Reginald Pole
Cardinal Archbishop of Canterbury
and Primate of All England
A bearded Catholic cardinal wearing his robes
Portrait by the school of
Sebastiano del Piombo, c. 1549
ChurchCatholic Church
Installed22 March 1556
Term ended17 November 1558
PredecessorThomas Cranmer
SuccessorMatthew Parker
Ordination20 March 1556
Consecration22 March 1556
by Nicholas Heath
Created cardinal22 December 1536
by Paul III
Personal details
Born(1500-03-12)12 March 1500
Stourton Castle, Staffordshire
Died17 November 1558(1558-11-17) (aged 58)
London, Kingdom of England
BuriedThe Corona, Canterbury Cathedral, Kent
51°16′48″N 1°04′57″E / 51.27995°N 1.08248°E / 51.27995; 1.08248
ParentsSir Richard Pole
Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury
Coat of armsReginald Pole's coat of arms

Reginald Pole (12 March 1500 – 17 November 1558) was an English cardinal and the last Catholic archbishop of Canterbury, holding the office from 1556 to 1558, during the Counter-Reformation.

Early life

Pole was born at Stourton Castle, Staffordshire, on 12 March 1500,[1] the third son of Sir Richard Pole and Margaret Pole, 8th Countess of Salisbury. He was named after the now beatified Reginald of Orleans, O.P. His maternal grandparents were George Plantagenet, 1st Duke of Clarence,[2] and Isabel Neville, Duchess of Clarence; thus he was a great-nephew of kings Edward IV and Richard III and a great-grandson of Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick.

Accounts vary as to where Pole received his early education: either Sheen Priory, Christchurch or Canterbury.[3][4] Shortly thereafter, he matriculated at Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1512. At Oxford he was taught by William Latimer, his principal tutor,[4] and Thomas Linacre, who taught him at some point between 1518 and 1520. In 1512, Henry VIII had paid him a pension of £12, renewed the following year; intended to go towards his education.[4] Pole graduated with a BA degree on 27 June 1515. In February 1518, King Henry VIII granted him the deanery of Wimborne Minster, Dorset. He went on to be Prebendary of Salisbury, and Dean of Exeter in 1527.[5] On 19 March 1518 he was appointed prebend of Ruscombe Southbury, Salisbury,[6] only to exchange that on 10 April 1519 for Yetminster secunda[7].[4] He was also a canon in York, and had several other livings, albeit not yet ordained a priest. Assisted by Bishop Edward Foxe, he represented Henry VIII in Paris in 1529, probing general opinion among theologians of the Sorbonne on the annulment of Henry's marriage with Catherine of Aragon.[8]

In 1521, with a £100 stipend from King Henry VIII, Pole went to the University of Padua. It was here that he met leading Renaissance figures, including Pietro Bembo, Gianmatteo Giberti (formerly Pope Leo X's datary and chief minister), Jacopo Sadoleto, Gianpietro Carafa (the future Pope Paul IV), Rodolfo Pio, Otto Truchsess, Stanislaus Hosius, Cristoforo Madruzzo, Giovanni Morone, Pier Paolo Vergerio the younger, Peter Martyr Vermigli and Vettor Soranzo. The last three were eventually to be condemned as heretics by the Catholic Church. As a protestant theologian widely known, Vermigli contributed significantly to the Reformation in Pole's native England.

Pole's studies in Padua were partly financed by his election as a fellow of Corpus Christi College, Oxford. More than half of the cost was met by Henry VIII himself,[9] on 14 February 1523. This allowed him to study abroad for three years.

While in Padua, Reginald's brother, Henry, Lord Montagu, presented to him the living of South Harting, Sussex on 10 April 1526. Three months later, Pole returned home, arriving from France escorted by Thomas Lupset. He was appointed prebend of Knaresborough in York Minster on 22 April 1527. On 25 July 1527, Pole was presented a canonry in Exeter Cathedral, to be declared Dean just four days later.[4] Pole was sent to Paris in October 1529, but returned home in the summer of 1530. For some of his time in England he lived in John Colet's former house at Sheen.[4]

