The life of Margaret Plantagenet (later Pole) had always been tragic. She was born in 1473, toward the end of the War of the Roses, to George, Duke of Clarence, brother of the head of the York faction, King Edward IV. Her mother was Isabel Neville, the eldest daughter of Richard “The Kingmaker” Neville, Earl of Warwick. Isabel passed away shortly after the birth of a young son (who did not live much longer) when Margaret was only three years old and her surviving brother, Edward, was one. Her father was blinded by grief and actually executed two of Isabel’s servants after accusing them of poisoning the Duchess. He did attempt to remarry, vying for the hand of Mary, Duchess of Burgundy (his sister, Margaret’s step-daughter), but Edward IV and their sister both rejected the idea. In 1478, less than two years after his wife’s death, Clarence was charged with treason and sentenced to death. There were rumors that Edward allowed Clarence to choose his own manner of execution. Clarence, not believing his brother would truly have him put to death, chose to be drowned in a cask of his favorite Malmsey wine. Edward complied, privately executing Clarence according to his wishes. According to later rumors, Margaret wore a bracelet with the charm of a wine cask in honor of her father.
Young Margaret and Edward were made wards of the crown after the death of their father. King Edward placed the children in the care of their maternal aunt, Anne Neville, and her husband Richard, Duke of Gloucester (their paternal uncle). When Margaret was ten years old, her uncle Edward died, leaving her young cousin as Edward V. However, their uncle Richard declared the children of Edward IV illegitimate and kept Edward V and his brother Richard, Duke of York in the Tower of London until their disappearance. Since Clarence had been Richard’s next eldest brother, Margaret’s brother, Edward, should have been next in line for the throne, followed by Margaret herself. Richard circumvented this by claiming the Clarence children were barred from the line of succession due to their father’s treason charge. Richard took the throne himself as Richard III. Margaret and Edward were sent to live in York, along with their cousins, the daughters of Edward IV. Despite this constant upheaval, Margaret was given an education worthy of her status. “In addition to reading and writing, she received instruction in playing musical instruments such as the virginals, she learned how to sew and how to manage a household”.
In 1485, when Margaret was twelve, Richard III was defeated at the Battle of Bosworth. His challenger, the Lancastrian Henry Tudor, became Henry VII by right of conquest, and married her cousin, Elizabeth of York. Margaret and Edward were brought back to court and put in the care of Henry’s mother, Margaret Beaufort. However, though Elizabeth, as the eldest child of Edward IV, had the strongest claim, Edward was still the last male of the Yorkist line. Henry therefore viewed him as a threat, despite his young age. In 1486, around the birth of Henry’s own heir, Arthur, Edward was sent to the Tower of London. After the disappearance of their cousins, the notorious “Princes in the Tower”, this was probably terrifying for Margaret and Edward both. Margaret was forced to continue on as though nothing untoward was happening, however. She attended Arthur’s christening in 1486 and Elizabeth’s coronation in 1487.
After a rebellion in 1487, in which a pretender, Lambert Simnel, claimed to be Margaret’s brother, he was displayed to the public as alive, well, and still in Henry’s custody. This event made Henry even more wary of the young boy. Also in 1487, Henry married Margaret to his mother’s nephew, Richard Pole. Margaret was only fourteen years old, and her husband was already twenty-five. The couple probably did not consummate the marriage for a few years, as their first child wasn’t born until 1492, when Margaret was nineteen years old. They would go on to have five children together: Henry, Arthur, Reginald, Geoffrey, and Ursula. Things seemed to finally be calm for Margaret, but this was only temporary. In 1499, her brother was accused of assisting Perkin Warbeck, a pretender to the throne claiming to be their cousin, Richard, Duke of York. This was highly unlikely to be true, as Edward had been confined to the Tower of London for over ten years at that point. Regardless, he was tried for treason and executed in November of 1499.
It is thought that there was a more sinister reason for his execution. Henry had been in negotiations with Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile for Arthur to marry their daughter, Catherine of Aragon. The Spanish king and queen were said to have been worried about sending their daughter to England when there was a young man in the tower with a better claim to the throne than Henry VII. Thanks to his mother, Arthur actually had a better claim to the throne than Edward did, as the heir to both York and Lancaster. However, Henry had claimed the throne by right of conquest rather than using his right as Elizabeth’s husband to rule in her stead. Edward was still the highest-ranking male of the York line since Arthur was seen as Tudor and Lancastrian, rather than York, so Edward was too great a threat to leave alone. After his execution, the negotiations were finalized and the two were married when they reached the “canonical” age of fifteen. Margaret, again, had to put her feelings aside as a member of the court. She attended Catherine of Aragon at her wedding in 1501 and joined her as a Lady-in-waiting when the young couple were sent to Wales to set up their own court. Margaret’s husband, Richard, had been made Chamberlain of Arthur’s household.
