The Tudor Society
The Tudor Society

The Downfall of Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, by Alexander Taylor

Margaret Pole

Margaret Plantagenet was born during one of the most unstable periods in English royal history. The daughter of George, Duke of Clarence, brother to King Edward IV, and Isabel Neville, daughter of the powerful Earl of Warwick, Margaret was destined for a future of privilege and power. She was born a Princess, into the royal house of Plantagenet, and, not having the benefit of hindsight, would never have guessed her Plantagenet blood would cause such a number of life changing events.

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.

There are 29 comments Go To Comment

  1. Lorna Wanstall /

    I have always felt that Margaret’s execusion was completely un-neccassary. She had done nothing wrong, her execution was nothing more than pure spite, from Henry. It was Reggy Pole who was Henry’s true target and because Reggy had thankfully hidden away in Rome? out of harms way. Henry needed a way of venting his anger over what Reggy had sais and sadly his victim was Margaret.

    1. RealTudorLady /

      I agree, there is no evidence that Margaret Pole had anything to do with the intrigues of her son, who ironically was more upset about Henry Viii and the way things had gone than actually wanting to harm him. Henry could not get hold of her son Reginald, finally flipped and citing security as he was going North, had poor old Margaret executed in her 70th year. Katherine Howard had shown concern for Margaret and sent her wsrm clothing. I don’t know which version of the execution is accurate but it was badly botched. RIP Blessed Margaret Pole.

    2. Barbara Gambino /

      There were so many unjustly executed, starting with Anne Boleyn. It was on the King’s whim. Sad really.

  2. Susan Davison /

    I think Henry was a lonely and evil man the people around did not help they all made him suspicious how very sad and lonely he must have been .That poor woman princess Margaret I do how ever find the Tudor period very interesting.

    1. Lori /

      I do agree that certain courtiers brought the worst out of Henry! They knew how fearful he was of losing the crown and made him like that!

  3. RealTudorLady /

    It has just struck me that Margaret Pole or Princess Margaret Plantagenet of Clarence and Warwick, Countess of Salisbury as she properly should have been called, witnesses, (not literally as in seeing them happen) the death of members of several generations of her family…four in fact if we allow for her grandson being starved or poisoned or dying of neglect. Her father, George, Duke of Clarence was privately executed on the orders of his brother, Edward iv, probably by drowning in a large butt of wine, her brother was beheaded on the orders of Henry Tudor, after being stitched up in treasonous conversation with Warbeck (so the accusations went), her son and son in law, both executed on false conspiracy charges and her grandson died mysteriously in the Tower. Plus of course the sad and barbaric execution for no reason than being a member of the family, the matriarch, who had served Henry loyally through his wife and daughter for decades. It seems more like a systematic annihilation of the last true members of the House of York, who, although barred by statute, had, a better claim to the crown than Henry Viii. This was one of the highest, oldest, noblest families in England, the Tudors had swung between holding them suspect and executing them and using them in long term royal service and as honoured friends. For years Margaret and Gertrude Pole had been friends with Henry Viii and Katherine of Aragon, the former governess to Princess Mary. Henry Pole and Courtney had been close friends of Henry Viii and Reginald benefited from royal patronage in the form of Henry paying for his education. The ladies and Marquis stood godparents to the Kings children. Everything changed when Henry changed. The Poles were devout Catholics. Henry became Head of the Church and divorced Katherine, but the Poles despite not accepting the divorce, signed the Acts of Succession and Supremacy, while privately minding their true faith. Reginald, the family misfit and brilliant scholar, Cardinal and Archbishop, let his feelings known, was upset at the divorce of his aunt and godmother, Katherine of Aragon, writing against it and the supremacy from Europe. His big mistake, however, was allowing himself to be drawn into the anti Henry political agenda in Rome, writing to encourage more rising in the Pilgrimage of Grace. Henry wanted Reginald big time and sent assassins against him, but failed to catch or kill him. Historians theorize that as Henry could not get hold of Reginald he destroyed his entire family in 1539 when Cromwell cooked up fake charges of conspiracy to wish Henry dead and Margaret, her son, son in law, grandson and their wives and her younger sons were rounded up and put in the Tower. After the execution of her eldest son and son in law Margaret was left in the Tower. One of her remaining grandsons was also kept there but vanished, assumed dead. Her young son Geoffrey was pardoned as he tried to kill himself three times and a younger Courtney brother was also pardoned and later proposed as an unsuitable husband for Queen Mary I. Margaret was not charged or tried. She was just kept a prisoner and then one day in 1541, without any warning she was told that she was about to die. Margaret was bewildered, not knowing what she could have done wrong. Henry killed this pius elderly lady out of spite and revenge. Her execution was badly botched. It took several strokes of the axe to kill her. She was beautified as a Catholic martyr. After a life time of devoted service, this was a terrible way to die, betrayed by the Tudor family, that the Poles chose to accept and serve.

