Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury (August 14, 1473 – May 27 1541), was an English peeress and member of the English Royal Family and one of the last of the Plantagenets.
She was the daughter of George, Duke of Clarence, the brother of kings Edward IV and Richard III. Margaret was one of two women in 16th-century England to be a peeress in her own right with no titled husband. One of the few surviving members of the Plantagenet dynasty after the Wars of the Roses, she was executed in 1541 at the command of Henry VIII, who was the son of her first cousin Elizabeth of York. Pope Leo XIII beatified her as a martyr for the Catholic Church on December 29, 1886.
Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury
Margaret was born at Farleigh Hungerford Castle in Somerset, the only surviving daughter of George Plantagenet, 1st Duke of Clarence, and his wife Isabel Neville, who was the elder daughter of Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick, and his wife Anne de Beauchamp, 16th Countess of Warwick. Her maternal grandfather was killed fighting against her uncle, Edward IV, at the Battle of Barnet.
Her father, already Duke of Clarence, was then created Earl of Salisbury and of Warwick. Edward IV declared that Margaret’s younger brother Edward should be known as Earl of Warwick as a courtesy title, but no peerage was ever created for him. Margaret would have had a claim to the Earldom of Warwick, but the earldom was forfeited on the attainder of her brother Edward.
Margaret’s mother died when she was three, and her father had two servants killed whom he thought had poisoned her. George plotted against Edward IV, and was attainted and executed for treason; his lands and titles were forfeited. Edward IV died when Margaret was ten, and her uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester, declared that Edward’s marriage was invalid, his children illegitimate, and that Margaret and her brother Edward were debarred from the throne by their father’s attainder. Married to Anne Neville, younger sister to Margaret’s mother Isabel, Richard assumed the throne himself as Richard III.
Richard III sent the children to Sheriff Hutton Castle in Yorkshire. He was defeated and killed in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth by Henry Tudor, who succeeded him as Henry VII. The new king married Margaret’s cousin Elizabeth of York, Edward IV’s daughter, and Margaret and her brother were taken into their care.
In November 1487, Henry VII gave Margaret in marriage to his cousin, Sir Richard Pole, whose mother was half-sister of the king’s mother, Margaret Beaufort. Richard Pole held a variety of offices in Henry VII’s government, the highest being Chamberlain for Arthur, Prince of Wales, Henry’s elder son. When Arthur married Catherine of Aragon, Margaret became one of her ladies-in-waiting, but her entourage was dissolved when the teenaged Arthur died in 1502.
When her husband died in 1505, Margaret was a widow with five children, a limited amount of land inherited from her husband, no other income and no prospects. Henry VII paid for Richard’s funeral. To ease the situation, Margaret devoted her third son Reginald Pole to the Church, where he was to have an eventful career as a papal Legate and later Archbishop of Canterbury. Nonetheless, he was to resent her abandonment of him bitterly in later life.
When Henry VIII came to the throne in 1509, he married Catherine of Aragon himself. Margaret was again appointed one of her ladies-in-waiting. In 1512, an Act of Parliament restored to her some of her brother’s lands of the earldom of Salisbury (only), for which she paid 5000 marks (£2666.13s.4d). The same Act also restored to Margaret the Earldom of Salisbury.
Henry VIII, King of England and Ireland
Margaret’s own favour at Court varied. She had a dispute over land with Henry VIII in 1518; he awarded the contested lands to the Dukedom of Somerset, which had been held by his Beaufort great-grandfather—and were now in the possession of the Crown. In 1520, Margaret was appointed governess to Henry’s daughter Princess Mary; the next year, when her sons were mixed up with Buckingham, she was removed, but she was restored by 1525.
When Princess Mary was declared a bastard in 1533, Margaret refused to give Mary’s gold plate and jewels back to Henry. Mary’s household was broken up at the end of the year, and Margaret asked to serve Mary at her own cost, but was not permitted. The Imperial Ambassador Eustace Chapuys suggested two years later that Mary be handed over to Margaret, but Henry refused, calling her “a fool, of no experience”. When Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, was arrested, and eventually executed, in 1536, Margaret was permitted to return to Court, albeit briefly.
In 1531, her son, Reginald Pole, warned of the dangers of the Boleyn marriage. He returned to Padua in 1532, and received a last English benefice in December of that year. Chapuys suggested to Emperor Charles V that Reginald marry Princess Mary and combine their dynastic claims.
Reginald also urged the princes of Europe to depose Henry immediately. Henry wrote to Margaret, who in turn wrote to her son a letter reproving him for his “folly”. In May 1536, Reginald finally and definitively broke with the king.
In 1537, Reginald (still not ordained) was created a Cardinal.
Pope Paul III put him in charge of organising assistance for the Pilgrimage of Grace (and related movements), an effort to organise a march on London to install a conservative Catholic government instead of Henry’s increasingly Protestant-leaning one. Neither François I of France nor the Emperor supported this effort, and the English government tried to have him assassinated.
The Exeter Conspiracy of 1538 was a supposed attempt to overthrow Henry VIII, who had taken control of the Church of England away from the Pope, and replace him with Henry Courtenay, 1st Marquess of Exeter, who was a first cousin of the King.
As part of the investigations into the so-called Exeter Conspiracy, Geoffrey Pole was arrested in August 1538; he had been corresponding with Reginald, and the investigation of Henry Courtenay, Marquess of Exeter (Henry VIII’s first cousin and Geoffrey’s second cousin) had turned up his name. Geoffrey had appealed to Thomas Cromwell, who had him arrested and interrogated. Under interrogation, Geoffrey said that his eldest brother, Lord Montagu, and the Marquess had been parties to his correspondence with Reginald. Montagu, Exeter, and Margaret were arrested in November 1538.
In January 1539, Geoffrey was pardoned, but Margaret’s son Henry, Baron Montagu (and cousin Exeter) were later executed for treason after trial. In May 1539, Henry, Margaret, Exeter and others were attainted, as Margaret’s father had been. This conviction meant they lost their titles and their lands—mostly in the South of England, conveniently located to assist any invasion.
Margaret Pole, as she now was styled, was held in the Tower of London for two and a half years. She, her grandson Henry (son of her own son Henry), and Exeter’s son were held together and supported by the king. She was attended by servants and received an extensive grant of clothing in March 1541. In 1540, Cromwell himself fell from favour and was attainted and executed.
On the morning of 27 May 1541, Margaret was told she was to die within the hour. She answered that no crime had been imputed to her. Nevertheless, she was taken from her cell to the place within the precincts of the Tower of London where a low wooden block had been prepared instead of the customary scaffold. As she was of noble birth, she was not executed before the populace.
Eye witness accounts state that, “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” and that, because the main executioner had been sent north to deal with rebels, the execution was performed by “a wretched and blundering youth who literally hacked her head and shoulders to pieces in the most pitiful manner”.
Her son, Reginald Pole, said that he would “never fear to call himself the son of a martyr”. She was later regarded by Catholics as such and was beatified on 29 December 1886 by Pope Leo XIII.