After publishing my article on the life of Margaret Plantagenet, also known as Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, many comments were generated on different social media platforms. I decided to address some of these comments in an effort to dispel some of the many myths about Margaret and about Tudor history in general.
King Henry VIII had Margaret executed because she was a Plantagenet and a threat to his throne
While it is true King Henry VII had Margaret’s brother executed because he viewed him as a threat to the Tudor dynasty, Margaret was allowed to live, probably because she was a woman and not seen as a serious or dangerous menace. In fact, Henry VIII ennobled Margaret, giving her a title and restoring the majority of the properties that belonged to her brother upon his death. This was possibly a tacit acknowledgement of the unfairness of her brother’s execution. Margaret would hold a prominent place at Henry VIII’s court and was given the important post of governess to the king’s first surviving daughter Mary. Margaret’s children were married to important families in England, the most prominent being the Stafford family of the Duke of Buckingham, the heir of which married her daughter Ursula.
It seems Henry VIII did not hold her heritage against her. It was only later when her sons voiced their displeasure to the king’s pursuit of Anne Boleyn as a wife that things began to unravel. Margaret herself stood by Catherine of Aragon and Princess Mary her entire life. Not only that, Margaret argued with Henry over certain properties that she coveted. In exhibiting this behavior, Margaret did little to ingratiate herself with the egotistical and acquisitive king.
Margaret was a martyr to the Catholic Faith
It is true Margaret would remain a Catholic her whole life. However, she was less inclined to piety than other medieval women of the time. She did not give large amounts of money to the church and did not personally endow any monasteries. She did give her son Reginald to the church much to his chagrin and he is the one who probably pursued her case to be recognized by the church and beatified. It is also true she would not allow her household and servants to possess or read the Bible in English. Her staunch and loyal support of Catherine of Aragon and her daughter Mary was one of the more likely reasons for her death.
Margaret ran around the execution block, chased by the executioner
This just simply is not true. What is true are the circumstances of how her execution were rushed. Margaret had been in the Tower for some time and Henry had paid to make her comfortable. It wasn’t until a threatening rebellion occurred in the north of England that Margaret’s status changed. The leaders of the rebellion included Margaret’s son Reginald.
In addition to being under suspicion because of her son’s implication in the rebellion, there was an increase in prisoners that needed to be housed in the Tower. Also, the professional executioner was sent north to deal with the rebels. So Margaret’s cell was required and this hastened her date of death. The executioner was an inexperienced lad and he needed as many as eleven blows to complete the death sentence. There are two contemporary sources which verify this and do not mention anything extraordinary about Margaret’s behavior.
The fable of her running around during the execution comes much later. In 1649, Edward Herbert, First Baron Herbert of Cherbury and of Castle Island published a history he wrote. In “The Life and Raigne of King Henry the Eighth” he embellishes the circumstances of Margaret’s execution. He says a “person of great quality” told him that when the executioner asked Margaret to lay her head on the block, she refused saying she was no traitor. Consequently the executioner tried to chop without her head on the block.
We do not know who the “person of quality” is that told this tale to Herbert. It could hardly be an eyewitness as this was one hundred years after Margaret’s death. And the book does not say she ran around the block. It simply says she didn’t lay her head down. So this myth has no basis.
None of this detracts from the fact that Margaret’s death was unnecessary and regrettable due to her age and the fact that she never committed treason. King Henry VIII was not a man to be trifled with. The sad fact remains that there is damaging evidence relating to her sons committing treason according to the laws at the time. Margaret was caught up in this wide net and then the northern rebellion sealed her fate.
Further reading: “Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury 1473-1541” by Hazel Pierce, “Margaret Pole: The Countess in the Tower” by Susan Higginbotham
24 thoughts on “Dispelling Tudor Myths: Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury”
Hi! I was wondering If I could get the link to the sources you stated in your paragraph about Margaret Pole’s execution (” There are two contemporary sources which verify this and do not mention anything extraordinary about Margaret’s behaviour”)? If they are online?
The two eyewitness reports of her execution were written by Charles de Marillac, the French ambassador; and by Eustace Chapuys, ambassador to the Holy Roman Emperor.
Liking all comments & responses! The heck with the little stars! ☺
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Thank you for your informative article. I too have heard that story that she ran around the execution block. From what I have read of History, including your article, she was executed at the last moment and they didn’t even bother to build a scaffold. They just threw a piece of wood or block on the ground. I’m sure her ultimate fate was a botched execution. Whether due to an experienced executioner, the makeshift block, or her belief that she was not a traitor and would not cooperate, or maybe all three, I am sure it was a botched mess. I understand there were two eyewitness accounts, including Chapuys, the ambassador to Spain. Certainly Margaret did not deserve to die the death she did.
Thank you for an interesting presentation . Nothing Margaret did in her life, and she was not perfect of course, warranted such a horrific fate for an elderly woman who had served Henry’s wife and daughter. A wife and daughter he had once loved. He was a monster in later life and even if his injuries made him mentally deranged , it was still unforgivable.
At the end of the day, Margaret had Yorkist heritage, and was descended from the royal brother Clarence, even if Tricky Dickon did have him done away with (another myth). Henry VIII was only one generation away from Yorkist rule, and the entire Pole family were suspect. If you’re as paranoid as Henry was, that’s all you need – and remember that his chief adviser at the time, Thomas Cromwell, was a religious Reformist, and had Henry’s ear. Conspiracy theorists could have a field day over all this.
