Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, wasn’t the wife of the Earl of Salisbury or anything like that—she was the Countess of Salisbury in her own right. Then, everybody around her decided to become a traitor, and suddenly, she found herself on the chopping block.

Margaret Pole was born on August 14th, 1473, in Somerset, England. Before we get into Margaret herself, we have to understand her family. Margaret was the daughter of Isabel Neville, who became Duchess of Clarence by marriage. Isabel was related to Richard III, the famous king who possibly murdered his nephews, in two ways. First, she had a sister, Queen Anne Neville, who ended up becoming Richard’s queen. Isabel was Anne’s elder sister, so it only made sense that she married Richard’s elder brother, George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence. 

George and Richard’s oldest brother, Edward IV, took the throne of England from Henry VI, the Lancastrian king, which, of course, meant that Margaret was born in the middle of the Wars of the Roses. Margaret’s father, George, was obviously quite happy that his brother was King of England, but he wasn’t supporting his brother for too long. The Earl of Warwick, George’s future father-in-law, was known as the Kingmaker because he helped Edward IV take the throne, was not happy with Edward, mainly because, while Warwick was negotiating Edward’s marriage to a French princess, he’d secretly married Elizabeth Woodville, and then told everyone about the marriage just as Warwick was finally finishing negotiating Edward’s marriage. 

Warwick, who was losing a lot of power to the Woodvilles, asked Edward if he’d consider a marriage between Warwick’s elder daughter, Isabel, and Edward’s brother, George. Edward refused, saying that George was going to marry for political reasons, and Warwick, who was angry enough already, decided to rebel against the man he’d made king. George and Isabel married anyway, and George and Warwick rebelled against the King together. Edward was not a guy who liked traitors, so he had his own brother executed, but not before George and Isabel had four children. Two of those four survived to adulthood, and they were Margaret and her younger brother, Edward Plantagenet. 

Margaret’s mother, Isabel, died soon after, possibly of childbed fever (she died shortly after her last child, Richard, was born). George was still alive at the time of his wife’s death, and he believed that Isabel had been murdered by their servants. Isabel was only twenty-five at the time of her death, so George probably thought that it was perfectly reasonable to think that Isabel had been murdered, or maybe poisoned. George had two servants put on trial, and the two were executed after being found guilty. Edward, whom George was not getting along with at the time of Isabel’s death, pardoned the servants, which made George even angrier. 

After George’s execution, both of Margaret’s parents were dead, and she was only a toddler. Margaret was sent to be raised by her uncle, a certain Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and his wife, Anne Neville. Margaret had a pretty okay childhood, considering the fact that everyone was constantly fighting wars around her, but then, her uncle, Edward, died.

Edward’s cause of death is unknown, but his death was quite early and unexpected, so the new king, another Edward, was only twelve years old. Uncle Richard ended up having them both maybe-possibly-plausibly killed and became King Richard III. So now, Margaret’s both maternal and paternal aunt and uncle, Richard and Anne, were King and Queen of England. Yay for Margaret.

BUT THEN, because everyone thought Richard had killed his nephews, nobody liked him. And then Henry Tudor, a grandson of Queen Catherine of Valois and Owain ap Maredudd ap Tudur,—Owen Tudor in English (I just really like the Welsh name)—started thinking, “Hey, why don’t I overthrow Richard III?” And so, with the help of his mother, he took the throne from King Richard, who was killed in battle.

Henry married Margaret’s first cousin, Elizabeth of York, sister of the Princes in the Tower whom Richard maybe-possibly-plausibly murdered. Because of that relation, Margaret was sent to live with the new king and queen, which must have been really cool. And, Henry didn’t take too long to think, “Hmm, maybe I can marry her off.” So, Margaret, at fourteen, was married off to the thirty-year-old Sir Richard Pole.

Margaret and Richard had five children, and, luckily, all five survived to adulthood. I find some of their names very unique, especially because, at the time, literally everyone was named Margaret, Mary, Anne, Catherine, or Elizabeth. Margaret’s children were named Henry, Arthur, Reginald, Geoffrey, and Ursula. And then came a guy with an even more unusual name: Perkin Warbeck.

