Angelic Cardinal Reginald Pole - C. M. Antony

The First Legation

Pope Paul III, who had for many years desired to bring about a thorough reformation of discipline in the Church, had finally decided to assemble a small, representative body of men at Rome with whom he could consult on the matter. Those whom he invited were distinguished either for scholarship and brilliant literary achievements, or for eminent saintliness of life—in several cases for both. Though Reginald Pole was still young, and yet a layman, the Pope had heard too much of him from Cardinal Contarini not to be anxious to secure his cool judgment and weighty advice on certain important and difficult questions.

But it was with very mingled feelings that Pole received the Papal command. Besides his genuine humility he felt deep concern that the summons should come at the very moment when, by obeying it, he would seem to be definitely siding against Henry, who would not fail to misconstrue his action. He wrote a very careful letter to the King, informing him of the circumstances, and of his own surprise at the summons to Rome, enclosing a copy of the Pope's mandate.

This he sent without delay, together with his letter to his mother, and the replies to Cromwell and Tunstall; earnestly hoping that the King would receive it before learning from a hostile source of the journey to Rome. On July 27, he wrote to the Pope, expressing his wonder at the call of one who had no other desire or expectation but to live "in a private station"; explaining how anxious he was to avoid unnecessarily wounding Henry's feelings, or rousing him to anger; and that his coming to Rome at the very moment when he had refused to present himself at the King's court could scarcely fail to do both; as Henry would certainly take it for granted that the visit to Rome was a political one. He adds that he cannot yet despair of Henry, however others may; and hopes England may be saved by the proposed Council.

Pole left Venice at the end of September, 1536, with Caraffa, Archbishop of Chieti; the Abbot of San Giorgio, who was to have accompanied them having gone on in advance to visit the Bishop of Salerno, another member of the Council. At Verona Pole and Caraffa were joined by Bishop Ghiberti, and here an express post-haste from England very nearly stopped Pole's journey altogether. Michael Throgmorton brought him furious letters from Henry himself, as well as from Starkey, Cromwell and Tunstall, threatening dire penalties not only on himself but on his family should he persevere in his intention of going to Rome. Henry, with his usual astuteness, easily saw what a tremendously important political situation might be created were his determined cousin and the Pope to meet; and did not for a moment hesitate to threaten the lives of a number of innocent people in order to prevent the meeting . . . a pleasant method of elementary simplicity much affected by Henry!

Starkey wrote an angry but stately Letter—the last, he said, that Pole should ever receive from him, expressing his disappointment and disgust with De Unitate, and with the writer for making the test of Catholicity union with Rome. "More [and] Rochester . . . suffered by their own folly. They only died for a superstition, as, I think, no wise man shall do hereafter."

These letters Pole might have disregarded, but there were others. His brother, Lord Montague, and his aged mother, both sent messages which must have been bitter to read. "Son Reginald," wrote Margaret Pole, "I send you God's blessing and mine, though my trust to have comfort in you is turned to sorrow. Alas, that I, through your folly, should receive such message as I have late done by your brother. To me . . . his Highness has shewn such mercy and pity as I could never deserve. . . . And now, to see you in his Grace's indignation. . . trust me, Reginald, there went never the death of thy father or of any child so nigh mine heart. Upon my blessing I charge thee to take another way, and serve our Master, as thy duty is, unless thou wilt be the confusion of thy mother. You write of a promise made by you to God. Son, that was to serve God and thy prince, whom if thou do not serve with all thy wit, with all thy power, I know thou cannot please God. I will pray God to give thee grace to serve thy prince truly, or else, to take thee to His mercy."

"Gentle Reginald," wrote his eldest brother, whose fears were only too well grounded: "let no scrupulosity so embrace [you] but that we, which be so knit in nature, and so happily born under so noble a prince, may so join together to serve him as our bounden duty requireth. It is incredible to me that by reason of a brief sent you from the Bishop of Rome you should be resident with him this winter. (It was forbidden to speak of the Pope except as the Bishop of Rome, at the end of 1533.) If you should take that way then farewell all my hope . . . and then farewell all bonds of nature. . . . But utterly without hope I cannot be ... that you would so highly offend God . . . without the devil have so much power over you; from the which to keep you I shall as heartily pray as I would be a partner of the joys of Heaven."

