Angelic Cardinal Reginald Pole - C. M. Antony




The Battle is Arrayed
1526-1531

On what was probably the first occasion on which Henry VIII saw Reginald Pole after his return from Italy he told him openly that in all his travels he could not have met the equal of Blessed John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, for virtue and learning—a statement which shows that at that time this prelate had not lost all his influence over his former pupil, and that Henry was not yet dead to all honor and gratitude.

But the Court of England was becoming rapidly demoralized. The king's private life was a constant source of scandal to all and of bitter grief to the queen. At the moment of Pole's return Henry's fickle affections were violently engaged by Anne Boleyn, a young lady-in-waiting to Queen Katherine; of great personal beauty; whose selfishness was only equaled by her ambition. She had no intention of becoming the laughing-stock of the Court, and Henry had been given to understand plainly that unless she became his wife she could have nothing to say to him. Finding it impossible to move her from this position, the king, while retaining her in great state in his wife's retinue, and taking advantage of every opportunity to be in her company, set his mind to that task which was to end in the upheaval of the Catholic Church in England.

In such an atmosphere Pole found it impossible to breathe. Making his excuses with some difficulty to his royal cousin he withdrew, under plea of continuing his studies, to Sheen, the home of his happy childhood. Here, within the enclosure, Dean Colet had built a handsome house, intending to end his days among his Carthusian friends. He died, however, almost before it was finished, and the house as it stood was now granted to Pole by Henry, and here for nearly two years he lived in great tranquility and peace, continuing his studies, and leading a semi-monastic life. It was the calm before the storm the storm—which, outside the cloister, was beginning to blacken the whole horizon, causing men's hearts to fail and their minds to reel at the mere prospect of the yet inconceivable terror of it. And even now, as the sky grew steadily darker, the first drops fell.

Henry's conduct during the latter part of his reign is, perhaps, the most wonderful of all instances in history of a man of ungoverned will—which has become ungovernable—overriding heart, conscience, judgment, decency, laws both divine and human, and at the same time deluding himself with the idea (at any rate up to a certain point) that he is doing perfectly right and acting according to his conscience and the will of Almighty God. His whole career was in fact a sort of apotheosis of the Nonconformist Conscience.

But at first that difficult conscience, which took some time to kill, led him to seek sympathy—and, if possible, justification for his actions—from the men whose opinions he respected.

Unfortunately for Pole, he was one of these. The king did not in the least want the advice he asked for, and only desired people to agree with what he had already determined. He had by now decided to divorce the queen, whose husband he had been for twenty years; and as even Henry could find no excuse for such a deed in the blameless life of that unfortunate lady it occurred to him that perhaps valid objection might be taken to the fact that he had, under dispensation, married his brother Arthur's wife.

That Katherine had been only nominally, not actually married to his brother (who was in a very precarious state of health at the time); that Henry's union with her had been blessed by Pope Julius II.; that for the greater part of their long wedded life—during which several children had been born to them, of whom the Princess Mary alone survived)—they had lived on most affectionate terms; all these things were resolutely set aside by Henry, whose conscience now began to afflict him sadly; moved thereto, as he publicly announced, by his dread of having contracted an illegal marriage; but in reality, as the whole Court was now perfectly aware, by his insane passion for Anne Boleyn.

In 1527 Henry applied definitely to Pope Clement VII. for a divorce, to enable him to marry again, on the ground that there was no heir-male to the crown of England. In 1528, with almost inconceivable assurance he sent four agents to Rome to beg that either (1) Queen Katherine should be compelled to enter religion; (2) that if she would not agree to this unless Henry did the like that he might be secretly dispensed beforehand, so that the queen being finally disposed of, he might leave his monastery, and marry: or, (3) if both these plans were negatived that he might have two wives, and that the Pope would legitimize the children of both marriages. Precedents for these proceedings—especially the last—were quoted from the book of Leviticus, and the messengers were instructed, if the Pope refused, to threaten that both his election and authority might be called in question. Clement VII., a weak but witty pontiff, retorted that no doubt Henry was fully acquainted with the tenets of the faith of which he professed himself the defender, and that if heresy arose, the king, not he, was responsible.

