The Beheading of Margaret Pole

I publish this post on this date every year, but it bears repeating. Margaret Pole’s murder was one of the worst and most unjustifiable acts in Tudor history.

On 27 May 1541 the Countess of Salisbury, Lady Margaret Pole, was executed by order of Henry VIII.

Margaret Pole in stained glass

This was shocking, even for a populace who had become accustomed to the murder of famous and popular people by their increasingly despotic king. First and foremost it was shocking because of her social status and royal blood. The Countess of Salisbury was the daughter of the Duke of Clarence, George Plantagenet. She was the niece of King IV and Richard III. She was the first cousin of Henry’s own mother, Elizabeth of York. She was the great-great-great-granddaughter of Edward III on her father’s side. She was the great-great-granddaughter of John of Gaunt, the third surviving son of Edward III, on her mother’s side.

Her blood was so blue it could have camouflaged Smurfs.

Then there was proximity to, and participation in, the private life of Henry VIII, which made her “family” more than her bloodlines ever could. Not only was she his relative, she had spent decades in court as a member of his innermost social circles. She served as a Lady in Waiting for Katherina of Aragon, and was his daughter Mary’s governess. The relationship between Mary and Lady Salisbury was very close.

“In 1533, when the King married Anne Boleyn, Margaret’s loyalty was severely tried. She refused to give up Princess Mary’s jewels to a lady sent from court and was discharged from her position as governess. She declared that she would still follow and serve the princess at her own expense. Her self-sacrificing fidelity to the princess was fully recognized by Catherine of Aragon. The King, however, took good care to separate his daughter from one whom she regarded as a second mother. The Countess seems to have retired to the country. She was certainly at Bisham ‘Abbey’ Manor when the King’s commissioners, Richard Layton and Edward Carne, arrived to demand the closure of the adjoining priory. For Layton complained of having been threatened by ‘My Lady Salisbury’ and her household. She also impressed upon the prior never to surrender.”

Mary lost her mother, Katherina of Aragon, in 1536 and was devastated. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until after Henry VIII murdered Anne Boleyn in the spring that Lady Salisbury was allowed to return to court and be with Mary. In fact, the Countess went out of her way to reprove her son for defying the King, implying she and the King were once again allied.  However, nothing was certain for long with Henry VIII at this point and in 1539 he allowed (or ordered) Thomas Cromwell to throw Lady Salisbury into the Tower. There she stayed for two years, until the morning of May 27, 1541 when she was told she was going to be executed within the next hour. No one to cower before bad news, “she replied boldly that no crime had been imputed to her. She was taken from her cell to Tower Green where a low wooden block had been prepared. She proudly refused to lay her head on the block and was dragged to it and forced down. As she struggled, the inexperienced executioner described as ‘a wretched and blundering youth struck, his first blow made a gash in her shoulder rather than her neck. Ten additional blows were required to complete the execution. A second account relates how she managed to escape from the block and that she was hewn down by the executioner as she ran.”

Margaret Pole running from the axe

Not only was the King’s decision to execute the Countess revolting from a moral and social standpoint, it was a stupid. Having her beheaded was completely asinine from a political standpoint. Henry killed her because she had the audacity to have given birth to children who were too closely related to him, and were therefore too close to his throne, but her death didn’t alleviate the threat; it worsened it.  Although the King had killed her oldest son and her grandson already, one of her surviving sons, Cardinal Reginald Pole, was a serious political enemy and already a thorn in Henry’s side the size of a battering ram. Pole was fighting against England’s political agendas from continental Europe, out of Henry’s reach (although there are good arguments for the idea that the King did try to have him discretely murdered). With Pole (mostly) safe from physical harm, the best possible leverage Henry had over him was control over his mother.  By killing the Countess, Henry ended any power he might have had over the rebellious Pole.


So on this day, let us remember Margaret Pole, who was born into the royal family and served her cousin loyally, only to be betrayed by that same monarch and murdered along with her son and grandson.


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