Henry VIII, Reginald Pole and 'De Unitate'

by Samantha Wilcoxson

Reginald Pole, cousin and beneficiary of King Henry VIII, chose to write vehemently against him in his book, De Unitate. Did Reginald truly believe that such a personal attack could bring reconciliation between the English king and the Church in Rome? Why did this work lack the political finesse that Pole was well known for?

In order to answer these questions, we must first look at the purpose of De Unitate. It is important to note that when Pole wrote this it was not intended to be a published book. He expected it to be a personal communication between himself and King Henry. With that in mind, he still hesitated to write it and was just as reluctant to send it once it was complete. Pole knew that it was a fire and brimstone call to repentance but was certain that was what it would take to get through to the tempestuous king.

Pole spent months writing De Unitate, from September 1535 to March 1536, and he did not send it until the end of May. Having come of age during the Reformation, Reginald understood better than most the passions and beliefs of both Catholics and Protestants. He is even known to have sympathized with many of the reformers’ arguments, such as the need to abolish corruption among the clergy. Therefore, part of Pole’s hesitation in writing to Henry was the need to identify where a stand should be taken. Henry had been a great supporter of Reginald’s education. The Pole family served Henry, Reginald’s oldest brother as Baron Montegue and his mother as Countess of Salisbury. A rift with the king was not to be lightly created.

When Pole did write to Henry, it was not as a subject to a king, but as a churchman to one causing division in the church. To Reginald, this was the very thing that could not be allowed. As Martin Luther had initially set out to do, Pole wished to reform the church where changes were needed, taking away the reformers’ reasons for causing the deep divides that were growing throughout the sixteenth century. While Henry believed that Reginald should use his position to support the king and his marriage, Reginald decided that their roles had evolved to the point where it was his job to provide the king with sorely needed guidance.

For the entire kingdom of England to break with Rome was a devastating blow to church unity. More than any other personal concern Pole had regarding his own safety or that of his family, he was devoted to reconciliation between Christians. This desire is clear when he stated that all should, “Believe as firmly as if your salvation depended upon faith alone; act as if good works were all sufficient.” In De Unitate, Pole puts himself into the role of spiritual leader, but Henry VIII never took well to anyone claiming authority over him. Pole was also aware of this, and he chose to argue not for the authority of the Pope, but to appeal to Henry’s responsibility as the spiritual leader of his people.

Henry was called to repentance, and in no uncertain terms. Pole accused Henry of despising his foremost councilors, Fisher and More, whom Pole had befriended during their time at Oxford. Their deaths, more than anything else, proved that the king was basing his actions based on his own will, rather than that of God. In killing these men, Henry was truly attempting to quiet the voice of God that cried out against him and his actions. Pole urged Henry to “convert his whole will to the divine will.” Reginald used a variety of religious allegories to appeal to Henry. After all, the king had once been named a Defender of the Faith. Making Henry the Goliath to Pole’s David or the Saul sent to England “not a as benefit, but rather for punishment,” was meant to draw the king to true repentance.

Pole was warned by at least one of his friends that the work was too harsh. Cardinal Gasparo Contarini suggested that Reginald lighten the tone of the missive, but Pole retorted that flattery and compromise were what had brought them to this point. Reginald vehemently refused to ease his stance on Anne Boleyn (Pole insisted he would be dishonoring Henry by supporting the marriage) or the legalized murders of Fisher and More. He also included warnings that Charles V stood ready to invade, or at the very least to rescue the Princess Mary. Mary would never be excluded from the succession on Pole’s watch, and Reginald made sure to remind the king of his own royal blood as well (since one of Henry’s fears was Reginald wedding Mary, this may have been ill advised). The king did not take these warnings well. The fact that some of Pole’s vitriol had been rumored throughout Europe for months only made it worse.

By the time De Unitate was complete, Reginald was not as certain that he wished to send it to Henry, and he certainly did not wish to publish it. However, the only way to put a stop to rumors of what he had written was to openly admit to what he actually had. Suddenly, a private call to repentance was a public attack on Henry VIII’s sovereignty. Still, Pole hoped that the execution of Anne Boleyn might open the way to reconciliation, although he expressed concerns that Henry had wandered too far from Christ to return.

Margaret and Henry Pole both responded to De Unitate by writing to Reginald expressing their disagreement. Whether they truly believed Reginald should apologize to the king or they were attempting to establish their own innocence is unknown. Both were executed by Henry within the five years following the publication of De Unitate on trumped up treason charges. Reginald was attainted in absentia, charges that had to be reversed when he returned to England to serve as Archbishop of Canterbury under Queen Mary I. The king also sent assassins after Reginald, but their attempts were unsuccessful. Henry demonstrated no willingness to consider any of the guidance provided in De Unitate. If anything, his temper caused him to dig in his heels deeper. Henry was Head of the Church of England, and no one was going to convince him otherwise.

Henry persecuted Reginald Pole for the remainder of his life. He also moved further from the Catholic Church. The Dissolution of the Monasteries caused an immeasurable loss of history and religious life, and acts such as the destruction of Thomas Becket’s tomb horrified Christendom. Before the king’s death in 1547, Reginald was convinced he was a predecessor of the Antichrist. There would be no reconciliation.

Had Reginald misjudged what it would take to call Henry to repentance? Could anything have changed the king’s mind? Certainly, Reginald had underestimated Henry’s rage, and, for the rest of his life, he had to live with the fact that he had caused the deaths of his brother and mother. However, men who had tried gentle reasoning with the king had also suffered his wrath. The forcefulness of De Unitate had been a gamble, but there may have been no way to successfully bring Henry to repentance.  

Additional reading:

Reginald Pole: Prince and Prophet by Thomas Mayer

The Life of Reginald Pole by Martin Haile