Mean Royals: The Spanish Princess vs the Tudor Matriarch & Grand-Matriarch – Did Such a Rivalry Exist?

koa-vs-women-spanish-princess-collage-1

Was Katharine of Aragon’s relationship with her mother and grandmother-in-law, Elizabeth of York and Margaret Beaufort respectively, tense and fraught with discord as shown in The Spanish Princess? The miniseries, a sequel to The White Queen and The White Princess hasn’t aired yet but the latest trailers has given us a taste of what we can expect.

Like its aforementioned predecessors, the miniseries will be using the common trope of other female lead costume dramas: Women vs women.

This is a trope that has been played to dead. And it is not bad, when well done. But that is the problem here. Did it really happen and if it didn’t, how will it play out?

Should we care?
No. If accuracy isn’t what you are looking for. If all you care is about storytelling, this shouldn’t bother you one bit. But if you are a historical purist, then I suggest you turn off the TV and switch to another channel.

As previously stated, the Mean Girls trope has been played to dead. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Contrary to popular belief though, it wasn’t that common.

Women did fight each other for wealth and position, but these fights didn’t as long as they are depicted in these costume dramas. In fact, more often than not, women who started off as enemies, became allies if not friends in the end.

This was no different for Katharine of Aragon. Forget her rivalry with Anne Boleyn, let’s go further back to the start of the sixteenth century, when she landed on Plymouth, England.

Everyone who saw her was enchanted by her, this includes Elizabeth of York. Little is said about Margaret Beaufort’s opinion of her. Given the written records and what’s known about these figures thus far, there is no reason to think that she disliked her.

If anything, Margaret’s attitude towards Katharine had more to do with prioritizing her son and his dynasty’s interests first above her personal opinions. Unlike Elizabeth of York, Margaret was politically active. Following the death of her eldest grandchild, she would advised Henry VII and gone along with his final decision.

Margaret’s hold over her family is well known and much has been written about it, but Margaret’s actions were no different than other older grand-matriarchs. Elizabeth of York on the other hand, chose to take on a passive role. In this, she excelled tremendously, earning the love and admiration of the English people.

lambeth palace exterior
Lambeth Palace

Elizabeth was intrigued by her future daughter-in-law. There’s no proof of animosity between them. Days before her London entourage, she had stayed at Lambeth Palace. The day when her procession began, the King and Queen had sent their youngest son, Henry, Duke of York to accompany her. They had even offered her a carriage, which she politely reclined, opting for a humble mount instead.

Katharine displayed tremendous gratitude for all the work and effort that had been put into the celebrations, something that wasn’t lost on the royal family and her future subjects. When the ceremonies came to an end, she retired to the Bishop of London’s home at St. Paul’s (where she would be married to Arthur two days later on Sunday, November 14th). In her dual biography on Katharine and her older sister, Juana (I) of Castile, Julia Fox, notes:

“The royal family were delighted with everything and everyone. Queen Elizabeth had caught her first glimpse of Katherine, and the princess was due to visit her the next day.” (Fox)

st paul cathedral interior
Interior of St. Paul’s Cathedral

Arthur’s letters to Katharine had been passionate. This is a key factor that nearly all historians note in their multiple biographies on these notable historical figures. Neither Margaret Beaufort nor Elizabeth of York felt threatened by Katharine’s grace and humility. If anything, these virtues brought them relief.

England had endured a terrible period of dynastic civil war. The repercussions of these royal affairs served as a bitter reminder of what happened when women’s voices rang louder than those of the king’s trusted men. Women played an integral during the wars of the roses. Active or not, they became the object of controversy -real or created- and these controversies were used as weapons against their husbands and sons. After all this chaos, the people expected consorts who took more of a backstage role than a public one. Elizabeth of York had become that and more, to the point of becoming a quasi-religious icon immediately after her death.

koa 2

Katharine’s soft and apparent humble demeanor, mirrored those of Elizabeth of York, whom Katharine hoped to emulate in her coming years as Queen of England.

For her part, Elizabeth of York had communicated to Katharine’s mother, that both she and her husband were pleased with her daughter. Elizabeth’s correspondence to Isabella had begun some years before. Knowing that Katharine would have to communicate in something other than English with her son, she advised the Queen of Castile to take advantage of Margaret Habsburg, who’d recently married Katharine’s brother, Prince Juan of Asturias. Margaret like Katharine, was highly educated. One of the languages she had come to master was French. While Katharine and Arthur could continue to write to each other in Latin, Elizabeth felt it better if she started to learn and practice French too, since it was language that was still highly popular among the English upper class.
Isabella took Elizabeth’s advice to heart. When Katharine came to England, she committed herself to learning England and slowly but surely, becoming indistinguishable from any of the English ladies at court.

