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The Courier's Tale by Peter Walker

Posted: Sat November 6th, 2010, 12:14 am
by annis
Cardinal Reginald Pole

Review of The Courier's Tale at Historical Novels Info

Every now and then you come across a novel which you enjoy as much for the history it reveals to you as for itself. This was the case for me with Peter Walker’s The Courier’s Tale, a novel about Cardinal Reginald Pole and his confidential agent, Michael Throckmorton, both actual historical figures, neither of whom I knew much about previously. Pole was a significant Renaissance figure who has been rather neglected in HF. Partly I suspect, this is because he spent a large part of his life in Italy trying to avoid Henry VIII’s assassins, and partly because on his return to England as Archbishop of Canterbury during Queen Mary’s reign, he unfortunately became associated with the horrors of Marian persecution. Yet Pole was a liberal, tolerant churchman of great intellect who detested the Inquisition and fought to bring Roman Catholicism into line with Protestantism. He was an attractive personality who drew to his court in Italy many Renaissance luminaries including Michelangelo and Vittoria Colonna.

Margaret Pole, 8th Countess of Salisbury, the last Plantagenet.
Her horribly botched execution shocked even relatively hardened contemporaries.

Pole was of the blood royal, and through his mother Margaret, the last of the Plantagenets, actually had as much right to the throne as his cousin, Henry VIII. Pole saw it as his duty as spiritual advisor to hold up the mirror of truth to princes; popes, the Holy Roman Emperor and Henry VIII all received forthright letters from him.

Quote from a letter to Henry (you can just see the king frothing at the mouth while reading this) “…And yet here is all the difficulty for a prince. Who will tell him when he is at fault? And who has more need to hear it, with a thousand more occasions to fall?”

His treatise, De Unitate, delivered to Henry VIII in 1536 by Throckmorton, is a scathing condemnation of the king’s divorce and tyranny in destroying those who oppose his separation from Papal authority, and the reason why Pole could never return to England during Henry’s reign. His unfortunate family suffered instead; his mother, older brother and cousin executed and his 10 year-old nephew left to die of neglect in a dungeon cell.

De Unitate is a remarkable document - Pole lets Henry have it with both barrels blazing. Here’s a small sample:

“The men you have killed have, by their deaths, already written the truth about you in their blood. Unless you turn back, what deeds of renown might be inscribed upon your tomb? Perhaps this:
Like a raging animal, he tore to pieces the best men in his kingdom.
Or what about this:
He poured out immense sums to get the title 'incestuous’ conferred upon him by the universities.
King Sardanapalus chose as his epithet these words:
I have satisfied all my physical desires.
Aristotle said that would have been better on the tomb of a cow than a king. You, however, should hurry to claim it as your own, in case much worse things are written there….”

Michael Throckmorton is also an interesting character. He came from an old landed family dating from the Conquest. He was born at the Throckmorton family seat in Warwickshire, Coughton Court, though it changed its appearance dramatically under the hands of his older brother, Sir George, who was obsessed with rebuilding. Home for 900 years to the staunchly Catholic Throckmortons, it is still run by the family today, though now held by the National Trust. It’s known for its magnificent gardens, which were developed quite recently. Michael Throckmorton, though, never lived in England permanently after his youth, despite being granted several estates by Queen Mary in recognition of his loyal service to Cardinal Pole. He instead chose to live out his days in Italy, where he set up a profitable horse-breeding operation and raised his family.

Coughton Court ... ton-court/

Comparisons which have been made around the ‘net with Mantel's "Wolf Hall" are ridiculous, IMO. The two books are quite different in intention and style and to be honest, although The Courier’s Tale is both entertaining and informative, and I enjoyed it very much, it doesn’t have the depth or scale of "Wolf Hall".

Posted: Sat November 6th, 2010, 12:52 am
by MLE (Emily Cotton)
I may try this one, Annis -- Reginald Pole is tangential to one of the real people I spin stories about at renaissance faires, Emperor Charles V's ambassador to Rome, Diego Hurtado de Mendoza. He played 'popemaker' after the death of Paul III, and wrote several earnest letters to the Emperor urging Cardinal Pole as a principled choice for the next pope, but in the end, Charles opted for Giovanni Maria Ciocchi del Monte, (Julius III) and Don Diego used his influence to get him elected, after which he wrote his friend, "I wish I did not know [about the papacy] what I now know."

