "servants' gossip was dredged up to justify her interrogation". (20) The only evidence against her was that she had forbidden her servants to read the English Bible, and had once been seen burning a letter. (21)

Execution of Margaret Pole

In November 1539 Margaret Pole was sent to the Tower of London. Her case was discussed in Parliament. Thomas Cromwell produced evidence that suggested that Reginald Pole intended to marry Princess Mary. At first Henry VIII treated Margaret fairly well, paying £13 6s. 8d. a month for the food of herself and her grandson Henry. She was also allowed a waiting woman to attend upon her who was paid 18d. a week. (22)

Queen Catherine Howard took an interest in Margaret's case. "That spring saw Catherine stirred to action by the plight of three people imprisoned in the Tower. One was Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, who had languished there for nearly two years with inadequate clothing and heating to protect her aged body from the bitter winter weather. When she learned of this, the Queen saw her tailor on 1st March and ordered him to make up garments which were to be sent to Lady Sailsbury: a furred night-gown, a bonnet and frontlet, four pairs of hose, four pairs of shoes and one pair of slippers. With the King's permission, Catherine paid for all these items out of her privy purse." (23)

Henry became more hostile with the rising in the north in the early months of 1541 led by Sir John Neville. He became convinced that Margaret was the figure-head of the opposition. Although she had a valid claim to the throne, she herself had never expressed any desire to occupy it. At the age of 68 she was also way beyond childbearing age and therefore constituted no threat in herself to the King.

On 28th May, 1541, Henry gave orders for Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, to be executed. Antonia Fraser has argued: "This can claim to be the most repulsive piece of savagery ever carried out at the King's wishes... Her real crime was of course to be the mother of one who sided with the Pope and was beyond the King's vengeance." (24) Alison Weir agrees and has called it as "one of the worst atrocities of Henry's reign". (25) When she arrived at the scaffold she told the executioner that she would not lay her head upon the block, saying she had received no trial. The executioner was not the usual one employed on such occasions and was young and inexperienced. He hacked away at her head and neck for several minutes before her head was removed. (26)

Upon hearing the news of her death, her son Reginald Pole announced to his "thunder-struck" secretary that he was now the proud son of a martyr and disappeared into his closet for an hour, "then came out as cheerful as before". It is reported that Pole commented: "Let us be of good cheer. We have now one more patron in heaven." (27)

The Reign of Queen Mary

Henry VIII died on 28th January 1547. His son, Edward was only nine years old and was too young to rule. In his will, Henry had nominated a Council of Regency, made up of 16 nobles and churchman to assist Edward VI in governing his new realm. It was not long before his uncle, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, emerged as the leading figure in the government and was given the title Lord Protector. (28) Reginald Pole did enter negotiations with Seymour but eventually refused to return to England. (29)

The Duke of Somerset was a Protestant and he soon began to make changes to the Church of England. This included the introduction of an English Prayer Book and the decision to allow members of the clergy to get married. Attempts were made to destroy those aspects of religion that were associated with the Catholic Church, for example, the removal of stained-glass windows in churches and the destruction of religious wall-paintings. Somerset made sure that Edward VI was educated as a Protestant, as he hoped that when he was old enough to rule he would continue the policy of supporting the Protestant religion.

Reginald Pole
Reginald Pole (c. 1550)

In April 1552 Edward VI fell ill with a disease that was diagnosed first as smallpox and later as measles. He made a surprising recovery and wrote to his sister, Elizabeth, that he had never felt better. However, in December he developed a cough. Elizabeth asked to see her brother but John Dudley, the lord protector, said it was too dangerous. In February 1553, his doctors believed he was suffering from tuberculosis. In March the Venetian envoy saw him and said that although still quite handsome, Edward was clearly dying. (30)

On Edward's death on 6th July, 1553, an attempt was made to put another Protestant, Lady Jane Grey, on the throne. This ended in failure and Mary, the daughter of Catherine of Aragon, became queen. Reginald Pole gained the support of Mary when he expressed agreement with her proposal to marry Philip of Spain. (31)

In November 1554, Reginald Pole returned from exile, to become Archbishop of Canterbury. He shared Mary's devotion to the Catholic Church and wished to see England restored to full communion with Rome. Pole and Bishop Stephen Gardiner, her Lord Chancellor, persuaded Parliament to revive former measures against heresy. These had been repealed under Henry VIII and Edward VI. (32) This was passed in January 1555.

