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pace’s erasmus henry diplomatic

Richard Pace is best known for his failed diplomatic missions on behalf of the court of Henry VIII and for his role as a member of the scholarly circle of Erasmus* and Thomas More.* Pace’s name appears more often than any other in the extant letters of Erasmus, who considered Pace a “dear friend.” He once wrote to More of Pace, “I seem to have lost half of my second self by his absence” (Routh, 60).

Pace was born near Winchester in or about 1482. His patron, Bishop Thomas Langton, sent him to study in Padua, and from there he traveled to Ferrara, where he met Erasmus, later returning to England to attend Queen’s College, Oxford. In 1509, Pace accompanied Cardinal Bainbridge, archbishop of York, to Rome. The cardinal’s sudden death in 1514 at the papal court caused Pace to suspect poisoning at the behest of Bainbridge’s chief rival, Silvestro Gigli. Pace’s tireless exertions to unmask the murderer provoked controversy but were ultimately unsuccessful in bringing a suspect to justice.

Pace’s loyalty in Rome to his deceased master combined with his enviable Italian education made him attractive in England to both the royal court and the humanist community. Hence, his career as courtier and man of letters developed concurrently during the 1510s and 1520s. Both the king and Cardinal Wolsey entrusted him with delicate and sometimes urgent diplomatic missions across the Channel. Pace thereby developed a network of scores of scholarly correspondents and often enjoyed their hospitality while abroad. He became famous among his friends for his good character and learned, amusing conversations.

As Henry VIII’s secretary, Pace was sent to Switzerland in October 1515 to attempt to exacerbate belligerent relations between France and the Holy Roman Empire. Emperor Maximilian of Hapsburg had employed Swiss mercenaries in an attempt to wrest Milan from Francis I of France. Pace was commissioned to employ a limited volume of English gold and unlimited amount of talk to press the Swiss to continue the fight. What was from the beginning a bad idea took on the color of farce as Pace fell out with England’s permanent ambassador to Maximilian’s court, Sir Richard Wingfield, whom Pace referred to as “summer-will-be-green” for his penchant for mistaking his own obvious statements for diplomatic tact (Bowle, 75).

For the first of several times in his life, Pace drove himself into sickbed with overwork. The Swiss mission came to nothing except for the production of Pace’s most ambitious work, de Fructu , a satire written ostensibly during visits to a public bath in Constance.

Relations improved between England and France soon thereafter, and at a splendid banquet at St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1518, Pace delivered a sermon on peace to commemorate the betrothal of two infants, Princess Mary and the heir to the French throne. As Pace grew more valuable to Henry and Wolsey, he accrued further honors and titles. In 1519 he became dean of St. Paul’s and the following year, a reader of Greek at Cambridge University. The year 1519 also found Pace in Frankfurt trying to influence electors to make Henry VIII the new emperor instead of Charles Hapsburg, grandson of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. He was dispatched twice to Rome in 1521 and 1523, at the deaths of Leo X and Adrian VI, to promote Wolsey’s candidacy for the papal see, failing both times in what were nearly impossible tasks. Meanwhile, he had been made ambassador to Venice, charged with persuading the Venetians away from the French camp. He was immensely popular at the doge’s court to the point of accepting Venetian honors for his diplomatic endeavors.

Pace was passed over as Henry’s principal adviser at the cardinal’s fall in 1527, due in part to his stress-induced ill health. Like most of the humanists of his day, Pace feared the potential explosive effects of religious Reformation on social life. His opposition to Henry’s divorce from Queen Catherine may have resulted in his trial at Star Chamber and brief imprisonment in the Tower of London. At any rate, the divorce crisis caused Pace so much anxiety that Thomas Cromwell suspected he had lost his grip on reality for a time. In a state of broken health and deflated fame, Pace quietly withdrew to the countryside in 1529 and died in retirement in 1536.


Richard Pace’s value as a politician declined as he moved from giving advice and doing paperwork for Henry and Wolsey to operating in an international field of action. Like Erasmus, Pace’s reputation as a humanist resulted in part from his mobility. His many diplomatic missions made him available to a remarkable international network of scholars. His public and scholarly lives were thereby tightly linked. Like other humanists who took up politics, Pace became caught up in early modern European statecraft, which combined Machiavellian diplomacy and power politics with a cruel medieval disregard for the value of individual human life. Pace’s career reflects a central tension in Renaissance humanism that extolled the virtues of classically educated heroes such as young prince Henry only to watch these leaders succumb to the political ruthlessness demanded by the times. As early as 1521, in a letter to Pace, Erasmus voiced concern for the corrosiv dangers connected with Thomas More’s increased involvement in politics. Ironically, Pace’s fall from the king’s grace came before More’s.

Pace drove himself to illness attempting to succeed as a man of action. Similarly, his attempts at becoming an active scholar, namely, a published one, caused his star to fall as a humanist. Pace began work on de Fructu qui ex Doctrina Percipitur in 1515. The book, along with his 1504 oration in favor of studying Greek, was printed in 1517 in Basil by Froben, Erasmus’ publisher. Although dedicated to John Colet,* Pace meant for de Fructu to impress Erasmus with its erudition. It failed as a satire because, unlike Praise of Folly or Utopia , its humor depended almost entirely on specific contemporary situations—such as complaints about the mean-spirited drunkenness of the Swiss— rather than explorations of universal ironies, paradoxes, and absurdities inherent in the human condition. Erasmus called de Fructu “a very feeble little book. I know all his friends will deplore it with me sincerely” (Wegg, 118). The book proved to Erasmus that Pace was lacking in sound scholarly judgment, a flaw that his affable and witty conversations and letters had hidden. Under such devastating criticism, Pace could only argue that the work was extemporaneous, being written while he was away from his books.

Erasmus fell out with Pace for a time over a passage in de Fructu extolling the virtues of an impoverished scholarly life, using Erasmus as the prime example. While Erasmus often spoke of a lack of funds, he did not like Pace’s reminding his readers of the scarce monetary value placed on his work. Erasmus’ anger soon dissipated, however, and he later suggested tactfully that Pace’s real talent was as a translator. Pace’s translations into Latin of some of Plutarch’s treatises and Bishop Fisher’s sermon against Luther were admired, even by humanists, like Thomas Elyot,* who were outside his circle.

His Oratio Richardi Pacei in Pace argued, in part, that war is the worst of evils and that human nature can find its virtues only in times of peace (Adams, 176–77). His insistence that war transforms humans into calamitous, unreasoning beasts is a theme often encountered in twentieth-century war novels and memoirs. Scholars at Pace’s oration on peace found the speech admirable. The political leaders present apparently thought it elegantly naive. At any rate, it was published in 1518, with French translations. Rumors regarding the true authorship of Henry VIII’s anti-Lutheran tract sometimes settled upon Pace. These suspicions were no doubt compounded by the pope’s having sent the bull making Henry “Defender of the Faith” to Pace (Anglo, 171).


Richard Pace is of interest today mainly to historians and biographers. His work and career as a politician are found in most modern biographies of Henry VIII and in treatments of early Tudor diplomatic histories. Pace also appears in many biographies of the more famous humanists of his times. Pace represents part of a group of second-rank humanists whose avid study of the works of classical antiquity failed to spark originality on their part. Pace also helps prove the observation that the learned are best left out of public office. Like Thomas More, his public career eventually caused both his scholarship and his physical self to suffer immeasurably.

Packard, David - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Chronology: David Packard, Social and Economic Impact [next] [back] Pace, Judy (1950–)

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