De la Pole would have been a much better Pope-- Julius was an embarrassment to the church. Charles V couldn't get him to cooperate much, either.

Posted: Sat November 6th, 2010, 3:26 am
by annis
The tragedy is that Pole at one point had enough votes to take the Papacy, but hesitated over accepting, and then it was too late because opinion had swung to Giovanni Maria Ciocchi del Monte, (Julius III), who certainly didn't dawdle over accepting!

Imagine the difference a compassionate enlightened man like Pole could have made as Pope- a man who cared more about the church and spiritual issues than worldly power and treasures. His belief was that men should be led to faith by kindness rather than force. His fatal hesitation has long been a puzzle. Did Pole genuinely think he wasn't worthy of the honour, or did he realize that at heart he was a man of intellect rather than action?

Posted: Sat November 6th, 2010, 3:55 am
by MLE (Emily Cotton)
Maybe he was pondering the fate of Adrian of Utrecht, a surprise choice (to him also -- he was voted in absentia) for pope after Leo X died in 1520. Adrian was an upright man and a reformer, but he couldn't get the church to budge an inch. He died after less than two years in office, some say from the strain.

Adrian was Charles V's tutor as a young man, and it speaks well of his teaching. Chuck did much better from a moral standpoint than either of his royal contemporaries, Francis and Henry. Although alas, that means nobody wants to write about him much.

Posted: Sat November 6th, 2010, 4:31 am
by annis
Well, it has to be said that Adrian's fate is probably what befell Pole after his return to England. Despite being Queen Mary's closest spiritual advisor and Archbishop of Canterbury, he appears to have had no power to control the persecution of those who didn't want to return to Roman Catholicism. The Holy Roman Emperor nobbled him to a large extent by holding up Pole's return to England until he (Charles V) could get his son, the über-orthodox Philip of Spain, married off to Mary, hereby limiting Pole's influence on her. Mind you, by this time you get an impression of Pole as rather frail, elderly and a bit bewildered by the turn of events.

Posted: Sun November 7th, 2010, 12:35 am
by Margaret
Thanks for posting the portraits here, Annis.

This is a book I'd like to work into my reading list, too. It sounds like it would make great companion reading for Wolf Hall.

Posted: Sun November 7th, 2010, 1:01 am
by annis
It is interesting to see Cromwell from Pole's POV.

Pole saw Thomas Cromwell as a disciple of Machiavelli, and held him largely responsible for Henry VIII's transformation from once admired ruler to a monstrous despot no longer able to see past his own will and desires to the greater good of his subjects.

Pole roundly condemned Machiavelli's masterpiece of political expediency, The Prince, saying," I found this type of book to be written by an enemy of the human race. It explains every means whereby religion, justice and any inclination toward virtue could be destroyed".

He clearly refers to Cromwell in this piece from De Unitate:

"All this misfortune, O England, comes from one fact: your King, although he had good advisors, listened instead to evil advisors who whispered in his ear, “All things belong to the King”. If only he had ignored these flatterers and listened instead to those who said, “All things belong to the Commonwealth”"

In Courier's Tale we also see Cromwell through Michael Throckmorton's eyes, up close and personal as he is the contact between Pole and Cromwell. Throckmorton plays a tricky game as he's a double agent. Although Throckmorton's loyalties are with Pole, Cromwell believes he's working for him.

Posted: Sun November 7th, 2010, 4:37 am
by Margaret
He clearly refers to Cromwell in this piece from De Unitate:

"All this misfortune, O England, comes from one fact: your King, although he had good advisors, listened instead to evil advisors who whispered in his ear, “All things belong to the King”. If only he had ignored these flatterers and listened instead to those who said, “All things belong to the Commonwealth”"
A striking quote! He might almost be looking ahead to another Cromwell.