Thank you so much for your always interesting and informative articles. I learn so much from them.
For some reason I have always been interested in English history. I have researched a lot from the Norman conquest on. From what I gather, Henry VIII mostly went after the Pole’s because of Margaret’s son Cardinal Reginal Pole. And that was the reason that he, her son, stated that he would always think of his mother as a martyr. I also believe that Henry was all kinds of screwed up. He became a tyrant. He became more and more paranoid and distrustful. The people of the day had to walk a very fine line that was almost impossible. I am not saying that some of his kin didn’t want to over throw him. Who could blame them. He was not a good king, a terrible husband and father, a very scary person. I think Margaret did the best she could. She thought everything would be okay for her family when Henry VIII took the throne. He was her second cousin whom she had known from birth. I applaud her that she had not lost her mind. Think about it. Her father George was not stable. He lost his life due to treason against his brother. Her brother Edward who was “slow” was in the tower from about nine years old until he was beheaded by order of Henry VII. She was ordered to marry way beneath her by My Lady, the Kings Mother. She suffered from poverty after that same husband died. Could not support herself not her children. After all of that she still stood beside her friend Queen Catherine and the Princess Mary when it was not politically correct to do so. So I find Margaret Pole an exceptional woman.
Every time I use the paper cutter in the staff room and have some difficulty getting through the stack of papers, I invoke the name of Margaret, Countess of Salisbury. Such is the plight of the over educated!
I had thought she was executed by Henry VIII as a reprisal for the attacks on Henry made by her son Cardinal Henry Pole?
A remarkable woman and family. Five children, fifteen grand-children, one of whom married Francis Hastings whose very fine monument I recently visited at St Helen’s Church in Ashby de la Zouche, and with whom she had eleven children.
I enjoy each of your articles, in fact I save them. Whenever I am reading a book and something “just doesn’t seem right”, I go to my file of your articles. I am “no” fun when watching a period piece because I am always saying “No that’s not right and I can prove it”!!!!
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So pleased to see this article pop up when I opened google. Most informative Susan.
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I was wondering where the traffic was coming from Diane! Thank you to whoever put it on Google. I’m having the best day of views ever on the blog. 🙂
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Horrific act to execute the woman who had raised his daughter, Mary. Seems Henry did all he could to make Mary’a life miserable. Could Henry be spending these past 500+
Years in a very warm location? It seems more than likely to me.
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As time passes truths are revealed. Well, another medieval heroine comes out a bit tarnished. I truly admired the legendary Countess of Salisbury, and still do for her steadfastness to Catherine of Aragon.
But I must acknowledge that digging for truths often exposes more than what I would wish for.
It changes nothing about my opinion of Henry VIII as a first class tyrant, He was. But his early reign was not nearly as bloodthirsty as it was later. Margaret might have thought her sex & fine lineage would protect her from the fates of lesser folk. Too late she have realized she trod Henry’s toes for the last time.
As far as her jerking around at the block, there might have been some movement from her own stubborn will. She may also have jerked from the action of pulling the blade from her flesh. If the ax was pitted or dulled, it could have caught in bone, causing her to move involuntarily as the ax was pulled from away. Anyone who butchers meat knows metal can get caught that way. The whole truth
may never be known.
It’s sad to think she could have been tepid in her support of Roman Catholicism. However, endowments & gifts do not determine a complete measure of piety. And maybe she remembered Christ’s admonishment about conspicuous giving. Perhaps she gave less publicly? Obviously I’m trying to support her legend, but if the numbers are stingy, I’ll accept them.
Margaret was fully cognizant of her family’s place in the hierarchy. Supporting their rights would have had priority. She might not have believed Henry VII’s campaign to subvert the powerful barony was completely successful. Margaret could remember stories of her grandfather, Warwick the Kingmaker, and the upheavals caused by her father and uncle, Richard III. She knew her children could be real contenders for the English crown. Those were dangerous times & unbelievable chances were taken.
Ah well, if the tarnish can’t come off, best I leave things alone. Scholarship is always revealing things I don’t want to accept. I must get over it! Thank you! As always, very good work!
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I’m sorry about the typos. My cat woke me up & I decided to read your research about Margaret. A bit groggy. Also wanted to say again, thank you! Do hope you are able to avoid the bad weather I’ve been seeing on the news! Best wishes!
The snow will be starting in less than 12 hours Shaunn! But we need the moisture so I’m not complaining.
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Thank you for the facts on Margaret Pole. I knew,she married and had children but little more.
Thank you for the information . My Ancestry DNA confirmed my Plantagenet Ancestry so this is particularly meaningful.
Its a misconception that Edward IV’s relatives were the only surviving Plantagenets after 1483. They were not. Several other lines survived, including some descendants of Henry IV’s younger sister, and even the brothers of Henry V.
In fact, most people who have Plantagenet lineage seem to be descended from John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. Although, the Yorkist Kings were also descended from him as well, which is an ironic twist.
Margaret and her brother Teddy? They were George of Clarence’s children with Isabel Neville? I have a hard time keeping them straight.
Yes, that is correct.
Thank you for setting the record straight. Bad as the actual circumstances of the execution were-as you have revealed-at least they weren’t as bad as the legend says.
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