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A life entangled with great events

21 November 2014

G. R. Evans assesses the new biography of Reginald Pole

Archbishop Pole
John Edwards
Ashgate £70
Church Times Bookshop £63 (Use code CT318 )

THIS is a book in an projected series of lives of Archbishops of Canterbury, of which one of those already published covers a 12th- century cluster falling between Anselm and Thomas Becket. Reginald Pole clearly deserves a volume of his own, and this is a scholarly and substantial one. It has the drawback that its author does not always realise that the non-specialist reader will not be so close to its subject, and may need visible signposts in order to find his way to the point of the story.

Pole (1500-58) became the last Roman Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury. His family stood genealogically on the fringes of the royal family, and there was dark old family history. (Henry VII had murdered Pole's uncle.) Pole was at Oxford when Linacre and Latimer were teaching there, and he also studied at Padua (paid for partly by the King), where he encountered other famous names of Renaissance and Reformation.

He became a jobbing diplomat-theologian to Henry VIII, who was happy to lavish livings on him even while he was not yet ordained to the priesthood. He was sent to Paris to canvass leading academic opinion when Henry decided he wanted to have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled, and marry Anne Boleyn. During his years of exile from 1536/37, and attainted for treason until the RC Mary became Queen in 1553, Pole was made a Cardinal, though still not ordained, and acted as Papal Legate. His tenure of the archbishopric of Canterbury lasted from 1556 to 1558, and his ordination as priest took place at last two days before his consecration.

Pole's was, then, a life intimately entangled with great events, in England and in Europe, and this new biography takes the reader into the thick of the endless controversy that surrounded him and his activities. Its strength lies in staying close to the sources, and his own writings - he remained an academic manqué even when he was forced to become a politician for his very life.

A substantial Appendix gives glimpses, first of the treatise he wrote for Henry VIII "In Defence of the Unity of the Church". This was not initially published but offered to the King in manuscript, for his private reading. In 1539, it was printed, however, in Rome and against Pole's wishes. The extracts include Pole's own assertions that he is not by preference a controversialist, and that he is personally fond of the King. Then there are passages about papal and monarchical authority, and the problem of the occasional wicked papal office-holder; there are extracts giving Pole's impression of the way the early hopes of Henry's reign have given way to the unsatisfactory behaviour over Anne Boleyn and the annulment; warnings of potential popular rebellion; views on the martyrdom of John Fisher and Thomas More.

Further extracts cover the period when Pole tried to negotiate with Somerset to return to England in the reign of Edward VI. The last group of extracts describe Pole's disillusion with the "Satanic" Pope Paul IV, who had behaved like a tyrant and not listened to his cardinals and bishops, including Pole himself.

Dr G. R. Evans is Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History in the University of Cambridge.

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