Pole and Henry VIII

Pole had most probably arrived back in England in 1527, but whatever political influence he had acquired was not documented until November 1528.[4] By the following October, his being sent to Paris had been expressly to liberate from the university doctors an agreeable opinion on Henry VIII’s annulment.[4] It is possible that Pole started learning Hebrew from Robert Wakefield after he returned home from France, which would suggest that Henry might have wanted to deploy Pole in the annulment project.[4] Henry offered him the Archbishopric of York or the Diocese of Winchester if he would support the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. It is likely that in May or June 1531 Pole furnished Henry with an analysis of the political difficulties with regard to a divorce, particularly the dangers this would bring to the succession.[4] Pole withheld his support and went into self-imposed exile in France and Italy in 1532, where he continued his studies in Padua and Paris. After his return, he held the benefice of vicar of Piddletown, Dorset, between 20 December 1532 and sometime around January 1536.[10]

In May 1536, Reginald Pole finally and decisively broke with the King. Five years earlier, he had warned of the dangers of the Boleyn marriage; he had returned to Padua in 1532 and received a last English benefice that December. Eustace Chapuys, the imperial ambassador to England, had suggested to Emperor Charles V that Pole marry Henry's daughter Mary and combine their dynastic claims; Chapuys also communicated with Reginald through his brother Geoffrey. At this time Pole was not definitively in Holy Orders.

The final break between Pole and Henry followed upon Thomas Cromwell, Cuthbert Tunstall, Thomas Starkey and others addressing questions to Pole on behalf of Henry. He answered by sending the king a copy of his published treatise Pro ecclesiasticae unitatis defensione, which, besides being a theological reply to the questions, was a strong denunciation of the king's policies, refuting Henry's position on marrying his brother Arthur's widow and denying the royal supremacy. Pole also urged the princes of Europe to depose Henry immediately. Henry wrote to Pole's mother, the Countess of Salisbury, who in turn sent her son a letter reproving him for his "folly".[11]

Cardinal Pole

Pole with Paul III in a 1539 portrait by Perino del Vaga

On 22 December 1536, Pole, already a deacon, was created a cardinal[12][13] over Pole's own objections.[14] He was the fourth of the five English cardinals of the first half of the sixteenth century.[15] He also became papal legate to England in February 1536/1537. Pope Paul III put him in charge of organising assistance for the Pilgrimage of Grace (and related movements), an effort to organise a march on London to demand Henry replace his ‘reformist’ advisers with more traditional, Catholic minds; neither Francis I of France nor the Emperor supported this effort, and the English government tried to have Pole assassinated. In 1539, Pole was sent to the Emperor to organise an embargo against England – the sort of countermeasure he had himself warned Henry was possible.[8]

The king, with Pole himself out of his reach, took revenge on Pole's family for engaging in treason by word against the king. This later became known as the Exeter Conspiracy. The leading members were arrested, and all their properties seized. This destroyed the Pole family.[16] Sir Geoffrey Pole was arrested in August 1538; he had been corresponding with Reginald. The investigation of Henry Courtenay, Marquess of Exeter (Henry VIII's first cousin and the Countess of Salisbury's second cousin) had turned up his name. Sir Geoffrey appealed to Thomas Cromwell, who had him arrested and interrogated. Under interrogation, Sir Geoffrey admitted that Henry Pole, 1st Baron Montagu, and Exeter had both been parties to his correspondence with Reginald. Montagu, Exeter, and Lady Salisbury were arrested in November 1538, together with Henry Pole and other family members, on charges of treason. This was despite Cromwell having previously written that they had "little offended save that he [Reginald Pole] is of their kin". They were committed to the Tower of London and, apart from Geoffrey Pole, they were all eventually executed.

In January 1539, Sir Geoffrey was pardoned. Montagu and Exeter were tried and executed for treason. Reginald Pole was attainted in absentia. In May 1539, Montagu, Exeter, Lady Salisbury, and others were also attainted, as her father had been; this meant that they lost their lands – mostly in the South of England, conveniently located (alleged the crown) to assist any invasion – and titles. Those still alive in the Tower were also sentenced to death, and so could be executed at the King's will. As part of the evidence given in support of the Bill of Attainder, Cromwell produced a tunic bearing the Five Wounds of Christ, purported to show Lady Salisbury's support of traditional Catholicism. This, supposedly, came to light six months after her house and effects had already been searched when she was arrested. It is likely to have been planted there.