When a Prince/Princess/Royal is assumed to be dead, but nobody knows for sure, there’s obviously going to be some people pretending to be that Prince/Princess/Royal. And that’s exactly what Perkin Warbeck was doing; he was pretending to be Richard, the younger brother of King Edward V, who had maybe-possibly-plausibly been murdered by his uncle.

Margaret’s younger brother, Edward (not the Prince who was killed), was like, “why don’t I become friends with my ‘cousin’?” because maybe Edward believed Perkin Warbeck, or maybe he wasn’t fond of the new king. Then, King Henry discovered that Perkin and Edward were trying to overthrow him, so they were sent to the Tower of London and promptly executed. Margaret, obviously, was pretty sad about all this: her father and brother had both decided to become traitors, and they both were executed. Even more importantly, Edward’s death left Margaret as the last member of the Plantagenet dynasty (even though the Tudors were related to the Plantagenets, they weren’t considered to be part of that dynasty, but the Houses of Lancaster and York are considered to be part of the Plantagenet dynasty).

But then came just the thing that would cheer Margaret up: she became a lady-in-waiting to Catherine of Aragon, when Prince Arthur, Henry VIII’s older brother, married her. Margaret’s husband already had a job working for Arthur, so this was a pretty good situation for Margaret. Everything was going amazingly for the Pole family, but then, a little bit of death ruined everything for them. It was actually Arthur who died, leaving Catherine of Aragon a widow, and, more importantly for us, it left Margaret and her husband jobless. And then, Margaret gave birth to her last child, Ursula, and when Ursula wasn’t even a year old, Margaret’s husband died.

Portrait of Margaret Pole

Because both her brother and father were traitors, she had no inheritance, and most of Margaret’s family was dead, so she had nobody to help her. She had, like, a teeny-tiny plot of land she got from her husband, and I imagine it to be pretty small, so that wasn’t helping much. Margaret was a widowed mother of five with absolutely no money, so this was going to be hard.

So, Margaret began living in an abbey with her children, and sent her son, Reginald Pole, to be trained for a role in the Church. Reginald did end up becoming Archbishop of Canterbury, but we’ll talk more about Reginald in a bit—he’s going to be one of the main reasons Margaret ends up on the scaffold.

Then, the one thing happened that, I think, was only good for Margaret. Henry VIII, the new king of England, decided to marry his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon. Margaret and Catherine must’ve been friends because Catherine asked Margaret to come back to court and become her lady-in-waiting again. Henry VIII, who was like, “why don’t I be nice to my wife’s friend because this is before I turn into a complete asshole”, and gave Margaret the title of Countess of Salisbury, making her a peeress in her own right. She was given back some of the lands that had been taken by the crown after her brother’s treason stuff, and nothing could be better for Margaret.

But then, something better happens: Henry VIII chose Margaret as Princess Mary’s governess. Mary was the daughter of Henry and Catherine of Aragon, and this wasn’t after Henry and Catherine’s divorce, this was when Henry really loved his daughter. So, Margaret was now taking care of the king’s only child, and clearly, that means that the royals love her.

But then, everything starts to go wrong. So, Margaret’s daughter, Ursula, was the daughter-in-law of this guy named Edward Stafford, who was also the patron of Margaret’s son, Arthur Pole. Arthur was doing pretty well until this point; he’d become a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber, which was a really good job. But then, Edward Stafford, who was—and I’m repeating this just to say how important it was—the father-in-law of Ursula and Arthur’s patron. And then, just like everyone else around Margaret, Edward Stafford decided to commit treason. Edward Stafford was executed, and because Margaret’s children had such close ties to him, Margaret was pretty much fired from the position of governess to Princess Mary.

But, thankfully for Margaret, the royals liked her enough to give her her job back and make her Princess Mary’s governess again. That was a good thing for Mary, too, because Margaret was—or at least I think that—very close to Mary. Then, something bad happened again, because bad things just have to keep happening to poor Margaret. Henry VIII finally succeeded in divorcing Catherine of Aragon. Mary was declared illegitimate, and stripped of her title of Princess. Why is that important to us? Because Mary no longer had a household of servants. Margaret was one of those servants, and, even though she tried to keep her job, and even said that she would keep being Mary’s governess, and she would pay for all the expenses of being Mary’s governess, but she was no match for Henry VIII, and so, she had to leave.