Reginald Pole's very soul was wrung with anguish. Again he stood at the parting of the ways. It was a small thing to be denounced by the King . . . but his own mother! . . . All that was human in his soul; patriotism, family honor, love . . . above all the unquenchable dread of the danger incurred by these helpless people—a danger which he was by his present action converting into a deadly certainty,—rose up within him, clamoring that he should give up the journey to Rome—insisting that he should yield. He asked himself in agony of spirit if he were not called upon, at least for the sake of those others, to obey his King's command—after all a merely negative one, and to plead the letters he had just received as an excuse to the Pope, who would surely understand that as a member of the English royal family he could scarcely be called upon to take a prominent part in any scheme of papal policy.

And, on the other hand, there was the definite call of the Vicar of Christ to work which he knew was not political; and he knew, too, that nothing in the world was an excuse for refusing that call. He consulted Caraffa and Ghiberti. Very tenderly they reminded him that spiritual authority must come before temporal—had he not written in defense of that very principle himself, and could he lose so glorious an opportunity of vindicating it? There was no doubt at all as to what he ought to do. And so, after a struggle, of the bitterness of which we dare not think, Pole decided. To Contarini he wrote that the letters from his brother and mother, "written in a miserable strain," had touched him so deeply that he had nearly succumbed. To his mother he wrote a letter full of tenderness, reminding her of his duty to God, rather than man; begging her to believe that he had acted according to his conscience, and that he could not do otherwise. He told Cromwell that his threats did not terrify him; and patiently explained Tunstall's difficulties, writing to each in terms which could not be mistaken. He kept the courier with him until he and his friends reached Bologna, and then dispatched him to England with a heart which must have ached in spite of his courage. The King was now openly defied, and there was no doubt that he would do his worst.

But his companions, and indeed, the whole papal court were deeply impressed with the significance of what had passed; and the importance of the man who, seeking nothing but peace and retirement, was the object of continual overtures on the part of such a King as Henry VIII. Pole himself wrote to Contarini from Siena that now they despaired of securing him by persuasion, they would not hesitate to employ force . . . a prophecy most literally fulfilled.

Every honor was paid to the young Englishman when the party reached Rome. He was lodged in the Vatican, and was deeply touched by the kindness he received. Of the nine Commissioners, all but the Archbishop of Salerno were his personal friends; and five had been his fellow travelers. Cardinal Contarini, a wise and saintly prelate, was president of the Commission, which had, broadly speaking, to put into practical working form various theories of the Holy Father on matters of discipline, and the interior government of the Church. Contarini laid the subjects in order before the Council, requesting everyone to give his opinion on each question, in writing; but Cortesio begged Pole, who was the great Cardinal's intimate friend, to request him to allow each man to take a different subject for though, as an old biographer delightfully puts it: "the candor of all . . . was such that they would judge of each other's performances . . . with perhaps greater impartiality than their own," still, so as not to break perfect unity, it was deemed advisable to adopt Cortesio's suggestion. An eloquent Dominican Cardinal, comprehending more clearly than the others the vastness of the reforms involved, begged the Holy Father to postpone their discussion to a General Council; and this, in fact, was done a few years later at the Council of Trent.

Meantime it was evident that Pole, though by far the youngest member of the Council, was by no means the least practical; and his opinion was sought by all. It was indeed to him that the plan of reformation was finally entrusted, and published later in his name alone, without those of any coadjutors.

