Reginald Pole was the third son of Countess Margaret Pole – one of the few surviving members of the Plantagenet dynasty after the War of the Roses, and one of only two women in 16th-century England to be a peer in her own right (the other was Anne Boleyn…). As was true of many younger sons, he joined the Church, with much of his education funded by Henry VIII. Pole waffled a bit when Henry asked him to support his divorce from Aragon, but his refusal quickly escalated into real opposition. He published a treatise, Pro ecclesiasticae unitatis defensione, which utterly rejected Henry’s position and denied the authority of the English church. Of course, he was smart enough to do this from a safe distance – he was in Italy, and out of Henry’s grasp. Henry tried to get him to return, but this letter delivers his clear reply.
A brief summary of the consequences of this letter are in order here. Henry’s anger at this letter only spurred Reginald Pole on. Because of his royal blood, he was seen as a possible claimant to the throne – especially if he married the Lady Mary; this became an underlying element of all his machinations. The Pope named him a cardinal in 1536, then in 1537 put him in charge of organizing assistance for the Pilgrimage of Grace (and related rebellions). In 1539, Pole was given the task of trying to organize an embargo against England, which would presumably spur additional rebellions that would place him (and Mary) on the throne. For a while, Henry tried to have him assassinated but was unsuccessful. By 1541, Henry had enough and simply took his revenge on Margaret Pole, whose botched execution was one of the worst examples of Henrician justice (you can read about it in my May 27 blog post). Reginald was relatively quiet after that, though when Mary did come to the throne, she named him Archbishop of Canterbury to replace the disgraced (and reformist) Thomas Cranmer….
[Note – the letter is taken from Letters and Papers, so it is a largely a synopsis, with some sections directly quoted. It is still worth the read!]
I received your letters dated 14th June on the 30th, and learn the receipt of my book and letters to your Grace, sent by my servant, and your Grace’s desire that, as divers places could best be explained by conference with the writer, I should repair to your presence; so that as I learn by your Grace’s letter (but much more by Mr. Secretary’s, “stirring me more vehemently,” and most of all by the bearer of both) you expect not a letter but me in person. Protests there is nothing he desires more than to do so, but that the King himself alone prevents it, for to come to him would be “temerariously” to cast himself away; seeing that, ever since the King cast his love and affection to her whose deeds have declared she never loved him, every man is a traitor that will not accept him for head of the church in his realm. This law enforced “with so sore severity” against the best men of the realm, suffering the pain of traitors, who throughout their whole lives had been the King’s most faithful servants,— this law, against which is the whole process of the writer’s book, is a sufficient impediment to his coming. The extreme heat of the season and other causes might have excused delay in coming; but had he been sick in bed when the King’s message arrived he would have run through fire and water to obey. But the cause above rehearsed forbids it, except he should be accounted a traitor of his own life which he is bound to keep to God’s pleasure and not temerariously to cast away.
As to explaining the book; thinks he made it so plain that it could not be misunderstood, and that if one thing be lacking it is what he cannot give, — “that is, an indifferent mind in the reader; such a mind to the reader as I had when I writ it, delivered of all affection but only of the truth and your Grace’s honor and wealth.” The book to be understood must be read all through. From some passages the writer would appear to be the King’s greatest enemy, but the whole taken together will show that sharp handling to be for the most loving end, and that there was never book written with more sharpness of words nor again more ferventness of love. “My whole desire it was and ever shall be that your Grace might reign long in honor, in wealth, in surety, in love and estimation of all men,” and this desire “(remaining those innovations your Grace hath of late made in the Church)” cannot take effect. Never read of a Prince spoken of with more dishonor when his actions “came abroad to be known.” Has jeopardied his life in defending the King’s cause, and touching these innovations and the acts following, never yet found but one that did praise them.
Now to give an account of his writing. Received the King’s command, by Mr. Secretary’s letters, to write his “sentence” in that principal matter which was the ground of all innovation, when the King took the name of Highest Head of the Church in his realm, grounding himself upon passages of Scripture which divers books written for his justification did express. The first that came to his hands was Dr. Sampson’s. Answered it, taking away (as my book shows) all Sampson’s arguments (as nothing concluding), and then went on to confirm in his place as head of the Church, him whom the Church has so long confessed to be instituted by Christ himself, confounding Sampson’s arguments to the contrary. This done, as the verity of a sentence is sometimes shown by its fruits—”the acts which followed of this title taken,”—he proceeded to point out to what dishonor and peril the King had cast himself and his realm, so that “remaining any sparkle either of goodness of nature or grace of God,” he should seek the only remedy, a return to the ordinances of the Church. The wisest man that ever was (Solomon) made great errors (whereof the grievousness and jeopardy he saw), being blinded like the King “by inordinate affection which he bare to women.” All lies in making the King know what he has done, for he that defends his act augments his dishonor. And here is all the difficulty in a prince. Who will tell him his fault? And if one such be found where is the prince that will hear him? But God has provided the King a faithful subject in a sure place where he may speak at liberty, and by prompting the King to ask his sentence, has given him the opportunity. Likens himself to a surgeon anxious to heal a wound, and urges the madness it would be in the wounded man when the surgeon “draweth his knife to cut the dead and superfluous flesh, according to his craft,” to cry out against him as an enemy.
In fine, it rests only with God to send the light of his Spirit, and the King will abhor his acts more than any man. Does not despair of this, “seeing God hath rid you of that domestical evil at home, which was thought to be the cause of all your errors, and with her head, I trust, cut away all occasion of such offences as did separate you from the light of God;” and, moreover, “hath given you one full of all goodness to whom, I understand, your Grace is now married.” There only remains for the King to put off the burden of being head of the Church in his realm, which no other prince dare take upon him since the Church began. No doubt there is a great appearance of profit and revenue coming into his coffers. Wishes he might confer with him in person, and show how no profit gotten this way were worthy to compare with the profit to be got by leaving off this title. The King may think he speaks like a young man, but he has long been conversant with old men, and has long judged the eldest living too young to teach wisdom to him (Pole), who has learnt of all antiquity and by conversation with those “who have been the flowers of wisdome in our time.” Knows this, that God has sent the King an occasion to do more good than if he had gotten Asia from the Turk, for he himself may be the “occasion of the reformation of Christ’s Church, both in doctrine and manners.” “Wherefore, this is the time, sir, to call to God that he will not suffer you to let pass this so noble an occasion,” that “your ancient years now growing upon you, you may finish your time in all honor and joy.” Venice, 15 July.
For further reading:
Letters and Papers, Henry VIII: July 1536, 11-15
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