The Last Plantagenet: Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury

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The life of Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury is likely familiar to those who enjoy studying the Tudors, but for those who don’t, it is a story that perfectly exemplifies several realities of life outside the very center of the Royal Family. Margaret was born a niece of a king and ended up the daughter of a traitor, the wife of an unknown entity and the mother of a papist in the middle of the reformation. She managed to survive until the third act of Henry VIII’s reign, but by then she stood for something else entirely as one of the last Plantagenets to have made it that far in Tudor England.

Margaret was born on August 14, 1473 to George, Duke of Clarence and his wife, Isabel Neville. Her father was the younger brother of Edward IV, while her mother was the eldest daughter of the deceased Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, once known as “the Kingmaker.” Her parents married without the King’s permission in 1469 when her father and grandfather attempted a coup to displace Edward in favor of George. When that failed, they tried again in 1470, only to find themselves in France, forced to make peace with the House of Lancaster as formerly staunch Yorkists. Isabel’s younger sister, Anne, ended up married to the only son of Henry VI, Prince Edward, while it was George’s last-minute reversal back to his brother’s side that helped ensure the House of York won out in the end.

Margaret’s birth came after all of this, but despite her lineage and her proximity to the throne, she was in fact the daughter of a man not wholly trusted and not particularly well-regarded. She spent the first few years of her life in Somerset, having been born at Farleigh Hungerford Castle, where she probably saw her mother far more frequently than her father. In February 1475, she was joined in the nursery by a brother, named Edward after his uncle the King. And in the autumn after that, her mother gave birth to a second son, named for George’s other brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester.

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George, Duke of Clarence

Unfortunately, Isabel took ill shortly after this last birth and died in December 1476, aged just 25. Likely it was either childbed fever or consumption that killed her, but George became convinced she was murdered by a servant, Ankarette Twynyho, in their employ. In January 1477, Isabel’s death was followed by that of the infant, Richard, and a grieving George took matters into his own hands and ordered the illegal execution of Twynyho. Royal duke or not, murder was still a crime and when George followed up that behavior by expressing treasonous sentiments (once again) against his brother, he was arrested and then executed in February 1478. The “whys” of George’s final downfall have a bit more nuance than what we’re going to cover for the purposes of his daughter – you can read about them here.

For his children, however, it means that they were left orphans while still in the nursery. The logistics of where Margaret and Edward ended up over the next decade are slightly blurry at certain points, but in the short-term they weren’t forgotten by their father’s family. Edward IV appears to have brought them under his protection and they were raised in the royal nursery alongside their cousins, including Elizabeth of York. They remained there for the next five years until the King’s death in April 1483.

While the throne immediately passed to Edward IV’s eldest son, Edward V, it was just two months before Margaret’s uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, seized the throne for himself as King Richard III. Edward V was kept in the Tower of London where he was joined by his younger brother, the Duke of York, while Edward IV’s wife, Elizabeth Woodville, sought sanctuary in Westminster Abbey with her daughters. And here is where the Clarence children’s lineage becomes interesting. Richard’s argument as to why he was the true king was premised on Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville being illegal and their children illegitimate. If that was the case then the crown should have passed to the next brother and his male heirs, which meant Margaret’s brother, Edward, had a superior claim to his uncle’s.

Edward, however, was a child of eight and no one was arguing for a minority government. Their safety was ensured thanks to their age and the fact that not only was Richard their paternal uncle, but his wife, Anne, was their mother’s sister. Both children seem to have been easily absorbed into Queen Anne’s household alongside her son.

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Henry VII

This lasted all of two years and in August 1485, Henry Tudor, the last Lancastrian claimant, defeated Richard at the Battle of Bosworth and declared himself King Henry VII. In January 1486, he married Edward IV’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth, thus fusing Lancaster and York into one dynasty. Margaret and Edward were brought into the household of Henry’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond, who had once served Elizabeth Woodville as a lady-in-waiting, but was a significant Lancastrian heiress in her own right. She had known George of Clarence well, negotiating with him during Edward IV’s reign over the inheritance of her son and would have known the Clarence children for years.

By now, Margaret was turning 13 and legally of marriageable age. While her Yorkist blood made her worth consideration, her gender precluded her from being viewed as an immediate threat against the Tudors. Such was not the case with Edward. With Edward V and the Duke of York presumed dead, Edward of Clarence, known as the Earl of Warwick by 1490, was viewed by many as the natural heir to the throne and there were many disgruntled by Henry’s rule who looked to make him the poster child for the opposition. In 1487, a rebellion was launched with a young man, Lambert Simnel, claiming to be Edward as a way to galvanize supporters. In response, Henry’s government had the real Edward paraded through the streets of London to prove Simnel was an imposter.