The Pope was deeply interested in the question of the reform of the lives of the clergy and, of all the subjects laid before the Council, he had this most at heart. Keenly alive to the importance of the influence of the Sacred College, he was determined to fill up its ranks with none but men of saintly and blameless character, who could be trusted to carry out his principles of reform. There were several vacancies to be filled at the next Consistory, and the Pope had from the first determined that Reginald Pole should be one of the new Cardinals. Beccadelli, (afterwards Archbishop of Ragusa) Pole's friend and biographer, who had accompanied him to Rome, tells us that, as he was still a layman, many had considered it possible that he should eventually marry the Princess Mary an alliance at one time contemplated by her father, Henry VIII. as he had been her friend from childhood, his mother having been appointed as her governess and chief lady-in-waiting by the King and Queen. The two had not met for years, and there is not a particle of evidence to prove that Pole had thought of marriage, even with Mary Tudor, for a moment. Still, it was generally felt that his elevation to the rank of Cardinal would effectually silence these suspicions.

Pole, however, was deeply distressed when the Pope's intentions became evident, and earnestly begged the Holy Father to consider that Henry could not fail to believe that Pole had known all the time the true reason of his summons to Rome, and had defied him, secure in the knowledge of the Pope's protection and the dazzling prospect of the Cardinalate.

Paul III. was moved by his passionate protest, and promised, says Beccadelli, to strike his name off the list of Cardinals-elect—to Pole's intense relief and gratitude. However, on the very morning of the Consistory, the Holy Father, having deeply considered the question, sent abruptly for Pole, whose dismay was indescribable; but, finding the Pope absolutely determined, he surrendered himself "like a sheep into the hands of her shearers," says his friend, who was present. He received the tonsure, and was with twelve others, amongst whom were his friends Sadolet and Caraffa, created Cardinal on December 22, 1536, under the title of SS. Nereus and Achilleus. A few days later came a dispatch from certain of the Catholics in England, praying the Pope to create him Cardinal, and to send him as Papal legate to his native country. This also came to pass; for on February 7, 1537, he was created Legate de latere to England. His appointment, it was felt, would keep up the courage of those who were fighting to the death, for their faith; and Pole himself, fearless now that the step was once taken, burned with enthusiasm to reconcile King Henry VIII. He remembered, he tells us, that he was now a successor of the Apostles, whose blood had been shed for the Church; the very crimson and scarlet of his Cardinal's robes reminded him of the martyrs in whose footsteps he, too, was called to tread and, it might well be, to give his life as they had given theirs: "as, having the same cause in common . . . I may hope to have the same Protector, and be entitled to the same reward." He was now a Prince of the Church, and his Cardinalate was everywhere looked upon as a certain pledge of the promised ecclesiastical reformation.

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


Among the dozens of letters of congratulation which he received, not one was from his own country, and this caused him bitter grief—but one from the Doge of Venice must have encouraged him greatly. The writer says that he and all Venice rejoiced at the news; and that the whole of Christendom is indebted to the Pope for the new Cardinal; and that as he could not possibly say all he felt in a letter he had instructed his ambassador to wait upon Pole, and tell him all that was in his—the Doge's—heart. Pole replied that Venice, his second home, was dearer to him than perhaps any other city, except Padua; and at the close of a most grateful letter tells the Doge that he has a right to consider him as a Venetian subject.

Meantime there were many obstacles in the way of his mission to England. His instructions were to keep in touch with the Northern Catholics, who, goaded to madness, had just attempted a rising in Yorkshire. The Legate was to encourage them, and, if it was impossible to cross to England, to remain as near as possible—in France , or on the coast of Flanders.

England was indeed in a pitiable plight. The last year, 1536, had seen the dissolution of all the smaller religious houses, and most of the greater ones; while at the present time Cromwell's tools, Legh and Layton, were proceeding with their second "visitation" of the remainder. When the new Parliament met on June 9, there was a new Queen; and Anne's marriage had to be declared null and void, and her daughter Elizabeth proclaimed illegitimate, as of course she was. Convocation, assembling at the same time, had to listen to a sermon from Latimer in which he roundly abused that time serving body, and inveighed furiously against relics, images, purgatory and the Saints. Convocation, not unnaturally, was neither flattered nor edified, but by its own act, it was powerless to check heresy, and Protestantism had been spreading widely since Wolsey's death.