About this time, Reginald Pole, whose opinion on these matters had been unsuccessfully sought by the king, both directly and indirectly, met at the Cardinal of York's palace, the man in whose hands lay the destinies of England, Thomas Cromwell, at that time in Wolsey's service. Very cautiously and cleverly did that astute statesman seek to fathom the mind of the young student, but Pole was quite a match for him, and has left us a delightful account of the interview. Cromwell asked him his opinion of a political work by an Italian writer, and finding Pole had not read it, "fell into a discourse on the necessary qualifications of those who are called to the councils of princes." Pole saw at once that he was to be sifted on the question of the divorce. "My answer was that I thought it the duty of every such person, above all other considerations, to advise what was most conducive to his prince's honor and interest, and enlarged myself, from the dictates of reason and the best authors, on the nature of Virtue, in which both Honor and Interest are grounded."

Cromwell, quite unmoved by these considerations replied that these notions were "very plausible when delivered in the Schools or from the Pulpit, but were of little use in the Cabinets of Kings, and, if much insisted on, would create Hatred and Aversion to the Adviser, as they seldom fall in with the Prince's inclinations, and are quite foreign to what is practiced in courts." Prudence and experience, continued the future Vicegerent, were the qualities that really mattered, for without them "many promising statesmen had forfeited their prince's favor and become useless"—a delicate but necessary euphuism—or had ruined themselves and their families.

The ingenuous speaker then gave several examples to prove his assertion, and concluded: "that the chief concern of a person in this station should be to study his prince's inclinations, in which much sagacity was required, as they sometimes lie disguised under appearances of a very different import: that it became kings to use the specious names of religion, equity, and other virtues, though their designs were not always regulated by them: that true ability lay in discovering what their real intentions were; and then, in managing in such sort that they may attain their ends, and yet no open failure in religion or probity be observed: and that this ability was seen in proportion as the minister could reconcile the appearances of virtue, which princes were unwilling to give up, with the substantial interests of the State. That this was a compendious way to secure favor and authority with them, and to be useful to oneself and others."

Thus the principal adviser of Henry VIII., of whom his auditor remarks that "if he really thought as he spoke" and had been Nero's counselor when that monarch was anxious to murder his mother, Cromwell would have been "at no loss to justify the parricide." Pole, however, "made no reply to this barefaced impiety," though Cromwell, in repeating the conversation to the king, put his own construction upon the young man's silence. The views which he had expressed, he told Pole, were most ably set forth in the work to which he had already alluded, and he begged to be allowed to lend him the book. Pole refused diplomatically, but borrowed it from a friend, and studied it carefully, unknown to Cromwell, coming to the conclusion that: "it is such a performance that if Satan himself were to leave a successor I do not well see by what other maxims he would direct him to reign!"—an opinion certainly justified by subsequent events.

The book upon which this judgment was passed was no other than Il Principe, by one Niccolo Machiavelli.

In 1528 the terrible "sweating-sickness" visited England for the last time. The witty French ambassador (Du Bellay, Bishop of Bayonne) gives us a vivid picture of Henry's uneasiness during the plague. He at once sent Anne Boleyn to her father's house at Hever, and then, with the queen and Court, moved about from place to place for fear of infection, "confessing every day, and communicating on great feasts."

Thus Henry, while the Court laughed in its sleeve, and fresh, frantic efforts were being made to move earth—as heaven seemed impregnable—to secure the divorce.

Into the long and complicated political, social and religious questions of Henry VIII.'s divorce we cannot enter here; but it is necessary, in writing the life of the future cardinal-legate to outline clearly the main facts of that appalling sin and scandal which changed Pole's whole career, and was the lever by which the temporal power of the Church was overthrown in England and the authority of the Holy See set aside; while the king took the place of the Pope as Supreme Head of the Church in this country.

