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Episode 081: Tudor Times on Margaret Pole

Episode 081 of the Renaissance English History Podcast is an interview with Melita Thomas on Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury. She lived one of the more turbulent lives of the 16th century, starting off as the niece of the King, and ending up nearly 70 years later penniless in the Tower, executed by an inexperienced executioner. 

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Faithful Traitor by Samantha Wilcoxson – historical fiction – description
Margaret Pole is no stranger to fortune’s wheel. From her childhood as firstborn of the heir apparent of England, she was brought low as the daughter of a traitor. After years of turmoil as the Tudor dynasty made its roots, Margaret finds favor with her cousin, King Henry VIII. Will the remnant of the York dynasty thrive under this tempestuous king or will Margaret discover that there is a price to pay for having an excess of royal blood? Step into Tudor England….

Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury 1473-1541: Loyalty, Lineage, and Leadership from Hazel Pierce.
In this first biography of a significant female figure in the male-dominated world of British Tudor politics, Hazel Pierce reconsiders the life and martyrdom of Catholic duchess Margaret Pole against the changing social and political landscape of her times. Pole, niece of both Edward IV and Richard III, was the only woman apart from Anne Boleyn to hold a peerage in her own right during the sixteenth century, and this important contribution to medieval scholarship provides a matchless understanding of aristocratic women during that time period, as well as new interpretations of Henry VIII and his relationship with the nobility.

Margaret Pole, Countess in the Tower from Susan Higginbotham.
Of the many executions ordered by Henry VIII, surely the most horrifying was that of sixty-seven-year-old Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, hacked to pieces on the scaffold by a blundering headsman. From the start, Margaret’s life had been marred by tragedy and violence: her father, George, Duke of Clarence, had been executed at the order of his own brother, Edward IV, and her naïve young brother, Edward, Earl of Warwick, had spent most of his life in the Tower before being executed on the orders of Henry VII. Yet Margaret, friend to Catherine of Aragon and the beloved governess of her daughter Mary, had seemed destined for a happier fate, until religious upheaval and rebellion caused Margaret and her family to fall from grace. From Margaret’s birth as the daughter of a royal duke to her beatification centuries after her death, ‘Margaret Pole: The Countess in the Tower’ tells the story of one of the fortress’s most unlikely prisoners.


Heather Teysko: Hello, and welcome to the Renaissance English History Podcast. I’m your host Heather Teysko, and I’m a storyteller who makes history accessible because I believe it’s a pathway to understanding who we are, our place in the universe, and our connection to our own humanity. This is episode 81, another joint episode with Melita Thomas of Tudor Times on Margaret Pole. Just a quick note that the Renaissance English History Podcast is a proud member of the Agora Podcast Network, and you can discover lots of great new podcasts at agorapodcastnetwork.com. Remember you can get links to more information and resources and sign up for the mailing list for extra minicasts and goodies like that at englandcast.com.

Now, let me introduce you to Melita. Melita is a co-founder and editor of Tudor Times, a website devoted to Tudor and Stuart history in the period from 1485 to 1625. You can find it at tudortimes.co.uk. Melita, who has always been fascinated by history ever since she saw the 1970 series Elizabeth R with Glenda Jackson, also contributes articles to BBC History Extra and Britain Magazine.

Melita Thomas: Margaret Pole or Pole, where the pronunciation is one of those things that people have been arguing over for centuries, her actual maiden name insofar as people used them in those days was Margaret Plantagenet. She was the daughter of the Duke of Clarence, and so she was the niece of Edward IV and Richard III. Her mother Elizabeth Neville was one of the great English heiresses, a daughter of Warwick the Kingmaker. Margaret was right at the heart of the York family, and like everybody who was born in the 1470s, was tangentially affected by the Wars of the Roses.

