Angelic Cardinal Reginald Pole - C. M. Antony

The Challenge and the Answer

Reginald Pole spent the first year of his exile at Avignon, a town directly under the jurisdiction of the Pope, and at a safer distance from England than Paris. Here, however, he found the winter so cold and bleak that he decided upon returning to Padua, and the sunnier skies of Italy. In 1532 he set out for his old University by way of Carpentras, where he remained some time as the guest of the bishop, Monseigneur Sadolet, a well-known man of letters, who was charmed with him. All through his life Pole seems to have possessed a unique gift for making and keeping friends, for which he may well be envied, and which he largely owed to his unselfishness and deep humility. Sadolet wrote to Ghiberti, Bishop of Verona, whose friendship Pole renewed on the next stage of his journey, telling him how he had enjoyed Pole's too short visit, and how they had discussed literature, and plans of study, comparing notes the elder man asking for and acting upon the advice of the younger. "I find him," said the new friend to the old, "a genius of the first class; with a consummate knowledge of the Greek and Latin languages, . . . and with great elegance of manners."

At Padua Pole at once set about forming a household on his former lines; one member of which was his old friend Bonamico. He made the acquaintance of Cosmo Gherio, the future Bishop of Fano, and of Beccadelli, his biographer and life-long friend, also a member of his household. Again he gave himself unreservedly to the dear delight of study, and almost forgot his troubles. This was his true environment—here he was happy—surrounded by his friends, his books, in a great peaceful house where the sweet, silent, solitary hours alternated with brilliant debate in the senate-house, and not less brilliant conversation with the greatest scholars and thinkers of Europe, most of whom were his own personal friends. Many were the visits he paid to Venice, the home of his two great friends, Bembo, and Aloysius Priuli. Together they planned expeditions to the distant islands across the lovely lagoon; and explored the wonders of the City in the Sea—the magical beauty of San Marco; San Giovanni Paulo of the Dominicans, where the Doges lie in solemn state; and all the treasured riches of the glorious Venetian churches.

At the mouth of the wide Giudecca Canal stands, on a small island, the great Benedictine monastery of San Giorgio, with its famous campanile; and this place was a favorite resort of Pole's, who had formed a warm friendship with the abbot, Don Gregorio Cortesio, a learned and saintly man; and also with a religious of the order, Don Marco. Of the latter, Pole, writing five years later, said: "There is no one to whom I more readily listen, discoursing on divinity." In a letter to Cardinal Contarini at Rome—a friend of his university life—he says: Venice is Eden, and we only want you to make a fourth." He reveled in the beauty by which he was surrounded, particularly in the wonderful Venetian gardens; such as that of the old Palazzo Bembo, on a waterway between the Grand Canal and the Giudecca; in which even at noon the black ilexes and yews make a cool retreat of the narrow shrubbery where a tiny brook trickles and tinkles over the mossy stones, below a fern-fringed winding walk; while through the green dimness dazzling masses of flowers riot under a burning sun.

At Venice, too, Pole first met Caraffa, the founder of the Theatines, the fiery Neapolitan who was to become Pope Paul IV.; the man who was first his friend, then his rival, and who ended by breaking his heart.

Perhaps these four years, taken altogether, are the happiest of Reginald Pole's life. But it says much for his strength of character that in spite of all his friends, of his easy circumstances, (for the King still continued his allowance as Pole had not publicly declared himself his enemy), and the temptations to idleness of all kinds by which he was surrounded, he never gave up his systematic course of study, and that his reputation as one of the foremost scholars of the university steadily increased.

Meanwhile in England the logical consequence of the events of 1531 had come to pass. On January 15, 1534, Parliament met and entered upon the final stage of the separation of England from the church universal. To the King, it enacted, were to belong all the jurisdiction and offices of the Pope in England, and—what was at least as import ant to Henry—all the tithes and offerings belonging to the Holy See. Peter's Pence were abolished, Annates made payable to the King, also a yearly tithe on all clerical incomes. The bishops were required to swear that they "abjured the Pope." It was made treason to speak against Henry or Anne, or to call the former infidel, tyrant, heretic or schismatic—no doubt a wise precaution!