On May 31, 1529, the commission appointed by the Pope to sift thoroughly the details of Queen Katherine's first and second marriages, met at Blackfriars, under the two cardinal-legates, Wolsey and Campeggio; and was in session until July 23. Eight or nine sittings were held, during one of which the cause of the queen was nobly and eloquently defended by Blessed John Fisher; but nothing was effected, and Clement VII. summoned the case to Rome. Wolsey had failed to carry out the king's wishes, and from that moment his downfall was secure. "The fall of Wolsey," says a modern writer, "was only delayed till Henry assured himself that his old minister's ruin was more profitable than his future service." He was stripped of his dignities and offices, and Sir Thomas More was made Lord Chancellor. "My Lord of Norfolk," writes the French ambassador, "is become president of the Council: my Lord of Suffolk vice-president: and above them both is Mistress Anne!"

Pole, horrified at the turn affairs were taking, sought and obtained permission from the king in the autumn of 1529 to take up his residence at the University of Paris, to pursue his studies in theology. Here at least he would be free from the sordid vulgarity of Court intrigue, and there was little use in his remaining in England if the king would not listen to such advisers as Sir Thomas More and the Bishop of Rochester.

A month after Pole's arrival in Paris Cromwell (who had managed most successfully to exchange the service of the disgraced cardinal for that of the king) counseled Henry plainly to take over the supremacy of the Church. Little, it was clear, could be expected from the Pope; indeed it seemed certain that he would never declare Katherine's marriage with Henry to have been null and void from the beginning—the only possible means by which he could ever hope to marry Anne Boleyn. Why not, therefore, simplify matters by substituting himself as supreme judge? "England," remarked the minister, "is a monster with two heads"—a suggestion which might fairly be left to a monarch of Henry VIII.'s taste for capital punishment. On November 3, 1529, the Parliament "for the enormities of the clergy" assembled, heard High Mass of the Holy Ghost, and proceeded to debate. The king was present; Audley was speaker; Cromwell sat as member for Taunton; and the new Lord Chancellor (who did not survive this Parliament) opened the session with a brilliant, ironical speech, construed by his enemies into a bitter attack upon Wolsey—which it was not. In this Parliament the schismatic suggestion of Cromwell—now chief secretary—was first breathed abroad; and caused a thrill of horror.

Pole had not been long in Paris before he was, to use his own expression, "thunder struck" to receive a message from Henry requesting him to obtain the decision of the Sorbonne as to the "legality" of his first marriage. This was, of course, the direct fruit of a suggestion by one Thomas Cranmer, then a private tutor at Cambridge, to the effect that a consensus of opinion should be taken from the European universities on the question of the divorce;—a suggestion to which he owed certainly his archbishopric, and presumably, his soul.

Pole, who had exiled himself to avoid the royal scandal, quietly resolved to ignore this request. Henry evidently chose to consider him as a kind of chief commissioner in his interests, and sent over the Bishop of Bayonne as his coadjutor. But on that prelate's arrival he was gently but definitely given to understand by Pole that the whole affair was in his—the ambassador's—hands, and must be concluded independently of himself; and that he could not allow his name to be associated in any way with the verdict of the university.

Protestant historians are filled with astonishment that at this juncture Queen Katherine did not do what to them seems the right and natural thing, and quietly step aside, leaving her husband free to wed in rapid succession, his remaining five wives; instead of opposing the divorce with all the strong political interest at her command. They argue that all love for such a man must long ago have ceased, and that a separation on any terms must have been far more agreeable than to live as his wife with a man who caused her nothing but the most intense suffering. Nor do they ever grasp the fact that the sacrament of matrimony being indissoluble no such thing as divorce—in the Protestant sense of the word—is, or ever has been, recognized by the Catholic Church. It is, of course, true that in some cases marriages are annulled, even after a long lapse of years, upon the simple fact that they have never really been marriages at all; owing to some informality or obstacle, such as kinship or affinity willfully concealed, a previous unacknowledged marriage on the part of husband or wife, or the fact that one of the contracting parties was compelled by fear, or force. The invalidation of his marriage was exactly what the king was aiming at. But even if Katherine had actually lived with his brother as his wife, Clement VII. would doubtless not have annulled her subsequent marriage with Henry. Julius II. had especially provided in the dispensation for this contingency, though as a matter of fact—which the king moved heaven and earth in vain to disprove—her first marriage had never been anything but a formal contract, owing to the ill-health of Prince Arthur.

Upon these facts, with which Pole was perfectly acquainted, the whole question turned.