Nevertheless, Henry viewed Edward as a symbolic threat to his rule. The boy was removed from the Countess of Richmond’s care and placed in the Tower of London, which can only have had sinister connotations for Margaret if she believed her two cousins were murdered there. Margaret stayed at court and was present for Elizabeth of York’s coronation that autumn, while continuing to play a ceremonial role when asked.

The Simnel uprising also prompted other action: marriage. Henry decided to begin marrying his wife’s Yorkist kin off to loyal Tudors to ensure they didn’t make more dangerous matches of their own or produce children with competitive bloodlines. Elizabeth’s younger sister, Cecily, was married to the Countess of Richmond’s younger half-brother, John, Viscount Welles, while Anne was once again betrothed to Thomas Howard, the future Duke of Norfolk. Margaret was married to Sir Richard Pole in 1487, a match that would have been unimaginable under a Yorkist regime.

Richard was roughly 15 or 16 years older than his new wife and was only knighted a few months before. His father had worked for Henry’s uncle, Jasper Tudor, while his mother was another half-sibling of the Countess of Richmond. Richard’s annual salary was miniscule, but he was given a raise after the wedding and two more manor homes – even so, it was hardly the luxurious life that Margaret might have once imagined.

In the short-term, she left court and lived on her husband’s manor in Buckinghamshire, but by the early 1490s, Henry decided to establish his eldest son, Prince Arthur, at Ludlow Castle on the Welsh Border and appointed Richard his chamberlain. While Richard moved around England, Wales and the continent conducting the King’s business, Margaret moved between Buckinghamshire, Wales and court.

Between 1492 and 1500 Margaret also delivered four children: Henry, Arthur, Reginald and Ursula. Her last child, Geoffrey, was born in 1504.

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Edward, Earl of Warwick, image via the National Portrait Gallery

Sadly we have no idea what Margaret made of her marriage – whether she considered it beneath her or whether she grew to enjoy the quiet domesticity of living in the country and caring for her children. Regardless, in 1499 her lineage once again caused problems. Throughout all of this, Edward was kept in the Tower, though he grew from a boy of 12 to a young man of 24. Yet another pretender reared his head that year, this one pretending to be one of the “Princes in the Tower,” the Duke of York. He had the support of James IV in Scotland, who married him to a Scottish noblewoman, and when he was preparing to enter England to launch a rebellion against Henry, he called for the support of his captive “cousin.” Warbeck was put down and Edward dragged before a court of his peers to be tried. He was found guilty and executed on November 21.

In the background of all of this, Prince Arthur was betrothed to Katherine of Aragon, the daughter of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile. Spain was applying pressure on Henry to rid himself of all threats to his throne so as to ensure the safety of their daughter when she arrived in England. Edward, innocently or not, continued to signify the last dying breath of the House of York’s claim. Likely, Margaret was devastated by the death of her brother, but she was in an awkward position as a cousin to the Tudor queen and the wife of a loyal Tudor supporter. History has judged Edward’s execution as a blight on Henry’s reign, and he apparently felt guilty enough about it to finance a proper and respectful burial.

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Katherine of Aragon

Two years later, Katherine of Aragon landed in England and Margaret was chosen as one of her attendants thanks to Richard’s position within Arthur’s household. Remarkably, the two women forged a close and enduring friendship, one which may very well have been borne from the guilt that Katherine was said to have felt after learning the circumstances of Edward’s execution. Margaret’s presence at Ludlow, where Arthur and Katherine resided during their brief marriage, gave her a front row seat to what would later become quite the enduring mystery – did the royal couple in fact consummate their marriage?

Either way, by April 1502 Arthur was dead and Katherine was slowly conveyed back to London to reside under the protection of her mother-in-law. Margaret didn’t follow her, but rather resumed her normal regimen of moving between Wales and England for the next two-and-a-half years. She was back in London following Elizabeth’s shocking death from childbirth in February 1503, but by the next year she would be reeling from a death even closer to home. Richard, only in his 40s, died of unknown causes at the end of 1504, once again leaving Margaret dependent on her royal relations.

Margaret’s financial situation as a widow was a bit more dire than it had been when she was an unmarried woman. With Elizabeth dead and her other cousins facing their own financial hardships, Margaret was essentially forced to economize while now also providing for five children. Presumably there may have been some sting from the fact that, as her parents’ sole surviving heir, she should or could have gained access to the hefty Salisbury and Warwick estates, but Henry held them for the crown and offered up only a small annuity. It is perhaps because of these circumstances that Margaret decided to send her third son, Reginald, to the Carthusian Monastery at Sheen to be educated.

