Monday, January 8, 2018

Reginald Pole and the Papal Conclave of 1550

Reginald Pole
Cardinal, Archbishop, & almost Pope
Reginald Pole is possibly best known for daring to reprimand King Henry VIII with his De Unitate, in which Pole strongly protested the Tudor king’s break from Rome. It was a brave stance to take and resulted in Henry tasking Cromwell with hiring assassins to rid him of the troublesome cardinal. Clearly, these efforts were unsuccessful, because in 1549, shortly following Henry’s death, Reginald was a favorite to fill the role of pope after the death of Pope Paul III.

Cardinal Pole may have had royal blood flowing through his veins (his mother was Margaret Pole, daughter of George of Clarence), but he believed firmly in attending to whatever work God intended for him rather than seeking out his own glory. At a time when papal positions were lobbied and bribed for, he declined to actively seek the highest office. Instead, Reginald refused to campaign even as Inquisitors worked to blacken his name and factions within Rome took advantage of his inaction. Despite his lack of ambition, Pole missed being elected by only one vote.

Pope Paul III had been elected in 1534 to lead the Counter Reformation. His predecessor, Clement VII, had struggled to cope with his role as nations fell away at an increasing rate from Rome, a catastrophe that none before him had been forced to manage. Clement was indecisive and ineffective, as evinced by the sacking of Rome during his tenure. Before Clement, Adrian VI, had hoped to reconcile with Martin Luther and his followers, but by the time Paul was elected it was deemed necessary to change tactics. Cardinal Pole believed strongly in discussion and reconciliation between reformists and Catholics, and it was this open-mindedness that led to charges of heresy against him.

However, in 1549, Pole was considered the natural choice to lead Rome. Bankers, who openly took wagers on the outcome of the sacred process, placed Pole’s chances of obtaining the papal tiara between 90-95%. When Pope Paul died on November 10, 1549, forty-nine cardinals attended the conclave, which lasted an arduous seventy-two days, to elect his successor. During this time, the cardinals resided in hastily built wooden cells that were set up in the Sistine Chapel and other halls of the Vatican.

Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and Henry II of France were each determined to see their own man elected. Reginald Pole was the choice of neither. While not a first choice, Reginald was said to be acceptable to Charles V, who shared Pole’s interest in continuing discussions that could lead to compromise with German Lutherans. Accepted by Imperials and esteemed by his fellow cardinals, Pole’s chances seemed good. Alessandro Farnese, who would go on to participate in several more controversial papal conclaves, called for a public vote believing that a majority would select the highly respected Pole if votes were not secret.

Instead, a secret vote was held in the Pauline Chapel on December 3, 1549. When the first two votes brought Pole up just short of the number he needed, the Imperialists pressed to continue before additional French cardinals could arrive, but Pole refused to be a part of this. Confidence in him remained high enough that Papal vestments were tailored for him.

Giovanni del Monte
Pope Julius III
On the third vote, Reginald was expected to gain the required votes. When he again fell short, it was determined that Giovanni del Monte, who had been expected to vote for him, had chosen not to due to a minor breach in etiquette, and three others held back with him. By the end of the conclave, the other cardinals would learn that del Monte had a very different plan in mind.

Although Pole seemed the clear choice to many, others saw flaws with the potential of his papacy for a variety of reasons. First, Reginald was not Italian. He was a close blood relation of England’s Tudors, and this was not seen by everyone as a strength. Second, he was young. At age forty-five, he had the potential for a very long reign indeed. Finally, there were some who believed the charges of heresy against him and were afraid they would be electing a reformer to Saint Peter’s chair.

After weeks of political intrigue, bribes, and negotiations, the conclave elected Giovanni del Monte on February 8, 1550. He was considered a compromise candidate and no one’s ideal choice. Sixty-three years old at the time of his election, Pope Julius III lived only five more years. By the time of del Monte’s death, Reginald Pole was serving in England where he became Queen Mary I’s Archbishop of Canterbury in 1556, two years before his death.


  1. Fascinating! Political intrigue, cultural bias, and serious disagreements as to the "popeness" of the papal see! Thank you for posting!

  2. Fascinating! Political intrigue, cultural bias, and serious disagreements as to the "popeness" of the papal see! Thank you for posting!

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