A Nice Change of Scenery: Margaret Pole in The White Princess

Margaret Pole TWQ Tudors WH

While The White Queen has taken many liberties and has been advertised as an accurate portrayal of fifteenth century courts, it has done a good job bringing attention to Margaret’s story –something that other shows have failed to do. The Tudors and Wolf Hall tried but were unsuccessful. The first only focused on a minor part of her later story and the latter depicted her as an active conspirator, making it seem as if she deserved her later fate.

Meg Pole being separated from Edward

There is a scene where she is with her brother and he is suddenly being taken away by Henry VII’s solders. The scene is absolutely heart-wrenching and it was done in such a way that you really feel for the poor girl.

Margaret is one of the most tragic figures of the wars of the roses and the Tudor era. She survived her father’s downfall and afterwards the fall of the fall of the York dynasty. The same cannot be said for her little brother, Edward Plantagenet, Earl of Warwick. After Richard III usurped the throne, the throne should have passed to him instead but due to their father having been executed as a traitor, he and Margaret were excluded from the line of succession.

Following Richard III’s defeat at the battle of Bosworth, Henry began the proceedings to overturn parliament’s ruling regarding his future bride and her remaining royal siblings. Richard III’s claim rested on the invalidity of Elizabeth and her sisters, which rested on the argument that Elizabeth Woodville and Edward IV were never truly married because he had previously been pre-contracted to another noblewoman. Shaky as it may seem, given that the two people involved were dead and the Woodvilles were unpopular among many aristocrats, this stuck. But now that he was gone, it was time for Henry to validate his own claim and the only way he was going to do that was by saying it stemmed by right of conquest, his mother’s Lancastrian ancestry, and his union with Elizabeth.

While he didn’t marry Margaret’s cousin right away, he was quick to secure the last legitimate male Plantagenet. At only ten years old, Edward was moved to the Tower of London where he lasted until 1499. By that time he was described as simple and for lack of another better word, insane. He was easily tricked into conspiring with the pretender, Perkin Warbeck, and before long the two were charged with treason and executed. Perkin Warbeck was hung while Edward was beheaded.

Margaret Pole was twenty four at the time, having been born two years before him. We do not know what was going through Margaret’s head at the time, but given everything she suffered, we can only imagine that it must have been a terrible –but not so unusual- ordeal for her.

In The White Queen, there is a scene where she is with her husband, shortly after the two are married and she tells him that rejects her last name ‘Plantagenet’ because it has brought her nothing but sadness. Philippa Gregory’s last book in the cousins’ war series is titled The King’s Curse and it deals with events from the first two Tudor monarchs’ reigns from Margaret’s point of view. For those of you who haven’t read the book, I recommend it. It has some memorable scenes, some that were very touching and others that seemed repetitive. While it focuses on Melusina’s curse, an invention of Philippa Gregory to account for Prince Arthur and many other Tudor princes’ deaths, the book’s title can also be seen as an apt description for Margaret, a woman whose life must have seemed like a curse.

Margaret Pole Portrait
By an unknown artist, this sitter is believed to be Margaret Pole due to her clothing and jewelry.

A portrait by an unknown artist that has been identified as Margaret Pole shows that she never forgot about her roots and personal tragedies. She wears a bracelet with a butt malmsey hanging from it, a clear reference to her father who was executed during her uncle, Edward IV’s reign, for treason.

The eldest daughter of George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence and Isabel Neville, eldest daughter of Richard Neville “the Kingmaker”, Earl of Warwick and Salisbury among other titles, and Anne Beauchamp; sought to survive by seeking favor with the royal family, especially the future queen of England, the Spanish Infanta, Katherine of Aragon.

COA and Meg Pole historical and fictional portrayals
Catherine of Aragon in the Spanish series Isabel (left), Margaret Pole in The White Princess (right).

It was this friendship that earned her the title of Countess of Salisbury. This was a big deal since not many women were title holders in their own right. As suo jure, Margaret became one of the richest landowners and influential courtiers in England. She also became Princess Mary, Katherine and Henry VIII’s only surviving child, governess and the two forged a strong friendship that would last a lifetime.

