The Man Who Was Almost Pope: Reginald Cardinal Pole

Cardinal Pole deserves to be well remembered for his devotion to Church reform, loyalty to the Papacy, and sympathy for the English martyrs (among whom was his own mother)

(photo: Sebastiano del Piombo, “Reginald Cardinal Pole”, 1540)

On November 30, 1554, an exile had returned to reconcile his native land to the universal Catholic Church. He called himself the son of a martyr; he had lead the first session of the Council of Trent; he was the last Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury; almost elected pope in 1550. He was Reginald Pole — Plantagenet heir, Renaissance scholar, and reformer.

He was the third son of Sir Richard Pole and Margaret Plantagenet, born on March 12, 1500. His grandfather was George, First Duke of Clarence, drowned in a butt of malmsey wine in the Tower of London, according to some reports. Henry VIII had named his widowed mother the Countess of Salisbury and returned lands confiscated by Henry VII. Reginald and his brothers had as good, or better, claim to the throne as Henry VIII.


Henry VIII’s Scholar in Oxford and Padua

The Countess of Salisbury’s children married well, except for Reginald, who was destined for a clerical and academic career. He attended Magdalen College at the University of Oxford from 1512 to 1515 and also studied at the University of Padua from 1521 to 1526 through the generosity of Henry VIII. When he returned to England in 1526, Henry offered to make Pole the Archbishop of York after the death of Thomas Wolsey, his former Chancellor, if he would support his desire to have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled so he could marry Anne Boleyn. (Pole had not been ordained.)

Pole temporized by returning to the Continent. He served Henry by polling the opinions of theologians at the Sorbonne on the validity of Henry’s marriage to Catherine, who was a good friend of his mother (she was the godmother and governess of Henry and Catherine’s only surviving child, the Princess Mary).

Pole finally expressed his concern for Henry VIII’s soul if he continued to pursue the annulment, enraging the king, so he left England again for Padua. Pole watched Henry’s usurpation of papal authority and control of the Church in England while studying theology and making friends with Renaissance scholars.

When the Carthusians of the Charterhouse of London, Richard Reynolds of the Bridgettine House of Syon, Thomas More, and John Fisher (the Bishop of Rochester) were executed in 1535, he was stunned and temporized no longer, writing a Latin treatise Pro ecclesiasticae unitatis defensione (“The Defense of the Unity of the Church”) in 1536. Their sacrifices galvanized Pole and inspired him to “Lift up [his] voice like a trumpet” as encouraged by Isaiah 58:1, and he praised them for suffering for Jesus and His Church.

Pole outlined his reasons against Henry’s supremacy over the Church in England and called upon Henry to save his soul by returning to the Catholic Church. He quoted the prophet Ezekiel at the end of this document: “Be converted, and do penance for all your iniquities. And iniquity shall not be your ruin” (18:30).

If Pole had hoped that his theological reasoning and spiritual counsel would move Henry VIII from his path, he was wrong. While Pole was out of his immediate reach in Italy, his family was in England and vulnerable. Pole was attainted a traitor by Parliament and Thomas Cromwell sent assassins to Italy. Pole’s brothers Sir Geoffrey and Henry, Lord Montague were arrested. Henry was executed with Henry Courtenay, the Marquess of Exeter in 1539, while Geoffrey was released, possibly because he helped the Crown support its flimsy case.

Pole’s elderly mother was also arrested and held in the Tower of London for more than two years. On the May 27 (the feast of St. Augustine of Canterbury) in 1541, she was given an hour to prepare for her execution, without being charged with any crime, tried by any jury, or found guilty by any court.

Margaret of York, Countess of Salisbury, was beatified by Pope Leo XIII on December 29, 1886, but when Reginald Cardinal Pole (promoted by Pope Paul III to coordinate official efforts to support Catholicism in England) heard that his mother had been executed, he proclaimed that he would “never fear to call himself the son of a martyr.”


The Continuing Call to Conversion

While Pole failed to convince Henry VIII to repent and return to the Church, he continued to make calls to conversion: to the Church at the Council of Trent, and to his circle of Christian humanist friends. Pole served as Governor of the Papal States at Viterbo and then as one of the three cardinals Pope Paul III appointed to convene a General Council at Trent in 1543. Pole had to travel in disguise and by a circuitous route to avoid Henry VIII’s agents.

