The death of Lady Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, stands out in a brutal and bloody reign as one of its more terrible moments. To put it simply, she was brutally killed because Henry VIII couldn't take his wrath out on her son, and her execution was like a horror movie.
Lady Margaret was born in 1473 to George, Duke of Clarence and his wife, Isabel Neville. George was the brother of King Edward IV, but their relationship was strained at best, especially in regards to Elizabeth, the king's wife. Margaret's early years were tumultuous, as the Wars of the Roses tore through her family. Her grandfather was killed while fighting against her uncle Edward IV.
When Margaret was only three years old, her mother gave birth to a boy they named Richard, after his uncle. Isabel had apparently suffered from difficult pregnancies in the past, but she seemed to be recovering from this latest birth, though baby Richard was "sickly" according to later court records. Isabel remained under the care of a midwife named Ankarette Twynyho, who nursed the mother and baby with herbal concoctions. About ten weeks after the birth, Isabel fell violently ill, supposedly after drinking ale given to her by Ankarette, and died three days before Christmas. Baby Richard died shortly thereafter.
Margaret's father, George, was crushed by grief and was convinced Isabel and Richard had been poisoned by Ankarette at the behest of his enemy, Queen Elizabeth Woodville. George tracked Ankarette down in April, had her charged with poisoning Isabel, and accused a man named John Thuresbury of poisoning the infant. Both of them were swiftly convicted and hanged.
The king decided he'd had enough of his brother's behavior and wild allegations against the queen. His agents arrested several of George's retainers, who confessed under torture to using black magic to try to kill the king. When George made a stink about their innocence in parliament, the king had him arrested and thrown into the Tower.
Instead of humbly throwing himself on the mercy of the king, George slandered his brother's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, claiming it was bigamous, and set out to arrange a powerful marriage of his own that might have put his brother's crown at risk.
The king demanded parliament pass a Bill of Attainder against his brother for treason, which they did. Following it, George was "privately executed" within the confines of the Tower. The old stories have it that he was drowned in a barrel of wine.
After George's execution, Margaret found herself stripped of her inheritance, and sent to live with her aunt. When she was ten years old, her uncle, Edward IV died, and her uncle Richard III, took the throne. He declared that since George had been attainted for treason, his children were ineligible as heirs to the throne.
Only a few years later, Richard III was defeated at the Battle of Bosworth. The Tudor dynasty had begun. The new king Henry VII and decided to marry Margaret to his cousin, Sir Richard Pole. We don't know the exact year of their marriage, but it was probably around 1487, which would make Margaret about fourteen years old at time. Sir Richard was around twenty-eight or twenty-nine.
Margaret was described as tall for a woman, slender and elegant, with the auburn hair of the Plantagenets, and pale skin. We don't have a portrait of her that can be identified for certain.
Margaret and Sir Richard seem to have had a happy - or at least stable - marriage. They had five children together, and Sir Richard held a variety of highly-favored positions in the new king's court. Margaret was assigned as a lady in waiting to Katharine of Aragon, who had wed the king's son, Arthur. Her behavior as a courtier was impeccable, with never a hint of scandal attached to her name. She and Katharine became close friends in the short time they were together.
While she was pregnant with her son, Reginald, Margaret's brother - seen by many as the rightful heir to the throne - was executed after the uprising by Perkin Warbeck. His only crime, it was said, was his royal blood. Margaret never held it against Katharine that her own parents had urged the king to execute Margaret's brother to secure the throne.
When Arthur died in 1502, Katharine's household was dissolved, and Margaret was sent back to her own estates, while the widowed Katharine was at the mercy of her father-in-law, bickering over her dowry with Spain.
Only two years later, Sir Richard died, leaving Margaret a widow with only a small income from her jointure. She couldn't even pay for her husband's funeral; the king loaned her the funds on generous terms. Out of desperation, Margaret dedicated her younger son, Reginald, to the church, so she could save money on his upbringing and education. Reginald did well in the church, rising so high that he was once considered for the office of pope, but he seems to have resented his mother for it. He once wrote to Margaret, chiding her for her lack of care for him:
And though you had so done with all your children, yet in me you had so given all right from you and possession utterly of me that you never took any care to provide for my living nor otherwise, as you did for other, but committed all to God, to whom you had given me. This promise now, Madam, in my [Maister]es name I require of you to maintain, [the wh]iche you cannot keep nor make good if y[ou] now beginne to care for me.
When Henry VIII came to the throne, Margaret's situation improved. He allowed her to buy back the Earldom of Salisbury, which gave her income from its properties. It made her the only woman in England to hold a peerage in her own right until Anne Boleyn was created Marquess of Pembroke. Margaret managed those lands carefully and became a very wealthy woman.
Margaret was also re-appointed to serve Katharine of Aragon after the king married her. Katharine must have been joyful to have her dear friend back in her company. They had much in common, considering the struggles they had both endured.