But not all was well in paradise. In spite of her friendship with the Queen, and the Queen’s patronage of Humanists and popularity with the people, her influence with the King was waning and following her last miscarriage, Henry’s eye began to wander again and it wasn’t only before it was set on her lady-in-waiting and former mistress’ sister, Anne Boleyn. After his marriage to Katherine was annulled, his daughter was bastardized and his union with Anne as well as her pregnancy became public, Margaret’s life was turned upside down. She chose to stay loyal to her best friend and former charge and unfortunately, this along with her royal blood and her son Reginald’s outburst against the King, became her undoing.

A book that I highly recommend that gives a hauntingly beautiful description of Margaret Pole’s ordeals is Dan Jones’ Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors. Here is a small snippet from it:

“At seven o’clock in the morning on Friday, May 27, 1541, within the precincts of the Tower of London, an old woman walked out into the light of a spring day. Her name was Margaret Pole. By birth, blood and lineage she was one of the noblest women in England … Margaret’s life had long been exciting. For twenty-five years she had been the countess of Salisbury, one of only two women of her time to have held a peerage in her own right. She had until recently been one of the five wealthiest aristocrats of her generation, with lands in seventeen different counties. Now, at sixty-seven –ancient by Tudor standards- she appeared so advanced in age that intelligent observers took her to be eighty or ninety.
Like many inhabitants of the Tower of London, Margaret Pole was a prisoner. Two years previously she had been stripped of her lands and titles by an act of parliament which accused her of having “committed and perpetrated diverse and sundry other detestable and abominable treasons” against her cousin, King Henry VIII. What these treasons were was never fully evinced, because in truth Margaret’s offenses against the crown were more general than particular … As she walked out into the cool morning air, Margaret Pole could therefore have reflected that, although she was due to beheaded that morning, she would at least die wearing new shoes.” ~Dan Jones, The Wars of the  Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors

The Imperial Ambassador, Eustace Chapuys who’d become very attached to the late Queen, Katherine of Aragon and her daughter, the lady Mary, wrote that Margaret was confused about her sentence. She wasn’t sure what her crime was, or how was it possible that she was easily convicted when there was hardly any evidence of an alleged treason. During these hard times, Henry VIII’s queen, teenager Kitty Howard and ironically Anne Boleyn’s cousin, sought to make her stay at the tower more comfortable by appealing on her behalf to her husband and sending her tailor so he could take her measurements and Kitty could order new clothes for the Countess. She also convinced Henry to send her new shoes. But in the end, nothing could save her from the same inescapable faith of her father and brother.

“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 what she had been sentenced; but at last, perceiving that there was no remedy; and that die she must … walked towards the midst of space from 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 blessings to her, and begged also for hers …”

Chapuys added after her bloody execution had been carried out, that he wished that “God in his high grace pardon her soul”. Her execution was carried out by an inexperienced and rough youth who hacked her to pieces. An apocryphal account has her running away from her executioner, pleading for help only for him to chase her down and butcher her. Margaret had no reason to run away. Her speech is an indicator that she was ready to die and like so many present, she had no idea that her fate would be so gruesome. Like almost every other secondary source, especially one written centuries later, it should not be taken seriously.

If you want to read a full length-biography of her, I recommend the one by Susan Higginbotham who has also written one on the Woodvilles and plenty of historical fiction. Her book really brings to light the woman, the courtier, the mother and most of all, the survivor. I highly recommend it.

Like Anne Boleyn and so many others, sensing the end, Margaret Pole began to contemplate her own mortality and when she finally made peace with her fate, it is believed that she etched this poem on the stone walls of her cell:

“For traitors on the block should die;
I am no traitor, no, not I!
My faithfulness stands fast and so,
Towards the block I shall not go!
Nor make one step, as you shall see;
Christ in Thy Mercy, save Thou me!”

It is a sad end for a woman who had prided herself in being a survivor for most of her life. Two years before, her son and his alleged co-conspirators were executed. It must have been a terrible experience for her and at one point she must have thought she was cursed or that she would never be free of family tragedy. As previously stated, Margaret had lost her mother in childbirth, her father was found guilty of treason and executed by being drowned in a butt of malmsey and to top it all off, after Henry VII became King, her little brother was moved to the tower of London and fourteen years later executed. Margaret must have felt like she had avoided such fates by currying favor with the monarchy through the Spanish Princess, Katherine of Aragon but after Henry split from Rome,and Reginald’s words against him, Margaret’s family once again became a target and the rest as they say … is history. She begins her journey in The White Princess as a young woman who has no choice but to follow those in power and curry favor with them to stay alive and as a result, she becomes the most interesting and complex character in the show.