When she was born, her uncle Edward, who’d been a king for what, if you exclude the short flirtation with Lancaster in 1471, he’d been king for about 12 years, but Edward and his brother Clarence didn’t get on for various reasons, mainly to do with Clarence being over-ambitious and coveting his brother’s throne, probably. There’d been some difficulty between the two brothers, which eventually ended in Clarence being accused of treason and tried in front of the Houses of Parliament with Edward himself actually laying the charges and arguing the case. Clarence was convicted and executed, possibly by being drowned in a pit of Malmsey, as the old legend is, and Margaret was orphaned at a very young age. Her mother had died in childbirth.

Edward seems to have taken his responsibilities to Margaret and her brother Edward, the Earl of Warwick, quite seriously. So far as we can tell, Margaret was brought up with his daughters, Elizabeth of York and her sisters. It’s not absolutely certain. There’s no definite records, but that seems the most likely place for her to have lived. Things went on much as they did for young members of the royal family. She was educated to the standards of the time. She could read and write English, and spoke French, and played the virginals, obviously the usual religious upbringing.

Then, in 1483, her uncle Edward died. There was the brief reign of her cousin Edward V, and then Richard III took the throne. During Richard’s reign, not much information about where Margaret was. Probably still with her cousins, once they’d come out of sanctuary. At the end of 1485, when Henry Tudor invaded, Margaret was sent to Sheriff Hutton in Yorkshire with the princesses, the York sisters, Elizabeth and Catherine.

When Henry VII won the throne, Margaret was brought back to London and probably housed with his mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort. When he married Elizabeth of York, Margaret became part of their court. She was one of the ladies-in-waiting to her cousin the queen, along with Elizabeth’s sisters and Catherine. Then, there’s some controversy about when Margaret was married. Some historians put it around about 1491, but her most comprehensive biographer, a woman called Hazel Pierce, has argued for it being a bit earlier than that, in 1487.

The husband that Henry VII chose for her was a chap by the name of Sir Richard Pole. At face value, he obviously was of much lower rank than her. He was only a knight, but he was not just an ordinary knight. His mother was Margaret Beaufort’s half-sister, so he was actually a cousin to the king, and he was very close to the king, so although it wasn’t a good match from the point of view of her title and money, it kept her within the royal family. Richard was very much favored by Henry VII, so perhaps not such a bad match as appears.

There was quite a big age gap between them, probably about 15 years, but as far as you can tell, it seemed to have been a happy marriage. The reason I assume that is that long after Richard’s death, Margaret paid for one of the most beautiful chantry chapels in all of England for them both. That’s at Christchurch in Dorset, an absolutely superb example of late medieval architecture well worth a visit. Later, she also had new plate and new furnishings embroidered with his coat of arms as well as hers. All of that would suggest that actually she wasn’t unhappily married to him.

During the 1490s, they were in and about the court until Richard became one of the senior members of the Prince of Wales’s household. That’s Arthur, Prince of Wales, the son of Henry and Elizabeth. Richard was one of the senior members of Arthur’s household, and Richard and Margaret spent a good deal of time in the Welsh Marshes at Stoughton Castle and Ludlow as part of Arthur’s household. During that period, Margaret had several children. Her older son was Henry, a very tactful choice of name thee, and then there was Arthur, Reginald, and Jeffrey, and a daughter Ursula. There may have been another daughter who died young, and my guess is she would have been Elizabeth, if there had been another daughter. Ursula was a name that had been used in the York family. Edward IV had a sister named Ursula who died young.

There they were. They were living in the Marches, doing whatever people did in those days. They also had a house in Buckinghamshire and a couple of other properties. Then after Arthur married Katherine of Aragon, and went back to Ludlow and took up his married life there. Richard Pole was definitely there, and it has always been assumed that Margaret was with him. It’s probably at this time that she and Katherine of Aragon became friends. There was quite a big age gap. Margaret was about 10 years older, but they were certainly friends later in life, so this is probably the time when they first met.