Both women were deeply pious. Henry called Margaret "the most saintly woman in Christendom," and said he "honored and loved her as his own granddame." Katharine chose Margaret to be the godmother of her daughter, Princess Mary, and later made her the child's governess.
Margaret's own children did well at court. Her eldest son, Henry, became a baron and served in the House of Lords. Arthur Pole became a gentleman of the privy chamber, though he died young. Her daughter, Ursula, married the son of the Duke of Buckingham, and Geoffrey Pole married an heiress.
Reginald, the son dedicated to the church, studied at Oxford, where he obtained a degree at age fifteen. Henry VIII himself sponsored Reginald to study at Padua, and the young man began collecting offices and benefices, though he had not yet taken vows as a priest. He seems to have been extremely gifted, corresponding with the great humanist scholars of the age, including Erasmus and Thomas More. For a time, it seems Katharine considered marrying Reginald to her daughter, since he had not yet taken his vows.
Then, in 1527, Henry began to pursue an annulment of his marriage to Katharine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn. Margaret took the side of her friend, Katharine, and of the princess she loved like a daughter.
Reginald initially helped speak to scholars in Rome about the annulment, but ultimately decided the king was wrong in his determination to marry Anne. Henry asked him to come back to England to take the offices of the Archbishop of York and the See of Winchester. Reginald saw it as a bribe to gain his support of the Boleyn marriage. He spoke to Henry in person, and whatever it was he said to the king made him so angry that Henry is said to have laid his hand on his dagger.
It can be imagined from what Reginald wrote in his scathing letter laying out the gross hypocrisy of Henry wanting to divorce his wife because she had been the widow of his brother, in order to marry a woman who was the sister of his former mistress. In the eyes of the church, it was equally incestuous.
Now what sort of person is it whom you have put in the place of your divorced wife? Is she not the sister of her whom first you violated? And for a long time after kept as your concubine? She certainly is. How is it, then, that you now tell us of the horror you have of illicit marriage? Are you ignorant of the law which certainly no less prohibits marriage with a sister of one with whom you have become one flesh, than with one with whom your brother was one flesh? If the one kind of marriage is detestable, so is the other. Were you ignorant of this law? Nay, you knew it better than others. How do I prove that? Because, at the very time you were rejecting your brother’s widow, you were doing your utmost to get leave from the pope to marry the sister of your former concubine.
Henry cast Katharine and Princess Mary into exile. He removed Margaret from her post as Mary's governess, though Margaret begged to be allowed to stay, even offering to host Mary's household at her own expense. But Henry believed the pious Margaret was one of those who was encouraging Mary to be "stubborn" about refusing to accept her father's stance that his marriage to Katharine was invalid.
Chapuys even once went to plead with Henry to allow Mary to resume living with Margaret, but the king's affection and esteem for Margaret was gone.
I did not wish to dispute with him on the subject, but asked that he would at least put the Princess under the care of her old gouvernante, the countess of Salisbury, whom she regarded as her second mother. He replied that the Countess was a fool, of no experience, and that if his daughter had been under her care during this illness she would have died, for she would not have known what to do[.]
Safe on the Continent, Reginald denounced the king's marital machinations, writing a book about the case. Margaret did the only thing she could - she denounced her son as a traitor, and wrote him a letter chastising him for his "folly."
"Son Reginald," I send you God's blessing and mine, though my trust to have comfort in you is turned to sorrow. Alas that I, for your folly, should receive from my sovereign lord "such message as I have late done by your brother." To me as a woman, his Highness has shown such mercy and pity as I could never deserve, but that I trusted my children's services would express my duty. And now, to see you in his Grace's indignation,—"trust me, Reginald, there went never the death of thy father or of any child so nigh my heart." Upon my blessing I charge thee to take another way and serve our master, as thy duty is, unless thou wilt be the confusion of thy mother. You write of a promise made by you to God,—"Son, that was to serve God and thy prince, whom if thou do not serve with all thy wit, with all thy power, I know thou can not please God. For who hath brought you up and maintained you to learning but his Highness?" Will pray God to give him grace to serve his prince truly or else to take him to his mercy.
Margaret had no choice but to denounce Reginald. To do anything else would be to endanger herself and her family. Even though she likely agreed with all he was saying, to not denounce it publicly would be suicide. It was a terrible and agonizing choice for a mother - and a faithful Catholic - to make.
Even after Anne's execution, the king still insisted that his marriage to Katharine had been invalid and was enraged by Reginald's refusal to acknowledge the royal supremacy. It's said he tried unsuccessfully to have Reginald assassinated at one point. Reginald was now a Cardinal (despite not having taken vows) and was urging the other monarchs of Europe to depose Henry and install a Catholic government in England.
Eventually, Cromwell produced a silk robe that was embroidered with the arms of England, marigolds (a symbol of Princess Mary), pansies (a symbol of the Pole family) and the five wounds of Christ (a symbol of the Pilgrimage of Grace.) Cromwell believed it demonstrated Reginald's intentions to marry Mary and restore papal authority in England.
