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Reginald Pole at the centre of Tudor history, as told by one who knew him
on 10 May 2012
In most histories of England, or English histories of kings and rulers of the Tudor times, characters such as Reginald Pole exist on the periphery. Born in 1500, he was related to King Henry VIII, being a grand-nephew of both Edward IV and Richard III. His mother, the 8th Countess of Salisbury, was the daughter of George of Clarence (brother to Edward IV and Richard III), and was, from all accounts, a valued and loyal lady in waiting to Henry VIII's first wife, Katherine of Aragon. But for all her title and heritage, the family was not a happy one. Henry VIII did not care for those who opposed him, and Margaret Pole and her family did not wholeheartedly support Henry. Reginald Pole was a figure who Henry would have dearly liked to have on his side in the annulment of his marriage to Katherine, but Pole would not oblige. While at first he appeared to support Henry's authority, he soon came down firmly on the side of the Roman Catholic church, and spent the rest of his life avoiding Henry's ire, largely from exile in Italy and other European cities. Pole was a learned man who had a wide range of equally learned men and women in his circle, and his opinion counted in Renaissance Europe - he attended not only Henry VIII, but Emperor Charles V and the Papal Court. Even after the death of Henry in 1547, Pole was still not safe to return to England; nor indeed was he always safe in Europe, as assassins and rumours still dogged him wherever he went. After Mary Tudor became Queen in 1553 and returned England to the Roman Church, Pole, by then a Cardinal, returned to England as the Papal Legate and became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1556. From then until his death in November 1558, twelve hours after Queen Mary's death, Pole was a highly regarded member of Mary's Council.
This book returns Pole to the centre of action - necessarily, the action moves from England to Europe in general; to Rome and areas of Italy specifically - the courier in the title, Michael Throckmorton writes of life as a member of Pole's inner circle, and how, even outside of England, the affairs of England and the Tudors affected them all. This is a unique view of Tudor history from an angle we rarely get to see, and while it is a novel, it is written sensitively and empathetically. Throckmorton alternates between a man who yearns to return to England and his sweetheart, and a man who strives to protect Pole as a man of integrity and honour, and who can see so much more realistically than the dreamy and introverted Pole, living a life of high education and deep contemplation, but never being left alone by the forces, political and religious, outside him which drive him on to his duty and honour. I cannot recommend this book highly enough; it is utterly brilliant - thought-provoking, honest and touching.
I apologise for the length of this review, but I feel this book is important enough to justify against some negative reviews I see that have been posted, unfortunately, perhaps by those who do not fully appreciate the times or the people that this book seeks to represent. I also do not agree that it has to be compared to "Wolf Hall" as either one being enjoyable or the other - I have read Wolf Hall, and loved it, and will be reading it again as soon as the sequel comes out, with great anticipation.