Margaret was widowed in 1504. Henry VII, as I say, didn’t cover himself with glory in the way he treated her. He was very niggardly about money, which considering he had her brother’s earldom of Warwick, he gave her a very meager pension to live on. In 1509, everything changed because Henry VIII became king, Katherine of Aragon by his side, and Margaret was instantly rushed back to court, became lady-in-waiting to the queen, and within a couple of years, she petitioned Henry for the restoration of the earldom of Salisbury. The earldom of Salisbury had been held by Margaret’s great-grandfather. It was one of those earldoms that could be inherited by a woman. Margaret petitioned for it to be returned to her, and in 1513, Henry agreed.

Margaret became Countess of Salisbury in her own right, and it was one of the wealthiest earldoms in the whole country. She had an income somewhere around 2,000 pounds per annum. The Duke of Buckingham, who was the top noble, had around 4,000 pounds per annum, but Margaret’s income was greater than that of the Dukes of Norfolk and of Suffolk, so she really was right at the top. She lived like a great feudal magnate. She had hundreds of manor houses, several castles. She built a great manor house at Warblington in Hampshire, which unfortunately there’s just one little tower is left now. She had one at Clavering. She had a London house right where Cannon Street Station is now.

She lived like a great feudal magnate, and she married her children into the appropriate families. Her daughter Ursula was married to the heir of the Duke of Buckingham, which was the best marriage in the country for a girl. Had things gone well, Ursula would have become the highest-ranking woman after the royal family, but unfortunately, in 1520, Ursula’s father-in-law, the Duke of Buckingham, was accused of treason. Pardon me, 1521. May of 1521, Buckingham was executed. Margaret’s son, now Lord Montague, was associated with Buckingham and he spent some time in the Tower of London as well. Margaret herself had been appointed as governess to Henry and Katherine’s daughter Mary, but she was removed from her post in the wake of the Buckingham affair and under a bit of a cloud of suspicion, because obviously the marriage between Ursula and Buckingham’s son started to look a bit suspect when Margaret was being accused of treason.

Margaret and her family fell under a bit of a cloud. However, at that time in the early 1520s, Henry was somewhat less vengeful than he later became, and Margaret was reinstated as governess to Princess Mary in 1525. When Mary, like her uncle Arthur, was sent to Ludlow as President of the Council of Wales and the Marches, Mary was only nine, so it was Margaret’s role to make sure she was brought up properly, educated, had enough exercise, wrote her letters to her mother and father, she was healthy and happy, and all those sorts of things. They were there for three years off and on between 1525 and 1528.

Then, in 1528, Mary was recalled to live, and I quote, “nearer to the king’s person,” unquote. There’s some question as to why Henry decided to bring Mary back. It’s possible that it was for her health. She had a bout of smallpox, so that might have been it. It might have been that Henry and Katherine were genuinely missing her, as they said, or it may have been related to the fact that Henry was now seeking to have his marriage to Katherine annulled. In his own mind, he was going to probably replace Mary with a son who he hoped would quickly arrive when the pope gave him permission to marry again.

Unfortunately, of course, it didn’t work out quite how Henry was planning, so there was a long hiatus between 1528 and 1533 when Margaret was still governess to Mary, who was still the king’s daughter, the king’s heir. It wasn’t until 1533 that Henry demoted Mary after the birth of Elizabeth. Margaret offered to pay for Mary’s household herself, but that was refused and she was dismissed from her post as governess. Mary was sent to Elizabeth, and Margaret was basically sent to the country, because her son Reginald, who had been educated at Henry’s expense, wrote the most surprisingly vicious attack on Henry VIII. It wasn’t just a case of him disagreeing with the annulment. He wrote a paper that was full of personal abuse of the king, which was tactless to say the least of it, and because Reginald was safely in Europe, effectively damaged his mother and his brothers.