This remained unchanged until Henry VII’s death in 1509 and the accession of his teenage son, Henry VIII. Within two months, the younger Henry married Katherine of Aragon, who had spent the last seven years of her widowhood idling in England waiting for some decision to be made as to her fate. The marriage was a gift from God for Margaret, whose friendship with the new queen quickly secured her eldest son a place in the new king’s household, increased the family’s allowance, paid Reginald’s tuition and offered Margaret a place of honor in the coronation.

Leveraging her friendship with the Tudors, Margaret continued to play an increasingly important role at Henry’s court, particularly in support of Katherine. By 1512 Margaret’s petition to have the Salisbury earldom restored was granted. Henry’s reasons for exhibiting more generosity than his father was likely pretty simple – born after the “Wars of the Roses” he was by far more open to his mother’s Yorkist relatives and confident that he would quickly fill his own nursery with a plethora of heirs, negating interest in other options. Whatever his motivation, Margaret went from a dependent to one of the richest nobles in the country.

She established luxurious households in London, Essex, Buckinghamshire and Hampshire and emblazoned her homes with her coat of arms, perhaps for the first time displaying the pride in her bloodlines for which her father and grandfather were so famous. When Katherine delivered a daughter, Mary, in February 1516, Margaret was asked to stand as godmother, a marked sign of favor that more closely tied her to the crown. Four years later, she was appointed Mary’s governess.

Margaret’s newfound wealth extended to her children. In 1518, she arranged the marriage of her son, Henry, with Jane Neville, daughter of Lord Bergavenny, and her daughter, Ursula, with Henry Stafford, eldest son of the Duke of Buckingham. The latter marriage was a particularly lofty match, given that the Duke of Buckingham was the son of Henry Stafford (famous for his stunning rise and fall under Richard III) and Katherine Woodville (sister to Elizabeth and later the wife of Jasper Tudor). Even more, the Staffords were one of the oldest families in England who had historically intermingled with the Nevilles, from which Margaret and her children were descended.

Unfortunately for them, just three years later the Duke of Buckingham was arrested and executed for treason. The dukedom of Buckingham was revoked and Ursula would only ever reach the status of being the wife of a baron, while the upkeep of her eventual 12 children consisted not a little on Margaret’s generosity. As for Margaret, her daughter’s marriage brought her too close to comfort with rebellion and she was removed from Princess Mary’s household.

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Princess Mary

By the next year, she was back in the fold with Henry and Katherine, and by 1525, she was reappointed Mary’s governess. Mary was set up at Ludlow, like Arthur had once been, as her father’s sole legitimate heir and Margaret followed her, in charge of her education, daily care and spiritual development. They remained there for three years, though the household visited England at regular intervals. It was during this time that Margaret’s son, Arthur, died. Unfortunately for all involved, it was also during this time that Anne Boleyn caught Henry’s eye and the two began an emotional affair that would change the course of history.

While Margaret was likely aware of what was happening between Henry and Katherine, the distance between London and Ludlow would have protected Mary from the drama at first. By 1527, however, Henry was attempting to have his marriage annulled so that he could marry Anne and beget male heirs. By the time Mary returned to London, her parents were essentially separated, though they convened for ceremonial appearances so Henry could continue to spout the party line that he would happily remain married to Katherine should the Vatican find in her favor. At first, Henry’s treatment of Mary was unchanged and she was still treated as his beloved daughter, even as Katherine was removed from court in 1531 and pushed to remoter castles in the country.

Henry forced the separation of mother and daughter as a means of pressuring Katherine, but also out of a real concern that the two of them, combined with the force of Katherine’s European relations, would prove too much to withstand. By the end of 1532 he had privately married Anne Boleyn and by early 1533 they were married again, she was pregnant and Parliament legalized not only the marriage but Henry’s autonomy from Rome.

For Margaret, the issue came to a head when none other than Thomas Cromwell ordered her to hand over Mary’s jewels and an inventory of the Princess’s household good. She delayed the matter as best she could while still imploring Henry that she was his devoted servant, but her loyalties to Katherine were well-known and Mary was concurrently refusing to acknowledge Anne as queen, which meant acknowledging her mother’s marriage was invalid and her own status was that of bastard. In anger, Henry dismissed Margaret from her post and Mary was sent to join the household of her new half-sister, Elizabeth despite Margaret’s offer to finance her charge’s establishment herself.

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Reginald Pole

Anne Boleyn’s tenure as queen was tense for Margaret, but so long as she laid low and away from court, she was mostly safe. The other consideration for Henry was that of her son, Reginald, whose education he had been paying for. After studying in England, he moved to the University of Padua in 1521 and became a renowned scholar in his own right. He was well-aware of Henry’s argument regarding the validity of his marriage, and in the early years of the debate, he was open-minded and at times even seemed to favor the King. In 1529, he traveled to Paris on Henry’s behalf to research what his options were per doctrine. But as the 1530s dawned, Reginald declined to state resolutely that the Spanish match should be rendered null and void. Henry offered him the archbishopric of York if he would rule in his favor, but he demurred and instead returned to Padua. Even so, despite warning shots that he opposed the Boleyn marriage, as of the autumn of 1535, Reginald indicated that he was still loyal to the King and Henry believed him to be preparing to come to his defense.