Under the Vicegerent Cromwell's direction, it passed a Confession of Faith, in which the Bible, the three Creeds, and the first four general Councils were mentioned as the general grounds of belief. Three Sacraments Baptism, Penance, and the Holy Eucharist were referred to as worthy of acceptance; and the Confession upheld the doctrine of the Real Presence. Saints in general, it was announced, might be invoked with advantage; but not individual saints—a slightly illogical tenet for which, prudently, no explanation was offered. "Superstition" was to be discouraged, and, no doubt to this end, a copy of the Bible in Latin and English was ordered to be set up in every parish church by August 1, the Feast of St. Peter in Chains.

Discontent, ever smoldering, burst into fierce flame in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire; and at Louth, on October 1, 1536, a general rising took place; the people clamoring for the abolition of the Protestant bishops, and the restitution of the ancient order, particularly of the monasteries; and claiming their right to seven sacraments. The Northern peers, ready to die for their faith, were in communication with the Pope and the powerful Emperor Charles V. A Catholic alliance was planned between the Emperor, Francis I. of France, and James V. of Scotland, to bring back England to her allegiance. And though the Pilgrimage of Grace was within a fortnight extinguished in blood, the North rose again under Roger Aske, on October 14, and for some months the issue was doubtful.

At the midnight Mass in St. Peter's, at Christmas 1536, three days after Pole had become Cardinal, the Holy Father solemnly blessed a cap and sword laid upon the High Altar, destined to be worn in defense of Holy Church by James of Scotland.

Meantime the "visitations" continued, conducted by the two men whom a bigoted Protestant historian styles "rash and blameable;" and who were in reality intolerable, sacrilegious scoundrels, whose very servants made rich apparel out of the stolen mass vestments in which they paraded the King's highway. Everywhere was open pillage and robbery which could no longer be cloaked under the convenient name of "reform."

Into this terrible state of things it was the new Legate's duty to inquire. As it was perfectly certain that his head would not be safe for an instant should Henry hear of his landing, he was advised to remain on the Continent, and use every endeavor to promote a solid peace between the Emperor and the King of France, in view of the Catholic Alliance which seemed the only hope of saving England. It may be said here that the bitter political jealousy between the two rival monarchs was so great that all thought of touching Henry through them had to be abandoned, to their everlasting dishonor.

The Legate was also bidden to inform all the Princes through whose domains he passed of the Holy Father's intention to summon a General Council, and to beg their co-operation. If he found it impossible to visit officially the French court, Ghiberti, who was appointed his companion, was commissioned to do it for him.

Credentials were given him to the English nation, who were bidden to reverence and assist him; to James of Scotland, who was exhorted to support him; to the French King; and to Mary, Dowager-Queen of Hungary, sister to the Emperor, and Regent of the Low Countries.

Pole, in a letter to the Pope, declares that he fears that Henry, in order to escape danger, and to put them off their guard, would profess compliance with the wishes of his Catholic subjects; and then take a terrible vengeance upon them which was exactly what did happen a few months later. Lest the nation should be terrorized he begs for active encouragement for the persecuted, and the opening, in Rome, of a fund for their relief.

He considered the contract between the King and the nation void, by the breach of faith of the former, and the renouncing of that supremacy which for 900 years both sovereign and nation had professed; for which Fisher and More had gladly died, and for which he himself was an exile. Parliament, he added, was merely a tool in the King's hands.

As he started on his perilous journey (February, 1537), he received a letter signed by all the members of the King's Council, repudiating De Unitate Ecclesice; and stating that if he was not already a Cardinal they would willingly confer with him in Flanders, unofficially. To this Pole replied that he could not have written otherwise, and that as to the language complained of, only one copy had been sent, and that to the King, so no great harm had been done. The French ambassador in Venice wrote to him to say he had sent a letter to the Lord High Steward of France, telling him what an illustrious visitor he might soon expect to receive.

Priuli, whom Pole called his Achates, and Beccadelli accompanied the Legate, as well as Ghiberti, and a small retinue. They started in Lent, and the health of the new Cardinal, far from robust, suffered greatly from fasting, though at first he refused to yield to his friends remonstrances, and make any change in his diet. Later on he did so, on the strong representation of Contarini and Ghiberti; and writing to the former, he says that he feels better, and that his reason for refusing was the fear of setting a bad example. He begs Contarini, too, to remind the Pope to pray for him, for he is "much invigorated" thereby.

