In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Cardinal Reginald Pole

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Biographies
  • Reference Works
  • Essay Collections
  • Theses
  • Essays, Chapters, and Articles
  • State Papers
  • Administrative Documents
  • Contemporary Chronicles and Commentaries
  • Translations
  • Catholic Reform in Italy
  • Restoration of Catholicism in England

Renaissance and Reformation Cardinal Reginald Pole
John Edwards
  • LAST REVIEWED: 07 June 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0211


Reginald Pole was born in March 1500, the fourth child of Sir Richard Pole and Margaret Pole, niece of King Edward IV and later countess of Salisbury. In 1511, Pole matriculated at Magdalen College, Oxford, graduating as Bachelor of Arts in 1515. In April 1521, he was sent by Henry VIII to study at the University of Padua. He remained in Italy, mainly based at Padua, for about five years, before returning to England. During that time, he followed a typical Renaissance curriculum, also becoming increasingly interested in theology. Back in England, he showed every sign of becoming a servant and courtier of the King, who was his relative and still his patron. In 1529, Pole was chosen by Henry to take part in a mission to Paris, with the aim of obtaining the approval of the influential Theology Faculty of the University of Paris for the King’s proposed divorce of his first wife, Queen Katherine of Aragon. But by the time that Katherine died, on 7 January 1536, Pole had turned against King Henry. At the end of 1536, he was made a cardinal by Pope Paul III. After this, Pole used papal legations in a vain attempt to persuade Catholic powers, France and the Habsburgs, to attack England and restore Catholic unity. As a result, he was declared a traitor by the English Parliament, and his brother Henry, Baron Montagu, along with other friends and relatives, was executed for supposedly conspiring with him against the king. From then until Henry VIII’s death, in January 1547, Pole was pursued by English assassins, but survived to govern parts of the Papal States, preside as a legate over the opening sessions of the Council of Trent (1545–1547), and narrowly fail to be elected pope in succession to Paul III, in the conclave of December 1549 to February 1550. When Mary I gained the English throne, in July 1553, he was once again appointed, by Pope Julius III, as legate to England. He then advised Mary on the restoration of Catholicism in her kingdoms and in November 1554 returned to his homeland. His honor had by then been restored and on 30 November he reconciled England, Wales, and Ireland to the Roman Catholic Church. From then until his death on 17 November 1558, about twelve hours after the Queen had died, he devoted himself to the reestablishment of Catholic faith and practice, and presided over the burning of dozens of Protestant “heretics.” Yet in the 1540s, he had been closely involved with Catholic reformers in Italy, who were influenced by Protestant Reformers. His last years were overshadowed by suspicion of “Lutheran” heresy, and particularly by the hostility of Pope Paul IV (reigned 1555–1559). He died peacefully in Lambeth Palace, London, but his legacy has been contested ever since by Catholics and those who disagree with them. He played a prominent role in 16th-century Europe, in both religion and politics, and undoubtedly struggled in the cause of Church unity, on Catholic terms.

General Overviews

Because of his national role in England, between his break with Henry VIII and the end of Mary I’s reign, Pole inevitably receives attention in general works that cover his lifetime, especially from a religious point of view, though his thought and activity also had political effects. Fenlon 1972 raised specific issues concerning Pole that continue to interest scholars, though they were not taken up until Haigh 1993, which includes a brief but useful survey of Pole’s policy for the English Church. Just before that (1992), the first edition of Duffy 2005 appeared, containing a useful chapter on Mary’s religious policies (1553–1558), which has been followed up by later authors. Short and useful accounts of Pole’s work in England are to be found in MacCulloch 2000, Heal 2003, and Marshall 2003. Pole’s career, before and after his return to England in 1554, receives extensive coverage in Edwards 2011, while his approach to Protestants is included in Gregory 1999, which surveys the whole field of religious persecution during Pole’s lifetime.

  • Duffy, Eamon. The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400–1580. 2d ed. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 2005.

    This important work, which in recent years has reshaped the knowledge and understanding of Catholic faith and practice in late medieval and 16th-century England, contains a pioneering chapter on the reign of Mary, which is still essential reading.

  • Edwards, John. Mary I: England’s Catholic Queen. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 2011.

    Queen Mary I, a relative of Pole, knew him from her early years and so he naturally has a prominent place in this biography of England’s first effective sovereign queen. This book includes an account of Pole’s relationship with the Tudor monarchs and especially of his cooperation with Mary in matters of religion, both before and after his arrival in England as papal legate.

  • Fenlon, Dermot. Heresy and Obedience in Tridentine Italy: Cardinal Pole and the Counter Reformation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1972.

    A perceptive analysis of the dilemma posed to Catholics by the theological disputes that arose from the Protestant Reformation. Fenlon shows how some Catholic reformers, including Pole, sympathized with certain of the theological ideas of the Reformers, such as Luther, but also shows how Pole eventually chose obedience to Rome and reluctantly accepted the teaching of the Council of Trent on Christian justification and salvation.

  • Gregory, Brad S. Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

    This pioneering account of religious persecution, including martyrdom for one’s faith, in 16th-century Europe, in which individuals of three traditions—Catholic, magisterial Protestant, and radical “Anabaptist”—are treated equally, contains some useful comments on Pole’s role as an enforcer of Catholic orthodoxy, as papal legate (1553–1558) and Archbishop of Canterbury (1556–1558).

  • Haigh, Christopher. English Reformations: Religion, Politics and Society under the Tudors. Oxford: Clarendon, 1993.

    Haigh was a pioneer of the growing tendency among some historians, from the 1980s onwards, to offer what is commonly known as a “revisionist” interpretation of the development of English Christianity in the Tudor period. This general overview provides a clear and valuable introduction to Pole’s activity and achievement in the reign of Mary I, from the point of view of one who stresses the continuing influence of Catholicism in England, in the face of governmentally sponsored Protestant Reform.

  • Heal, Felicity. Reformation in Britain and Ireland. Oxford: Clarendon, 2003.

    DOI: 10.1093/0198269242.001.0001

    This largely thematic survey of religion in Britain in the Reformation period is particularly useful for its account of Pole’s work in the Irish Church.

  • MacCulloch, Diarmaid. The Later Reformation, 1547–1603. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000.

    Although it concentrates mostly on Reformed religion between the death of Henry VIII and the accession of James VI and I, this small volume contains a few stimulating pages on Mary’s reign, including a balanced assessment of Pole’s achievement and its limitations.

  • Marshall, Peter. Reformation England, 1480–1642. London: Arnold, 2003.

    This chronological survey concentrates on the religious aspects of the period and contains a thoughtful and stimulating chapter on the Catholic restoration under Mary, here described as her “reformation.” It covers political and social aspects as well as giving a balanced assessment of the violence involved in the implementation of the Queen’s policies, which included the burning for heresy of about 300 people.

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