Dispelling Tudor Myths: Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury

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.

King Henry VIII of England

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

Mimi Matthews

Mimi Matthews

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