Margaret and her older son, Lord Montague, effectively disowned Reginald and said, “He’s ungrateful and undutiful.” They wrote to him and said, “Reginald, you must obey the king. He’s your sovereign, your master,” and so forth. Reginald, for his sake, he couldn’t in conscience agree to the annulment, so he stayed in Europe. There was a rumor that Henry’s government attempted to have him assassinated. Whether Henry would have gone as far as assassination, although his government certainly paid for a Scottish cardinal to be assassinated, so possibly he would have gone that far. Anyway, if there was such a plot, it didn’t come to anything, but Margaret was now under suspicion, as were her other sons Montague, and Arthur had died, and Jeffrey.

Margaret, so far as I have evidence, she wasn’t ever actually asked to sign the oaths of supremacy of succession. Some women were, some women weren’t, but Montague certainly did, and his brother Jeffry probably did as well. Henry knew that they weren’t happy with the situation, but they accepted it. During the late 1530s, so Reginald had written his letter in 1536, Margaret occasionally attended the court. After Mary was reconciled to Henry in 1536, there was a general reconciliation of the former supporters of Katherine once Anne was dead, but she wasn’t restored as Mary’s governess, and she played much less a court part than she had previously.

Of course, she was well into her 60s by now. In 1538, things got worse. Margaret didn’t do herself any favors in that she argued with the king about some property. Henry had restored the earldom of Salisbury to her, and you could say that Margaret was standing on her rights, but the king believed that one of the manors she thought was hers was his, and it may have been more sensible for her to just let it go, but she didn’t. She kept arguing over this property matter. Being so tenacious of her rights was probably not a very wise political move.

Jeffrey Paul was a foolish man, and he drank, and he started talking unwisely about how the world was going to hell right in a handcart, and writing to his brother who was still in Europe, Reginald. Cromwell got wind of this, not surprisingly. Jeffrey was clapped in the Tower, left there for a couple of months without being questioned to panic, got so distressed he tried to kill himself, but was prevented. Then the more he tried to excuse himself and his family, the more everybody got dropped in it. He said that Montague had criticized the king, calling him full of flesh and unwieldy, which obviously Henry didn’t want to hear about, and that he was a bad character and everything was appalling. You can see the sort of thing, lewd talk, but this was leaped upon as evidence of treason.

As well as Montague being involved was the Marquess of Exeter, Henry’s cousin, a son of Catherine of York. He was involved in it, and it became called the Exeter Conspiracy. There’s no strong evidence that there was any real conspiracy, but Margaret’s lands were along the south coast, so if Reginald Pole had managed to persuade the Emperor Charles and Francois to invade, of course Margaret’s lands would have been a very superb place for them to land. Although there’s no [inaudible 00:15:42], you can see that there was enough for a paranoid king like Henry to think that this was actually a real conspiracy against him.

Montague was executed. Jeffrey was a broken man and was allowed to go free. Margaret was put under house arrest at [Calgary 00:16:01] Castle. She clearly made herself very unpleasant, because the earl’s wife refused to stay in the castle if Margaret was there unless her husband was there. You can imagine that she knew how to make herself difficult. The earl was very sure that Margaret knew nothing of anything that her sons might or might not have been up to. He described as having her the courage that … She was almost a man, she was so steadfast and courageous. In Tudor minds, that was quite a compliment, to be almost a man. Margaret was sure absolutely that she knew of no conspiracy.

However, after a while, she was taken from house arrest. This was a good opportunity to get Salisbury back for Henry. She was attainted by Parliament, which is effectively a declaration that you’re guilty of treason without a trial. Off she went back to the Tower. All of her lands were taken. Having started as a royal princess, fallen down to the bottom of the heap after her father was executed, climbed back up to be Countess of Salisbury, she was now back to being the widowed Lady Margaret Pole, [inaudible 00:17:15] money, laying in the Tower at the king’s expense.

She was there until 1541, then one day in May, the constable came in and said, “Madam, today is the day you’re going to die.” Margaret was horrified. She said, what was she accused of? She’d had no trial. She’d had nothing. In fact, even a couple of months before, Henry had sent her some warm clothes in the Tower, so he was possibly weakening, but then there was a rumor of another conspiracy, completely unrelated, but he probably thought it was a good time to polish off Margaret. She was taken out to the Tower and butchered by a junior headsman who had no training.

