Thursday, January 9, 2014

Margaret Pole: Murder Most Horrid

by Judith Arnopp

Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury
It is May 27th 1541 and an old woman wakes in her prison at the Tower of London. She stretches her limbs and blinks at the early morning light filtering through the high window, and groans as she remembers that today is the day she is to die.

Reluctant to shed the warmth of the furred nightgown sent to her by Queen Katherine just a few weeks ago, she shivers while her woman rolls up her hose, ties her fur lined petticoat and secures her new worsted kirtle.  She prays for a while, the familiar rhythm of the words whispering from chapped lips until a footstep sounds. The rattle of a chain, bolts shooting back, the creak of the door.

‘It is time, Madam.’

Outside, the world is calm. The sky is white. Fresh green leaves bright against the sombre walls. A flurry of ravens fly up as the small party passes beneath their roost. There is no scaffold for Margaret, just a block and a terrified executioner about to take his first victim.

‘I will not weep,’ Margaret tells herself. ‘I will not even tremble.’

She takes one last look at the world, her fingers straying to caress the small gold wine casket that she wears on her wrist in memory of her father. It has been a harsh life, and although she knows herself innocent of any crime, Margaret has little care to stay.

As instructed, she pays and forgives the man who is about to snuff out her life, then she kneels in the straw, damp cutting through her skirts as she lays her head on rough hewn wood.

When the inexperienced headsman misjudges and the blade sinks into her shoulder her screams ring out, a flock of birds rising in an inky cloud, adding their protests to hers. The axe falls again, this time lodging in her skull, the sobbing boy struggling to free the blade for another attempt. Margaret cannot move. Paralysed and bleeding, she can only wait for the next blow, and the next … until oblivion takes her.

Detail showing barrel trinket on her right wrist..
Margaret Pole was the daughter of George of Clarence and Isabel Neville. The first tragedy of her life was the death of her mother in childbirth when Margaret was just three years old. Her second was the execution of her father, the king’s brother, for treason. Her portrait shows on her right wrist the tiny gold trinket of a wine barrel that commemorates her father, the Duke of Clarence’s drowning in a butt of malmsey wine.  

During her infancy England suffered great unrest and in the first twelve years of her life King Edward IV died, her uncle Richard III ascended to the throne, her cousins, Edward and Richard, vanished from the Tower and Henry VII won at Bosworth, severing Plantagenet rule forever.

Under the Tudor regime the remaining members of the House of York were systematically dispatched. Some were married to the followers of Tudor, some imprisoned and some executed. Margaret’s brother Edward, the male Yorkist claimant to the throne, spent the remainder of his days in the Tower of London until executed in 1499 for his alleged part in the Perkin Warbeck affair.

 Margaret got off lightly. She was married to Sir Richard Pole, a cousin to Henry VII
Henry VIII
 on his mother’s side. She bore him several children, five of whom survived to adulthood. Widowed in 1504, Margaret’s financial situation plummeted until Henry VIII came to the throne and she entered the household of Catherine of Aragon. Her eldest son, Reginald, entered the church, eventually becoming Archbishop of Canterbury, and a Cardinal.

In 1512, when her ties to the Tudors were strong, the family title of Salisbury was restored to Margaret, making her Countess of Salisbury in her own right and providing income from the Salisbury estates.  Margaret was now one of the wealthiest peers in England.

But, when Henry fell in love with Anne Boleyn things took a turn for the worse, and Margaret’s support for Catherine and Mary, and her outspoken dislike of Anne put her position in jeopardy again. When Reginald, from the safety of Rome, spoke out against the king’s new marriage, he was accused of treason and since he was safely out of reach, his family took the brunt of the king’s anger.

Anne Boleyn
Margaret’s other son, Geoffrey Pole was arrested and Margaret was interrogated and kept in custody. In 1539, an act of attainder was passed against her for conspiring with her sons, Henry and Reginald, and having ‘committed and perpetrated diverse and sundry other detestable and abominable treasons’.

 During her time in the tower Margaret was fairly well-appointed and in March 1541, Queen Katherine (Howard) taking pity on her, instructed her tailor to provide the prisoner with new warm clothes. But, at seven o’clock on the morning of May 27th 1541, Margaret was taken from her prison and executed.

There are varying accounts of her death, one of which has become legend. A stalwart old lady (almost ninety in some accounts) refusing to bow her head to Tudor oppression as she is hacked to death. The macabre picture of her being chased around the scaffold by the headsman has entered British consciousness to become legend. 

However, a more likely account is that the inexperienced headsman misjudged the strike and took several blows to finish her. Whichever way it really happened it was an unpleasant and undeserved end.

Margaret left three surviving children and in the reign of Queen Mary Reginald
Reginald Pole: Archbishop of Canterbury and Cardinal
 returned from exile to become the last Roman Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury.
Her daughter, Lady Ursula Stafford, survived into old age, her daughter Dorothy becoming a close friend to Queen Elizabeth. In recognition of her bravery Margaret was beatified by the Catholic church in 1886 and became known as 'Blessed' Margaret Pole. 

Considering the traumatic nature of her life Margaret has been largely ignored by novelists. In fact, I could find only one non-fiction book dedicated to her life, Margaret Pole, 1473-1541: Loyalty, Lineage and Leadership by Hazel Pierce. But Margaret, a prominent figure in an unstable world, did well to survive for sixty eight years under the Tudors, when so many others of Plantagenet blood perished sooner. When one considers the losses she sustained due to politics; the deaths her father, brother, uncle, cousins, sons …she is a heroine worthy of gracing the cover of any novel.

Further reading:
Pierce, Hazel, Margaret Pole, 1473-1541: Loyalty, Lineage and Leadership (University of Wales Press: 2009)

Judith Arnopp writes historical fiction. Her novels include:
The Kiss of the Concubine: A story of Anne Boleyn

The Winchester Goose: at the court of Henry VIII 

For more information visit her webpage 
or see her Amazon page.
Photos from Wikimedia commons.


  1. Thank you
    I love reading about Margaret Poole and her family. Are there any other books, about her life.?

  2. Horrid fate indeed! Enjoyable post,thank you, given that the subject matter is distressing.


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