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Lady Margaret Pole Executed at Age 67

Updated on July 6, 2013
This portrait of an unknown woman is thought to be Lady Margaret Pole
This portrait of an unknown woman is thought to be Lady Margaret Pole

On May 27, 1541, Lady Margaret Pole met her maker. She was executed on Tower Hill at the age of 67. Her crime? Mainly being one of the last remaining Plantagenet and a threat to Henry VIII. She was also a Roman Catholic and a way for Henry VIII to calm the rebels in the north of England. She was named as a martyr by Pope Leo XIII in 1886.

Lady Margaret Pole Lineage

The Countess of Salisbury was from the line of the House of York. Her uncles were King Edward IV and King Richard III and she had a more of a direct right to the throne that Henry VIII. However, Margaret and her family were debarred from the throne by Richard III, along with Edward IV’s children.

Margaret was the only living daughter of George Plantagenet. Her mother and one of her brothers died when she was just three-years-old, which her father thought was poisoning by some of their servants. George killed two of the servants and this led to him being executed for treason. All titles and lands were forfeited to the crown, as happened with all those who were executed. George’s actions led to Richard III debarring the whole family from the throne.

Margaret was held in Yorkshire at Sheriff Hutton Castle, along with her brother and cousins, so that Richard III could keep a close eye on him. However, upon his defeat against Henry VII in 1485, Elizabeth of York was married to the new King and they joined the Houses of York and Lancaster. The marriage helped to create a stronger claim to the throne, since Elizabeth of York was Edward IV’s daughter and an heir to the throne, but there was still the threat of Margaret and her brother.

Edward Plantagenet was locked in the Tower of London but displayed for a short time in 1487 at St. Paul’s Cathedral when Lambert Simnel pretended to be the Earl of Warwick. Edward was later executed for his part in the plot of Perkin Warbeck impersonating Richard of Shrewsbury, 1st Duke of York, who was one of the legendary Princes in the Tower (the youngest of Elizabeth of York’s brothers). As a way to prevent plotters using Margaret as a way to dethrone Henry Tudor, he arranged a marriage for her to Sir Richard Pole, his cousin.

Learn More About Lady Margaret Pole

Lady Margaret Pole Widowed

Sir Richard Pole held a number of offices in the government of Henry VIII and it helped Margaret become one of Katherine of Aragon’s ladies-in-waiting when she married Arthur Tudor. However, that household was disbanded in 1502 on the death of Prince Arthur. Just two years later, Richard died, and left Margaret with five children to raise.

Henry VII agreed to pay for his cousin’s funeral since Margaret was left with very little land, money and prospects. Her third son, Reginald Pole, was sent to the Church and he later became the Archbishop of Canterbury. However, he always resented his mother for abandoning him.

Her fortunes turned in 1509 when Henry VII died and the new King, Henry VIII, married Katherine of Aragon. Margaret was appointed as one of Katherine’s ladies-in-waiting again and her brother, Edward’s lands were restored to her in an Act. At the same time, her titles were restored and she became the Countess of Salisbury. From being one of the poorest, she soon became one of the richest women in England. All her sons had opportunities that they would not have otherwise gotten and became very successful.

Governess to Princess Mary Tudor

When Mary was born to Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon, she needed a governess. By 1520, Henry VIII appointed Margaret to that role but she was removed when her sons caused some trouble. However, by 1525, all was restored and she became the governess to her young third-cousin again.

Margaret had possession of jewels and a gold plate that belonged to Mary. When she was declared illegitimate in 1533, Margaret refused to give them back. Margaret wanted to continue to serve Mary, even at her own cost, but that was not allowed. Henry VIII even refused when Eustace Chapuys suggested that Margaret should look after Mary – since she was a Catholic – but she was allowed to return to court in 1536 after the fall of Anne Boleyn.

It is possible that it wasn’t Henry who was refusing but Anne Boleyn encouraging him not to. Anne wanted to keep Mary and Katherine apart and would have wanted to prevent Mary from being a threat. Margaret could have caused this since she was not a religious reformer. However, it is also possible that Margaret’s attitude to the King of England caused some bridges to break and led to some distrust.

Portrait of Cardinal Reginald Pole
Portrait of Cardinal Reginald Pole

Reginald Pole Warns Against Anne Boleyn

In fact, Margaret’s son, Reginald Pole, did not help matters. He refused to reform to the new religion and warned him of the dangers of marrying Anne Boleyn. Reginald was so against it that it led to Chapuys suggesting to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, to arrange a marriage between Lady Mary and Reginald. This would join the two households together and create a strong line to the throne.

In May 1536, Reginald finally broke away from the King. He wanted the European princes to depose Henry and denied that there was a royal supremacy. Henry VIII attempted to use Margaret as a way to talk her son around but it was no use. Reginald was made a Cardinal by Pope Paul III and it was up to him to arrange the Pilgrimage of Grace to try and create a Catholic government in England. However, Spain and France did not support this.

Reginald’s brother, Geoffrey, was arrested in 1538 due to correspondence with Reginald. This led to the arrest of Lord Montagu, Henry Pole (another brother) and Margaret Pole later that year. Geoffrey was pardoned for his actions but his brother was not so lucky. Henry Pole was executed in 1539.

Margaret was attainted and lost her lands and titles. Most conveniently for Henry VIII, her lands in the south were taken, which could have been used for an invasion. Margaret was held in the Tower of London for the next 30 months, with her grandson and the son of another man convicted at the same time. They were supported by Henry VIII and had servants to attend them.

Katherine Howard was distraught to hear of how Margaret Pole was living. In a way to allievate any pain and discomfort, the fifth wife of Henry VIII arranged for her own tailor to send her plenty of clothes, including shoes, stockings and petticoats.

Lady Margaret Pole Executed

Margaret had done nothing wrong really but Henry VIII was acting irrational. When the northern countries started uprising, Henry wanted to show them who was really boss. He decided to have his second cousin executed – and Margaret was not fully prepared for it. On May 27, 1541, she was awoken by the Constable of the Tower and informed that she would die within hours.

It is unclear whether she had enough time to fully prepare for this but within a couple of hours she was led to the scaffold; the same place that Anne Boleyn had been executed just five years earlier. There were only 150 witnesses, mainly the members of the government, knowing that this would not be popular for the people of London.

There was no evidence against Margaret for her execution. If there was, she would have been executed with her son in 1539. The hastiness of putting the execution together is a sign that there was no real reason. They didn’t want the witnesses because they didn’t want the backlash and this was the best way to handle that.

Unfortunately for Margaret, the execution was not an easy one. She had an inexperienced executioner and the first blow hit her shoulder and not her neck. It took 11 attempts in total to finish the job; not something anyone would have liked to go through. Some accounts, such as the less reputable Spanish Chronicle, state that Margaret leapt from the block and tried to run away with the executioner in tow. This is unlikely since she was old and frail by 1541 due to the lack of care in the Tower.

Margaret was buried where all traitors were, at the Chapel in St. Peter ad Vincula.

Lady Margaret Pole Taken to the Scaffold in The Tudors


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      23 months ago

      Such a terribly sad ending for her. After all the years of being so well off and happy, especially for her children, she ended up being cruelly dispatched. My heart breaks for her even now after so many centuries.


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