Heather Teysko: It was quite gruesome, wasn’t it?

Melita Thomas: Yes. I don’t know that the story that she ran around the scaffold and had to be forcibly restrained, I’m not sure that that actually dates from the time, but that is one of the stories, that she refused to lay down because she said she wasn’t a traitor. It’s a very distressing thought to think of an elderly woman, nearly 73, hacked by a butcher.

Heather Teysko: Can you tell me just a little bit going back earlier in her life? Her mother died, then she lost her father, and then she lost her brother. Wasn’t it in part because of the marriage of Katherine of Aragon that Ferdinand asked that her brother be killed, because he was a potential figurehead of a rebellion? Can you tell me a little bit about what happened with that, and how that affected her relationship with Katherine, if at all? I find it interesting that these women still maintained relationships even while the men were fighting.

Melita Thomas: It’s true, how they divorced their personal friendships from their familial ties, yes. If you go back to the Wars of the Roses, Margaret of Anjou and Cecily Neville were on much better terms with their husbands. It is strange, but after the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, Margaret’s brother Warwick, who was 10 and a half so coming up to his 11th birthday, initially he like Margaret was brought to London and housed probably with Margaret Beaufort, but then he soon found himself in the Tower. Henry VII was a man who liked legality. He was not a secret murderer. He liked everything to be done with at least a show of legality, so Warwick was in the Tower, but he was not executed or anything. Not that that’s any excuse, but he was maintained there.

Then, in the 1490s, initially along came Lambert Simnel pretending to be the Earl of Warwick. Henry paraded Warwick up and down the streets of London, saying, “No, the chap in Dublin can’t possibly be the Earl of Warwick, because here he is.” Lambert Simnel’s invasion, that collapsed, and Simnel went to turn on a spit in the king’s kitchen, and Warwick went back to the Tower. Then later, there was the Perkin Warbeck rebellion. Warbeck claimed to be the younger son of Edward IV, and the two were housed to next each other in the Tower after Warbeck went to the Tower. It was alleged that Warbeck and Warwick got together to try to come up with an escape plan for them both.

It’s very likely, of course, that this was engineered so that they were trapped, or what’s the word, enticed, entrapped into committing an allegedly treasonable offense. As you say, this was very likely to have been at the instigation of Ferdinand and Isabella, who didn’t want this, to send their daughter to a country where her husband might be overthrown at any time. Warwick and Warbeck were entrapped into this alleged attempt to escape, and Warwick was executed.

Henry felt guilty about this for the rest of his life, in fact, because obviously he knew it was a put-up job. He had done a very bad thing. Katherine, it’s said, also felt guilty about it for the rest of her life. That may have been possibly the reason why she was fond of Margaret and did want to make her life as good as possible, and possibly she may have influenced Henry to grant her the earldom of Salisbury as compensation at least in part for the loss of her brother.

How attached Margaret had been to her brother is debatable. She last saw him when she was about 12 and he was about 10, and it was some 14 or 15 years later that he was executed. I’m not saying that she wasn’t personally distressed by it, but it is unlikely that they had a very close personal relationship, but of course the whole situation would be hugely upsetting.

One of the most interesting things I found about her was actually how she lived, effectively, as an earl. She was a female earl. She wasn’t just a countess. She had vast lands to administer. She had a council. This was the common way of doing it. They administered her lands on her behalf, and she took strategic decisions about what she wanted to hold, what she wanted to keep. She seemed to have taken a reasonably hands-on approach to being a great lord, and she was also considered … To have a place in the household of the Countess of Salisbury was a great achievement for a young woman, so there’s lots and lots of letters from courtiers and noblemen saying, “Please will give you a place for my daughter?” Because there was no better place for them to be brought up. If they couldn’t get into the queen’s household, Lady Salisbury was next, really, of the great ladies that they could put their daughters with. It was like a finishing school for her young gentlewomen.