Pole and Gardiner believed that a few early burnings would warn other possible heretics to remain silent. It was said that one burning was worth more than a thousand sermons. However, this was not the case. Over the next three years nearly 300 men and women were burnt at the stake. This included 112 people living in London. The main question asked by their interrogators was "How say you to the sacrament of the altar? If they did not believe that Christ's body and blood were physically as well as spiritually present in the bread and the wine, they were condemned for heresy. (33)

Reginald Pole arranged for the leading churchmen under Edward VI, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, Bishop Nicholas Ridley and Bishop Hugh Latimer, to be arrested. When Bishop Ridley was brought into court he raised his cap from his head as a sign of respect for the judge who had been appointed to try his case, but when Archbishop Pole's name was mentioned he replaced his cap on his head. Ridley said that he would willingly pay his respects to Pole as a man because of his learning and royal blood, but would not salute him as Papal Legate. (34)

In November 1555, Cranmer wrote to Queen Mary urging her to assert and defend her royal supremacy over the Church of England and not to submit to the domination of the Bishop of Rome. (35) When Mary received the letter she said that she considered it a sin to read, or even to receive, a letter from a heretic, and handed the letter to Archbishop Reginald Pole for him to reply to Cranmer. "There could have been nothing more painful for Cranmer, after he had appealed to his Queen to assert her royal supremacy against the foreign Pope, than to receive a reply from the Bishop of Rome's Legate informing him that the Queen had asked him to reply to Cranmer's letter to her." (36)

It has been argued that Reginald Pole now had virtually complete control of the English church. "Much of his energy continued to go into re-establishing the church's finances and its legal position, although he did not neglect worship or doctrine: he was particularly interested in the restoration of monasticism, especially that of the Benedictines." (37) John Foxe claims that Pole was a papist, but "none of the bloody and cruel sort of papists", such as Bishop Edmund Bonner. (38)

Archbishop Reginald Pole died on 17th November 1558.

Primary Sources


(1) Jasper Ridley, Henry VIII (1984)

It was the executions of the Carthusians and Fisher and More which decided Pole to come out into the open and to become Henry's greatest enemy. He was conscious of the dept of gratitude which he owed to Henry for his education; he was, indeed, being constantly reminded of it by Henry's counsellors and spokesmen. But he became more and more convinced that his duty to God required him to denounce his benefactor as a bloody tyrant who had martyred the champions of the Faith in England.

(2) Kelly Hart, The Mistresses of Henry VIII (2009)

The strategic position of Margaret Pole's estates on the south coast, the perceived invasion threat of 1539 in which Reginald Pole was involved, and her embittered relationship with Henry VIII precluded any chance of pardon.... The rising in the north in 1541 led by Sir John Neville, motivated by animosity to the royal supremacy, and the possible plans by Reginald to rescue his mother would also have contributed.

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Elizabeth Barton and Henry VIII (Answer Commentary)

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Robert Aske (Answer Commentary)

Dissolution of the Monasteries (Answer Commentary)

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Anne Askew – Burnt at the Stake (Answer Commentary)

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Francis Walsingham - Codes & Codebreaking (Answer Commentary)

Mary Tudor and Heretics (Answer Commentary)

Sir Thomas More: Saint or Sinner? (Answer Commentary)

Hans Holbein's Art and Religious Propaganda (Answer Commentary)

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(1) Hazel Pierce, Margaret Pole : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(2) T. F. Mayer, Richard Pole : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(3) Jasper Ridley, Henry VIII (1984) page 282

(4) T. F. Mayer, Richard Pole : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(5) Roger Lockyer, Tudor and Stuart Britain (1985) pages 43-44

(6) Peter Ackroyd, Tudors (2012) page 82

(7) Alison Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) page 281

(8) Peter Ackroyd, Tudors (2012) page 87

(9) Jasper Ridley, The Statesman and the Fanatic (1982) page 277

(10) Alison Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) page 281

(11) Jasper Ridley, The Statesman and the Fanatic (1982) page 279

(12) Jasper Ridley, The Statesman and the Fanatic (1982) page 282

(13) Jasper Ridley, Henry VIII (1984) page 282

(14) Geoffrey Moorhouse, The Pilgrimage of Grace (2002) page 184

(15) T. F. Mayer, Richard Pole : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(16) Jasper Ridley, Bloody Mary's Martyrs (2002) page 23

(17) Geoffrey Moorhouse, The Pilgrimage of Grace (2002) page 185

(18) Peter Ackroyd, Tudors (2012) page 135

(19) Hazel Pierce, Margaret Pole : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(20) Antonia Fraser, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1992) page 294

(21) Jasper Ridley, Henry VIII (1984) page 351

(22) Hazel Pierce, Margaret Pole : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(23) Alison Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) page 439

(24) Antonia Fraser, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1992) page 342

(25) Alison Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) page 441

(26) Peter Ackroyd, Tudors (2012) page 135

(27) Lodovico Beccadelli, Life of Cardinal Reginald Pole (1776) pages 155-156

(28) Philippa Jones, Elizabeth: Virgin Queen (2010) page 46

(29) T. F. Mayer, Richard Pole : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(30) Dale Hoak, Edward VI: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(31) T. F. Mayer, Richard Pole : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(32) Roger Lockyer, Tudor and Stuart Britain (1985) page 101

(33) Peter Ackroyd, Tudors (2012) page 270

(34) Jasper Ridley, Bloody Mary's Martyrs (2002) page 112

(35) T. F. Mayer, Richard Pole : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(36) Jasper Ridley, Bloody Mary's Martyrs (2002) page 127

(37) T. F. Mayer, Richard Pole : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(38) John Foxe, Book of Martyrs (1563) page 248 of 2014 edition.