Margaret Pole was held in the Tower of London for two and a half years under severe conditions; she, her grandson (Montagu's son), and Exeter's son were held together on orders of the King. In 1540, Cromwell himself fell from favour and was himself attainted and executed. Margaret was finally executed in 1541, protesting her innocence until the last – a highly publicised case considered a grave miscarriage of justice both at the time and later. Her execution was gruesome, botched by an inexperienced executioner, who delivered nearly a dozen blows before she was finally killed. Pole is known to have said that he would "never fear to call himself the son of a martyr". Some 350 years later, in 1886, Margaret was beatified by Pope Leo XIII.[17] Aside from the hostile treatise Pro ecclesiasticae unitatis defensione, another contribution fuelling King Henry's brutality towards the Pole family might have been that Pole's mother, Margaret, was one of the last surviving members of the House of Plantagenet. Under some circumstances, that line of descent could have made Reginald – until he definitely entered the clergy – a possible contender for the throne itself.

In 1542 Reginald Pole was appointed as one of the three papal legates to preside over the Council of Trent. In the papal conclave of 1549–50 which followed the death of Pope Paul III in 1549, Pole, at one point, had 26 out of the 28 votes he needed to become pope himself.[8] His personal belief in justification by faith over works had caused him problems at Trent and accusations of heresy at the conclave. Thomas Hoby, visiting Rome so as to be present in the city during the conclave, recorded that Pole failed to be elected "by the Cardinall of Ferrara his meanes the voice of manie cardinalls of the French partie, persuading them that Cardinall Pole was both Imperiall and also a verie Lutheran".[18]

Later years

Pole as a cardinal

The death of Edward VI on 6 July 1553 and the accession of Mary I to the throne of England hastened Pole's return from exile, as a papal legate to England (which he remained until 1557) with a view to receiving the kingdom back into the Catholic fold. However, Queen Mary I and Emperor Charles V delayed his arrival in the country until 20 November 1554, due to concerns that Pole might oppose Mary's forthcoming marriage to Charles's son, Philip of Spain.[19] It was only after the marriage was safely out of the way, that the English parliament finally set about repealing his attainder on November 22, 1554. Pole opened his papal commission and presented his legatine credentials before Philip & Mary and the assembled members of parliament Whitehall palace on November 27, 1554, delivering a notable oration before them.[20] Among the dignitaries in attendance was Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester and Lord Chancellor of England, the most prominent Catholic minister in England, who would steer the restoration of Catholicism through Parliament in January 1555.

As Papal Legate, Pole negotiated a papal dispensation allowing the new owners of confiscated former monastic lands to retain these. In return for this concession, Parliament then enabled the Revival of the Heresy Acts in January 1555.[21] This revived former measures against heresy: the letters patent of 1382 of Richard II, an Act of 1401 of Henry IV, and an Act of 1414 of Henry V. All of these had been repealed under Henry VIII and Edward VI.[22] On 13 November 1555, Thomas Cranmer was officially deprived of the See of Canterbury.[23] The Pope promoted Pole to the rank of cardinal-priest and made him administrator of the See of Canterbury on 11 December 1555.[24]

Pole was finally ordained a priest on 20 March 1556 and consecrated a bishop two days later, becoming archbishop of Canterbury.[8][25] an office he would hold until his death. In 1555 and 1555/1556 respectively he also became chancellor of both Oxford and Cambridge universities.[26] As well as his religious duties, he was in effect the Queen's chief minister and adviser. Many former enemies, including Cranmer, signed recantations affirming their religious belief in transubstantiation and papal supremacy.[27] Despite this, which should have absolved them under Mary's own Revival of the Heresy Acts, the Queen could not forget their responsibility for the annulment of her mother's marriage.[28]

In 1555, Queen Mary began permitting the burning of Protestants for heresy, and some 220 men and 60 women were executed before her death in 1558. These persecutions contributed to the ultimate victory of the English Reformation,[29] though Pole's involvement in these heresy trials is disputed.[30] Pole was in failing health during the worst period of persecution, and there is some evidence that he favoured a more lenient approach: "Three condemned heretics from Bonner's diocese were pardoned on an appeal to him; he merely enjoined a penance and gave them absolution."[12] As the reign wore on, an increasing number of people turned against Mary and her government,[31] and some people who had been indifferent to the English Reformation began turning against Catholicism.[32][33] Writings such as John Foxe's 1568 Book of Martyrs, which emphasised the sufferings of the reformers under Mary, helped shape popular opinion against Catholicism in England for generations.[31][33]