Heather Teysko: Why did she never remarry?

Melita Thomas: That’s an interesting question, isn’t it? My guess is that if I were Countess of Salisbury in my own right, why would I want to introduce a husband into the picture? Because he would instantly have taken charge. Although yes, she could have had marriage articles drawn up that would have retained her control, that would have been to make more waves than just to not remarry and continue to control it herself.

Heather Teysko: I’m surprised she wasn’t forced into a marriage, though, to secure her loyalty or something like that.

Melita Thomas: The only people who could have forced her would have been Henry and Katherine, and from Henry’s point of view in the early years of his reign, he was attempting to get on well with his York relatives. He promoted Margaret and her sons, paid for the somewhat ungrateful Reginald’s education. His other, the Marquess of Exeter, he promoted him. He wanted to get on well with his York cousins. There was probably nobody of a suitable age, and in fact from Henry’s point of view, probably marrying her to another great noble would actually potentially make her more powerful or him more powerful, the husband more powerful, so keeping her single probably didn’t hurt.

She was widowed … Just looking at how old she was when she was widowed in 1504, so she was … What does that make her? 27. Yeah, so only in her early 30s, only 31, but during Henry VII’s reign, he possibly may have got round to remarrying her, but when she was widowed, he had gone into the rather morose period that he went into after the death of Elizabeth and Arthur. Another thing is, talking about the influence she had as a great lady, in 1537, after Mary had gone back to court and Jane Seymour was queen, Margaret started receiving letters again asking her to make favors with the queen. She was asked by Lady Lyell, Anna Grenville, who we’ve talked about previously, to find a place, to talk to Queen Jane about places for Anna’s daughters. It was instantly assumed that Margaret would once again be influential after the death of Anne Boleyn, but I don’t think Margaret had as much influence as Lady Lyell hoped.

I get the impression that Henry didn’t like her personally, that there was some quarrel, possibly because he thought that she was ungrateful or possibly she was Katherine’s friend. You definitely get the impression that there was some personal dislike here.

Heather Teysko: Where can we learn more about her?

Melita Thomas: The standard biography, which is very, very thorough, is by Hazel Pierce. It’s quite an academic work, but it’s full of really interesting information about her life as a countess and quite a lot on the Exeter Conspiracy, which saw the end of her sons. Go and see her chantry in Christchurch. Susan Higginbotham has written Margaret Pole, a biography. For novels, there’s Samantha Wilcoxson’s Faithful Traitor, and Lady Salisbury makes quite an important appearance in the old Hilda Lewis trilogy about Mary, which I think is out of print now but good if you can get hold of a copy. I am Mary Tudor, it’s called.

Heather Teysko: Thank you again to Melita Thomas for taking the time to tell us about Margaret Poole. For more information on her, go to tudortimes.co.uk or see the resources available on the Englandcast site at englandcast.com. Remember, if you like this podcast, the best ways you can help us succeed is to leave a review on iTunes or you can tell a friend about it. Seriously, tell your friends to listen. When you’re all at work and you’re talking about what you’re watching on TV, what you’re reading, tell your friends to check out the podcast. Seriously, you know they’re going to like it, so just tell them. It really makes a huge difference to the show, and thank you.

The next episode in about two weeks is going to be on some of the more well-known antiquarians and early historians of Tudor England. I thought it was really interesting to think about the people who were already practicing history during this period that we are now looking back at. We’re going to look at some of the chroniclers who’ve made this period so much more accessible to us than other periods. We’ll talk about people like Edward Hall and others like him. Stay tuned for that.

All right. Thanks so much for listening, and we will talk with you again soon.

(Remember, if you like this show, there are two main ways you can support it. First (and free!) you can leave a review on iTunes. It really helps new people discover the show. Second, you can support the show financially by becoming a patron on Patreon for as little as $1 episode. Also, you can buy one of my journals, planners, or virtual tours!)