[Illustration] from Cardinal Pole by C. M. Antony


The statute concluded by asserting that the country was not separating from Catholic Unity, but only from the Papacy. How the King differentiated between the Catholic Church and its Visible Head was not stated. This also was prudent, as Henry continued to proclaim himself a "good Catholic." Shortly after, an Act was passed cutting off the Princess Mary from the succession and requiring from the nation an oath of allegiance to Elizabeth, daughter of Anne Boleyn; and a recognition of the King's "marriage" with that lady, which had taken place on January 25, 1533.

On November 3, 1534, Parliament reassembled, and on the 4th the act was finally passed which distinctly and definitely cut the last link. The Supreme Headship of the Church of England was conferred absolutely on the King. "Be it enacted," says the statute, "that the King our Sovereign Lord, his heirs and successors, kings of this realm, shall be taken, accepted, and reputed as the only Supreme Head in earth of the Church of England, called Anglicana Ecclesia." This act was followed by another making it high treason to deny the Royal Supremacy in the King or his heirs.

The blow had fallen! Catholic England had been deliberately driven into the dreary darkness of schism by the furious passions and ungovernable will of one unhappy man. The honor of heading the glorious roll of martyrs who sealed the truth with their blood belongs to the three Carthusian Priors, who, with two other priests, on May 4, 1535, were butchered at Tyburn for denying the King's Supremacy, and refusing to take the oath; and who, dying, gave God glory that they were counted worthy to suffer for his name. Sir Thomas More and Bishop Fisher, who had just been created cardinal, were already in the tower for the same cause. On June 19, three more Carthusians suffered. Three days later, on June 22, the aged Bishop of Rochester, Blessed John Fisher, King Henry's former tutor, was beheaded on Tower Hill; and on July 6, Blessed Thomas More, Lord High Chancellor of England, suffered there for the same "crime."

All Europe thrilled and sickened at the savage barbarity. "God is my witness," said Pole, writing of the death of More, "that involuntary tears fall from my eyes which blot out what I have written, and almost hinder me from going on with the subject." The horrible murders were not an outrage to the Holy See only, but to the whole civilized world. But the end was not yet.

During the early part of 1535, shortly after his assumption of the title of "Supreme Head" Henry, who had been sounding Thomas Starkey (now his chaplain) as to Pole's probable attitude, wrote himself to his cousin requiring his opinion on this proceeding, and on the divorce; sending him a treatise upon the subject, by Sampson, Bishop of Chichester. Starkey also wrote advising Pole how to answer. "Fearlessly," he said, "state your opinion. So you will honor God's truth and satisfy the King, who lately said to me: He would rather you were buried there than you should for any worldly promotion or profit to yourself dissemble with him in these great and weighty causes." Pole was at Ravelone, near Venice, the country seat of Priuli, whose guest he was when these epistles reached him. He at once sent Henry's letter to his wisest and most influential adviser, Cardinal Contarini, then at Rome; who said of it that the arguments were futile and weak, but arranged with much skill.

In his famous "letter" to the Emperor Charles V. written some years later, Pole says that these questions were precisely those to avoid which he had exiled himself; for had he agreed with them he must have been a traitor to the King's honor, his own conviction, and the welfare of his country. He had hitherto kept silence, though many thought he should have spoken out. But Henry—characteristically—had waited till it was death to oppose him, and then asked for his opinion.

"His orders were that I should send him my opinion in terms so clear and explicit as to avoid all ambiguity and subterfuge; and if I failed in so doing that I should incur his highest displeasure." Fisher and More had been quoted to terrify him, but: "I saw (in their deaths) the strongest motives to support with an unshaken resolution the cause for which they had laid down their lives." He goes on to say that he would rather renounce everything than compromise with the King, and what strengthened him most in this attitude was the blood of the martyrs. "That divine truth has always so manifested itself we are assured, first by His death who was very truth . . . . .These considerations banish all my dread, arm me with generous confidence, and give me to understand what are the true objects of fear and hope."

