The Tudor Society

4 November – A cardinal’s actions lead to his family’s undoing

On this day in Tudor history, 4th November 1538, Henry Pole, 1st Baron Montagu, his brother-in-law, Sir Edward Neville; Henry Courtenay, Marquis of Exeter; Courtenay's wife, Gertrude Blount, and the couple’s son, Edward Courtenay, were all arrested for treason and imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Montagu, Neville and Exeter, along with Montagu's brother, Geoffrey Pole, were accused of plotting with Cardinal Reginald Pole against the king. Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, was also arrested, accused of the same.

But how had it come to this, when Henry VIII had sought Cardinal Pole's opinion on his marriage and the papacy?

Find out what Cardinal Pole had done to upset the king, and what happened to his family and friends as a result, in today's talk.

Also on this day in Tudor history, 4th November 1530, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Henry VIII's former Lord Chancellor, was arrested at his home of Cawood Castle in Yorkshire. Wolsey was accused of high treason, but why? And what happened when his former servant, Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, arrived with orders to arrest him? Find out more about his arrest and how he cheated the axeman, in last year’s video:

Also on this day in history:

  • 1551 – Date given in the epitaph of John Redman, theologian and first Master of Trinity College, Cambridge. He died of consumption and was buried at Westminster Abbey, in the north transept. Redman's works included De justificatione, which he presented to Henry VIII in 1543, and “A Necessary Doctrine and Erudition for any Christian Man”.


On this day in Tudor history, 4th November 1538, Henry Pole, 1st Baron Montagu, was arrested for treason along with his brother-in-law, Sir Edward Neville; Henry Courtenay, Marquis of Exeter, and Courtenay's wife, Gertrude Blount, and the couple’s son, Edward Courtenay.

The three men were accused of conspiring against King Henry VIII, seeking to deprive the king of his title of supreme head of the church and plotting with Cardinal Reginald Pole, Montagu’s exiled brother. Montagu’s other brother, Geoffrey Pole, had been arrested on 29th August 1538 on suspicion of being in contact with his brother, the cardinal, and imprisoned in the Tower of London. In seven rounds of interrogations, which began on 26th October 1538, Geoffrey implicated his brother, Montagu, and the others.

The brothers’ mother, Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, was interrogated on the 12th November by William Fitzwilliam, Earl of Southampton, and Thomas Goodrich, Bishop of Ely.

But what was all this fuss about? What had Cardinal Pole even done?

Well, in response to King Henry VIII asking his opinion on the legitimacy of a man marrying his late brother’s widow and the divine establishment of the papacy, he wrote his “Pro ecclesiasticae unitatis defensione”, or Defence of the unity of the church, which he sent to the king in May 1536. In it, not only did Pole strongly denounce the king’s policies and support the pope’s authority, he also appealed to Emperor Charles V and the English nobility to take action. When Henry VIII summoned Pole to England, Pole replied:

“there is nothing he desires more than to do so, but that the King himself alone prevents it, for to come to him would be "temerariously" to cast himself away; seeing that, ever since the King cast his love and affection to her whose deeds have declared she never loved him, every man is a traitor that will not accept him for head of the church in his realm. This law enforced "with so sore severity" against the best men of the realm, suffering the pain of traitors, who throughout their whole lives had been the King's most faithful servants,— this law, against which is the whole process of the writer's book, is a sufficient impediment to his coming.”

There was no way that the cardinal was going to risk appearing before the king. In the same letter, Pole defended his book, writing “The book to be understood must be read all through. From some passages the writer would appear to be the King's greatest enemy, but the whole taken together will show that sharp handling to be for the most loving end, and that there was never book written with more sharpness of words nor again more ferventness of love. My whole desire it was and ever shall be that your Grace might reign long in honor, in wealth, in surety, in love and estimation of all men, and this desire (remaining those innovations your Grace hath of late made in the Church)" cannot take effect.” He went on to compare himself to a surgeon “anxious to heal a wound” and stating that it would be madness for the wounded man “when the surgeon "draweth his knife to cut the dead and superfluous flesh, according to his craft," to cry out against him as an enemy.” He went on to say that if God sent the light of his spirit then the king would “abhor his acts more than any man.” Pole was standing by his work and he concluded “There only remains for the King to put off the burden of being head of the Church in his realm, which no other prince dare take upon him since the Church began.” It was not what Henry VIII, who had made himself supreme head of the church in England, wanted to hear from the cardinal.

His mother, Margaret Pole, tried to intercede, writing to her son, the cardinal of his folly, and saying “ Upon my blessing I charge thee to take another way and serve our master, as thy duty is, unless thou wilt be the confusion of thy mother.” She finished her letter by writing “Will pray God to give him grace to serve his prince truly or else to take him to his mercy.”
It was no good, though. The cardinal might get away with his attack on the king and his policies, due to him being abroad, but it was his family and friends who suffered.

Sir Edward Neville was beheaded on the 9th December 1538. Montagu and Exeter were beheaded on Tower Hill on the 9th January 1539, and Margaret Pole was eventually executed on the 27th May 1541. Exeter’s wife was released in 1540, and his son in 1553. Geoffrey Pole was pardoned on the 2nd January 1539, due to his mental state, as he had attempted suicide several times.
Cardinal Pole was attainted for treason in 1539 ‘in absentia’, but this was reversed by Henry VIII’s eldest daughter, Mary, following her accession to the throne, and she even chose him as her Archbishop of Canterbury. He served in that office until his death on 17th November 1558, the same day that Mary I died.

Leave a Reply

4 November – A cardinal’s actions lead to his family’s undoing