    1. Debra Johnson /

      Thank you for such an informative insightful comment. I have been looking for the real reason Anne Boleyn was executed. The separation from the Catholic Church & the origin of the First Church of England coincides with the separation of their banking practices, which were then liberated from the use of Jewish middlemen of the Church due to their restriction on managing their finances. King Henry was directly able to manage his own coffers without the Church’s interference giving him greater control over his entire kingdom & the finances of his court; giving him better insight to their political stance & possible opposition, but also he was no beholden to any higher power, he was then at the point, king with absolute power. By dismissing his Catholic ties with Spain he was free to control his future. History has a way of rewriting itself.

      1. Cindy Arigo /

        Probably because Henry tired of her- *and she did not produce a living SON/ heir which Henry DESPERATELY needed to secure the throne he never felt secure ON. He was getting older and without the son he desperately needed after TWO marriages, he needed to be rid of her as soon as possible to marry again. His next wife– his “favourite” was Jane Seymour- compared to Anne, very meek and mild, and DID bear the son Henry needed, and died of childbed fever soon after…

        1. Paul Norris /

          Anne was an arrogant social climber but that is not a fatal character flaw. She would have survived if she could produce a male heir. Unfortunately she made an enemy of Cromwell and he moved heaven and earth to get his revenge by playing on the paranoid Henry. She was found guilty of treason based on trumped up charges and Henry’s desperate need of an heir. The tragedy is that Anne wasn’t the only victim.

    2. Leonora /

      She seem to have unwittingly lived on the edge of the block most of her life. As a child losing her father at the hands of his brother ( Edward lV). The turmoil between her and her cousin Elizabeth Tutor. Then the murder of her brother (Teddy) and her children. This woman had to have suffered from PTSD. how she could mentally deal with any of this is beyond me.

    3. Barbara Forsyth-Bowley /

      Did you say Queen Catherine was an aunt to Reginald or did I misread that?

  4. Rebecca /

    Henry was pure evil in the way he executed people and to have done this to a 68 year old woman! His father came to the throne by a spurious claim to the throne and if it had not been for the traitorous act of Thomas Stanley,he would have lost the battle that day. Richard paid on the battlefield that day for being a traitor to the young Edward when instead of crowning him ,locked him up in the tower.

  5. Clarissa Ryan /

    I’m doing a project about Margaret Pole, yet I still don’t know how she was accused, why she was accused, or even if she was innocent or guilty. My project is due in 6 weeks please help me clear this up. Thank you!!

    1. Liz Robs /

      How about doing some research yourself?

    2. Karen Weber /

      There are pages of research at the bottom of this article. They should help you finish your paper.

  6. Alpha Lewis /

    I think the US became a country because of the Tudors. Their selfish and bloody reign made people want to flee.

    1. Stacy /

      You may be right. My son’s middle name is Stafford, for his grandmother’s family, who fled England generations ago and were related to Lady Pole.

  7. Kevin Mills /

    Margaret Pole was a product of her time and Henry VIII ,s vindictiveness about missing Her Cardinal son stowed away in Rome.
    I did realise that she was of Royal Plantagenet blood but not the fact that her husband was of quite low status.
    The fact that he was executed at The Tower on trumped up charges by The Crown,then her son’s followed a similar fate,ending up herself being beheaded on trumped up charges(Are there any records of these charges ?),
    A blatant case of State Murder of A Royal Princess who stood up for her beliefs to the end.
    I like to think That I could stand up to a bully like Henry and hold July head up to the moment I was murdered.
    As a previous writer stated Richard should have been King,and maybe no Detonation in this Country.

  8. Juan A Moreno /

    Les recomiendo (si saben español) la lectura novelada de la historia de Lady Salisbury en el libro “6 relatos ejemplares 6” de la escritora española María Elvira Roca Barea (2018). Su relato titulado “La última reina” trata de la desdichada Margaret Pole y es magnífico. Además ofrece un interesante contrapunto de este triste episodio de la historia inglesa.

  9. Stacy /

    You may be right. My son’s middle name is Stafford, for his grandmother’s family, who fled England generations ago and were related to Lady Pole.

  10. Suzie Wheeler /

    One has to remember that Margaret was Henry’s own aunt

    1. Amanda /

      Margaret Pole was Henrys cousin not aunt,

    2. Dimples /

      No his cousin…margret was cousin to Henry 8s mother…Lizzie, margrets mother and lizzies mother were sisters.

  11. Jolea Coon /

    Margaret’s father and Elizabeth’s father were brothers. Their mothers were not related.

    1. Susan Anderson /

      Margaret Poles father was George duke of Clarence ,Henry 7 wife Elizabeth was Edward 4 daughter , they were brothers ,so Margaret and elisabeth are first cousins

  12. Joe /

    Anne Boleyn was executed because she mocked Henry VIII’s performance in the bedroom.

    1. Claire Ridgway / Post Author

      There were several factors in her downfall.

  13. Carol Shepherd /

    I have recently found out more about my ancestry and realize I am related to the Pole family. My maiden name being Pole. My husband had researched my family tree, but not as far as Richard III. we stayed at Lordington House last year, which was the home of Richard Pole. They have pictures up of Lady Margaret and the history of the family.

    1. Claire Ridgway / Post Author

      How wonderful!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

The Downfall of Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, by Alexander Taylor

Cart Item Removed. Undo
  • No products in the cart.