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The Queen and the Cardinal: Mary I and Reginald Pole

Eamon Duffy explores the relationship between Mary I and her Archbishop of Canterbury Cardinal Pole. Pole’s advice to his queen about attitudes to Henry VIII and in dealing with heretics show he played a far more energetic role in the restoration of the ‘true religion’ than he has been given credit for.

Between six and seven o’clock on the morning of November 17th, 1558, soon after the elevation of the Host at a Mass celebrated in her sick-room, Queen Mary died. By seven o’clock that same evening the queen’s cousin, who was also her Archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal Reginald Pole, was also dead. Apart from their family connections, ardent Catholicism and their eclipse as religious forces in England under Henry VIII, what did queen and cardinal share in common? Cardinal Pole’s religious formation is often described as humanist, a woefully inadequate term for his immersion both in the most modern scholarship and the most vital spiritual movements in contemporary Catholicism. He was fluent in Latin and Greek, competent in Hebrew. His mentors and friends in England included the best classical and religious minds of the time: William Latimer, Thomas Linacre, John Colet and Thomas More.

In Italy, where he lived first as an aristocratic student and then as an exile and papal servant till 1554, he became the admired intimate not only of older and more louche representatives of the secular renaissance like Cardinal Pietro Bembo, but of the newer and more devout spirit of reform represented by pastoral innovators like Gian Matteo Giberti and Gasparo Contarini. While governor of the papal state of Viterbo from 1541, Pole became the central figure in the devoutly Pauline reform circle known as the Spirituali, a magnet for sometimes suspect advocates of the renewal of the Catholic church. Despite his appointment as presiding Legate at the opening sessions of the Council of Trent, Pole was receptive to radical doctrines such as justification by faith. In the 1550s he would find himself at odds with the increasingly panicky and narrowing ultra-orthodoxy of the church under Pope Paul IV.

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