Post-classical history


Spring–Summer 1537: ‘Mr Pole’s Traitorous Practises’

‘that arch-traitor Reynold Pole, enemy to God’s word and his natural country, had moved and stirred divers great princes and potentates of Christendom to invade the realm of England.’

E. Hall, The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York1

In December 1536 Pope Paul III made Reginald Pole a cardinal. The new Prince of the Church had taken no notice of a letter from Thomas Starkey – obviously inspired by Henry – which had warned him that by accepting a Red Hat he would become the enemy of his king and his country. As Henry realized only too well, Pole had been given the hat because the pope was sending him to help the pilgrims. Before the year was over, Reginald set out for Flanders.

The last hope of the White Rose, Pole was a genuinely majestic figure. Paintings show an austere, patrician face with high cheekbones, melancholy, unusually large eyes and a long black beard. That rare Renaissance phenomenon, an Italianate English nobleman, he was impressively erudite, speaking fluent Greek and passable Hebrew. Very proud of his Plantagenet blood, he was fully aware of his family’s claims. ‘My mother’s brother [was] the Earl of Warwick … who being the son of the Duke of Clarence, brother of King Edward, became, by the death of that King’s sons, next heir to the English crown,’ he would remind Lord Protector Somerset in 1549.2 Yet he had no particular desire to wear the crown himself. Pole was essentially a churchman, and if called on to be king – or king consort – he would accept the role but with reluctance, and only as a means of bringing his homeland back to the Catholic fold.

‘Here [at Rome] lives an English gentleman of the name of Reginald Pole,’ reported a Spanish envoy in November 1536. ‘His Holiness honours him much and has given him lodgings within his own palace, and over his own apartments. Though he dresses as an ecclesiastic, he is not yet in holy orders.’3 Given such close proximity, it is likely that Paul III often discussed King Henry with Reginald, whom he had known for many years. The pope was familiar with the White Rose programme: for Mary to replace her father on the throne, possibly with Reginald as her husband. It certainly seemed a good way of bringing England back to Rome, if Henry was not prepared to do so.

At this date Catholicism was supported not just by Mary and the ‘old nobility’, but by England as a whole. While there may have been plenty of anti-clericalism and contempt for corrupt clergy, the vast majority of people still wanted the Mass. ‘Heresy’ was confined to a few tiny pockets of more or less illiterate Lollards and some small groups of ‘sacramentaries’ in London and East Anglia and at the universities, influenced by the new ideas from Germany or Switzerland – the only men and women who, as yet, welcomed the king’s rupture with Rome with unfeigned enthusiasm. Besides the rebellion in the North and the smaller one in Somerset, an abortive rising had to be put down in Norfolk during the spring of 1537, while there were signs of open discontent in other places as well, with angry grumbling throughout the country. However, Paul III and the White Rose had two exceptionally formidable opponents in Henry VIII and Cromwell.

The pope had created Pole a cardinal so that he could go to England as a papal legate (ambassador with full powers), the Conde de Cifuentes reported from Rome. He adds, ‘it was understood that the rebels wanted him and only fair that the Pope should respond to their wishes’. The mission in the bull appointing Reginald a legate was supposedly to persuade the rulers of Christendom to settle their differences so that they would be able to attend a council and plan a crusade against the Turks. However, the bull’s small print empowered him to deal with other matters concerning the Church, including England’s break with Rome.

In his despatch, Cifuentes mentioned that his colleague Chapuys had often written to say how important it was to send Reginald to England with money and authority to use the ‘weapons of the Church’. One problem was that the mission might endanger Princess Mary’s life. Another was that the new cardinal would need to travel through France, although if King Francis did not stop him this might goad Henry into quarrelling with the French, which would of course benefit the emperor. Reginald carried bills of exchange for 10,000 ducats to buy arquebuses for the rebels, and would be accompanied by Bishop Gianmatteo Giberti, Bishop of Verona.

Pole had been told the business ‘might well end in his marrying the Princess’, says Cifuentes, which was the reason why the pope did not let him become a priest. Although officially his job was to persuade Henry to bring England back into communion with Rome, privately he was to do as much as he could to help the pilgrims. Clearly, Paul III was a firm supporter of the White Rose programme and saw Reginald as a potential king consort.

