The Tudor Society

27 May – Margaret Pole’s botched execution

On this day in Tudor history, 27th May 1541, the frail sixty-seven-year-old Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, was executed at the Tower of London.

The former governess of Princess Mary had an awful end because the usual executioner was away from London, and one account has led to stories of her tormented ghost reliving her final moments at the Tower.

Find out why Margaret Pole was executed and what happened in today's talk.

Also on this day in history, 27th May 1537, there were celebrations in England for the pregnancy of Queen Jane Seymour. Find out more in last year’s video:

Also on this day in history:

  • 1492 – Birth of Sir Antonio Guidotti, merchant and diplomat, in Florence, Italy. Guidotti brought together England and France in 1549–50 in negotiations for peace and the restoration of Boulogne to France. His rewards from Edward VI included a knighthood.
  • 1536 – Cardinal Reginald Pole sent Henry VIII a copy of De Unitate (Pro Ecclesiasticae Unitatis Defensione). In it, he criticised the King's divorce and the trouble it had caused.
  • 1560 – Burial of Thomas Wendy, royal physician, at Haslingfield, Cambridgeshire.
  • 1601 – Death of Robert Beale, administrator and diplomat, at his home, Barn Elms, Surrey. He served Elizabeth I as a clerk of the Privy Council and as a special ambassador. He was buried in All Hallows, London Wall.
  • 1614 – Death of Peter Turner, physician and MP, in London. He had attended Sir Walter Ralegh in the Tower of London.


On this day in Tudor history, 27th May 1541, the frail sixty-seven-year-old Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, was executed at the Tower of London.

Margaret, who was the daughter of George, Duke of Clarence, and Lady Isabella Neville, and the former governess of Princess Mary, had been attainted for treason in May 1539 following the arrests of several members of her family for their alleged treasonous correspondence and plotting with Margaret’s son, Cardinal Reginald Pole, who had made an enemy of King Henry VIII by speaking out against the annulment of his first marriage. Margaret firmly denied any involvement in treasonous activity, but a tunic displaying the Five Wounds, an emblem used in the 1536 Pilgrimage of Grace Rebellion, which had allegedly been found amongst the countess’s belongings, was used as evidence against her. Strangely, it hadn’t been found there when her coffers were searched in November 1538. Margaret was stripped of her titles and imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Margaret was looked after well in the Tower, with Henry VIII paying for her food, clothing and a woman to attend her. However, things suddenly change in May 1541 when a decision was made to execute her. It is not clear whether the decision had anything to do with diplomats Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder and Sir John Wallop being accused of corresponding with Margaret’s son, the cardinal, or whether it was more to do with the campaign to to clear the Tower of traitors before the feast of St John, which French ambassador, Marillac, recorded. Henry VIII and his fifth wife, Catherine Howard, were also due to set off on their royal progress to the North, so it may have had something to do with that too.

Whatever the case, on this day in 1541, Margaret was given a private execution within the confines of the Tower of London. Eustace Chapuys, the imperial ambassador, recorded the Countess’s botched execution in a letter to the Queen of Hungary:
“About the same time, the very strange and lamentable execution of Mme. de Salisbury, the daughter of the duke of Clarence, and mother of Cardinal Pole, took place at the Tower in the presence of the Lord Mayor of London and about 150 persons more. 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, she went out of the dungeon where she was detained, and 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 (Edward) and the Princess, to all of whom she wished to be particularly commended, and more especially to the latter, whose god-mother she had been. She sent her blessing to her, and begged also for hers. After which words she was told to make haste and place her neck on the block, which she did. But as the ordinary executor of justice was absent doing his work in the North, a wretched and blundering youth was chosen, who literally hacked her head and shoulders to pieces in the most pitiful manner.”
How awful!

Another story, told in the 17th century by Lord Herbert of Cherbury, tells of how, when the executioner commanded Margaret to place her head on the block, Margaret refused and cried out “so should traitors do, and I am none!”. Margaret then kept turning her head “every way” and, according to Herbert “she bid him, if he would have her head to get it as he could.” This was later embellished to have Margaret running around the scaffold pursued by her executioner who hacked at her until she was dead. This needs to be taken with a pinch of salt as Herbert was writing a century later AND Margaret, like others before and after her, would have wanted to make a good end, a dignified death. The gruesome story, though, has led to claims that on the anniversary of her death, Margaret’s tormented ghost can be seen at the Tower of London reliving her final horrific moments.
Margaret was laid to rest in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula at the Tower of London.
She was beatified by Pope Leo XIII in 1886, so she is Blessèd Margaret Pole.

There are 2 comments Go To Comment

  1. R

    Rest in peace, Blessed Margaret Pole. Amen.

  2. S

    That poor, por lady. Shame on you Henry. Rest in peace Countess Pole.

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27 May – Margaret Pole’s botched execution