He decided to answer Henry's questions at length. On April 12, 1535 Harvel, the English ambassador at Venice, writes to Starkey that he will try to influence Pole as the King wishes, and make him return to his native country, but that "he [Pole] delights more in study than in life or glory, which has always been contemned by him." He consumes "his perpetual life at letters." "It is true that the sweetness of learning is so great that with difficulty a man greatly inflamed with virtue can be withdrawn from study, but between you and me and others, I hope we shall remove him from that ardent mind without any dubitation." Starkey's opinion of Pole, written about the same time to Cromwell, in connection with his expected answer to the King's message, is: "There lives not a more sincere man on earth than Master Pole, and whatever he thinks in these causes the King will be sure to know shortly."

Harvel, writing again to Starkey on April 21 says: "The performing of [Mr. Pole's] book will somewhat slake him, for his study is too fervent in that work. It will be an able monument of his wit and virtue. The greatest discomfort he could have would be to leave it imperfect, which he thinks he would do if he did not finish it in this quiet life."

Pole was indeed working hard at his reply at Venice, and the greater part was probably written among his Benedictine friends at San Giorgio.

In May, Starkey, who was exceedingly anxious as to the nature of his friend's answer, wrote to him: "I am glad to see, by the few words you wrote, that you will apply yourself to satisfy the King's request, which was, in few words, clearly and plainly without color or cloak of dissimulation to shew your sentence in his lately defined cause. This I am sure you will do gladly, for you will not dissemble with a King, from which dissimulation I have never seen a mind more abhorring!" He describes at great length the death of the Carthusians, referring to them as persons "who, as much as in them lay, have rooted sedition in the community;" and ends by expressing Henry's wonder that Pole should prefer a retired and scholastic life; and by a fine dose of flattery as to that monarch's intentions towards him.

Starkey's view of the Carthusian martyrdoms, however, was scarcely that of his friends abroad, for Harvel tells him, in a letter dated June 15, that they were "considered here to be of extreme cruelty, and all Venice was in great murmuration to hear it . . .they consider their execution as against all honest laws of God and man ... I never saw Italians break out so vehemently at anything."

Pole seems to have reassured the King's chaplain as to the fact of his writing a reply for: "I did not doubt of your will," writes Starkey, "but your long silence made me fear that the cause little liked you."

In August, 1535, we hear of Pole in Venice, befriending a certain Moryson, a poor scholar and notorious beggar, whose books and even his clothes had been seized for debt by the Jews. Writing to Starkey, Moryson says that he is now wearing the livery of Mr. Michael Throgmorton, Signer Polo's servant, and that his master's kindness had rescued him from "misery . . . hunger, cold and poverty . . . . I shall love him," he adds, "as long as God gives me life;" a sentiment which did not however prevent this estimable man from writing next year of "Mr. Traitor Pole."

An amusing letter from Pole's butler, Sandro, to Starkey from Venice (October 1, 1535), informs us that Priuli "is as much in love with my lord as ever . . . while we were at Sta. Croce he came to stay there, and never ceased till he drew Il Signore to his house at Padua." "It is expensive enough to keep house here," he adds feelingly; "but much more to move about . . . The Bishop of Verona (Ghiberti) sent the other day to Il Signore 250 gold crowns, praying him to accept them to buy horses to visit him at Verona. Il Signore has sent them back, promising to go and stay a few days with him." Three weeks later Sandro says: "We have a fine house on the Grand Canal, between the house of Foscari and the ferry of St. Barnabas;" and speaking of a friend of Pole's: "His present house is so small and cold and foul that it drove away Il Signore."

