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Pole Biography

Reginald Pole (1500-1558) was one of the leading figures of the sixteenth-century Reformations. Throughout his life he served as a diplomat, cardinal, papal legate and archbishop. Pole, though, is probably best remembered for his prolific and often inflammatory writing. His most famous works include his condemnation of Henry VIII and defense of the church (De unitate, 1536), his collaboration on the document concerning reform of the papacy (Consilium de emendanda ecclesiae, 1537) and his anti-Machiavellian treatise ("Apologia ad Carolum Quintum," 1539). Further, Pole tirelessly rewrote the story of his own life. These interpretations of major events in his life would later be used by his early biographers to create an image of a saintly Pole.

Pole was born probably at Stourton Castle, Staffs. in March 1500. As the grandson of the duke of Clarence, brother of Edward IV and cousin of Henry VIII, Pole had considerable potential political power in England. Seemingly in preparation for a career in political service to his king, Pole was educated at Henry's expense first at Oxford and then Padua. His first major political opportunity came in 1529-1530 when Henry VIII asked Pole to secure for him a favorable opinion from the theologians at the University of Paris concerning his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. On this his first mission, Pole was highly successful. But for unknown reasons, Pole never delivered this favorable opinion to Henry; instead he offered him his first piece of inflammatory writing, an analysis of the political difficulties against Henry's divorce. This would later become an event Pole would re-write into a story of resistance. In 1532, Pole left England for Italy in what would turn into a twenty-year exile.

Upon his return to Padua, Pole slowly underwent a religious conversion, which left him with a heavily evangelical religion that rested on justification by faith. Realizing Pole's increasing political importance, Henry kept pressure on him for a public declaration of his opinion. In 1536, Henry received his answer when Pole sent him his most famous work, Pro ecclesiasticae unitatis defensione (On the Unity of the Church), known as De unitate. In De Unitate, Pole portrays Henry as the destroyer of the church and contrasts him to the saintly Thomas More, John Fisher and other "martyrs" to Henry's policies, including himself in this group. Pole repeatedly calls upon Henry to repent and do penance. This portrait of Pole as antagonist of Henry was probably the most significant outcome of this document as it influenced Pole's early biographers and subsequently most historians.

Almost immediately following Pole's further estrangement from Henry he was taken in by the papacy. On 22 December 1536, Pole was made a cardinal by Pope Paul III (r.1534-1549). In Rome, Pole rejoined a group known as the spirituali, who were ardent supporters of reforming the institutional church and reconciliation with the Protestants. Throughout his life Pole retained ties to the spirituali and their ideals. As a cardinal, one of Pole's most significant contributions was serving on the commission that in 1537 produced the Consilium de emendanda ecclesiae (Legal Opinion of the Reform of the Church). This document written at the request of Pope Paul III offered suggestions from many of the most reform-minded cardinals of the day concerning the reform of the papacy. In 1537, Pole also undertook his first legation to aid the Pilgrimage of Grace against Henry. Then in 1539 Pole led another legation to establish peace between the Emperor Charles V and Francis I. Both legations were unsuccessful, but served to establish a reputation of peace-making for Pole.

From 1541 to 1546 Pole governed the papal state of Viterbo. While in Viterbo he strengthened his ties with the spirituali, most notably Marcantonio Flaminio. Flaminio was one of the authors of Il Beneficio di Christo (The Benefit of Christ's Death, 1543), one of the most important texts of the Italian Reformation. During this time, Pole also associated closely with the poet Vittoria Colonna and Michelangelo.

The next major event in Pole's life was the convening of the Council of Trent in 1545. The primary purpose of the Council of Trent was to examine and reaffirm almost every Church doctrine challenged by the Protestants. In addition to matters of doctrine, the Council also considered necessary reforms of the church. Due in part to his growing reputation as a reformer, Pole opened the Council of Trent with a sermon blaming the ills of the church on the laxity of the clergy. Pole, however, ended up playing a minor role at Trent, choosing to leave just as the debates over justification by faith intensified.

Following the death of Paul III on 10 November 1549, Pole emerged as a leading candidate for the pontificate. At one point the bankers put Pole's odds at 95%, and Pole may have even written an acceptance speech. During the conclave, Pole refused to campaign, choosing rather to spend his time writing four or five versions of a dialogue, De Summo pontifice (published 1569). This dialogue maintained that the only acceptable candidate for the pontificate would not want the office. Due in part to his own refusal to campaign and in part to a scathing condemnation issued by Gianpietro Carafa (who would later become pope Paul IV), the closest Pole would ever get to the pontificate was one vote short. In the end, Giovanni Maria Ciocchi del Monte was elected Pope Julius III. The new pope treated Pole as one of the principal cardinals and protected him from investigation by the Inquisition, which had become interested in his doctrinal beliefs.

