On May 28th 1541 Lady Margaret Pole Countess of Salisbury was taken from the Tower, where she had been held without trial and executed on the orders of Henry VIII. Her beheading was a botch job, carried out by a novice headsman and taking eleven blows, not helped by the fact that Margaret allegedly didn’t go quietly, refusing to put her head meekly on the block! Her crime? She had the wrong blood flowing through her veins, her Uncles were Richard III and Edward IV, and her father George Duke of Clarence, so her mere existence fed Henry VIII’s paranoia regarding his father’s tenuous claim to the throne. She followed her father, George, her son Henry Pole 1st Baron Montagu, and her brother Edward Plantagenet 17th Earl of Warwick, among others to their deaths in the Tower.
George had been born at Dublin Castle in Ireland on 21st October 1449. He was made a Knight of the Garter on 27th June 1461 and made duke of Clarence the following day on the 28th June. He married Isabelle Neville, elder daughter of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick on 11th July 1469 at the Church of Our Lady in Calais. George was created Earl of Warwick and Earl of Salisbury by right of his wife on March 25th 1472. He was attained for Treason on 8th February 1478, and so all of his titles were forfeit. He was executed on 18th February the same year supposedly after having been given a choice in how he wanted to die – his choice was to be drowned in a butt of Malmsey wine. It is said that Margaret always wore a barrel jewel on her wrist in memory of her father.
Isabelle was born on the 5th September 1451 at Warwick Castle. She bore George four children, two of which died young. She died at Warwick Castle on 21st December 1476, amid rumours that she had been poisoned. Both George and Isabelle were buried at Tewkesbury Abbey.
Margaret was the elder of the two surviving children of George, Duke of Clarence and Isabelle Neville. She was born on the 14th August 1473 at Farleigh Hungerford Castle near Bath in Wiltshire. Her brother Edward was born in February of either 1474 or 1475. He was styled Earl of Warwick by right of his mother, from birth, this being confirmed in 1490. Following the death of Richard III and the seizing of the throne by Henry VII, Edward’s bloodline and his potential claim to the throne made Henry uneasy to say the least. Edward was at this time a mere boy in his teens, but Henry saw him as a real threat and had him imprisoned in the Tower, where he was to spend the best part of his life. During this period, marriage negotiations were taking place in order for Arthur, Prince of Wales to marry Katherine of Aragon. Her parents wanted to know that her place as Queen would be secure and were unhappy that a potential threat to the throne of England remained whilst Warwick lived. In 1499, a plan was hatched to incriminate Edward in plots against the king. Others in the employ of Henry, were placed in his company and allegedly plotted with him to seize the throne. This provided the ‘evidence’ that Henry needed to have him executed for treason on 24th November 1499. After his execution on Tower Hill, Edward was buried at Bisham Abbey.
In order to diminish Margaret’s importance she was married to Sir Richard Pole who was nephew to the King’s mother Margaret Beaufort, on 22nd September 1494. Before her husband’s death in 1505 Margaret bore five children.
Henry, Marquess of Montagu was born around 1495. He married Jane Neville, daughter of George Neville Lord Bergavenney. Henry was executed 1538 .
Reginald, 1500 – 1558, was to become an important churchman and had the distinction of being the last Roman Catholic archbishop of Canterbury.
Geoffrey 1501 -1558. Married Constance daughter of Sir John Pakenham.
Ursula (died in 1570) married Henry Lord Stafford (1501 – 1563)
Arthur (died in 1570) married Jane, daughter of Sir Roger Lewknor.
Margaret’s situation improved after the death of Henry VII. His son Henry VIII was said to have liked Margaret. He restored to her, in her own right, her father’s earldom of Salisbury on 14th October 1513. She was also awarded a healthy income, making her a wealthy woman. Henry also paid for her son Reginald to attend Oxford University, thus settling him on his career in the church. Margaret became friends with Katherine of Aragon, despite Katherine’s feelings of guilt about her part in the death of Warwick. Margaret was Godmother to the Princess Mary, and was to become her governess. When the princess was given her own household, Margaret was to remain with her. This continued to be the case in the years when Mary was kept apart from her mother.
Margaret was known to have stood by Katherine when Henry decided that he wanted to divorce her and marry Anne Boleyn. Henry tried to get Mary to accept Anne as Queen, but to no avail. He demanded that Mary’s jewels be handed over to him, but Margaret refused. This led to her falling once again from favour, and she was removed from her post in Mary’s household.
Margaret was to remain out of favour until after Henry married Jane Seymour, when she was once again welcomed back to Court. This was not to last however. In 1536 Henry asked Reginald to write down his view of the marriage with Anne Boleyn. Reginald was safe in Rome and so said what he thought. Henry was furious about what was said, and this led to the rest of the family being watched. Margaret, although secretly agreeing with her son, spoke out against the book and her son, but Henry knew how she really felt. Reginald was not to return to England until Mary was on the throne. She welcomed him back and he received the appointment of Archbishop of Canterbury.
In August 1538 Geoffrey was sent to tower for allegedly aiding Reginald. Geoffrey told a tale implicating others of the family in a plot, thus endangering the whole family. Montagu was arrested together with the Marques of Exeter, and executed for treason. Many others in the family, including children were imprisoned in the Tower. When Margaret’s castle at Warblington in Hampshire was searched, a white tunic bearing the royal arms of the king was found. Although she denied any knowledge of it, Henry saw this as a threat to his rule and she was arrested and imprisoned in March 1539. She was attained on the 12th May 1539. Her lands were forfeit but Henry did not send her to her death. She was at this time 65 years old. She remained a prisoner for two more years. In 1541 Katherine Howard is said to have taken pity on her and given her warm clothing, including a furred nightgown and shoes and stockings.
Following a revolt against the King in Yorkshire, Henry decided that Margaret remained a serious threat to his throne. On 28th May 1541, Margaret was taken out to Tower Green where she was to die still declaring her innocence. Popular stories abounded about how Margaret refused to lay her head on the block and that the headsman had to chase her around the block in order to carry out his orders. This is likely to have come about as Margaret remained a popular figure in some circles and her end was indeed bloody. The headsman was inexperienced and is likely to have panicked causing him to hack at Margaret’s neck. It is said that it took 11 blows of the axe. Graffiti found in her cell after her death has been attributed to her. It reads:
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 is buried under the altar in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, at the Tower. She had commissioned a magnificent tomb for herself at Christchurch Priory. This however has remained empty. Margaret was recognised as a martyr by the Catholic Church and as such is known as ‘Blessed Margaret Pole’, beatified by Pope Leo XIII, on 29th December 1886.