In 1478, her father Clarence was executed by her uncle the king on grounds of treason. By the tender age of 5, Margaret had lost both of her parents, and her future was uncertain. What would become of this young princess?
1485, the Battle of Bosworth. Richard III, the last Plantagenet king was defeated in battle by the Lancastrian Henry Tudor. Henry had now founded an entirely new dynasty, and sat on the throne as the first Tudor Monarch. Margaret must have felt insecure. She and her brother, Edward, were next in line to the throne through their Yorkist blood, which the new Tudor king was fully aware of. The young Edward of Warwick, younger brother of Margaret, was hastily detained and kept under house arrest before being incarcerated into the Tower of London. His claim to the throne made him too much of a threat to be freely living in society, therefore the new Tudor king had no alternative but to confine the young aristocrat. Henry arranged a series of clever marriages for the daughters of the previous king and also for Margaret. The Yorkist princesses were married off to allies of Henry, who he knew could be trustworthy, indeed ensuring the princesses did not marry men who could pose a threat to Henry’s throne. Margaret was paired with Sir Richard Pole, an unlikely match in status, Margaret being of royal birth and Richard only a member of the gentry, hardly a suitable match.
When Henry VIII inherited the throne in 1509, Margaret’s fortunes greatly improved. She was employed back into the service of Katherine of Aragon, who was now queen as the new King’s wife. In 1512 she was granted the title Countess of Salisbury in her own right, restoring her to a title that had been previously held in her family. This restoration benefited Margaret greatly, providing her with an income through her Salisbury lands and estates, which eventually led to her being one of the wealthiest peers in England.
Margaret was known for her devout Roman Catholic beliefs, as was her son Reginald. During the 1530s, with religious change in England, Reginald fled abroad. He refused to acknowledge Henry as supreme head of the new Church of England and staunchly disagreed with his break from the Catholic church and the Pope, an act of high treason on behalf of Reginald. This left Margaret in a precarious situation, was she to support her treasonous son in a far away country or her sovereign lord and king?
In 1536, Reginald altogether broke with the King. He had urged the Princes of Europe to depose Henry immediately. The English King was incensed with anger, with Reginald out of reach, his wrath turned to the remaining Pole family. Although both Reginald's older brother and his mother wrote to the king in reproof of Reginald’s attitudes and actions, he was in no mood to spare them.
In January 1539, Sir Geoffrey Pole was pardoned, after being arrested in August 1538 and placed in the Tower. Margaret’s son Henry and Henry Courtenay, Marquess of Exeter, were both executed for treason. In May 1539 Margaret and other members of her family were attainted. Due to the conviction, Lady Salisbury was stripped of her lands and titles. As part of the evidence for the Bill of Attainder put against Margaret, Thomas Cromwell produced a tunic bearing the Five Wounds of Christ, symbolizing Margaret's support for Roman Catholicism and of her son, the exiled cardinal. The supposed discovery, six months after her households were searched at her arrest, is surely a fabrication of the truth. Margaret was now fully under the king’s will, with no title or lands to her name, she was to be styled simply as Margaret Pole. We can’t imagine how Margaret was feeling, she was 65 years of age when brought to the tower in 1539, an advanced age by the standards of the day. We can only imagine her mental state was a mixture of uncertainty and anxiety for the welfare of her family and of her own mortality. As Hazel Pierce states in her biography of Margaret Pole "The downfall of the Pole family might be viewed by some as a failure on Margaret’s part: failure to maintain her family’s position, failure to keep her sons more firmly under control, failure to act as politics and common sense dictated rather than in accordance with her conscious."
Margaret was now sentenced to death. She had been interred in the Tower of London for two and a half years, forever conscious of what her fate would be. Although Margaret was incarcerated, she was still waited on by a number of servants and received a grant of fine clothing in March 1541 from the current queen’s wardrobe. A story goes that Queen Katherine Howard, Henry VIII’s fifth wife, empathised with the elderly countess in the tower and requested her tailor to send her some comforting items, such as a furred nightgown and furred slippers. We cannot be sure if Katherine directly sympathized with the countess or if it was just her queenly duty to dispatch some of the garments she did not wear anymore.
On the morning of 27th May 1541, Margaret Pole was informed she would be dead within the hour. Henry VIII was determined to rid his realm of anyone that may pose a threat to his throne, which included a frail 67-year-old lady. Until the end, Margaret claimed her innocence before God, she stated no crime had been imputed to her and that she was wrongly judged. According to popular belief, a poem was found carved on the wall of her cell, as follows:
‘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!’
If Margaret did in-fact carve this last plea of innocence into her cell wall, it clearly shows she had been wronged by the law. Regardless, the former countess was removed from her cell and taken to the place within the precincts of the tower where she would be executed.
Due to her former status and being of noble birth, Lady Pole was spared the dishonour of a public execution, although according to Eustace Chapuys, Imperial Ambassador, there were numerous witnesses present, including the lord mayor of London. A story that has been popularized through the centuries is that Margaret had to be physically held down during her execution and that once the first blow of the axe missed her neck she leapt from the scaffold and attempted to scurry away. This story seems quite far-fetched, however, according to the Calendar of State Papers, the Executioner was dubbed a ‘blundering youth’ who ‘hacked her head and shoulders to pieces.’ The execution was obviously a bloody affair with an undoubtedly sad and tragic end for Lady Pole. Imperial Ambassador Chapuys wrote in disgust that ‘there was no need or haste to bring so ignominious a death upon her’ he carried on to say, due to her advancing years, that she could not ‘in the ordinary course of nature live long.’ Her remains were buried in the chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula within the Tower of London.
She died a traitor under the law, but to many others an unlawfully judged elderly woman who did not deserve her cruel end. Following the execution of his mother, Cardinal Reginald Pole said that he would ‘Never fear to call himself the son of a martyr’. And 345 years later, in 1886, Lady Salisbury became exactly that. On the 29th December 1886, she became the Blessed Margaret Pole under the Roman Catholic Church. She was beatified by Pope Leo XIII.