N .ft, N I MI T Y , which might he considered a peculiarly royal virtue, was never conspicuous in the character of Henry VIII.
He exhibited, in fact, those traits of petty rancour and smallness of mind which turn an absolute monarch into a tyrannical and despicable bully. And, like most bullies—and for that matter like most spoiled and peevish children— his outbursts were most to be feared in the circle of his nearest and dearest.
These remarks are not made merely for the pleasure it affords to insult at a safe distance of time one who so savagely punished the
treasonable word. They are evoked rather by the reflection that these winter months four hundred years ago saw the most atrocious and contemptible display of Henry's abuse of kingly power.
In the course of the year 1538 the activities on the Continent of his kinsman and former friend, Reginald Pole, had roused the King to a passion of fury and resentment; and unable to lay hands on the man himself, Henry looked round for the surest means of hurting him through others.
Vicarious victims were ready to his murderous hands. Pole's mother, the saintly Countess of Salisbury, and his two brothers, Lord Montague and Sir Geoffrey Pole, were placed under arrest. The opportunity was seized of sweeping into the net two cousins of Pole, Courteney, Marquis of Exeter, and Neville, Baron of Abergavenny, whose royal Yorkist blood was a source of uneasiness to the usurper's son, Henry.
Why He Was Angry First, however, let us understand the cause of the royal anger. Reginald Pole, a boy of nine on Henry's accession, had enjoyed the King's friendship and financial help in the pursuit of his studies. In those early years before the religious troubles he grew into a devout and lovable character and a fine scholar, much admired by the best of those among whom he studied in Italy. Returned from his travels he continued to enjoy the patronage of Henry, though he
avoided the court and sought seclusion among his books.
He escaped the necessity of taking sides in the divorce question until 1530, when he was offered the See of Winchester or that of York in return for his support of the King's position. He resisted the pressure of both his family and the King; with such good grace, however, that he was allowed to depart for the Continent again backed by a generous pension. In Italy he soon found himself a member of that circle of men, future Cardinals and Popes, who were working to check the tide of Renaissance paganism and to set in motion a Catholic reformation.
A " Wrong " Answer But before long Henry regretted his complaisance and began to press Pole for a precise statement of his opinions. Every worldly consideration, including the safety of his family, counselled a reply favourable to the King.
This in all sincerity of conscience Pole could not give. The answer, when it came in the form of De Unitate Ecclesiae, was a straightforward statement of papal supremacy and an appeal to Henry to repent. Pole was no coward uttering defiance from a safe distance; he was nowhere secure from the daggers of Henry's assassins. In 1537 he increased the danger of his position by accepting a Cardinal's bat and appointment as legate to England. He was in fact prepared to cross the Channel to try and effect a reconciliation until Henry's open threats persuaded him of the futility of the mission.
The events of 1538 further inflamed the tyrant's anger.
The Pope, after months of unsuccessful diplomacy, was able at last to bring together the Nmperor Charles and the King of France. Laying aside their quarrels for a moment the two monarchs discussed how they might combine to extort obedience to Rome from the English King.
Among the Cardinals who accompanied Pope Paul III to Nice for the conference was Reginald Pole. Henry, always fearful of this particular combination against him, believed Pole to be its instigator.
With characteristic brutality " the only supreme head on earth of the Church of England " wreaked his revenge on the innocent.
Montague, with Courteney and Neville, was beheaded on December 9. The charge against him was that he had delighted in the works of Thomas More and had not sufficiently disapproved the actions of his brother, the Cardinal. Montague's son died in the Tower. His younger brother, Geoffrey Pole, had been arrested as early as August, 1538, and it was his evidence, wrung from him by threat of torture, that was used against the rest.
Suffering and remorse led to a mental breakdown, and he later fled to Rome, where his brother obtained for him the consolation of a papal absolution.
Bl. Margaret's Fate
The fate of Pole's mother, Margaret, was more horrible. On charges utterly frivolous she was condemned to death in June, 1539.
For two years she was allowed to live on, completely destitute, in the Tower, until in May, 1541, the order came for her execution. This courageous woman, then over seventy years old, the last of the direct line of the Plantagenets, met a gruesome death with heroic resolution. It was as if she was pursued to the very scaffold by the barbarous rancour of her murderer. Her agony was prolonged by the incompetence of the executioner, and the King's vengeance was completed in a scene which horrified the beholders.