Margaret Pole, or Margaret Plantagenet, was the daughter of George, Duke of Clarence - brother of two Plantagenet kings: Edward IV and Richard III - and his wife Lady Isabella Neville, daughter of Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick and a man known as 'the Kingmaker'. Margaret was born on 14th August 1473 at Farley Castle, near Bath. She married Sir Richard Pole in 1491, having five children before she was widowed in 1505. One of her children was Reginald Pole who became a cardinal and then Archbishop of Canterbury during the reign of Mary I.
At the beginning of King Henry VIII's reign, Margaret was very much in favour. The King allowed her to become the 8th Countess of Salisbury and she was his daughter Mary's godmother and governess. However, things went rather pear-shaped when Margaret's son, Reginald Pole, spoke out against the King's annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Things got even worse when Reginald Pole published Pro ecclesiasticae unitatis defensione, which denounced Henry VIII's policies. This brazen insult to the King made Henry want to wreak his revenge on the Pole family and the situation was not helped by the Countess of Salisbury's Plantagenet blood, which Henry VIII also saw as a threat.
In November 1538, various members of the Pole family were arrested for treason and taken to the Tower of London. In January 1539, many of them were executed. Even though the Countess was elderly (for Tudor times), being 65 years of age in 1538, she was questioned and taken to Cowdray House near Midhurst. In May 1539 a bill of attainder was issued against her by Thomas Cromwell and a tunic displaying the Five Wounds, which was used as a symbol in the Northern rebellions, was used as evidence against her, having allegedly been found in her belongings. She was stripped of her titles and imprisoned in the Tower of London.
After two years of being imprisoned as a traitor in the Tower, the frail 67 year-old Plantagenet heiress was executed on 27th May 1541. As a woman of noble birth, Margaret Pole was given a private execution. There are two accounts of her execution – One says that she was executed by an inexperienced axeman who missed her neck the first time, gashing her shoulder, and that it took a further ten blows to finish her off. The second account tells of how she managed to escape from the block and that she was hewn down by the executioner as she ran. This second account concurs with the first in that it says that eleven blows were required. Whichever account you believe, this lady had a truly awful end.
On the 29th December 1886, Pope Leo XIII beatified Margaret, making her Blessed Margaret Pole, a Catholic martyr. Her feast day is the 28th May, the date that some sources give as her execution date.
These are the words found on the wall of her cell and which are said to have been etched there by Margaret:
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!
- Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury 1473-1541: Loyalty, Lineage and Leadership by Hazel Pierce, University of Wales Press, 2009.
- Margaret Pole: The Countess in the Tower by Susan Higginbotham, due out August 2015, Amberley Publishing.