At his farewell interview with the Holy Father he had asked but one thing—that he would remember him in his prayers.

From Piacenza, in the same delightful letter to Contarini, he explains that all his suite had gone out to explore the city, but his "golden shackles" kept him chained in his apartments; as a Papal Legate could scarcely go about sight-seeing! Instead, he was writing to his friend, and realizing what a solemn and awful thing he had undertaken.

At Lyons news came to him of the crushing of Roger Aske's rising by the blackest treachery on Henry's part. Things could scarcely be worse in England than they were now. "Henry VIII.," says an able non-Catholic writer (Gairdner), "was a despot who succeeded as few despots have done, in oppressing and slaughtering his subjects to gratify his own self-will, without interference either from powers at home, or from abroad."

At Paris the first check awaited Cardinal Pole. He was almost within reach of the terrible claws which the royal wild-beast stretched across the sea. The clergy and populace came out to meet him with every demonstration of honor, but the King was conspicuous by his absence; and later in the day sent a private letter to the Legate, begging him not to demand an audience—which to his grief he must refuse—but to leave Paris next day, and France as soon as possible. He had been warned, he said, "by an enemy of the Cardinal," to whom he could not "for his Kingdom's sake," refuse to listen. His personal feelings were very different, and the whole affair caused him deep sorrow. Henry, in defiance of all national law and courtesy, had actually requested Francis to deliver Pole into his hands as a traitor, and to send him in chains, a prisoner, to England!

Pole's gentle spirit was roused. In a letter to the Pope he says such conduct is an outrage on all the laws which govern Christian Kings; and had he been sent on a mission to a robber chieftain he could scarcely imagine that the like would happen. Francis, however, saw Ghiberti, and paid every exterior mark of reverence and respect to the Legate. More he could not afford to risk. The Legate proceeded to the Low Countries, but was stopped at Cambray by order of the Queen-Regent. Pole gives a graphic account of the event in a letter to the Cardinal-Archbishop of Liege; and in one to the Pope a few weeks later. The messenger whom he sent to the Regent's court was stopped at Valenciennes, and after much delay, in response to his letter to the Cardinal-Prince of Liege, a message came to him from that prelate urging him to come at once to Liege in disguise.

The reason for this was soon apparent. Henry had been at work again. The Archdeacon of Cambray went to the Regent and brought back a courteous message that she wished personally to do the Legate every honor, but in the present terribly strained political situation she dared not give him audience, and thereby declare herself the open enemy of England. For this reason, and because she could not be officially aware of his presence, the Queen begged him to leave the Netherlands at once, and promised to conduct him to Liege with an armed escort if he would promise to do so. Henry's messenger, it seems, had just arrived at Brussels, warning the Regent against the Legate, and again begging that he might be betrayed and kidnapped, as a traitor.

After weighing the reasons for and against his immediate return to Rome, Pole goes on to say that he wishes to remain at his post, though the cause of England seems hopeless; and mentions the price of 100,000, set by Henry on his head, adding that he had no fear; though if he had, the example of Ghiberti would dispel it. The letter ends with these prophetic words: "If . . . the present generation transmit their opinions to their children, England will be forever lost to the Church."

He spent a month at Cambray, where the air was rife with plots for his assassination, and messengers passed continually between the Queen-Regent, the Bishop of Cambray, and the Archbishop of Liege. The position was most awkward and uncomfortable the town swarmed with freebooters and soldiers. Pole himself did not hold his life worthy of a day's purchase. But he saw clearly, as his official dispatches shew, that in all the seething tumult and smoldering discontent in England a moment might come for sudden action; and that it would be necessary for him to be on the spot. In a letter to Contarini he says he is far more conspicuous than he has any wish to be; and that a whole regiment of soldiers could change their quarters with greater privacy than he.