Despite being a lifelong devout Catholic, Pole had a dispute with Pope Paul IV. Elected in 1555, Paul IV had a distaste for Catholic humanism and men like Pole who pushed a softer version of Catholicism to win over Protestants, as well as being fiercely anti-Spanish and against Mary's marriage to Philip II of Spain and heavily against Pole's support for it. Because of this disagreement Paul first cancelled Pole's legatine authority, and then sought to recall Pole to Rome to face investigation for heresy in his early writings. Mary refused to send Pole to Rome, yet accepted his suspension from office.[34] In the will of Sir Robert Acton dated 24 September 1558 he is named as one of the Executors, despite the fact that Sir Robert expressed himself in terms consistent with his dying in the Protestant faith.[35]

Pole's tomb at Canterbury Cathedral

Pole died in London, during an influenza epidemic, on 17 November 1558, at about 7:00 pm, nearly 12 hours after Queen Mary's death.[36] He was buried on the north side of the Corona at Canterbury Cathedral.


Pole was the author of De Concilio, of a treatise on the authority of the pope and of a set of measures introduced by him to restore Catholic practice in England. He was also the author of many important letters, full of interest for the history of the time, edited by Angelo Maria Quirini.[37]

Pole is known for his strong condemnation of Machiavelli's book The Prince, which he read in Italy, and on which he commented: "I found this type of book to be written by an enemy of the human race. It explains every means whereby religion, justice and any inclination toward virtue could be destroyed".[38]

In popular culture

Cardinal Pole is a major character in the historical novels The Time Before You Die by Lucy Beckett, The Courier's Tale by Peter Walker and The Trusted Servant by Alison Macleod,[39] and features in Hilary Mantel's novel The Mirror and the Light, the third and last of her novels on the life of Thomas Cromwell.

In Season 3 of Showtime's series The Tudors, Cardinal Pole is portrayed by Canadian actor Mark Hildreth. In the mini-series The Virgin Queen he is played by Michael Feast; he is last seen leading Mary's servants out of Greenwich Palace as Elizabeth I arrives as queen.

Reginald Pole is a major character in Queen of Martyrs: The Story of Mary I by Samantha Wilcoxson.

Reginald Pole, along with his brothers, sister, and mother, are the central family in Phillipa Gregory's historical novel The King's Curse.