Considering the robe wasn't produced until six months after her possessions had been searched, many today believe it was planted. Margaret was convicted as a traitor by an Act of Attainder. Her eldest son, Henry, was executed, and her son Geoffrey had been forced to testify against him. He was pardoned for his cooperation and fled the country. Geoffrey, it seems, carried the heavy burden of this betrayal on his conscience and wasn't able to free himself of its weight until he was later pardoned in person by the pope.
Margaret was imprisoned in the Tower for over two years, and there she was left to wait to see if she would be pardoned or the death sentence would be carried out. She was housed as a noble in one of the better cells, with the comforts of fine furniture and the like, but she was an elderly lady in her seventies who suffered badly during the winters in its stone rooms. The young queen Katheryn Howard took pity on her and sent her fur-lined clothing.
Around Easter, there was another small pro-Catholic uprising, and as it turned out, one of the ringleaders was a relative of the Nevilles, the family of Margaret's mother, Isabel. Henry may have believed it was egged on by Reginald Pole. He decided it was time to get rid of Margaret once and for all.
On the morning of May 27, 1541, Margaret was awakened and informed she was to die in a few hours' time.
Henry had learned from the execution of Anne Boleyn and wanted to limit the number of witnesses. Likely, this is why the execution was carried out suddenly, not even building a scaffold to alert people an important person was to be executed. Henry knew that the sad spectacle of this elderly, pious woman climbing the scaffold wouldn't have the deterrent effect he wanted, but would instead reflect badly on him.
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 [Mary], 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 (garçonneau) was chosen, who literally hacked her head and shoulders to pieces in the most pitiful manner.
As ghastly as Margaret's demise was, an even more horrible tale has become the popular legend. It originates in 1649, in another account of Margaret's execution: (Modernized spelling and punctuation.)
Shortly after followed the Countess of Salisbury's execution, which, whether occasioned by the late rebellion (as being thought of Cardinal Pole's instigation) or that she gave some new offence, is uncertain. The old lady being brought to the scaffold (set up in the Tower) was commanded to lay her head on the block, but she (as a person of great quality assured me) refused, saying, "So should traitors do, and I am none." Neither did it serve that the executioner told her it was the fashion. So turning her gray head every way, she bid him, if he would have her head, to get it as he could. So that he was constrained to fetch it off slovenly. And thus ended (as our authors say) the last of the right line of the Plantagenet.
In the end, Chapuys seems most likely to be right about what happened. We know of other executions of the era which were terribly botched, causing unnecessary suffering to the condemned. So the tale of Margaret's sad and bloody end may be true. If the execution was ordered suddenly, there would have been no time to erect the scaffold. There also may have been no time to send for an experienced headsman to execute Margaret. The woman Henry had once said he "loved and honored as his own granddame" suffered a hasty, botched execution in front of only a handful of witnesses.
Margaret had constructed a lovely chantry chapel she intended for her burial site, but she was buried beneath the floor of St. Peter-ad-Vincula, near the grave of Anne Boleyn.
She was Lady of the manor of Christchurch, in Hampshire, and had erected in that church on the north side of the altar the elegant chapel, still called the Salisbury chapel, for her own burial-place. In the central boss of the fan tracery of the roof is a representation, much mutilated, of the Trinity, with the figure of the Countess in front, kneeling at the feet of God the Father. The armorial bearings of the Countess were on the eastern boss, and below can still be read her motto "Spes mea in deo est."
The commissioners for the suppression of monasteries reported, "in thys churche we founde a chaple and monument curioslie made of Cane stone, paryd (prepared) by the late mother of Regnold Pole for herre buryall, whiche we have causyd to be defacyd, and all the arms and badgis clerly to be deleted:" and in this condition does the chapel remain at the present time.
During the repairs in 1834, two receptacles for coffins were discovered below the floor of this chapel, which were probably intended for the countess, and her son the cardinal, but seemed never to have been used.
In the Victorian era, the chapel of St. Peter-ad-Vincula was renovated and remains were found that were thought to belong to Margaret.
Close by, somewhat in a south-east direction, and nearer to the wall of the chancel, gathered together in two distinct groups, were found the bones of two females; these were examined and carefully sorted, they appeared to belong to a person of about thirty to forty years of age, and to another who must have been considerably advanced in years. It is worthy of note that these latter remains were a little to the south-east of the younger female.
These groups had been much disturbed, and many bones are missing: the younger female had been of rather delicate proportions, the elder had been tall, and certainly of above average height.
These remains are believed to be those of Lady Rochford and Margaret of Clarence, Countess of Salisbury: and, as was subsequently discovered, they had been removed somewhat to the east of their original resting places, in order to make room for two unknown persons, who had been buried close to the step of the chancel, probably about one hundred years ago. [...] A broken tobacco pipe of the 17th century and a fragment of silk were found between this body, and the supposed remains of Lady Rochford and the Countess of Salisbury.
In 1886, Margaret was beatified by Pope Leo XIII as one of the English Martyrs to the Catholic faith. May 28 is her feast day.