Margaret Plantagenet, the daughter of George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence and of his wife, Isabel Neville, was born on 14th August 1473 at Farleigh Castle, near Bath. Her father was the younger brother of Edward IV and Richard III. Margaret's mother was the eldest daughter of Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick. (1)
Henry arranged Margaret's marriage to Sir Richard Pole to ensure that she would not become a figurehead around which another rising might form. The marriage probably took place in November 1487. Pole's mother, was half-sister of the king's mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort. Margaret lived at Stourton Castle in Staffordshire. She bore her husband five surviving children: Henry, Arthur, Ursula, Reginald and Geoffrey. (3)
Prince Arthur and Catherine of Aragon married on 14th November 1501, at St Paul's Cathedral in London. The couple spent the first month of their marriage at Tickenhill Manor. Arthur wrote to Catherine's parents telling them how happy he was and assuring them he would be "a true and loving husband all of his days". They then moved to Ludlow Castle. (4)
Margaret Pole became a member of Catherine's household. The two women became very close: "A sturdy friendship which sprang up between two women, not particularly close in age - Margaret Pole was nearly thirty - but sharing, as time would show, the same kind of character. Both had the charm of goodness; both were well-educated, pious, and bookish; both were affectionate, outwardly submissive, inwardly strong." (5) Margaret left the household after Arthur's death 2nd April, 1502.
Margaret Pole's husband died in 1505. This left in a difficult financial situation and one consequence of this was that she was forced to give her son Reginald Pole to the church. However, her fortunes improved with the accession of Henry VIII in 1509. She immediately became a member of Queen Catherine's chamber, and in February 1512 was restored to the earldom of Salisbury and all those lands which her brother Edward IV had held at the time of his death, a tacit recognition of the injustice of his execution.
As countess of Salisbury, Margaret Pole was the first and, apart from Anne Boleyn, the only woman in sixteenth-century England to hold a peerage title in her own right. Her estates fell within seventeen English counties. She also held lands in Wales and Calais. In 1538 her gross annual income of £2,311 revealed her to be among the top five wealthiest peers of her generation and potentially one of the most influential women in England. "An active landlord and employer, she appointed her officers, several of whom were women, wisely. Although her position was in direct contradiction to what was advocated for women, in many areas she successfully operated on an equal level with her male counterparts, for instance in the marriage negotiations of her children and grandchildren and in litigation." (6)
Margaret's son, Reginald Pole, held a series of important posts in the Church and in October 1529 was sent to Paris in order to help secure a favourable opinion from the university doctors on Henry's divorce from Catherine of Aragon. The historian, Jasper Ridley, has argued he used his great intellectual abilities and his theological knowledge to argue the case for Henry at the Sorbonne." (7)
In the summer of 1531 Reginald Pole began to have doubts about Henry's proposed divorce. "Pole gave Henry an analysis of the political difficulties in the way of a divorce, particularly the dangers to the succession and from foreign princes. Pole told various stories, and his biographers added their versions, of what he did before offering that opinion, but none can be corroborated; it is clear only that Pole left England again in January or February 1532 without the promotion, perhaps even the archbishopric of York, that had seemed certain." (8)
In March 1534 Pope Clement VII announced that Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn was invalid. Henry reacted by declaring that the Pope no longer had authority in England. In November 1534, Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy. This gave Henry the title of the "Supreme head of the Church of England". A Treason Act was also passed that made it an offence to attempt by any means, including writing and speaking, to accuse the King and his heirs of heresy or tyranny. All subjects were ordered to take an oath accepting this. (9)
Sir Thomas More and John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, refused to take the oath and were imprisoned in the Tower of London. More was summoned before Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell at Lambeth Palace. More was happy to swear that the children of Anne Boleyn could succeed to the throne, but he could not declare on oath that all the previous Acts of Parliament had been valid. He could not deny the authority of the pope "without the jeoparding of my soul to perpetual damnation." (10)
Jasper Ridley, the author of Henry VIII (1984) has argued: "It was the executions of the Carthusians and Fisher and More which decided Pole to come out into the open and to become Henry's greatest enemy. He was conscious of the dept of gratitude which he owed to Henry for his education; he was, indeed, being constantly reminded of it by Henry's counsellors and spokesmen. But he became more and more convinced that his duty to God required him to denounce his benefactor as a bloody tyrant who had martyred the champions of the Faith in England." (11)
Reginald Pole was now seen as leader of the opposition to Henry VIII. Ambassador Eustace Chapuys suggested that Pole marry Princess Mary and draw on his family's base of support in Wales. It was probably this dynastic threat which gave most concern to Henry. In 1536 Pole wrote Defence of the Unity of the Church. Pole argued that the leadership of Europe resided in the Pope, to whom all things spiritual and temporal must be referred. (12) It also provided a very positive picture of Thomas More and John Fisher (his biographer describes it as hagiography). The book concluded with an extended call to Henry to repent. (13)
