If you ever wondered about the significance of the feast of St Andrew, it bears testimony to that tremendous day, 30 November 1554, at Whitehall, London, when Cardinal Reginald Pole as Papal Legate, absolved England "with the whole realm and dominions thereof, from all heresy and schism."
This was followed by a decree, "concerning the thanks to be daily given to God in the celebration of Mass for the return of this Kingdom to the Unity of the Church, and concerning the annual celebration of the memory of that event" - somewhat conveniently forgotten by ecumenists!
He was the son of Sir Richard Pole and Margaret Plantagenet, Countess of Salisbury, now best known as Blessed Margaret Pole. This close and dangerous connection to the Royal Family deeply influenced Reginald Pole’s future life, as he was a possible claimant to Henry VIII’s throne.
Educated at the Carthusian Monastery of Sheen and Magdalene College, Oxford, it was the inescapable destiny of Pole to be either friend or foe of Henry VIII. Pole was destined for the Church, yet a person of his lineage would find it difficult to remain in obscurity.
He earned respect for his scholarship - St Thomas More described him to his daughter Margaret Roper, "as noble as he is learned in all branches of letters, no less conspicuous for his virtue than his learning."
Pole angered Henry by showing his opposition to the ‘divorce’ from Catherine of Aragon (1529-1533). Prudently he went to Padua to study, however a number of assassination plots were made against him by Henry’s agents. Pole responded by rejecting the divorce and Henry’s assumption as Head of the Church in a famous letter Pro Ecclesiastica Unitatis Defensione (De Unitate).
The martyrdom of John Fisher and Thomas More in 1535 struck Pole profoundly giving him the guiding light and courage in his hour of darkness.
Model of reform and sanctity
The catalogue of violent deaths in Pole’s own family must give it a place of its own in the history of blood, as Henry wreaked vengeance on the family by the confiscation of their estates and the martyrdom of his mother Blessed Margaret Pole. Yet despite the trauma of all his great calamities, the real purity of his faith shone.
The spiritual life of Pole’s household in Italy was seen as a model of reform and sanctity. Not only did Pole call for the reform of his King and country to return in obedience to the Unity of the Church, but he also pleaded for the Church itself to reform. He was well acquainted with other advocates of Church reform and was appointed to the Reform Commission in Rome whilst still a layman.
If not for the Crown of England, he nearly missed the Papal tiara in the conclave of 1549. It is a tribute to Pole’s character and an illustration of his reputation, that many unreformed bishops and cardinals were against him. It was said that the Court of Rome would be purified; Cardinal de Cupis styled Pole ‘angelical’ rather than ‘anglican’, so too concluded the Bishop of Carpentras: "In death, as in life, that angelic spirit has brought confusion on the adversaries and calumniators of his irreproachable virtue and has heaped coals of fire upon their heads."
Pole was a member of the ‘spirituali’ (spirituals) movement, whose aim was to establish reunion with the Protestants of northern Europe; he was appointed as one of the Papal Legates to the Council of Trent; as a friend of St. Ignatius Loyola, he helped in obtaining the approval of the Society of Jesus; and among his famous acquaintances and spiritual children were the artist Michelangelo and Vittoria Colonna.
He returned to England as Papal Legate on 30 November 1554, at the beginning of Mary I’s reign after 23 years of exile, to absolve England from schism. He instituted a synod for the restoration and reform of the Church in England, with the provision to restore orthodox teaching, that no book was to be printed without the bishop’s imprimatur and that seminaries should be established in order to train candidates for the priesthood. Both these measures anticipating the ideas which were decreed by the Council of Trent,
One of the most important of his liturgical directives was the instruction on the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament: "The positioning of the tabernacle as being in the middle of the main altar, so high as to be easily seen by all; a lamp or wax taper to burn before the tabernacle continually."
The examination of candidates for Holy Orders also brought greater discipline and a drive to produce quality clergy.
Also instigated was the absolute re-ordination of those clergy who had been invalidly ordained by the Edwardine Ordinal that bore a deliberate heretical omission of the priest’s sacrificial role.
Bible reading, or the possession of bibles was never condemned by the Marian reign. Protestant bibles were suspect, not English bibles as such; a new English translation of the New Testament was one of the projects agreed at Pole’s Legatine Synod in London at the end of 1555.
His hopes for England, however, were short lived. Mary I died suddenly on 17th November 1558, followed by his own death later that same day.
During his lifetime he had been chief adviser to the Queen and Council, virtual Prime Minister of England, Archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal and Papal Legate. No one, not even St Thomas Becket, had held so many powerful positions.
Let not Pole nor ‘Bloody Mary’ be defamed by the successive onslaught of Protestant dominated text books that have bolstered the myth of ‘Gloriana - Good Queen Bess’ (Elizabeth I) or questionable interpretations of John Foxe’s book of ‘Protestant martyrs’ for which space does not permit a reply.
Yet for those who enjoy a twist in the tale, the Protestant historian Dairmuid MacCulloch, in his prize-winning book on Cranmer, highlights a fascinating and unforgettable detail, demonstrating how justice completes its full circle.
A detailed financial account survives from 20th September 1555, regarding Cranmer’s last two months in the care of a pair of bailiffs who had to house, feed and eventually burn Latimer and Cranmer. Mary I did not complete the bailiffs reimbursements, paying only £20 out of the £63 due. It was not until Elizabeth’s reign in 1566 that they were able to claim the difference. Elizabeth’s newly appointed Archbishop Parker was petitioned. "He organised a whip round among his episcopal colleagues with the bizarre result that the Protestant bishops of Elizabeth’s church ended up paying for the faggots, posts and labour which had gone towards burning Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer"!
Prophetic posthumous testimony
Pole, while in Rome, was distressed to find that the famous church of Domino Quo Vadis was falling into ruins. He erected the modest little chapel, which he had not the means to restore, but of which he wished to perpetuate the memory. His task was made easier by the fact that the grounds were the property of the English Hospice, of which he was patron. What re-building and prophetic utterance is there for the Catholic Church in England and its relations with Canterbury Cathedral?
Perhaps this one-time cathedral of Rome, home of St Augustine, sent to England by Pope Gregory the Great, may uncover the hidden treasure of Cardinal Pole, whose body in Canterbury Cathedral remains in prophetic testimony to recall and pronounce the final act of absolution and reconciliation of the Church of England to Rome - that all may be one.