At the beginning of June he reached Liege. "They take him there," writes a spy of Cromwell s, "for a young god." He wrote to the Pope, telling him that a journey of two days had taken forty—alluding to his detention at Cambray; and to Contarini to ask for money, pointing out pathetically that he is as economical as he can be—Ghiberti is treasurer and Priuli will bear him out that nothing is wasted; but that the expenses are very great, and they depend entirely upon the Pope's generosity. He mentions a plot for his assassination by one of Henry's emissaries which was very nearly successful. On the same day, June 10, he wrote to the Sacred College, begging for a letter of thanks to be sent to the Cardinal of Liege, on account of his great kindness and hospitality.

A few days later Henry sent an embassy to the Emperor, (in whose domains Pole was now living), offering him 500,000 golden crowns and 4,000 soldiers to fight against France, as the price of the Cardinal-legate, whom he desired to be delivered up alive, as a subject already attainted of treason!

Meantime, at Liege, enjoying the princely hospitality of the Cardinal-Prince, the little band spent three peaceful months, living almost as religious. They remained in their rooms, reciting the Divine office in private until Mass at 9. Dinner followed about 11; during which the Bishop of Verona read aloud from the works of St. Bernard. After dinner Ghiberti again read aloud some theological work, and then all talked for an hour or two. Vespers and Compline, which were said in public, followed a rest of an hour and a half; and then the Legate expounded the Epistles of St. Paul with "wonderful reverence, humility and judgment," and the conference was followed by supper. Then, in the sweet summer evenings, they went for a walk in the fields or country lanes; and sometimes for a row on the river.

"Certe Deus nobis haec otia fecit;" said Pole continually to Priuli, never failing, says the latter, to add: "Why is not Contarini here to enjoy it with us?" The little household was an oasis of prayer and peace in a wilderness of hatred and war.

Nothing could be definitely effected for England, however; and on June 30, the Pope, most anxious for Cardinal Pole's presence in Rome, recalled him; "as there are at this difficult time many things on which the [Holy Father] needs his advice."

Before he left, the Regent received Ghiberti very graciously, and sent many messages to the Legate. But his best friend had been the Cardinal Archbishop. With exquisite delicacy he had insisted upon cancelling a note for 1,500 crowns which Pole had given while awaiting supplies from the Papal exchequer, and added to this a gift of 2,000 crowns "as a token of his love;" and before his guest's departure he spent three days in planning out a route by which Pole would be safe in travelling, and in friendly country.

Pole was still hopeful of a third rising in England, and was loth to leave his post of danger. "Of indignity," he said to Contarini, who had expressed a doubt on the subject, "there is no fear, as nothing can be more dangerous than to dare to remain in such perilous places where least of all the enemy of the cause would wish them to be." On the eve of his departure he wrote to the Holy Father, saying that he is "always of the same opinion," but submitting entirely to the Pope's judgment. On August 22, 1537 the Legate left Liege, "riding solemnly through the city, giving his benediction to the people, with a cross borne before him, and other ceremonies. He was accompanied by the Cardinal of Liege, the Bishop of Verona, and the Nounce du Pappe."

After a difficult and perilous journey by way of Germany they reached Italy, where, just before arriving at Trent, Pole received a letter from Contarini, dated August 12, to say that the Pope permitted him to use his own discretion as to whether he returned or not. With gentle irony he remarked that perhaps it was well he had not received the mandate before leaving Liege; and added that now his sacrifice would seem to be unnecessary. Priuli's friendship and devotion greatly consoled him at, this time. "He is never far from me," he writes to Contarini, from Bovolona, Ghiberti's villa near Ostia.

He reached Rome at the beginning of October, 1537, and on the 19th gave a full account of his proceedings in Consistory, laying down his legateship and returning to the quiet studious life which he loved better than any other. On November 3, he wrote a long and grateful letter to the Cardinal of Liege.

His mission, from a human standpoint, had been almost completely a failure. Sadolet, who wrote to console him, reminded him that in dealing with one absolutely devoid of morals or conscience, like Henry, who at the same time held the reins of power, failure was a foregone conclusion.

But neither failure nor success meant anything to Reginald Pole, whose soul was consumed with two passions—zeal for the Church, and love of his country; and for their sake he was destined to accomplish greater things than these.