On November 29, 1530, Cardinal Wolsey died—an event which Anne Boleyn's father celebrated by a magnificent banquet and entertainment to the king; at which was performed a realistic play representing the cardinal's descent into hell, and his reception there. At Henry's command Pole returned to England, to his retreat at Sheen, and was at once offered the Archbishopric of York, by the king. "There was no obstacle," said Henry, "to his accepting it, except . . . that (insignificant) matter of the divorce."

It was, perhaps, the crisis of Reginald Pole's life. The king did not hesitate to tamper with the young man's family; promising them riches—and what was far more valuable, personal security—if only Pole would accept . . . the bribe! It was a mere question of policy, he remarked; in fact, the reason he wanted Pole to be archbishop was that he might always be guided by his advice in spiritual matters.

The Duke of Norfolk was sent to intercede with him; he was told that York and Winchester would both be kept open for three months, and he might accept either. The revenues were vast; the king was anxious to secure Pole by any means; his family implored him; the dazzling prospect of a career equal to that of Wolsey, but marred by none of that prelate's mistakes, lay before him. He told the king at last that he would take a month to consider. It is evident he scarcely knew what to say, for there is no doubt that he hoped, as archbishop, to be able to stem effectually the steadily rising tide of schism which now threatened England.

In the meantime Parliament met, on January 3, 1531, and Convocation assembled at Westminster eighteen days later. Clearly and definitely now, Henry demanded the title of Supreme Head of the Church, and sought to compass his end by involving both assemblies under the Statute of Praemunire, by which their liberty and entire possessions were forfeited to the crown. Terrified beyond measure, Convocation offered a "spontaneous oblation" of nearly a million pounds, current value, to escape what they too clearly foresaw. This was exactly what Henry wanted. He refused to accept the gift unless the bishops and clergy would accept him as Supreme Head of the Church. It was an awful moment. "The clergy," says a Protestant historian, "had defied the lion, and the lion held them in his grasp; and they could but struggle helplessly, supplicate, and submit."

On February 9 a royal message was sent to know if Henry's terms were accepted; and a futile attempt was made to soften Cromwell, and later on, the king. Henry refused to see the deputation. Then they knew it was all or nothing; Pope or king, life or death. But schism . . . and open rupture with the Church universal . . . they dared not risk it! Better, after all, to lose their lives than their souls. The king, privately advised that they were "stubborn," made a significant concession. The admission now ran:

"Ecclesiae et cleri Anglicani singularem protectorem et unicum et supremum Dominum, et quantum per lege Christi licet, etiam supremum caput ipsius Majestatem agnoscimus." ("We acknowledge his Majesty as the only protector, as the sole and sovereign lord, and as far as the law of Christ allows, even as the Supreme Head of the Church and Clergy of England.")

On February 11, this amendment, read by the aged Archbishop Warham, passed in sullen, furious silence. At a later session Convocation discussed it, and nearly all declared they had saved their consciences. Henry accepted the "spontaneous oblation" with dignity; dismissed Convocation; granted the "pardon" (which the Commons, only just in time, discovered did not include themselves); and before Parliament was prorogued on March 31, 1531, the Lords had sent to the Pope a letter instructing him as to his duties, and detailing at some length the merits of the divorce.

There was not much doubt as to what Pole's answer would be, now. Henry sent for him to Greenwich palace in the firm conviction that he would accept the Arch bishopric. But the moment they came face to face the Spirit of God seemed to descend upon the future Cardinal, and for the first time for many years Henry VIII. listened to the truth from the lips of one whom he respected in spite of himself. All Pole's doubt and hesitation were gone; he felt no fear of the great passionate man, who walked up and down the long gallery, fingering his dagger, with which, he afterwards declared, he was strongly tempted to stab the speaker. Nothing, he confessed, but his fearlessness and simplicity saved Pole, who spoke as one delivering a message from God; and who afterwards drew up his reasons for declining the dignity in a letter to the King which caused Henry to say his cousin had added insult to injury; though he retracted this later, and certainly respected Pole more than ever.

But the definite step was taken; he had made his great refusal; privately, at least he had made an enemy of the King, and the King was supreme now. Only exile remained he—must leave England without loss of time.

But if he had sacrificed his brilliant future at least he had not sacrificed his soul.