Katharine did succeed, but her success did not come until much later when she was Henry VIII’s queen. During these trying years of battling for dominance, standing her ground against Tudor legal forces and foreign interests that underestimated her intellectual capacity and perseverance, Katharine remained the Spanish Princess. The unfortunate widow whose virginity was often debated and contested, which also placed into doubt her eligibility as the next King of England’s future bride. The future seemed bleak for Katharine. Rather than being discouraged by these seemingly impossible odds, Katharine remained adamant. Her first motto as Princess of Wales had been “not for my crown.” She continued to push, finding other outlets to survive and remain in England, until she got what she wanted.

eoy and hvii

Elizabeth of York had promised she’d look over her daughter-in-law and be there to guide her through the difficult adjustment into her new country. Following her son’s funeral, Elizabeth did what she could to provide the widowed Spanish Princess with moral support. It is not known what was her opinion of Katharine’s resolute affirmation of her virginity and her parents, especially her mother, pushing for a renewal of the Anglo-Spanish alliance by marrying her to the remaining crown prince, Henry (now) Prince of Wales. Elizabeth’s choice to take on a more conciliatory role as Queen Consort would have made her opinion -if she voiced it- irrelevant. Henry VII had the final say in this matter. Margaret Beaufort’s involvement in this matter seems to have been very minimal. Whatever Henry VII decided, it was for the good of the realm and she, like all his subjects, would follow his lead.

Coming back to the novels this miniseries is based on, from the moment Katharine of Aragon meets Margaret Pole, the two hit it off. This is historically accurate. The two women became best friends, with Margaret reaping the benefits of this friendship right after Katharine weds Henry VIII and is jointly crowned with him. The earldom of Salisbury that had been in her family was restored to her, becoming one of the few female title holders (femme sole) up until that point. But there is a dark history to Katharine and Arthur’s union, a condition which the miniseries will undoubtedly touch upon.

After Katharine and Margaret Pole become fast friends in The Constant Princess, she asks Margaret if she doesn’t blame her for her brother’s execution. Margaret brushes it off as one of many tragic moments in her life, and a reality that royals have to live with.

Is the miniseries going to have Elizabeth of York blame Katharine for what happened to her brother and cousin? The White Queen and The White Princess (based on the novels of the same name) follow the school of thought that Perkin Warbeck was who he claimed he was, the youngest of the lost princes in the tower, Richard of Shrewsbury, better known as Richard, Duke of York. “The White Princess” takes a lot of historical liberties (more so than its predecessor, also deviating from its source material), having Elizabeth of York being one of the plotters behind her brother and cousin’s downfall. Yet, to excuse her actions, she might reason that she was forced into these drastic measures because of Katharine of Aragon’s parents, the Catholic Kings who in real life DID pressure Elizabeth’s husband to secure his throne or else, their alliance was off.

Meg Beaufort

Notable biographer Sarah Gristwood, takes on a different approach from past historians, inferring in her multiple biography on the women of the wars of the roses, “Blood Sisters”, that Margaret never got along with Katharine and held back a gleeful smile when her granddaughter-in-law’s longed for triumph, was nearly ruined by pouring rain. Katharine had come to substitute her as her remaining grandson, Henry VIII, now an adult and the new King of England, trusted adviser.
The Spanish Princess, based off Philippa Gregory’s two novels The Constant Princess & The King’s Curse which protagonists are Katharine of Aragon and Margaret Pole respectively. Judging solely by the miniseries’ trailers, it looks like The Spanish Princess is taking this perspective. In the last chapters of “The Constant Princess”, Margaret Beaufort nearly explodes when Henry VIII begins to listen less and less to her and more to his charming new bride. The miniseries will no doubt recreate this season with Margaret realizing -as Sir Thomas More, Lord Mountjoy and countless others during her joint coronation with Henry VIII- that Katharine of Aragon is not just any Princess, but a woman who was born to be Queen.

In the trailer, Elizabeth reminds Henry VII of the importance of this alliance. “Spain and England unite against our enemies so our son is protected on his throne.”
It’s unknown whether she says this BEFORE or AFTER Arthur dies, and whether or not she is talking about Arthur or Harry. Judging solely from her tone of voice, this conversation could take place after Arthur’s death, when she starts to view Katharine more as a threat and a bitter reminder of the sacrifice they had to make to ensure this alliance. The next line is spoken by her husband in what can only be assumed is an earlier moment in the series, where he warns his Queen that until “that girl arrives, we are lost.”

“Elizabeth of York was glad that after so many delays, the Princess from Spain had finally reached England. In a month’s time, she and Arthur would be wed, and within a year –God willing- she would be a mother. But the Queen’s happiness had come at a price. Before his daughter could come to England, King Ferdinand had demanded the death of the hapless Earl of Warwick. The Young man, though he was a prisoner, was a continuing threat to the security of England, he believed. Until he was properly dealt with, Ferdinand declared, he would not allow his precious daughter to leave Spain. Henry VII complied. To secure the alliance, Warwick and Perkin Warbeck were put to death in 1499.” (Hui)

Taking all of this into account, it’s not far-fetched to say, that part of Elizabeth’s anger towards Katharine will stem from the the losses she and Henry had to endure and the heavy toll they had to pay for the sake of the Anglo-Spanish alliance. Elizabeth’s response to her cousin, Margaret Pole, when Margaret asks what will happen to the widowed Spanish Princess, may be confirmation of this.

