On the 27th of May 1541, Margaret Pole -Countess of Salisbury (in her own right), devoted mother, friend of the late Queen Katherine of Aragon and governess to her daughter the Princess Mary- was executed.
She had been attainted in 1539 after she and several members of her family were accused of being involved in the “Exeter plot” and after her son Reginald spoke (first) against the King’s treatment of his wife Catherine and daughter Mary and later against his supremacy over the Church. Margaret was one of the last Plantagenet and one of the members with strongest Yorkist links. Her parents were George Duke of Clarence and Isabel Neville daughter of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick better known today as “The Kingmaker”. Both her father and brother had also been attainted and executed by Mary’s relatives, the first (her father) by Mary’s great-grandfather, Edward IV and her brother Edward, Earl of Warwick by her grandfather, Henry VII in 1499 after being implicated in a plot with the pretender Perkin Warbeck.
She always remained loyal to her former charge, the Lady Mary and her mother, Queen Katherine. Her death is one of the most tragic events in Henry VIII’s reign. Chapuys largely criticized this and retold the event in his letters.
Some historians believe that there was another dimension to this execution. That it was more than just religiously motivated. Sure, she was a fervent Catholic, but she was a survivor first and foremost. And despite the so called Exeter plot, there is little evidence that there really was a plot or that she was conspiring against Henry VIII. Margaret had never even been fully told of just what evidence had convicted her. But this didn’t matter. She was a religious enemy, and a dangerous threat because of her lineage and one of her sons who spoke against the King’s break from the church and his divorce from Queen Katherine.
“Margaret Pole was at one level just another casualty of the religious wars that dominated the sixteenth century, in which followers of the old faith –Roman Catholicism- and various splinter groups of the new faith –Protestantism- sought to smite one another into submission. These wars took different forms. Occasionally they were fought between kingdoms allied to opposing faiths, but far more often, the religious wars were civil and dynastic conflicts that ripped individual kingdoms asunder. This certainly was the case in England … Yet her death could also be seen as the undignified final act in a long spell of nonreligious aristocratic violence that had begun nearly a century earlier … This conflict, usually assumed to have been closed on the accession of Henry Tudor as Henry VIII and his defense of the crown at the battle of Stoke, in fact continued to haunt the sixteenth century politics long afterward. Certainly it played a role in Margaret Pole’s death…” –Jones
Reginald Pole spoke fervently against Henry VIII, this angered him and made him more paranoid. If the Catholic powers could unite against him, they could look to others to take his place as King of England. These people only needed to find someone who were descendants of Edward III, who had the right credentials and it was done. For us this may have sound far-fetched but it was not so far-fetched back then when there were many nobles who had as much royal blood as Henry, and who some considered were better suited for the job based on that lineage. Margaret and her sons being descendants of Edward III, were the first ones on Henry’s list following the aftermath of the Pilgrimage of Grace and France and Spain forming an alliance two years later. Margaret was the last one from the members in her family imprisoned –with the exception of her younger son Geoffrey Pole, who, to save his skin, signed a confession saying so and so was guilty- to be executed.
“At first, when the sentence of death was made known to her, she found the thing very strange, not knowing of what crime she was accused, nor how she had been sentenced; but at last, perceiving that there was no remedy, and that die she must … walked towards the midst of the space in front of the Tower, where there was no scaffold erected nor anything except a small block. Arrived there, after commending her soul to her Creator, she asked those present to pray for the King, the Queen, the Prince and the princess, to all of whom she wished to be particularly commended, and more especially to the latter, whose godmother she had been. She sent her blessing to her, and begged also for hers … May God in his high Grace pardon her soul.” -Eustace Chapuys, Imperial Ambassador at Henry VIII’s Court
Her execution was gruesome. The usual executioner was nowhere to be seen because he was in the North dispensing justice and in his place was a young man who was completely unprepared for the task ahead.
“When the signal was given to strike he brought the weapon down toward the block. But he botched the job.” (Jones). The youth botched the job. Rather than killing her in one stroke, he hacked her to pieces, inflicting several blows to her head and shoulders.
It was a sad end for the woman who had survived the wars of the roses and served faithfully under the Tudor regime. When she had been moved to the Tower, she expected to be treated according to her station and very few took pity on her. In fact another maligned person, another Queen named Katherine, took it upon herself to send the poor old woman clothes and new shoes so she could be appropriately dressed. Katherine Howard, against popular opinion today, was engaged in doing the usual things that Queen Consorts did and that meant doing charitable work and interceding on prisoners’ behalf to her husband, to ask him for mercy. No doubt, this was the thing that motivated Henry to pay from his own purse for her new garments. Unfortunately it didn’t save her from this gruesome fate. So once again, the white rose of York was stained with blood.
- Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors by Dan Jones
- Inside the Tudor Court of Henry VIII by Lauren Mackay
- Six Wives and the Many Mistresses of Henry VIII by Amy Licence
- Katherine Howard: A New History by Conor Byrne
- The Wives of Henry VIII by Antonia Fraser
- Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir