Friday, May 27, 2016

Margaret Pole’s Wild Ride on Fortune’s Wheel

by Samantha Wilcoxson

Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, is possibly best known for her botched execution. One of the last victims of Henry VIII’s temper and insecurities, Margaret was sent to her death without trial at the age of sixty-seven. However, if that is all you know of this dynamic woman, you are missing out on an adventurous story.

Painting of unknown woman
believed to be Margaret Pole
In the late medieval world, faith was an important element of daily life but it was sprinkled with superstition. One of these philosophies related to Rota Fortunae or the Wheel of Fortune that was blindly spun and could drastically affect the life of any person, great or small. We might call it twists of fate or destiny, but the idea is the same. While the poor might pray for an unexpected rise in fortune, the great could be quickly brought low. Few endured greater shifts in fortune than Margaret Pole.

Boccaccio's De Casibus Virorum Illustrium showing Lady Fortune spinning her wheel.

She was born August 14, 1473, to George of Clarence and Isabel Neville. He was the brother of King Edward IV, and she was the oldest daughter of the Earl of Warwick, the man most credited with placing Edward upon the throne. George was no longer heir presumptive, since Elizabeth Woodville had recently presented Edward with one son and another would join him within days of Margaret’s birth. Still, George’s position was a favorable one, and Margaret had every reason to anticipate a bright future.

George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence

Before Margaret was old enough to know what was happening, the Wheel of Fortune made the first of many turns in her life. The Duke of Clarence had betrayed his brother even before Margaret’s birth, but he had always been forgiven. In 1477, the king was pushed too far. Wild with grief over his wife’s death after childbirth that he convinced himself was a poisoning, George once again rebelled. By the spring of 1478, Margaret and her younger brother Edward were orphans. Many theories revolve around George of Clarence’s execution, but to these small children the only thing that mattered was that their father was gone, executed by his own brother.

Despite their status as the orphaned children of an attainted traitor, Margaret and Edward enjoyed the remainder of the Plantagenet dynasty within households of royal cousins and may have believed that Fortune’s Wheel was creeping its way back upward. Then came the year 1485.

After Henry Tudor was victorious at Bosworth, the royal children who had been tucked away at Sheriff Hutton were brought south to London. Margaret and Edward were among them. We have no way of knowing whether their cousin, Elizabeth of York, was eager to meet the new king to whom she was betrothed, but all of the York children must have been anxious to learn what the future would hold and which way Fortune’s Wheel would turn for them.

At this point Margaret’s path veered away from her brother’s. Edward was imprisoned in the Tower for his excess of royal blood, while Margaret was married to a distant relative of Margaret Beaufort. Richard Pole was a faithful supporter of Henry Tudor, and, as such, he and Margaret were soon sent to serve Prince Arthur at Ludlow. During this time, Margaret formed a close relationship with Arthur’s bride, Catherine of Aragon.

Edward, never more than a pawn in older men’s games, had been executed in 1499 in order to clear the way for Catherine’s arrival, but Margaret does not seem to have held it against her. The two remained lifelong friends well beyond the brief time at Ludlow. After the deaths of their husbands, Margaret and Catherine shared a low point on the Wheel of Fortune. Both women, accustomed to rich lifestyles, were left in relative poverty by King Henry VII. Gifts from his wife, Elizabeth of York, would help ease their burden that was only to be lifted with the ascension of Henry VIII.

King Henry VIII
by unknown Anglo-Netherlandish artist, 
NPG 4690

By marrying Catherine and bestowing an old family title upon Margaret, Henry VIII appeared to be the women’s savior. For a time. The Countess of Salisbury thrived during this high point on Fortune’s Wheel. Building projects, advantageous marriages for her children, and a coveted place at the queen’s side occupied her time. She mourned with Catherine over the loss of the queen’s babies, one after another, until the birth of a healthy auburn haired girl. In a few years, Margaret became Princess Mary’s governess.

Queen Mary I
by Master John, NPG 428 
Her place must have seemed entirely secure when the whispering began in the mid-1520s. Henry had a new love. He did not believe that Catherine could give him the son he wanted. Needed. Margaret had a decision to make. Stand by her queen and the princess she had grown to love as much as her own children, or look to her own future and rally to the side of her cousin the king?

