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The plot to depose Henry VIII

Cardinal Pole, by Sebastiano del Piombo

In 1540 a priest persuaded the Pope and the King of France to back a scheme that could have rescued England from Protestantism

If a zealous priest called Gregory Botolph had guarded his tongue more carefully in Holy Week of 1540, England might well be a Catholic country still.

Let me explain.

Botolph was a chaplain to the governor of Calais, still an English possession. Like many garrison towns, it contained a lot of people with plenty of time to squabble – and the squabbling was made worse by rising religious tensions between good Catholics like Fr Botolph and a growing number of colleagues affected by Luther and the more radical Protestantism of Strasbourg and Switzerland.

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It happened that in 1539 the mighty Holy Roman Emperor Charles V had not only concluded a “lasting” peace with his inveterate enemy, Francis I of France, but, yet more astonishingly, had accepted an invitation to travel from his homeland Spain, via Nice, northwards through France to his possessions in the Netherlands. For some of the way, he would be in the company of King Francis, amid much pageantry and displays of amity.

The then pope, Paul III – no saint but one of the most important and underrated successors of St Peter – had also gone to Nice to try to rally the emperor and king to unite with him in combating two huge threats to the Church, namely, apparently unstoppable Protestantism and unstoppable Islam. The latter came in the shape of the Ottoman Turks, who, having captured Constantinople, were now bent on overrunning Western Christendom by land and sea – and turning St Peter’s into a mosque, as they had done to Hagia Sophia.

But Paul was effectively rebuffed. Charles and Francis refused to sit down with him, and headed northwards.

Back in Rome, however, Paul decided to try again, sending Cardinal Alessandro Farnese (his grandson) with orders to “gatecrash” the imperial procession as it crossed France.

As though that were not enough, shortly afterwards Paul sent a second envoy, this time a full-blown nuncio, his chief secretary, Marcello Cervini (the future Pope Marcellus II), to join Farnese. He did so almost certainly thanks to the illustrious Reginald Pole, who had fled his homeland and was a bitter opponent of Henry VIII and all his deeds. Paul had made Pole a cardinal and confidant. In revenge, Henry set about destroying Pole’s family and imprisoned his brothers and mother, Margaret Pole, in the Tower of London.

Cervini’s mandate was a breathtaking one. Since a papal nuncio would not have been allowed into schismatic England, he was to persuade the emperor and French king to send him to England as their envoy to offer Henry the following bargain: Rome would grant him full pardon for his offences against Holy Mother Church and allow him to keep the possessions of the hundreds of religious houses he had seized and the huge taxes he had imposed on the secular clergy; but only if he returned to the fold and allowed papal authority to be restored in his land.

This was to be his last chance. Paul was no doubt sure that Henry would reject this extraordinarily generous olive branch, but was determined that due process should be adhered to. If Henry rejected this offer, he would be excommunicated – as Pole had long been urging – and formally deposed.

Since Charles and Francis distrusted Pope Paul almost as much as they distrusted one another, when Cervini managed to put this plan to them he was met with a cool response. Charles effectively refused.

However, King Francis (who distrusted Henry even more than he distrusted either pope or emperor) was eventually ready to oblige: yes, he would despatch Cervini in his own name on a mission to secure the undoing of a fellow monarch he had always loved to hate.

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Meanwhile, in early 1540, Fr Botolph in Calais had become so alarmed at how heterodox ideas were gaining ground in his town (as in his homeland) that he decided on extraordinary action. He heard that the great imperial train and its papal envoys, on their way to the Netherlands, were passing just a few miles from Calais.

With the support of several like-minded colleagues (including perhaps even the governor of Calais himself, Arthur Lord Lisle, illegitimate son of Edward IV and no friend of the upstart Tudors), Botolph rode out and put a proposal to the papal legates.

Botolph’s plan was this: if the pope provided a taskforce of mercenaries, Botolph and his friends would open the gates of Calais to them and help them capture the port.

From there, they could commandeer ships and sail to nearby England, seek out the by-then excommunicated king and capture or kill him if he resisted arrest, as he surely would. They could also rescue Pole’s mother.

Such mercenaries were readily available. Since Pope Paul’s grandfather had made the family’s fortune as a condottiero, that is, a captain of professional soldiers for hire, he knew all about them. They would have been armed with muskets – weaponry as yet little known in England – capable of piercing almost any armour at several hundred yards. With only a few swords and perhaps pikes to defend him, Henry would not have stood a chance.

Botolph found his way to the papal legates and put his proposal to them. Farnese thought he was mad and perhaps even a spy. But Cervini believed him and immediately gave him money, horses and a guide to take him to Rome.

He reached the city quickly and sought out Cardinal Pole, who promptly took him to see the pope – whom he convinced of his plan. Indeed, Botolph later boasted that he had so impressed Pope Paul that, during his short stay in Rome, he was able to come and go in the papal apartments as he pleased. Not for nothing did he have the nickname “Sweet Lips”.

Paul, Pole and Botolph agreed the following: Cervini would go ahead with his proposed mission to England under the aegis of the king of France. Once Henry had, as was expected, turned down the generous offer, he would be excommunicated and deposed. In September that year, a papal contingent of some 300 musketeers would carry out its mission and in the inevitable shoot-out probably kill Henry.

This would have been unparalleled in papal history. Never before or since has a pope agreed to such “direct action” against a monarch.

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An elated Botolph got back to Calais by the beginning of Easter Week 1540 and reported the good news to his fellow conspirators. Sensing that Botolph would not hold his tongue, Pole had ordered him to “disappear” to Louvain (posing as a student at its new university) immediately after returning to Calais and to remain there until the time came for the showdown.

But “Sweet Lips” was too excited to obey completely and soon began talking – indeed, perhaps boasting – enough about his mission to be overheard by his enemies, who immediately reported him to the king. Henry pounced at once.

Botolph’s co-conspirators, including Lord Lisle, were quickly incarcerated in the Tower of London. Martial law was imposed on Calais. Royal agents were again sent to assassinate Pole or, better still, bring him back to England “in a sack”. (Eventually, Pole’s mother would be beheaded.)

Meanwhile, desperate attempts were made to grab Botolph, who was by then in Louvain.

The conspiracy collapsed completely.

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Botolph, however, survived. Louvain belonged to the formidable Archbishop of Liège, a prince of the Holy Roman Empire, and Botolph was apparently able to win his favour. Indeed, the archbishop twice put him in prison – not as punishment, but to protect him against Henry’s attempts to abduct him. Prison was the safest place.

So Henry never caught him.

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And there the story of Gregory Botolph ends. He simply disappears from history. But what if his audacious conspiracy had succeeded – as it might well have done?

Catholic Mary Tudor would have ascended the throne of England and perhaps married Pole (who, though a cardinal, was still a layman and had much royal blood in him). When Mary did eventually marry (Philip II of Spain in 1554) her marriage was cruelly childless. But in 1540 she would have been only 25 years old and much more fertile.

So there would have been no Elizabeth I. The archbishops of Canterbury and York and their fellow bishops would still be appointed by Rome. Mass would still be said in their ancient cathedrals and in the thousands of medieval parish churches that still adorn our land. The British Empire would have been a Catholic one. There would have been no Foxe’s Book of Martyrs – and no Guy Fawkes, Edmund Campion or Margaret Clitheroe, for that matter, and presumably no John Henry Newman.

And Gregory Botolph would be one of the most famous names in English history.

Professor Jack Scarisbrick is a historian and emeritus national chairman of Life