And then, as if things couldn’t get worse for Margaret, who was now in almost the same position she was in once her husband died, her son, Reginald, started getting ideas. So, now that Princess Mary was now just Lady Mary, and Henry VIII had had her declared illegitimate, she was just supposed to stay out of the way, I guess. But to get rid of Mary’s mother, Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII had had to break from the Catholic Church, and this was a time when most of the other rulers of Europe were Catholic, and Mary and Catherine were too. That’s why a lot of other royals weren’t so fond of Henry anymore, and they weren’t at all fond of his new wife, Anne Boleyn.

Reginald Pole, the one whom Margaret had sent to be trained for a role in the church, didn’t like Henry either, but I think that for him, he saw it more as an opportunity. He was, through Margaret, a Plantagenet. He thought that if he married Lady Mary, then all he’d have to do would be to overthrow Henry VIII, and then he could become King of England. 

It wasn’t just Reginald who thought of this weird marriage plan; Eustace Chapuys, a very famous Spanish ambassador, went over to Lady Mary’s maternal uncle, the Holy Roman Emperor (because everyone is related to everyone), and told him, “don’t you think it’s a good idea for your niece to marry this guy from a family full of traitors, and then they can take the throne together?” Chapuys and Reginald talked through letters, and they just sort of plotted together. Reginald was happy to do anything that would help get rid of Henry.

In 1537, Reginald became a Cardinal, and the Pope put him in charge of organizing the Pilgrimage of Grace, a pretty important Catholic rebellion sort of thing against King Henry, where Catholics were going to march on London, overthrow Henry’s Protestant government, and replace him with a Catholic one. That completely failed, but Reginald still kept committing treason, which honestly seems like a trait being passed down through the family at this point. Assassins were even sent to murder Reginald, but Reginald was like “really? There were assassins? I never noticed,” and continued on with his day.

So, one of Margaret’s sons, Geoffrey, was arrested, followed by Reginald himself. Reginald was like, “hmm, my brother Henry was involved,” so Henry was arrested as well, followed by literally every relative of Reginald’s who even looked the tiniest bit suspicious, and because Reginald was her son, Margaret ended up arrested as well. Margaret was an old woman by the standards of her time, being about sixty-five, but Henry took one look at her and decided she was sooo dangerous and had to be locked up.

Because being locked up is boring, Margaret carved this poem onto her cell’s wall:

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’s son, Geoffrey, was pardoned, but most of the other members of the Pole family were executed. Margaret shared a cell with her grandson for a few years, and let me say again that she was pretty old by Tudor standards; she was about sixty-five when she was first imprisoned and was sixty-seven when she died.

Margaret, on May 27th, 1541, was told that she would be dead really soon. She wasn’t even warned a day before her execution the way Mary, Queen of Scots was, she was just told a few hours before her execution that she was going to die. She wasn’t actually taken to a scaffold, even though I’ve said that she died on the scaffold; there was just a wooden block for her to lay her head on and wait for it to be chopped off. Margaret was kind of confused at first because she didn’t believe that she was guilty of anything, but she was still taken to that little wooden block where her life was supposed to end.

Accounts of her execution don’t always agree with each other, but we do know that, because the executioner with more experience was off executing other people, Margaret’s execution was performed by “a wretched and blundering youth who literally hacked her head and shoulders to pieces in the most pitiful manner”. I did not make this quote up, this is actually how Chapuys described her execution. Chapuys was one of 150 people who were there to witness Margaret’s horrible execution.

Margaret’s execution at the Tower of London. Look at the people who are just sitting there and watching her.

Reginald, the man who ruined everything for his family, was the only one who should’ve been executed, instead of Margaret, Henry Pole, and some other family members. But Reginald, somehow, managed to not be executed, even though he was the only one who even remotely deserved to be executed. During the reign of Lady Mary, who did end up becoming a Queen, Reginald became Archbishop of Canterbury, so good for him, I guess.

Margaret is buried in the chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, and, on December 29th, 1886, was beatified by Pope Leo XIII. The Church of Our Lady Queen of Peace & Blessed Margaret Pole, which is in Dorset, was also dedicated to Margaret Pole, Countess-Regnant of Salisbury.

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