Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Was Queen Mary advised by a heretic?

Queen Mary I
Painting by Eworth
The reign of Queen Mary I is best known for her attempt at counter-reformation in England. Since we have the benefit of knowing that it did fail, it is easy to look back and wonder how she believed it could succeed. Yet at that time, Mary was able to take the crown that was rightfully hers through great popular support for her and her religion. Her partner in bringing the 'true faith' back to her kingdom was her cousin, Cardinal Reginald Pole.

Reginald Pole was the son of Margaret Pole Countess of Salisbury who had served as Mary's governess. Margaret and Mary's mother, Queen Catherine, had been close friends and may have hoped that Reginald could be a potential suitor for the princess, but her father had other plans for her. In the meantime, Reginald grew up provided with the best education money could buy through the support of Kings Henry VII & VIII. By the time Mary became queen in 1553, Reginald was known as a great scholar and only his refusal to campaign on his own behalf had prevented him from being elected pope in 1550.

Instead, he returned to his homeland to assist Queen Mary in putting her religious house in order. Mary was a staunch Catholic. It was one of the things that had driven a wedge between her and her father and siblings. She assumed, of course, that the good Cardinal was of one mind with her in all church matters, but there was much more to Reginald Pole that met the eye.

The words of Matthew 10:16 were favored by Pole. He had them painted on a window when he lived in Lambeth Palace, and they appear on his tomb.

Be as wise as serpents and as simple as doves.

This line reveals a bit about the deep-thinking man who was more willing than most leaders of the Catholic Church to consider the arguments of the reformers. Reginald was devoted to rooting heresy out of England, but this did not necessarily mean to him what it meant to his queen. Like some men who were persecuted as heretics, he believed that Catholicism should be reestablished free of the corruption that had lead to the Reformation.

Cardinal Reginald Pole
Pole discussed religion with learned men throughout Europe from Thomas More to Niccolo Machiavelli. He was a friend of Michelangelo and Contarini, another Cardinal famous for wishing to be reunited with Lutherans. By reformers, Pole was considered a Papist but he later came under investigation by Inquisitors who called him a secret Lutheran. Pole's writing frequently seems to favor the Lutheran doctrine of justification through faith alone, and he scandalously proposed that church leaders should lead by example and bear the church's burden rather than setting themselves higher than their flock. He believed in a personal relationship with God, not solely through membership of a church, stating that all people are brides of Christ, not just the Catholic Church. These fine lines may seem insignificant to us today, but in the 16th century men had burned for less.

Yet Pole was a highly respected leader of the Catholic Church and was sent to bring England back into the fold. He believed in faith, discipline, and charity, but he also believed that it was vital to put a stop to heresy before it could spread and lead people to eternal damnation. This is what made him the ideal person to cope with the situation in Marian England.

While Pole had defended the right of Protestants to have their views heard, he also supported meaningful debate and edifying conversation that would (hopefully) end with all parties agreeing upon the truth. This gentle easing of people to faith was just what was necessary in a country that had been enduring religious changes - and not all for very religious reasons - for two decades. His position in England is also likely what saved him from more drastic encounters with the Inquisition. He was able to defend himself in writing while emphasizing that his continued presence was required in England.

He was nothing if not clever.

Pole's belief that all heretics should be given the opportunity to hear the truth and be healed before they were condemned coincided well with Queen Mary's merciful character. While we may know her as 'Bloody Mary', her council often accused Mary of not taking decisive enough actions against her enemies. The burning of heretic leaders, those with the most power to lead others astray, did not begin until 1555. As was the case with every previous English monarch, heresy was considered akin to open rebellion.

Disputation of the Trinity
Andrea Del Sarto, 1517
(Web Gallery of Art)
Pole advised the English clergy 'to entreat the people and their flock with all gentleness and to endeavour themselves to win the people rather by gentleness than by extremity and rigour.' Bonner thought Pole was too lenient and found his positions on heretics disappointing. This paints a very different picture of the counter-reformation than has been brought to us by Elizabethan chroniclers.

By the end of 1558, when Reginald and Mary both died on the 17th of November, 284 Protestants had been burned for heresy. Pole felt treatment this harsh should be reserved for only the worst of criminals, those who did not only privately practice heresy but actively spread it. Reunification and peace were his goals, but he had run out of time to see those objectives reached.

But was Reginald Pole a heretic? Ironically, those on both sides of the 16th century religious debate accused him of being one, which just might make him a man who understood men and faith better than any of his accusers.

Additional Reading:

Reginald Pole: Prince & Prophet by Thomas F Mayer
The First Queen of England by Linda Porter


  1. v insightful post, Samantha. Love the way you make everyone seem so complete--the way you write helps us know them.