But the most delightful account of Pole which we have from Venice is in a letter to Starkey on December 1 from one John Friar. "Pole is studying divinity, and . . . despising things merely human and terrestrial. He is undergoing a great change, exchanging man for God."

By this time Henry's request had become publicly known, and Pole's answer was eagerly looked for. "The King," says Chapuys, the Imperial ambassador in England, on December 15, "has written expressly to Reginald Pole who is at Venice, to send him his opinion in writing de primatu pontificis. Would that the King had done it to hear the simple truth, and not to have a pretext for injuring Pole, who is one of the most virtuous persons in the world, and who will do a great deal when there is any talk of putting affairs here right;" a prophecy most literally fulfilled. "Master Pole," writes Harvel at Venice, "is in vehement study of writing to satisfy the King," and on December 28, 1535, he adds: "he is writing to the King . . . a fair work which will be aeternum monumentum et ingenii et virtutis suae. He keeps it secret to himself, for he wishes the King to be the first reader. "And again, on January 18, of the next year: "Mr. Pole is continual in writing of his work, and that with extreme study, which breaketh him much, especially in these sharp colds which have reigned many days."

This was the great treatise which was to set Christendom on fire, Pole's masterpiece, De Unitate Ecclesice. It was divided into four parts. In the first the writer boldly refutes the error of the King in proclaiming himself head of the Church of England; rebukes him for the sin of schism; and makes short work of Bishop Sampson's treatise on the matter. In the second, he declares the Supremacy of the Apostolic See of Rome over the whole world, and answers objections. The third book is a solemn warning, reminding the King of the righteous blood he has shed, for which retribution would certainly be required in this life as well as in the next; and speaking plainly of the temporal punishment which would probably befall him from the Catholic Sovereigns if he persisted in his madness. In the fourth, Pole apologizes frankly if he has said too much, or spoken too strongly, begging him to believe that every word proceeded from the highest motives of zeal and affection.

It was a manly, courageous piece of work, but when it was finished the writer paused. Before sending it to Henry he submitted it to Cardinal Contarini, begging him to read it "like an enemy and not a friend" and to Priuli. Both at first were of opinion that Pole had gone too far, and that if the King read the treatise nothing would prevent him from wreaking vengeance on its author. Contarini recommended milder words. Pole replied that strong language is sometimes necessary, and that he had never found that temporizing did any good. "Flattery," he writes from Venice, on March 4, 1536, "has been the cause of all the evil." However, he added, if his friends were still of the same opinion when they had read the whole carefully, he would make the alterations they recommended.

To Priuli Pole wrote that it was utterly against his nature to blame the King, but that Henry could not possibly succeed unless he was aware of his own failures; and that from his own close relationship and the fact that Henry had pointedly and directly appealed to him to do so, no one could point out those failures with greater right than he. There was no sacrifice, he said, which he could not make to promote the King's happiness, which he set above all earthly considerations. He warns Priuli, however, of the danger of treating Henry with anything but firmness. "Soft words are of no use, for gentleness and dissimulation have driven him to this madness." Lenity he mistook for cowardice: "misplaced softness has cast him into an abyss of exemplary vice;" and in this opinion a historian of very different caliber—the agnostic Hume—will be found to uphold the author of De Unitate Ecclesia.

The work was eventually printed without alteration. Priuli begged that Contarini might show the treatise to the Pope, but Pole refused, as in the present highly strained state of affairs Henry would not unnaturally be very angry if the treatise, addressed to himself, were first read by the Holy Father.

He spent Easter at Padua; and there followed a few weeks of anxious delay, caused by the dread of the vengeance which Henry would certainly take on Pole's family. However, in May, 1536, the news of Anne Boleyn's execution decided him to send his treatise to the King at once.

Five months earlier, on January 8 of the same year, the tragedy of the life of Katherine of Aragon had closed. Like her daughter Mary, she passed away while hearing and answering the Mass which was being said near her deathbed—her last act, to receive Viaticum.