Regardless of the historical liberties and deviation from the source material, this miniseries is set to have many historical buffs talking. Hopefully, it will make more people interested in finding out about the real people behind this costume drama, especially Katharine of Aragon, whose beginnings are often overshadowed by her tragic end.

Sources:

  • Penn, Thomas. Winter King and the Dawn of Tudor England. Simon & Schuster. 2012.
  • Chrimes, S.B. Henry VII. Yale University Press. 1999.
  • Fox, Julia. Sister Queens: The Noble, Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile. Ballantine. 2011.
  • Williams, Patrick. Katharine of Aragon: The Tragic Story of Henry VIII’s First Unfortunate Wife. Amberley. 2013.
  • Hui, Roland. The Turbulent Crown: The Story of the Tudor Queens. MadeGlobal. 2017.
  • Gristwood, Sarah. Blood Sisters: The Women Behind the Wars of the Roses. Harper. Collins. 2013.
  • Licence, Amy. Catherine of Aragon: An Intimate Life of Henry VIII’s True Wife. Amberley. 2017.
  • –. The Six Wives and the Many Mistresses of Henry VIII. Amberley. 2014.
  • –. Elizabeth of York: The Forgotten Tudor Queen. Amberley. 2013.
  • –. Red Roses: From Blanche of Gaunt to Margaret Beaufort. History Press. 2016.
  • Gregory, Philippa. The Constant Princess. Harper Collins. 2005.
  • –. The King’s Curse. Simon & Schuster. 2014.

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.

Daughter of Tragedy: The Birth of Margaret Pole

Margaret Pole

Margaret Pole was born at Farleigh Hungerford Castle in Bath on the 14th of August in 1473. Her parents were George Plantagenet -the younger brother of Edward IV- and Isabel Neville -the eldest daughter of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, better known as the “Kingmaker”. As a daughter of York, Margaret Plantagenet was entitled to a life of privilege, however her mother’s sudden death in childbirth and her father’s arrest and execution (after he took the law by his own hands and punished two of his servants whom he suspected had been bribed by the Woodvilles to poison his wife) changed everything. Even before Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond became King; Margaret’s position was very delicate. Her custody, along with that of her brother, was given to Anthony Woodville. After Richard became King, he and her brother were placed under a new protective custody. Although Richard III was the youngest brother, Margaret and Edward, Earl of Warwick were barred from the line of succession since their father died as a traitor.

George Duke of Clarence and Isabel Neville in
George Duke of Clarence and Isabel Neville in “The White Queen”

Nevertheless, Margaret enjoyed a comfortable living. Had Richard not died, it is safe to speculate that he might have married either one to one of his loyal subjects to neutralize possible threats? Perhaps to someone of lower rank whom he knew would not use their spouses’ positions to incite rebellion. With limited data, it is impossible to know for sure. But with Anne Neville being very protective of her father’s legacy and highly popular in the North, it is very plausible that he showed more affection towards them than to his other nieces and nephews.

Margaret was the only one of her siblings to live to old age. During Henry VII’s reign she was married to Sir Richard Pole. The marriage was a happy one, and the couple had many children. Her brother was not so lucky. Being one of the Plantagenet males, Henry was fearful that he could be used against him as he  was used against Richard III, so he placed him in the Tower of London. He remained there until his execution in 1499, after he was implicated in a plot with the pretender Perkin Warbeck.

There is no record of what Margaret felt or if she was present for his execution. Probably not. Given all that she had been through, she could say very little for fear of upsetting the new regime. Oddly enough, his death was also the result of the King of Aragon’s insistence. His youngest daughter, Katherine, was betrothed to the Prince of Wales and Henry needed this marriage to secure his dynasty but Ferdinand felt that the Tudor dynasty would never be secure as long as one of the Yorkists lived.

Katherine of Aragon and Mary Tudor in
Katherine of Aragon and Mary Tudor in “The Tudors”

Regardless of this, Margaret became a good friend of the Spanish Princess since her arrival until her death. As a reward for her friendship, she was awarded the Earldom of Salisbury, becoming Countess in her own right. In 1538 however she and several members of her family were implicated in the Exeter plot and three years she was executed in one of the most gruesome scenes in Tudor history. As Lady Mary Tudor’s governess, the Countess influenced her in more ways than one and the former Princess never forgot about her and neither did she. During her execution, Margaret’s last words were about the King, his son and of course, her former charge the Lady Mary.

Sources:

  • Blood Sisters by Sarah Gristwood
  • Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors by Dan Jones
  • Tudor by Leanda de Lisle

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