After the death of Henry VIII's son Edward VI and his daughter Mary Tudor's rise to power, the possibility of reconciling England to the Catholic Church presented itself. England under Henry VIII had broken away from the Catholic Church and formed the Anglican Church with Henry at its head. Pole's favorable political standing in England and his friendship with Mary made him an ideal candidate for a legation to England. Consequently Julius gave Pole two separate legations, one for the reconciliation of England and one for peace between the major European rulers. For these legations, Julius gave Pole exceptionally wide faculties, amounting to powers that were nearly on par with the pope's. After a delay of more than a year due to complicated political maneuverings, Pole was able to return to England and effect the reconciliation on 30 November 1554. Pole was less successful in his legation for peace, although he did produce one of his most significant documents, the Discorso di pace, 1554 (Discourse on Peace). In the Discorso, Pole argued that divine providence had established the Pope as the only true teacher of peace, and furthermore, that peace in Europe was only achievable through love between the monarchs.

On 2 December 1555, Pole opened a legatine synod in London. This was one of Pole's most important actions as legate and it resulted in the institution of significant reforms in England, although not as many as Pole had hoped. He blamed many of the failings of the English church on its clergy, and many of the synod's decrees were aimed at their reform. Pole's ideas on reform can be deduced from his dialogue, De reformatione ecclesiae (unpublished), written during this time period. In the midst of the synod, Pole was made Archbishop of Canterbury. As both Archbishop and papal legate, Pole had nearly complete authority over the English church as well as considerable political influence.

Pole's position of privilege came to an end on 9 April 1557 when his old nemesis, Carafa, now Paul IV, withdrew all his legatine powers. Paul recalled Pole to Rome to face charges of heresy, mainly concerning Pole's views on justification. Pole resisted this summons and sent Paul a strongly worded Apologia, but his standing in England would never be the same. Not long after this conflict, Pole fell ill and died on 17 November 1558. He was buried in Becket's Corona in Canterbury Cathedral.

Christopher A. Sweet

Pole bibliography


Ludovico Beccadelli, "Vita di Reginaldo Polo" (circa 1561), in Monumenti di varia letteratura, volume 2, edited by G.B. Morandi (Bologna: Istituto per le scienze, 1797-1804), pp 277-333; translated by Benjamin Pye as The Life of Cardinal Reginald Pole, Written Originally in Italian by Ludovico Beccadelli (London: Bathurst, 1766).

Thomas Phillips, The History of the Life of Reginald Pole (Oxford: William Jackson, 1764).

Edward Stone, Remarks upon the History of the Life of Reginald Pole (Oxford: W. Jackson 1766).

Gloucester Ridley, A Review of Mr. Phillips' History of the life of Reginald Pole (London: J. Whiston, 1766).

Timothy Neve, Animadversions upon Mr. Phillips' History of the life of Cardinal Reginald Pole (Oxford: Clarendon, 1766).

Walter Farquhar Hook, Lives of the Archbishops of Canterbury, volume 8 (London: R. Bentley, 1869).

F.G. Lee, Reginald Pole, Cardinal Archbishop of Canterbury (London: John C. Nimmo, 1888).

Athanasius Zimmerman, Kardinal Pole, sein Leben und seine Schriften. Ein Beitrag zur Kirchengeschichte des 16. Jahrhundrets (Regensburg: F. Pustet, 1893).

Marie Hallé (as Martin Haile), The Life of Reginald Pole (London: Pitman & Sons, 1911).

Reginald Biron and Jean Barennes, Un prince anglais cardinal légat au XVI siècle, Reginald Pole (Paris: Arthur Savaète, 1922).

Wilhelm Schenk, Reginald Pole, Cardinal of England (London: Longman, 1950).

Maria Teresa Dainotti, La via media: Reginald Pole, 1500-1558 (Bologna: EMI 1987).

Thomas F. Mayer, A Reluctant Author: Cardinal Pole and his Manuscripts, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 89:4 (1999).

Thomas F. Mayer, Cardinal Pole in European context: a via media in the reformation (Ashgate Publishing, 2000).

Thomas F. Mayer, Reginald Pole, Prince and Prophet. (Cambridge University Press, 2000).