In 1502, Arthur died, leaving Catherine a widow. Her household was dissolved as she was sent back to the court of Henry and Elizabeth. Margaret and her husband went back to their own home and children, until Richard’s death in 1504. Margaret was now a widow with five young children, one a newborn infant, and a small inheritance. She dedicated her son, Reginald, to the church in order to ease her financial situation. Their situation greatly improved after Henry VII died and his second son, Henry VIII, was crowned. He married his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon, who recalled Margaret back into her service as a Lady-in-Waiting. In the beginning of his reign, Henry seemed to appreciate his Plantagenet family members. He paid for Reginald’s education and sent him to Italy for study. In 1512, Henry gave Margaret back some of the lands she was entitled to as her father’s last heir. The dukedom of Clarence was lost to her father’s treason, and the earldom of Warwick was lost with her brother. Henry instead raised her to Countess of Salisbury in her own right.
As a peeress of the realm, she was finally able to live comfortably. As was the fashion with noble ladies of education, she patronized the “New Learning”, or Renaissance Humanism, that Henry welcomed to his early court. Her children made impeccable marriages and Reginald began rising in the church. Naturally, the Pole family did encounter some issues, as is standard in a royal court, but none that lasted. Margaret was made the governess of Princess Mary, Henry’s only living child with Catherine of Aragon, in 1520. Due to being connected by marriage to the Stafford family, she was briefly removed after the Duke of Buckingham’s execution for treason but was reinstated in 1525 when Mary was given her own household to train as Princess of Wales. Once again, Margaret followed an heir to the throne to Ludlow Castle in Wales, though she remained with Mary much longer and the two were very close; Mary saw Margaret as a second mother. It was this closeness with both Mary and her mother, Catherine of Aragon, that led to Margaret’s downfall.
During the years of Henry’s “Great Matter” (his attempt at divorcing Catherine of Aragon), Margaret firmly planted her flag in Catherine’s camp. In 1533, when Mary was proclaimed illegitimate, Margaret refused to give0 Henry the trappings of Mary’s status as Princess of Wales. When Henry dissolved his daughter’s household later that same year, Margaret begged to be allowed to stay on with Mary at her own expense, but Henry refused, likely to continue breaking his daughter’s (and thereby Catherine’s) spirit. Margaret’s son Reginald was also firmly against the marriage of the king to Anne Boleyn. Reginald, safely in Italy, wrote a pamphlet blasting the king’s arguments for divorce, officially severing any link of goodwill between himself and the king. In 1538, Margaret and the two of her sons left in England were arrested to be questioned as part of a conspiracy to overthrow the king. It would seem the king’s break with the Catholic Church and loss of popularity had planted a seed of paranoia against his Plantagenet relatives in his mind. Margaret’s youngest son, Geoffrey, was freed in 1539, but her oldest son, Henry, and Margaret herself were charged with treason. Henry was executed in January of 1539, but Margaret was kept imprisoned for two years.
Despite all of her earlier hardships, Margaret had always been treated with deference due to her status as a noble lady of royal blood. However, in the Tower of London, this was no longer the case. Due to her charge of treason, she was stripped of her titles and referred to only as Margaret Pole. She was permitted to be attended by a few servants, probably due to her age. Henry’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard, felt so bad for Margaret that Catherine made sure to send warm clothes to the tower for the older woman. On May 27th, 1541, Margaret was informed of her imminent execution. A poem found later scratched in the cell is attributed to her after receiving this news:
“For traitors on the block should die;
I am no traitor, no, not I!
My faithfulness stands fast and so,
towards the block I shall not go!
Nor make one step, as you shall see;
Christ in Thy Mercy, save Thou me!”
The tragic life of this strong woman came to a most tragic end. Margaret was given a private execution, attended only by those “privileged” to do so. One account given by the Imperial Ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, described a horrific scene. He claimed that the executioner was young and inexperienced, practically hacking Margaret’s neck and shoulders to bits. Margaret’s other children managed to escape with their lives. Geoffrey and Ursula lived outside of the limelight, but Reginald became Mary’s Archbishop of Canterbury upon her ascension to the throne. Reginald would claim that he would “never fear to call himself the son of a martyr”. Margaret was actually beatified as a martyr by Pope Leo XIII on 29 December 1886. Her feast day is on 28 May, the day after the anniversary of her execution.