On 22nd December 1536 Pole was made a cardinal. His real assignment was to assist the Pilgrimage of Grace. He was given permission to supply funds to the rebels and Pope Paul III gave Pole a letter of full papal credit in order to raise money in Flanders. Geoffrey Moorhouse has argued: "Pole... openly advocated foreign intervention in the affairs of his own native land and claimed that Englishmen would be totally justified in taking up arms against their king. Henry, understandably enraged, did what he could to entice Pole back to England, where he would undoubtedly have been charged with treason, but Pole was at least worldly enough to realise the gravity of his situation and stayed put. (14)
Henry VIII now ordered the arrest of Margaret's son, Sir Geoffrey Pole. He revealed all that he knew of his family activities. As a result, his brother, Henry Pole was arrested and executed in January 1539. Four months later, Margaret was also taken into custody. Geoffrey, who pled guilty at his trial for treason was pardoned and given his freedom. (15)
Margaret's interrogation began on 12th November and was carried out by William Fitzwilliam, earl of Southampton, and Thomas Goodrich, bishop of Ely. Innocent of any treasonous activity, she responded with firm and clear answers to all questions. (16) Antonia Fraser, the author of The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1992) points out that Margaret Pole had in fact written letters denouncing her son's book, Defence of the Unity of the Church. However, "servants' gossip was dredged up to justify her interrogation". (17) The only evidence against her was that she had forbidden her servants to read the English Bible, and had once been seen burning a letter. (18)
Margaret Pole was now sent to the Tower of London. Her case was discussed in Parliament. Thomas Cromwell produced evidence that suggested that her son, Reginald Pole, intended to marry Princess Mary. At first Henry VIII treated Margaret fairly well, paying £13 6s. 8d. a month for the food of herself and her grandson Henry. She was also allowed a waiting woman to attend upon her who was paid 18d. a week. (19)
Queen Catherine Howard took an interest in Margaret's case. "That spring saw Catherine stirred to action by the plight of three people imprisoned in the Tower. One was Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, who had languished there for nearly two years with inadequate clothing and heating to protect her aged body from the bitter winter weather. When she learned of this, the Queen saw her tailor on 1st March and ordered him to make up garments which were to be sent to Lady Sailsbury: a furred night-gown, a bonnet and frontlet, four pairs of hose, four pairs of shoes and one pair of slippers. With the King's permission, Catherine paid for all these items out of her privy purse." (20)
Henry became more hostile with the rising in the north in the early months of 1541 led by Sir John Neville. He became convinced that Margaret was the figure-head of the opposition. Although she had a valid claim to the throne, she herself had never expressed any desire to occupy it. At the age of 68 she was also way beyond childbearing age and therefore constituted no threat in herself to the King.
On 28th May, 1541, Henry gave orders for Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, to be executed. Antonia Fraser has argued: "This can claim to be the most repulsive piece of savagery ever carried out at the King's wishes... Her real crime was of course to be the mother of one who sided with the Pope and was beyond the King's vengeance." (21) Alison Weir agrees and has called it as "one of the worst atrocities of Henry's reign". (22) When she arrived at the scaffold she told the executioner that she would not lay her head upon the block, saying she had received no trial. The executioner was not the usual one employed on such occasions and was young and inexperienced. He hacked away at her head and neck for several minutes before her head was removed. (23)
Upon hearing the news of her death, her son Reginald Pole announced to his "thunder-struck" secretary that he was now the proud son of a martyr and disappeared into his closet for an hour, "then came out as cheerful as before". It is reported that Pole commented: "Let us be of good cheer. We have now one more patron in heaven." (24)
The strategic position of Margaret Pole's estates on the south coast, the perceived invasion threat of 1539 in which Reginald Pole was involved, and her embittered relationship with Henry VIII precluded any chance of pardon.... The rising in the north in 1541 led by Sir John Neville, motivated by animosity to the royal supremacy, and the possible plans by Reginald to rescue his mother would also have contributed.
That spring saw Catherine stirred to action by the plight of three people imprisoned in the Tower. One was Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, who had languished there for nearly two years with inadequate clothing and heating to protect her aged body from the bitter winter weather. When she learned of this, the Queen saw her tailor on 1st March and ordered him to make up garments which were to be sent to Lady Sailsbury: a furred night-gown, a bonnet and frontlet, four pairs of hose, four pairs of shoes and one pair of slippers. With the King's permission, Catherine paid for all these items out of her privy purse.
This can claim to be the most repulsive piece of savagery ever carried out at the King's wishes. Here was a woman he had long revered for her piety and decency, who had stood to him over the years almost as a mother figure, who had - an amazing feat - trod her way through the intricacies of the Tudor royal maze without stumbling. Lady Salisbury had stoutly denied any charges against her, despite fierce interrogation, at the time of her arrest in November 1538. Her real crime was of course to be the mother of one who sided with the Pope and was beyond the King's vengeance.
On the morning of 28 May 1541, there occured one of the worst atrocities of Henry's reign... The executioner was not the usual one employed on such occasions and was young and inexperienced. Faced with such a prisoner, he panicked, and struck out blindly, hacking at his victim's head, neck and shoulders, until he had finally butchered her to death.