At the opening of the Council of Trent in 1545, Cardinal Pole advised all the delegates to acknowledge their sins, repent, and do penance as the first steps in reforming and reviving the Church after the wounds of the Protestant Reformation. He called upon them to recognize how their failings as clergy had contributed to the Church’s corruption.

Pole left Trent in 1548 after the tenth session of the Council, which met again in 1551 and 1563. Pope Paul III died in November of 1549 and Pole—still not ordained—was offered the papacy but refused to accept the title without the requisite votes. The conclave lasted until February 1550 when Cardinal del Monte was finally elected and chose the name Julius III.


St. Andrew’s Day: November 30, 1554

In 1553, Pope Julius appointed Cardinal Pole his Papal Legate to England because Mary Tudor had thwarted the attempted coup to place the Lady Jane Grey Dudley on the throne led by John Dudley the Duke of Northumberland when Henry VIII’s young son Edward VI had died.

Northumberland, and Protector Somerset before him, with the assistance of Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, had led a true Calvinist reformation in England. Celebration of the Mass had been forbidden, the Real Presence denied, and The Book of Common Prayer enforced upon the country.

Mary’s supporters and the people of England united around her as Henry VIII’s chosen heir and she was crowned the first queen regnant of England. Before Pole could return to England and restore Catholicism, the English Parliament had to remove the threat of arrest and execution by repealing Henry VIII’s attainder for treason. Thus Pole did not arrive in England until November 1554.

On St. Andrew’s Day, November 30, 1554, Pole reconciled England to the Catholic Church through his authority as Papal Legate. He called upon the people of England, through their representatives in Parliament, to acknowledge their sins, repent, and return to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.


Restoring Catholicism in England

Now Pole began to restore Catholic faith and practice in England. In Fires of Faith: Catholic England under Mary Tudor (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009) Eamon Duffy notes that Pole anticipated many of the later reforms of the Council of Trent, creating the model that St. Charles Borromeo would later follow in Milan.

Pole summoned a national synod in 1555; he urged clerical reform including bishops resident in their diocese, improved and consistent preaching; the foundation of seminaries; renewal of the universities. Pole organized diocesan visitations to re-enforce these reforms and with the other loyal Catholic bishops, worked to restore the fabric of parish churches and cathedrals: Altars, Eucharistic tabernacles (replacing the pyx, more commonly used before the Reformation), liturgical books (Sacramentaries, Lectionaries, Offices, and Graduals), chalices, patens, and thuribles. He planned to publish a new catechism (a project realized as the Catechism of the Council of Trent) and an English translation of the Holy Bible (later published as the Douay-Rheims Bible).

On March 20, 1556 Pole received the Sacrament of Holy Orders, and offered his first Mass on March 21—the same day that Thomas Cranmer, the former Archbishop of Canterbury was burned alive at the stake in Oxford—and was consecrated as the last Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury on March 22. Pole is usually not blamed for the campaign of heresy trials and burnings of almost three hundred heretics and Protestants that is such a blot on the reign of “Bloody Mary”. Known for his gentleness and patience with those suspected of heresy, he regarded them as sinners rather than traitors, urging leniency, conversion, and forgiveness.


Frustration and the End

Unfortunately for the progress Pole and his bishops were making, Cardinal Gian Pietro Caraffa (Pope Paul IV) succeeded Marcellus II (who reigned briefly after the death of Pope Julius III) on May 23, 1555. Pope Paul IV stripped Pole of his authority as Papal Legate in 1557 and summoned him to Rome to face charges of heresy. Queen Mary refused to let Pole leave England and proclaimed that he had authority as her validly consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury.

Both Queen Mary and Reginald Pole died on November 17, 1558. Their work to restore Catholicism was unfinished and unsustainable, because Mary’s heir was her half-sister Elizabeth, who had definite Protestant convictions.

Reginald Cardinal Pole is the relatively forgotten figure of the English Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation. While two biographies have recently been published, they are expensive academic books. He deserves to be better remembered for his devotion to Church reform, loyalty to the Papacy, and sympathy for the English martyrs, including his mother.