The years 1536–8 were the most insecure of Henry’s reign. Had Exeter rebelled in the West Country and Montague done so in Hampshire, the pilgrims could have marched down and occupied London, forcing Henry to flee and enabling Mary to become queen.4When the king crushed the Pilgrimage, he knew he had only just escaped ruin. He still felt unsafe throughout the first months of 1537.

Both Henry and Cromwell were very worried by Pole’s mission, fearing that he might inflame English opinion and set off another pilgrimage by publishing De Unitate or the bull of excommunication issued by Clemen VII in 1533 but never promulgated, while conceivably he might even turn out to be the leader that the pilgrims had lacked. Nor was it impossible that Francis I or the emperor would provide him with troops, or that he would hire mercenaries with papal money. Danger could also come from Ireland. An Irish ship was intercepted with an Irish monk carrying letters from the FitzGeralds to Pole, and when Kildare’s son fled to Europe, spies reported that Reginald had given him a place in his entourage.

The cardinal’s plan was to go to London and negotiate while the free Parliament promised by the king was sitting: if Henry failed to call it, he hoped to negotiate with his envoys on foreign soil. In either case, he wanted to stir up as much English opposition as possible to the breach with Rome: he had even thought of disrupting trade between England and Flanders to arouse discontent. His ultimate aim, however, was to revive the Pilgrimage of Grace, as is clear from Paul III’s bull appointing him legate.

It may be that the Enemy of Mankind has such a hold upon the King that he will not be brought to reason except by force of arms. It is better, however, that he and his adherents should perish than be the cause of perdition to so many … hoping that the same people who lately took up arms to recall him to the Faith will do so again.5

Henry guessed at his tactics, his guess being confirmed by a secret dispatch from Rome late in 1536 and then by an envoy from Francis I in March the following year. At all costs the king was determined to stop Pole from ever setting foot on English soil in his capacity as legate, while under no circumstances would he send envoys for discussions with him in Flanders. He was simply not prepared to negotiate a matter that in his mind was non-negotiable – the king’s supremacy over the English Church.

Cromwell employed an agent in the cardinal’s household at Rome. This was Michael Throckmorton, from a well-known Warwickshire family, who had been given the risky job of bringing the treatise De Unitate to London during the summer of 1536. Arrested and put in the Tower, after swearing undying allegiance to Henry VIII he promised to spy on Pole and coax him into returning home, not as a legate but as the king’s loyal subject. This apparently amiable gentleman, almost childlike in manner, was then allowed to go back to Rome. In reality, Throckmorton was among the most cunning double agents in Tudor history, one of the few who got the better of Thomas Cromwell.

In his first report, Throckmorton told the Lord Privy Seal that he was finding it hard to make his master return to England, saying it was never easy to make a great man change his mind, and that this was especially true of Reginald Pole. Tongue in cheek, Michael described Pole as honest but naive, exploited by the Roman curia. He explained that he was going to accompany the cardinal on his mission, so long as London did not object, because he could not help liking the man for his good qualities, even though he held some bad opinions, adding humbly that no man could understand the value of loyalty better than Cromwell, who from personal experience must know the wonderful comfort that it gave one. Another English agent at Rome, keeping Throckmorton under surveillance, reported that he was obviously sincere and remarked on his simplicity. Michael was gifted with a strong sense of humour as well as nerves of steel, and during Pole’s mission he was to cross the Channel more than once for discreet discussions with the Lord Privy Seal, always blandly insisting that the cardinal had absolutely no intention of encouraging another revolt.

The nuncio at Paris, Archbishop Rodolfo Pio – another old friend of Reginald – refused to believe assurances by Henry’s ambassadors in France that all the unpleasantness on the other side of the Channel was over. As late as April he believed the English people had been so disgusted by the way the king had tricked the pilgrims that they were going to depose him. One of Henry’s ambassadors in Paris told the nuncio privately that in his opinion England would come back to Rome and Mary be recognized as heir to the throne. Pio advised Reginald to publish De Unitate at once – advice that was not taken since the legate still hoped he might be allowed to visit London.

Pole left Rome in February 1537, taking weeks to reach the French border. When he arrived at Paris in April, although he was treated politely Francis I refused to receive him and he had to leave France. Even so, much to Henry’s fury, the French king refused repeated requests by the English ambassadors, Sir Francis Bryan and Bishop Gardiner, that Pole should be arrested and handed over. Francis also sent a secret messenger to warn him that there were plots against his life. Reginald went on to Cambrai, an independent bishopric, where he had to wait a month for permission to enter imperial territory.