See also


  1. ^ White, William (1834). History, Gazetteer and Directory of Staffordshire. Sheffield: Published by the author. p. 261.
  2. ^ Mayer, Thomas F. (1999). "A Reluctant Author: Cardinal Pole and His Manuscripts". Transactions of the American Philosophical Society. 89 (4): i–115. doi:10.2307/3185877. ISSN 0065-9746. JSTOR 3185877.
  3. ^ Thornbury, George Walter; Walford, Edward (1872). Old and New London: A Narrative of Its History, Its People, and Its Places. Vol. 2. London, England: Cassell. p. 553.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Mayer, T. F. (2004). "Pole, Reginald (1500–1558), cardinal and archbishop of Canterbury". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/22456. Retrieved 3 April 2023. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  5. ^ "Reginald Pole, Archbishop of Canterbury". Britannia Biographies. 1908. Archived from the original on 7 August 2008. Retrieved 5 December 2011.
  6. ^ listed as a prebendary in Fasti Ecclesiae Anglicanae 1066-1300: Volume 4, Salisbury. Institute of Historical Research, London, 1991.
  7. ^ listed as a prebendary in Fasti Ecclesiae Anglicanae 1066-1300: Volume 4, Salisbury. Institute of Historical Research, London, 1991.
  8. ^ a b c d "Pole, Reginald". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/22456. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  9. ^ "Lambeth Palace Library Research Guide: Reginald Pole, Archbishop of Canterbury (1500-1558)" (PDF). Lambeth Palace Library. Archived from the original (PDF) on 31 October 2010. Retrieved 16 September 2019.
  10. ^ Emden, Alfred Brotherston (1974). A biographical register of the University of Oxford, A.D. 1501 to 1540. Oxford: Clarendon Press. p. 453. ISBN 0199510083.
  11. ^ ODNB, "Reginald Pole"; "Geoffrey Pole". Pole and his hagiographers gave several later accounts of Pole's activities after Henry met Anne Boleyn. These are not consistent; and if – as he claimed at one point – Pole rejected the annulment in 1526 and refused the Oath of Supremacy in 1531, he received benefits from Henry for a course of action for which others were sentenced to death.
  12. ^ a b Thurston, Herbert. "Reginald Pole." The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 20 March 2018
  13. ^ "Cardinal Reginald Pole". obo.
  14. ^ Mayer, Thomas F. (July 1987). "A Diet for Henry VIII: The Failure of Reginald Pole's 1537 Legation". Journal of British Studies. 26 (3): 305–331. doi:10.1086/385892. ISSN 0021-9371. S2CID 145195155.
  15. ^ Murphy, John (16 December 2017). "Cardinal Reginald Pole: Questions of Self-Justification and of Faith". Royal Studies Journal. 4 (2): 177. doi:10.21039/rsj.v4i2.173. S2CID 158550919.
  16. ^ Ronald Fritze, ed., ''Historical Dictionary of Tudor England, 1485-1603 (1991) pp. 191-92.
  17. ^ "Margaret Pole | Saints Resource". Retrieved 30 December 2018.
  18. ^ Edward Chaney, The Evolution of the Grand Tour: Anglo-Italian Cultural Relations since the Renaissance (London, 2nd ed. 2000), pp. 64, 92 and 109
  19. ^ Public Domain Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Mary Tudor". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  20. ^ Cobbett (1806) Parliamentary History of England, v.1, p.617-18
  21. ^ Bucholz, R. O.; Key, N. (2009). Early modern England 1485–1714: a narrative history. Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 110–111. ISBN 978-1-4051-6275-3.
  22. ^ Gee, Henry; Hardy, William John, eds. (1914). Documents Illustrative of English Church History. London: Macmillan.
  23. ^ "Marian Government Policies". Retrieved 5 July 2007.
  24. ^ Lee, Frederick George (6 December 1888). "Reginald Pole, Cardinal Archbishop of Canterbury : an historical sketch, with an introductory prologue and practical epilogue". London : J. C. Nimmo – via Internet Archive.
  25. ^ Duffy, Eamon (2009). Fires of Faith: Catholic England under Mary Tudor. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-15216-6. JSTOR j.ctt1npq81.
  26. ^ "Pole, Reginald (PL556R)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  27. ^ Cross, F. L.; Livingstone, E. A., eds. (1997). The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (3rd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. p. 428. ISBN 019211655X.
  28. ^ "Thomas Cranmer". Retrieved 5 December 2011.
  29. ^ Pogson, Rex H. (1975). "Reginald Pole and the Priorities of Government in Mary Tudor's Church". The Historical Journal. 18 (1): 3–20. doi:10.1017/S0018246X00008645. S2CID 159964116.
  30. ^ Mann, Stephanie (30 November 2016). "The Man Who Was Almost Pope: Reginald Cardinal Pole". The National Catholic Register. EWTN. Retrieved 25 October 2017. Pole is usually not blamed for the campaign of heresy trials and burnings 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.
  31. ^ a b Schama, Simon (2003) [2000]. "Burning Convictions". A History of Britain 1: At the Edge of the World?. London: BBC Worldwide. pp. 272–273. ISBN 0-563-48714-3.
  32. ^ Churchill, Winston (1958). A History of the English-Speaking Peoples.
  33. ^ a b Churchill, Winston (1966). The New World. Dodd, Mead. p. 99.
  34. ^ "Reginald Pole | archbishop of Canterbury". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 6 November 2020.
  35. ^ "ACTON, Robert (By 1497-1558), of Elmley Lovett and Ribbesford, Worcs. And Southwark, Surr. | History of Parliament Online".
  36. ^ p. 24 May 9 History Today, an excerpted article taken from Eamon Duffy's "Fires of Faith: Catholic England under Mary Tudor," published by Yale University Press- History Today Vol 59 (5) May 2009, pp 24–29
  37. ^ five volumes, Brescia, 1744–57
  38. ^ Pole, Reginald (6 December 1965). "Defense of the Unity of the Church". Newman Press – via Google Books.
  39. ^ "The Papers of Alison Macleod (1920-)". Labour History Archive and Study Centre. Archived from the original on 17 July 2012. Retrieved 5 December 2011.