Her death was celebrated by a great feast, at which Henry rejoiced publicly, brilliantly clad in yellow. On the day of the funeral a dead son was born to the dead woman's husband and Anne Boleyn. Disappointed of an heir, and weary of the woman for whom he had sold his soul, Henry found no difficulty of any kind in disposing of her. Hideous charges were brought against her. She was tried; condemned, with five men; and executed on May 19, 1536. Henry spent that day with one of her ladies-in-waiting, Jane Seymour, to whom he was betrothed on May 20, and whom he married ten days later, by a special "dispensation" from Cranmer—now Archbishop of Canterbury—granted on the very day of Anne Boleyn's execution.

Pole wrote to a friend that the death of Anne Boleyn would mean one of two things: either that the King would repent and submit; or that he would harden his heart, and be lost. On May 27, 1536, directly the news reached him, he dispatched his treatise by the hand of his trusted servant, Michael Throgmorton, from Venice, commending it earnestly to God. It was delivered to Henry by Sir John Russell, a gentle man of the King's Privy Chamber. Henry received it eagerly, glanced through it, and sent back Throgmorton post-haste to Venice to command Pole's instant attendance at court, in order to "explain certain difficulties" which, he said, occurred to him, immediately!

This invitation Pole declined, besides an even more pressing one from Cromwell. "I despair of England," he wrote to Contarini, on June 8. With a certain quiet humor he remarks in the "letter" to the Emperor that he was wily enough to see "like the cautious animal in the fable" the footprints of those creatures which had gone into the lion's den; but not one of those which had returned!

He wrote a polite refusal to the King, explaining that he had expressed himself in language too simple and clear to be misunderstood. But Henry had not yet received this when another royal express arrived at Venice with letters from Cromwell and Bishop Tunstall of Durham; the latter refuting Pole's treatise—which he had not read—and Cromwell (who in 1535 had been created Vicar-General and held a stall in Salisbury Cathedral; and was now, as Lord Privy Seal and Vicegerent of the King, presiding in Convocation and taking precedence of the Archbishop), taking it for granted that Pole was on his way to England, and informing him of the change in Tunstall's views; a prelate, he added, of whom Pole had always thought highly. Lest their meeting should cause Pole "shyness and surprise," the great man thought well to warn him of his change of front, for the avoiding of "uneasiness."

Henry, foreseeing that Pole would probably not return at the first summons, wrote through Tunstall that he would allow him to remain abroad on condition that he would destroy all that he had written; and promise to write no more against the King and his edicts, under a signed and sealed engagement. Timstall's letter, wrote Pole, was rather a volume than an epistle.

This prelate had taunted Pole with the benefits he had received from Henry's hands, and the education he owed to the King. To this Pole replied that no benefits, whatever gratitude he might feel to their giver, could buy his conscience; and he came at once to close quarters with Tunstall by adding that argument between them was useless, as they had not the common ground of obedience to the Holy See. "My zeal for his Majesty," he adds with dignity, "shall be the return which I make to him for my education . . . and above all, of what I owe to my own character as a Christian."

To his mother he wrote, on July 15, 1536, a most touching letter, full of the deepest tenderness, begging her not to "greve" that he could not return home. "Remember," he added, "that ever you had given me utterly unto God. And though you had so done with all your children, yet in me you had so given all right from you . . . that you never took any care to provide for my living . . . but committed all to God, to whom you had given me. This promise now, madam, in my Master's name I require of you to maintain . . . the which you cannot keep . . . if you now begin to care for me. When you see me complain of my Master, then . . . will it be time for you to care for me . . . so that if you will enjoy in me . . . any comfort . . . the readiest way is . . . to let me and my Master alone . . . knowing to what Master you have given me . . . (which) shall be to me the greatest comfort I can have of you."

But these letters had not been sent when on July 19, 1536, an urgent message from Pope Paul III. summoned their writer to Rome.