Such would not be the case, but in the meantime, Henry and Anne were dissolving. The whens and whys of Anne’s downfall are debatable, but regardless of whether one was for or against her, her abrupt arrest and execution on charges of adultery in May 1536 shocked Christendom. Like a fog lifting, slowly but surely Katherine’s supporters came out of the woodwork to make their peace with Henry. Katherine’s death that January negated a need for loyalty to her, and Anne’s death removed the need to bend a knee to a woman so many found objectionable. Margaret rejoined court and though it may have pained her, accepted the Act of Supremacy and paid homage to Henry’s new wife, Jane Seymour.

Just as this re-connection was forged, an open letter written by Reginald arrived in England in which he described Henry as, “a robber, murderer and greater enemy to Christianity than the Turk.” I suppose it goes without saying this wasn’t well-received and Margaret was implored to condemn her son. In consultation with her eldest son, the two quickly branded Reginald a traitor and, when asked by Henry, she wrote to Reginald directly to admonish him. With that, Margaret hastily retired from court in the hopes that out of sight, out of mind would help preserve the family. Sadly, while Mary and Margaret exchanged gifts and corresponded, they were unable to again meet in person after Reginald’s actions.

Even as Jane Seymour delivered a son and died, England’s political situation was by no means secure. Henry’s break from Rome not only prompted an uprising in England, but it made allies of the country’s natural enemies. In July 1538, France and the Holy Roman Empire forged a new peace and England warily prepared itself for the possibility of a foreign invasion. The Poles were not helped by the fact that Reginald helped negotiate the terms of the agreement. Whether true or a fabrication, one in Cromwell’s network of spies reported that Henry and Geoffrey Pole were in touch with Reginald, the insinuation being that they were helping him plan an invasion.

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Reginald Pole

Geoffrey was arrested that August and was quickly followed by his brother and their cousin, the Marquess of Exeter. All were charged with treason and interrogated. While in captivity, Geoffrey tried to talk his way out of matters, but ended up implicating his brother far worse. Twice he attempted to commit suicide, but was prevented by his jailers. Margaret, while not arrested, was likewise interrogated by the Earl of Southampton and the Bishop of Ely as to whether she had been in touch with Reginald, which she denied. One of her interrogators wrote to Cromwell that either her sons had completely deceived her, or she was a cool liar. In fact, one wrote, she is “rather a strong and constant man, than a woman.”

In the end, the lives of Margaret and Geoffrey were spared, but Henry Pole was convicted of treason that December and executed at the Tower on the 9th.

In May 1539, an Act of Attainder was passed against Margaret, which stripped her of the earldom of Salisbury. In November 1540 she was moved to the Tower. Henry’s refusal to pardon her speaks more to his continued anger at Reginald than it does to any wrongdoing on her part, but the optics of it were still shocking given that Margaret was now in her 60s, increasingly frail and often in poor health. Unfortunately, a fresh uprising in the early months of 1541 and new evidence of Reginald corresponding with Englishmen sealed her fate.

To punish the son, the mother was abruptly beheaded on May 27, 1541. The decision appears to have been hasty, for there was neither scaffolding nor a proper block. In her last words, she offered her soul to God and gave Princess Mary her blessing. Margaret’s execution is notable, though, for its grisliness. While a proper beheading severed the head from the shoulders in a single stroke, Margaret was dealing with the C-team. The execution reportedly took several blows, but there are differing accounts as to whether this was due to simple incompetence or incompetence mixed with Margaret’s struggle to get away.

From her birth nearly 70 years before as the niece of Edward IV, it is nearly unfathomable that Margaret would find herself killed so casually by Henry VIII. But when you consider that her father and brother met the same fate, perhaps it is simply more impressive that a Plantagenet lasted as long as she did in Tudor England.

Later on, a poem was found inscribed on the walls of the chamber in the Tower in which she lived her last days:

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!

When Reginald learned of his mother’s death, he reportedly said that he would never shy away from calling himself “the son of a martyr.” Indeed, Margaret was beatified by the Vatican in the 19th century. Reginald would eventually make his way back to England, but not until 1553 when Mary finally ascended the throne as queen of England. For his decades of loyalty and unwavering faith, Reginald has the unique legacy as serving as England’s last Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury. Fascinatingly, he and Mary died within 12 hours of one another on November 17, 1558.

Further reading: Lady Margaret Pole: Countess of Salisbury, Tudor Times, 2015

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