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The Last Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury

By Emma Laws, Cathedral Librarian

Reginald Pole (1500-1558) was Dean of Exeter Cathedral from 1527 to 1537. He didn’t actually spend much time here; in 1529, Henry VIII sent Pole to Paris to seek support for the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. However, Pole failed to convince even himself of the prudence of a royal divorce and warned Henry of the possible consequences of going through with it.

Unable to support Henry, Pole went into self-imposed exile in France and Italy. He remained Dean of Exeter until 1537 when he was replaced by Simon Haynes, an ardent Protestant reformer who also, as it happens, preferred time away from the deanery.

In 1536 Pole issued a treatise defending the supremacy of the Pope – the same year, Pope Paul III made him a cardinal. Between 1537 and 1539, Pole undertook diplomatic missions on behalf of the Pope to persuade European monarchs to turn against Henry. Unsurprisingly, Henry took revenge by arresting members of Pole’s family in England and confiscating their properties; Pole’s mother, Margaret, was executed.

Following Catholic Mary I’s accession to the throne in 1553, Pole returned to England tasked with launching a counter attack on the Protestant Church of England. 220 men and 60 women were executed during the reign of ‘Bloody Mary’ and Pole did little to prevent the bloodshed. When the great Protestant reformer, Thomas Cranmer, was deprived of the see of Canterbury, Pole stepped up to the job. On this day (22 March) in 1556, former Dean Pole of Exeter became Archbishop of Canterbury. He held the position until his death in November 1558, just twelve hours after the death of his Catholic Queen. He would be the last Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury.