Sunday, 29 May 2011

May 27th, 1541: The Execution of Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury

Today marks the anniversary of the tragic and hideous execution of Margaret de la Pole, Countess of Salisbury, a sixty-seven year-old aristocrat born into the royal House of York and thus Henry VIII's relative on his mother's side, but who he sent to her execution in 1541. Born in 1473, Margaret was the daughter of Edward IV’s younger brother, George, Duke of Clarence and his wife, Lady Isabella Neville, who was the elder sister of Richard III’s wife, Queen Anne. Both of Margaret’s parents may have died violent deaths, with her father being famously drowned in a barrel of malmsey wine by his brother’s henchmen and her mother very possibly having been poisoned two years earlier. (Although, as with all stories of political poisoning at the time, it's best to treat the tale that Isabella was rushed to her death with a large, indeed frankly enormous, pinch of proverbial salt.)

The countdown to the elderly Margaret's execution had started at Easter, although she had actually been kept in the Tower for sometime, thanks to the inconvenient amount of royal blood running through her veins. At Easter, as rumours circulated that Henry's fifth queen, Catherine Howard, might be with child, news arrived in London that there had been another minor pro-papal rebellion in the north. One of the rebellion’s leaders was a distant cousin of the Nevilles, Margaret's maternal family, and, when Henry discovered this, he flew into a vindictive rage. Despite the fact that Margaret had about as much to do with Henry's uprising as Jane Grey was to have with Wyatt's in 1554, Henry ordered the old woman's immediate execution, without the possibility of a trial or pardon.

Despite her Plantagenet ancestry, Margaret had always been a Tudor loyalist and she had been a favourite of Katherine of Aragon, which shows the extent of Margaret's ability to forgive since it was Katherine's parents who had insisted on the execution of Margaret's brother Edward in order to rid England of rival claimants to the throne before they sent their daughter there. In the early days of the reign, Margaret's loyalty had been so certain that no-one raised any objection when she was made the governess to Princess Mary. Although opposed to the Boleyn marriage on personal grounds, the countess's opposition to it had never been treasonous. It was only after her son, the devout Cardinal Reginald Pole, launched a blistering attack on the Great Divorce, safe in exile in Italy, that Margaret had fallen from favour and into suspicion. 

Since Reginald's foolish proclamations, Margaret had been Henry's prisoner in the Tower for the last two years and her eldest son, Baron Montacute, had been executed on Henry’s orders in 1539. Her other son, Geoffrey, had been forced to testify against his brother and later allegedly attempted to commit suicide rather than live with the guilt. Queen Catherine Howard pitied Margaret's fate and when she heard that the countess no longer had adequate clothing to protect herself, she was distressed. She summoned her personal tailor and ordered an entire new wardrobe for the prisoner, which was delivered to the Tower within days. Catherine’s gifts to the old woman included a bonnet, a petticoat trimmed with fur, two nightgowns (one trimmed with fur and the other lined with satin), a warm kirtle, four pairs of shoes, four pairs of stockings and a pair of slippers. 

The queen’s generosity towards the countess alleviated the physical pain of her last few months, but it could not save her from the king’s irrational wrath in the wake of the northern uprising. Early in the morning of May 27th 1541, the Constable of the Tower woke Margaret out of her sleep and told her that she must die in a few hours. Naively, the countess replied in shock that no crime could be proven against her. She failed to realise that such things no longer mattered in England where Henry VIII was cutting scythes through the upper classes, whether rebellious or simply annoying, with rigged trials or, increasingly, by ignoring the rule of law entirely and simply employing the act of attainder.

When she was lead out to the scaffold a few hours later, a small crowd had gathered, mostly of political professionals and Tower staff. As with the execution of Anne Boleyn five years earlier, which took place on the same spot, the government were keen to limit the number of witnesses to what they knew would not be a very edifying spectacle. Undoubtedly that is why they took the unprecedented decision to execute the countess with no advance warning.

However, there the similarities between the deaths of Anne Boleyn and Margaret Pole come to an end. Where Anne's had been so slickly carried out that it seemed practically choreographed, Margaret's was anything but. The countess of Salisbury may have been fragile and sick, but she was not pathetic and she certainly had no intention of going quietly into the night. According to eyewitnesses, the old girl refused to put her head on the block and she had to be forced onto it. The novice executioner brought in to carry out the countess's last minute dispatch panicked and the execution was a hideous affair, with the axe swinging into Margaret's head, neck and shoulders for several minutes. After ten or eleven blows, she was dead and another imagined threat to Henry VIII's rule vanished. For many who see Henry as a flawed but strong monarch, his treatment of the countess of Salisbury is perhaps the greatest sign not of strength, but of weakness. And certainly of cruelty.

She was survived by three of her five children and in the reign of Henry VIII’s daughter, Queen Mary, Reginald would be invited back from exile, becoming the last Roman Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury. Her daughter, Lady Ursula Stafford, lived into old age and her daughter Dorothy became a close friend of Queen Elizabeth I. In 1886, in recognition of her Catholic faith and unfair death, Margaret was beatified by Pope Leo XIII and became Blessed Margaret Pole. Her feast day is celebrated the day after her actual death, since the twenty-seventh of May, was the feast of Saint Augustine of Canterbury.


  1. Good article.

    I believe that the de la Poles were a different family (although Yorkist in descent) than the Poles into which Margaret married.

  2. It's a bit comorfting to remember that the English Nero's bloodline went extinct within a few decades of his own life, yet Blessed Margaret's still lives on (through Ursula).

    1. The Blessed Margaret Planagenet Pole still lives on indeed. She was my 14 great grandmother. My lines goes down from her through her son Henry, 1st Baron Montagu. So there are many of us out there...she lives on in our hearts...and she will never be forgotten...

    2. That is great to hear. I came across her through The King's Curse novel which added to my distaste for Henry VIII -possibly the most vile king in English History! I was shocked by her treatment - especially at the end!

    3. The Tudors are an interesting clan; sadly many of thir best died young, to wit: Edward & Jane. Looking back with 500 years of learning with can also see what caused Henry (TBI), and how Mary could have been so much more.

  3. Hi Gareth

    I'm doing research on Katherine Howard and am trying to find sources for the sending of the clothes to Margaret Pole. I'd be very grateful for any references.

    Thank you


  4. that's no way to die

  5. Gareth, will you write more about the stereotypes (and the falseness/truth in these stereotypes) surrounding Katherine Howard? I know you made a dissertation on her. I'm writing an essay on her as queen and it seems that she DID contribute a good deal (patronizing a book on midwifery, interceding for Wyatt, helping Princess Elizabeth return to court) and perhaps used fashion as a power statement like her cousin Anne Boleyn (this is I got from Conor Byrne's blog). Thank you.

  6. Just read the Kings Curse by Philippa Gregory told in the first person by Margaret Pole. A very interesting view from her side and a few twists, e.g Katherine of Aragon admitting she & Arthur had consummated their marriage.

  7. English History...........

    Very cruel, indeed!

  8. my mother once cried such tears and momentary hysteria relating to Margaret...I have only seen my mom cry twice in my life. the last time I had suffered brain damage from the medicine of an evil psychiatrist. Small world...yeah, right.

  9. I heard my mom via phone while in hospital crying and in momentary hysteria telling me about Margaret, from whom we descend thru Boleyn's. The only other time my mom cried was when I sustained brain damage from medicines from a very bad psychiatrist. Small world. Yeah, right...


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