Sources:

  • Ridgway, Claire. “The Execution of Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury.” The Anne Boleyn Files, 17 May, 2010, https://www.theanneboleynfiles.com/the-execution-of-margaret-pole-countess-of-salisbury/5592/
  • Gregory, Philippa. The White Princess. Touchstone. 2013.
  • —. The King’s Curse. Touchstone. 2015.
  • Jones, Dan. The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors. Penguin. 2014.
  • Higginbotham, Susan. Margaret Pole: The Countess in the Tower. Amberly. 2016.
  • Mackay, Lauren. Inside the Tudor Court: Henry VIII and his Six Wives through the writings of the Spanish Ambassador, Eustace Chapuys. Amberly. 2014.
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Anne of Cleves from Greenwich to Hampton (1540-1541)

Anne of Cleves Stone

On the third of January 1540, the date set for Anne of Cleves and Henry VIII’s first encounter was spoiled by their earlier and much unexpected encounter (at least for Anne) on New Year’s day at the Bishop’s Palace at Rochester. Anne had no idea that the King would be coming, and much less that he would be accompanied by a handful of courtiers playing the part of Robin Hood and his band of merry men. The meeting as we can all recall, went disastrously wrong when Anne rejected his advances. With no knowledge of the king’s love of games, or the art of courtly love, Henry grew disenchanted with his foreign bride and despite her best attempts to make it up by engaging in idle chatter, the King lost all enthusiasm for her.

AOC Six Wives

It was only by some miracle –thanks in part to Cromwell, reminding him of his promise to marry her- that he agreed to go ahead with the betrothal. Two days after that disastrous meeting, Anne traveled to London, arriving at Shooter’s Hill, two miles outside of Greenwich. At midday she made her entrance to the Palace where she was welcomed by the King’s court. Doctor Day who had been appointed as her almoner gave her a welcome speech in Latin. He was followed by the King’s nieces and former daughter-in-law, Ladies Margaret Douglas, Frances Brandon, Mary Howard as well as other “ladies and gentlewomen to the number of sixty five” who “welcomed her and led her into a gorgeous tent or pavilion of rich cloth of gold that had been set up for at the foot of the hill, in which fires burned and perfumes scented the air.” They dressed her in a new gown which was also in the Dutch fashion, and added a new headdress and jewelry then helped her into her horse which was “richly trapped”. As the people caught sight of Anne, they would have largely commented on her fashions which would have seemed to strange to them as Henry’s first Queen’s Spanish ones would have seemed strange to their fathers and grandfathers two generations before when she made her grand entrance to London in November of 1501.

Anne of Cleves Henry VIII and his Six Wives 1972

The French Ambassador, Charles de Marillac says that Anne “was clothed in the fashion of the country from which she came” as well as her ladies which made her look “strange to many.” He also adds that he doesn’t find any of them (including the future Queen) beautiful and “not so young as was expected, nor so beautiful as everyone affirmed.”

Some can take this as proof that the myths surrounding Anne’s appearance but we have to remember that Marillac had an agenda and although the second portrait of Anne had Holbein paint over her elongated nose, by no means it adds credibility to those absurd rumors. At the time of Henry’s betrothal, Spain and France had formed an alliance and to avoid complete isolation, Cromwell devised an alliance with the Schmalkaldic League that could help them offset the balance.
Naturally, Marillac was not going to look well on this union.

THE TUDORS - Season 4

Fast forward to a year later, the same date (January 3rd), Anne and Henry met once again. This time as brother and sister (having received the title of the King’s sister along with various states after their marriage was annulled) at Hampton Court Palace, exchanging gifts with his new queen, her former lady in waiting, Katherine Howard.

Sources:

  • Six Wives and the Many Mistresses of Henry VIII by Amy Licence
  • Six Wives of Henry VIII by David Loades
  • On this Day in Tudor History by Claire Ridgway

Margaret Pole nee Plantagenet’s Execution

Margaret Pole in
Margaret Pole in “The Tudors”

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.

White Rose of York.
White Rose of York.

“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.

Sources:

  • 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