He remained optimistic. From Cambrai he wrote to Rodolfo Pio that England was afflicted by a disease flowing from the head (Henry) for which there were only two remedies, either surgery or diet – by surgery he meant rebellion and by diet he meant diplomacy. He had chosen the second remedy because he believed King Francis would help him. Wrongly, he was convinced that, even if the recent rising was over, the country was not going to calm down until the problem of religion was settled. What he omits to spell out in this letter is that he hoped to destroy Henry with his diet.6

Friendly messages came from Queen Mary of Hungary, who governed Flanders for her brother the emperor, but no offers of assistance. Pole also learned that Henry was offering a reward of 100,000 gold crowns to anyone who brought him back to England, dead or alive. On 25 May the king wrote to Bryan and Gardiner, ordering them to make the French insist on his being thrown out of Cambrai. ‘And for as much as we would be very glad to have the said Pole by some means trussed up and conveyed to Calais, we desire and pray you to consult and devise thereupon.’ Bryan should hire ‘fellows’ to do the job.7 In Paris the nuncio heard Sir Francis declare loudly that if Pole returned to France he would kill him with his own hands.

The cardinal soon had warning of these plans. Sent by his brother Sir Geoffrey, the messenger was a sea-captain and former pirate, Hugh Holland, who shipped wheat to Flanders. Throckmorton questioned him carefully, in case he might be an assassin, before letting him see his master. In the message Geoffrey offered to come over to the Low Countries to tell his brother how ‘the world in England waxeth all crooked, God’s law is turned upside down, abbeys and churches overthrown, and [Reginald] is taken for a traitor, and I think they will cast down parish churches’. At court Cromwell was saying publicly that the cardinal would destroy himself. The essence of the message, however, was that ‘Mr Bryan and Peter Mewtas was sent into France to kill him with a hand-gun or otherwise as they should see best.’ ‘And would my Lord Privy Seal so fain kill me?’, remarked Reginald. ‘Well, I trust it shall not lie in his power. The King is not contented to bear me malice himself, but provoketh other against me.’8

A gentleman of the Privy King’s Chamber who had commanded the royal artillery when Norfolk confronted the pilgrims at Doncaster, Mr Peter Mewtas turned out to be a disappointment for those who commissioned him. He may have known a lot about guns, and a red-robed cardinal was an unmistakeable target, but he and his arquebus could get nowhere within range of a quarry who, wisely, seldom if ever ventured out of doors and left off his robes when he did. It seems that Reginald’s old friend Dr Thomas Starkey, risking his own life, had tipped off the Pole family about Mewtas.9

Sir Francis Bryan got in touch with the Knight Porter of Calais, Sir Thomas Palmer, who mounted his horse and galloped after Pole, but never managed to catch up with him. Four soldiers from the Calais garrison were then hired by Palmer to murder the cardinal, for £100 – they were to visit Cambrai disguised as horse-copers and then find an opportunity to kill him. Again, Pole was warned of the plot, possibly by Bryan himself.

After this Sir Francis and Gardiner enlisted John Hutton, the English ambassador in Brussels, who responded with enthusiasm, hoping to ingratiate himself with King Henry. He, too, was unable to find the right killers, but thought he might save face when he met a starving Welshman named William Vaughan, on the run from a manslaughter charge at home. Vaughan told Hutton that he knew a student at Louvain called Henry Phillips who would get him a post as servant to Michael Throckmorton. Phillips had confided that Throckmorton was about to sail for England with messages hidden inside hollow loaves of bread from Pole to his allies. Not realizing that Michael was Cromwell’s spy, Hutton gave Vaughan money, promising to obtain a pardon for him if he sailed with Throckmorton and made certain of his arrest.

When Vaughan arrived at the cardinal’s residence, Throckmorton did not like the look of the man but brought him to his master. ‘As I am informed, you be banished out of your native country as well as I,’ remarked Pole pleasantly, adding that he always liked meeting Welshmen as his grandfather had come from Wales. Vaughan begged for a job, saying he was penniless, to which Pole replied that he had all the servants he needed while travelling, but could offer a place if he came to him in Italy. However, after giving Vaughan a crown he told him ‘to gather news’ – which was employment of a sort.10

By this time Reginald was at Liège, installed in comfort at what was known as the old palace. His host was the Cardinal of Liège, Erard de la Marck, the same man who had rescued the young Richard de la Pole from his debtors and Henry VII’s agents at Aix thirty years earlier. Sadly, we do not know if Erard reminisced about the former White Rose to his successor, but Pole says he looked after him like a father, and that during his stay he was treated with the honours due to a papal legate. The locals were ready to do anything they could to protect him, he writes thankfully in a letter of 10 June.