She attempted a balancing act, which worked for some time. Margaret would not give up her friend or her religion, but neither did she antagonize the king. That job was left to her son.

Reginald Pole had enjoyed the patronage of both Henry Tudors, and the education that they had provided him with placed him close to the Pope. Henry hoped that Reginald would support his case and convince the pope to approve his divorce. Instead, Reginald took advantage of the safety provided to him by his distance from England to speak vociferously against Henry’s Great Matter, eventual multiple marriages, and self-proclaimed status as Head of the Church of England.

Henry’s rage could not bring Reginald within his reach, so he lashed out at his family instead in a devastating turn of the Wheel of Fortune for Margaret Pole. The final blow began with the arrest of her youngest son, Geoffrey, and grew into the legalized mass murder known as the Exeter Conspiracy in 1538. In this vicious blow against the York remnant, Henry executed Margaret’s oldest son, Lord Montague, along with several others. Montague’s son, a young boy named Henry, was also taken to the Tower, never to be seen again. Geoffrey attempted to commit suicide.

Margaret was first placed under house arrest, then taken to the Tower herself, though no charges were ever brought against her. There she would endure this low point, knowing that her family was being torn apart, until she was informed that Henry was done with her. On May 27, 1541, Margaret was informed that her execution would take place that morning. She had committed no crime and been given no trial, yet she prepared herself with the royal dignity she was born to.

Tower of London

After her brutal beheading by an unprepared and inexperienced executioner, these words were found on the wall of Margaret’s Tower cell:
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 Pole Memorial

Additional Reading:
Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury 1473-1541: Loyalty, Lineage and Leadership by Hazel Pierce

Image credits:

Painting of unknown woman believed to be Margaret Pole. Public Domain(?),  by Unknown

Boccaccio's De Casibus Virorum Illustrium showing Lady Fortune spinning her wheel. Public Domain,, FortuneWheel.

George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence, by Lucas Cornelisz - [1], Public Domain,

King Henry VIII, by unknown Anglo-Netherlandish artist, NPG 4690CC BY-NC-ND

Queen Mary I, by Master John, NPG 428, CC BY-NC-ND

Tower of London. Author's personal photo

Margaret Pole Memorial. Author's personal photo

Author Bio:
Samantha Wilcoxson is a first generation American with British roots. She is passionate about reading, writing, and history. Her novel, Plantagenet Princess, Tudor Queen: The Story of Elizabeth of York has been recognized as an Editors’ Choice by the Historical Novel Society. Her next book, Faithful Traitor: The Story of Margaret Pole, is currently available for pre-order and will be released June 14, 2016.

Samantha has also published two middle grade novels, No Such Thing as Perfect and Over the Deep: A Titanic Adventure.

When not involved in reading or writing, Samantha enjoys traveling and spending time at the lake with her husband and three children. You can connect with Samantha on her Blog, Twitter,  Goodreads, Booklikes, and Amazon.
Pre-Order Faithful Traitor
Buy Plantagenet Princess, Tudor Queen


  1. That poor woman! I can't fathom what she would have went through.

  2. Replies
    1. Truly tragic. I'm surprised more hasn't been written about her.

  3. Wow, what an intriguing character, she certainly must have had quite a personality:)

    1. I've done my best to give her an appropriate attitude .... I mean personality! ;-)

  4. Those Tudors really worked hard to make sure there were no possible claimants from the other side left to chalłenge them. Hmm, so that's what George of Clarence looked like!

    1. The interesting thing is that Henry VIII did not start out that way, but after two decades and no son....well, you know the rest.

  5. Excellent post...the use of a turning wheel is effective...those unprepared and inexperienced executioners
    are the worst. Interestingly when it was Anne B's turn Henry made sure she had a skilled French swordsmen

    1. Thank you, Anne! It is interesting that Henry made that choice. Was he attempting to appear a gentleman in how he had his wife killed?

  6. More of these stories need to be told and made into films. Thank you for writing ad posting.

    1. Thank you, John! I would love to see more history in films.

  7. PS. we are always looking for screen plays about the English Catholic Martyrs.


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