In season 3 of The Tudors, Henry VIII is beset by plots and conflict both within and outside England. One of the main protagonists is Cardinal Reginald Pole. Cardinal Pole is abroad working against Henry because he, a staunch Catholic, is opposed the religious reforms being carried out in England by Henry and Thomas Cromwell. Cardinal Pole publishes and circulates a treatise condemning Henry, and this piques Henry's already risen suspicions. Henry sends Sir Francis Bryan to find Pole and kill him, but Cardinal Pole is supported by the other, Catholic monarchs on the continent and manages to escape every time Bryan begins to close in on him. To strike at him, Henry commits his family to the Tower of London, and they are all later executed.
Why is Cardinal Pole so dangerous? At the beginning of the season, he claims that he is a member of the House of Plantagenet, a ruling dynasty in England ousted by Henry VIII's father.
So, who the heck is Cardinal Pole, and where does his claim to the throne come from?
Who are the "Plantagenets" and why are they important?
Answering this question is a good place to start. Lots of people have probably heard the word "Plantagenet" before, but not everyone knows exactly WHO is a Plantagenet.
"Plantagenet" refers to the official ruling dynasty in England between 1154 and 1485. The first Plantagenet king of England was Henry II. Henry's mother, Matilda, was involved in a long, armed conflict lasting many years with King Stephen of England. Matilda was the only living child of Henry I, and, although he made the barons and lords swear to recognize Matilda's claim to the English throne twice in his reign, Stephen seized the opportunity, and the crown, when Henry I died in 1135. Matilda was in Anjou, France with her second husband, Geoffrey of Anjou, at the time, but many rallied to her cause. In order to end the conflict King Stephen agreed that Matilda and Geoffrey's son Henry would succeed him as king of England.
The name "Plantagenet" wasn't imposed upon the dynasty until the 15th century. The first to assume this name was Richard Plantagenet, the Duke of York in the mid-15th century. The word "Plantagenet" refers to the broom plant (Latin term = Planta genista) that Geoffrey of Anjou supposedly wore in his hat.
What made Cardinal Reginald Pole a Plantagenet?
Cardinal Pole was indeed a member of the House of Plantagenet. So was Henry VIII technically. However, they were related to the same ruling house through different branches of the family tree.
The trunk of this tree, if you will, is Edward III and his wife, Philippa of Hainault. They had a big, unusual problem. In direct contrast with Henry VIII, Edward III had TOO MANY children survive into adulthood.
Of course, as with any ruling family, the most important person is the oldest son. In Edward III's case, this was Edward, known as the Black Prince. Why don't we know this Edward as Edward IV? Because of another of Edward III's unusual problems--he lived a very long time. Edward the Black Prince predeceased his father by about a year. In keeping with the rules of primogeniture, the next candidate would be the oldest son of Edward the Black Prince. Luckily, he had one of those--Richard. Richard II succeeded Edward III upon his death in 1377.
It would be impossible to summarize the outcome, which will inevitably lead to what we call "The Wars of the Roses." Richard II was a very unsuccessful monarch. He was overthrown by Henry IV or Henry Bolingbroke, the son of John of Gaunt, Edward III's third son. There is an unbroken line of the crown passing from father to son between Henry IV, Henry V and Henry VI. However, the fact that Henry VI was really not cut out to be a medieval king reminded everyone that Edward III had a SECOND son in there somewhere. This is where Cardinal Pole's family descends from.
Edward III's second son, Lionel of Antwerp, Duke of Clarence, only had a daughter, Philippa. She married Edmund Mortimer, and when she did so, he and the family he had with her inherited Lionel's claim to the throne. A son followed this union (Roger Mortimer), and his only child, Anne Mortimer, became the "carrier" of her great-grandfather Lionel's claim to the throne. Like her grandmother Philippa, this claim would transfer to the children she had by whomever she married.
AND THEN, to complicate matters further, Anne Mortimer married a descendant of the FOURTH SON of Edward III, Edmund Langley, Duke of York. Suddenly, you had a family that had not one, but TWO claims to the throne at the same time. It is this branch of the family that becomes the "House of York" in the Wars of the Roses. From this branch will descend the next two kings of England, and the last of the official Plantagenet line, Edward IV and Richard III. However, there were other members of this family, too. Edward IV and Richard III had a brother in between them in the birth order--George, Duke of Clarence. George predeceased Edward so he never became king, but he did have a family. His daughter, and longest living child, was Margaret Pole, the Duchess of Salisbury and Cardinal Pole's mother.
How much of a threat was Cardinal Pole?
The real answer to this question is: not much.
Cardinal Pole was abroad until the reign of Henry VIII's daughter Mary. He certainly worked against Henry while he was abroad, but there is some dispute about whether or not he could actually have claimed the English throne given he was a churchman. He was certainly an unordained churchman, but, when he was invested with the office of cardinal by Pope Paul III, it really was out of the question that Cardinal Pole could rule England as a Plantagenet claimant to the throne.
In The Tudors, Cardinal Pole's family is imprisoned and executed to punish him. They are innocent victims, cut down because Henry VIII failed to hunt down Cardinal Pole. However, in reality, it was Cardinal Pole's family at home in England that represented the greater threat. Cardinal Pole's publication condemning Henry's actions against the church only gave Thomas Cromwell, Henry's chancellor, a reason to watch the Pole family. Henry and his father before him had always been suspicious of the Poles anyway as representatives of the Plantagenets. Once suspicion was aroused, the Poles' days were automatically numbered. The Poles were one portion of a larger set of victims that were executed for treason between 1538 and 1539. All of these victims were somehow related to the previous Plantagenet dynasty. Margaret Pole would wait for her execution until 1541, although she was well-treated and attended by servants while she lived in the Tower.
What happened to Cardinal Pole?
Cardinal Reginald Pole remained abroad for the remainder of Henry VIII's reign and for the brief reign of his son, Edward VI. However, Mary I was a Catholic, and Cardinal Pole returned to England in 1554. He was finally ordained in 1556 and he became the Archbishop of Canterbury. He died in 1558, and it may have been for the best--had he lived any longer, he would have witnessed the accession of the Protestant Elizabeth I, and his job, if not his life, may have been in danger once again.
Mark Hildreth as Reginald Pole in The Tudors
Tomb Plaque of Geoffrey of Anjou. He was buried in St. Julien's Cathedral in Le Mans, France in 1151.
Stained-glass portrait of Edward III in Westminster Abbey
Portrait of an unknown sitter generally thought to be Margaret Pole, 8th Countess of Salisbury c. 1535
Reginald Pole by Sebastiano del Piombo