It was just as well. In the same letter Reginald tells how the city authorities had learned of a plot to kill him after they intercepted a letter from Hutton at Brussels which contained the words: ‘If he can be killed, as we earlier discussed among ourselves, it would certainly be the gateway to being looked on with the highest favour with the King, and earn us a valuable reward.’ Reginald describes how the assassin, who was an Englishman claiming to be an exile, had tried to join his household, but then lost his nerve and bolted. This does not seem to have been the Welshman Vaughan as sometimes suggested, but rather a professional killer.11

Although Ridolfo Pio at Paris described the behaviour of the English ambassadors as ‘that of devils rather than men’, their unavailing efforts to assassinate Pole bordered on farce. John Hutton’s attempts were even more of a joke, and Reginald was never in any real danger. Henry had no need to kill him, however, since by the summer of 1537 it was clear the Pilgrimage of Grace had been defeated and there were going to be no more risings. In consequence, Pole’s mission had become awaste of time.

Realizing that by now the situation was hopeless, Pope Paul recalled him to Rome more than once, but he insisted on prolonging his stay at Liège, just in case another Pilgrimage broke out. He did not go back to Italy until August, and then with the utmost reluctance. In a letter written from Liège, he calls the ‘rulers of England’ – by which he means Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell – ‘enemies of the whole human race’.12 These may be bitter words but there is no need to doubt that this was how Reginald Pole regarded his two arch-enemies.

His campaign to recover England for Rome never stood a chance. The last, desperate risings by the pilgrims had been crushed before Pole arrived in Flanders. ‘As to the danger of Mr Pole’s traitorous practises, they cannot be so soon set on hand in these parts,’ the Duke of Norfolk had written smugly to Henry VIII from the North Country on 2 April, ‘Indeed, no part of the realm is less to be doubted.’ By this he meant that the country had been so cowed that once again it was firmly beneath the royal heel.13

Another of Pole’s handicaps had been a crippling shortage of ready money so that he was unable to hire troops – the papal letters of credit proved to be either faulty or insufficient. In June the Emperor Charles gave the Conde de Cifuentes his own, realistic assessment of the cardinal’s prospects: it ‘appears to us that being, as you say, so scantily provided with funds, he can scarcely be successful in his mission’.14

In September 1537 Cromwell at last discovered that Michael Throckmorton had been playing a double game. ‘You have bleared mine eye,’ he told him in an angry letter. ‘I must, I think, do what I can to see you condignly punished.’15 From then on Michael went in fear for his life. During the following summer, on a day of intense heat, a visitor to Rome ran into a sweating Throckmorton, puffing and blowing in a quilted knife-proof jacket and a steel helmet that he was wearing as protection against assassins.16

27. Spring–Summer 1537: ‘Mr Pole’s Traitorous Practises’

1. Hall, op. cit., p. 828.

2. CSP Ven, op. cit., vol. V, 575.

3. LP Hen VIII, op. cit., vol. V (i), 131.

4. Dodds and Dodds, The Pilgrimage of Grace, op. cit., vol. II, p. 280.

5. LP Hen VIII, op. cit., vol. XII (i), 779.

6. Mayer, Correspondence of Reginald Pole, op. cit., vol. 1, p. 174.

7. LP Hen VIII, op. cit., vol. XII (i), 1032.

8. LP Hen VIII, op. cit., vol. XIII (ii), 797.

9. Mayer, ‘A Diet for Henry VIII’, op. cit., p. 323.

10. LP Hen VIII, op. cit., vol. XII (ii), 128.

11. Mayer, Correspondence of Reginald Pole, op. cit., vol. 1, p. 168.

12. Ibid., p. 178.

13. LP Hen VIII, op. cit., vol. XII (i), 809.

14. CSP Sp, op. cit., vol. V (ii), 151.

15. Merriman, Thomas Cromwell, op. cit., vol. II, pp. 87–90.

16. See A. Overell, ‘Cardinal Pole’s Special Agent: Michael Throckmorton, c. 1503–1558’, in History, 94 (July 2009), p. 315.

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