27 May 1541 – Execution of Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury

May27,2012 #Margaret Pole

On the 27th May 1541, the elderly Margaret Pole, 8th Countess of Salisbury, godmother and former governess to Henry VIII’s daughter Mary, was executed at  the Tower of London.

Eustace Chapuys, the imperial ambassador, recorded the Countess’s execution in a letter to the Queen of Hungary:

“About the same time, the very strange and lamentable execution of Mme. de Salisbury, the daughter of the duke of Clarence, and mother of Cardinal Pole, took place at the Tower in the presence of the Lord Mayor of London and about 150 persons more. At first, when the sentence of death was made known to her, she found the thing very strange, not knowing of what crime she was accused, nor how she had been sentenced; but at last, perceiving that there was no remedy, and that die she must, she went out of the dungeon where she was detained, and walked towards the midst of the space in front of the Tower, where there was no scaffold erected nor anything except a small block. Arrived there, after commending her soul to her Creator, she asked those present to pray for the King, the Queen, the Prince (Edward) and the Princess, to all of whom she wished to be particularly commended, and more especially to the latter, whose god-mother she had been. She sent her blessing to her, and begged also for hers. After which words she was told to make haste and place her neck on the block, which she did. But as the ordinary executor of justice was absent doing his work in the North, a wretched and blundering youth (garçonneau) was chosen, who literally hacked her head and shoulders to pieces in the most pitiful manner.”1

How awful!

You can read more about Margaret Pole, her life and last days, in my article The Execution of Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury.

Notes and Sources

  1. Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 6 Part 1: 1538-1542, no. 166

Also on this day in history…

1537 – Chronicler Edward Hall records that “there was a Te Deum sung in St Paul’s cathedral for joy at the queen’s [Jane Seymour] quickening of her child”.

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19 thoughts on “27 May 1541 – Execution of Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury”
  1. The cruelty of Henry VIII never ceases to amazes me. This woman did no wrong, but so many of Henry’s victims did no wrong. Sad, still sad after all these centuries to read of Henry’s butchery of those whom he called friend, cousin, wife, etc.,. What a monster.

  2. That must have been incredibly painful for princess Mary to know that her former governess died in such a manner. No wonder she became so hardened and embittered in her later years.

  3. The month of May was an extremely eventful time in the reign of Henry VIII, of great and good, bad and evil, I think what happened to this poor Lady falls into the latter!!

  4. Imagine how awful they treated her. She’d never so much as been told of her ‘crime’ let alone been able to have a trial to defend herself. Not only that, but they only let her know she is to die just minutes or maybe an hour or two before her execution! Imagine that. At least the others had a couple of days to prepare themselves although I know that’s hardly comforting at least they got it. THEN, on top of all that, they disrespect her right to make a last speech and hurry her along. It’s tantamount to ‘just kneel down so we can kill you already old woman!’.

    So she experiences these humiliations after doing no wrong, just born to the wrong people. After suffering those final emotional indignities, she is then subjected to what must have been an agonizing death. Absolutely terrifying.

  5. I think the reign of Henry VIII, was one of those times when the power went STRAIGHT to Henry’s head. He just wanted, I believe, to be a king that people would remember forever. ….not necessarily in a good way, either. And I think he got his wish.

  6. A terrible and tragic end to a kind woman whose only crime had been being born a Plantagenet.

    I had read rumors (I can’t remember where) that she resisted, forcing the executioner to chase her around the block, slashing at her with his axe; I’m guessing this confusion was derived from the fact that the executioner was unskilled and basically hacked her to death. But while we always hear about how people died nobly, some almost defiantly cavalier about placing their head upon the block, I rather liked the idea that this 67 year old woman who knew she was being executed for no reason whatsoever fought to her last breath and forced her killers to look like the hunters of innocents they were.

    To think she was of an age with Prince Richard of Shrewsbury, the younger of the “Princes in the Tower.” She would have had childhood memories of Edward IV. She would have known her grandmother “Proud Cis” the Duchess of York into her young adulthood. She would have been on the cusp of her adolescence when Bosworth Field changed the country. She was old enough to be Henry VIII’s mother. There was talk in the mid-1530s that her son Reginald might marry Princess Mary, his 2nd cousin once removed, and unite their claims to the throne.

    What an extraordinary life she must have led. And certainly an extraordinary death. Some might call her the Rightful Queen of England. RIP, Countess.

    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!
    (Scratched on the wall of her cell in the Tower, http://travellinghistorian.com/towa.html)

    1. You wrote exactly what I was thinking. I had heard the story about her running from the executioner too. It’s sad that Henry VIII was so unsure of holding onto his throne that he would decimate a family because of their bloodline.
      Claire I love this site and it helped me get through skin cancer surgery.

  7. Margaret, as I may have said before was the closest thing that Princess Mary knew as a mother, other than her mother and was her mother’s very close friend. Margaret was also one of a few ladies who kept in touch with Katherine during her removal years from the Court. Lady Exeter, married to one of the Courtneys, their cousins and those of the Poles, was also close to the Queen. It was this closeness that was to be their downfall, along with the plots real and imagined by Margaret’s third son, Reginald Pole, now a Cardinal. Oncce close to Henry, as was Edward Courtney, he disapproved of the divorce and said so in a threatise in 1536 and again in 1537. It went further than this and condemned Henry in a number of ways. Henry was furious and wanted him found and brought back to England. But he could not get at Reginald and aimed his anger and revenge at the White Rose families instead.

    Although there had been mumbled plots by the families along with Lord Darcy and Lord Hussey in the early 1530s, especially 1533-4, the Aragonese party hoped for a rising, it did not come to pass as the Emperor was not ready to commit troops that he could not spare, and in fact Queen Katherine forbid it as these were her English people. Now, following the Pilgrimage of Grace, those plots were seen in a new light and Cromwell wanted to round up any threat to the throne. Queen Jane had given Henry his longed for heir, but many still hoped for a Catholic successor; the Lady Mary was the focus of their hopes, and their love. She was also popular; more so than her father. It was urgent in the mind of Cromwell and possibly the King’s that these families were a real threat to the new order.

    It was at the background of all of this that the ‘Exeter’ plot was invented by Thomas Cromwell and the brothers of Reginald Pole and Courtney were taken to the Tower for questioning in late 1538. It seems that Sir Geoffrey Pole the youngest of the brothers, sons of Margaret was first arrested and then left to rot in the Tower until he was fed up with a dirty cell. He was then offered a pardon if he c-operated, that is turned King’s evidence on his family and others, and shown the rack; he was questioned over and over and finally gave in. He had also gone insane as he tried to kill himself at some point, possibly after he was forced to turn on his family, he did as he was told and the others were arrested.

    Henry, Lord Montague was taken to the Tower and questioned. Then Exeter was taken and questioned. Then the women were arrested. Lady Jane Montague had died, but Lady Exeter was arrested and questioned, then released after a number of months. Margaret was also arrested and held in the Tower until her death in 1541 on the block. Montague and Courtney were tried and then attained and then executed. Sir Geoffrey Pole, the youngest son was found trying to kill himself again, deemed to be mad and was pardoned. Henry also felt he should be pardoned as he was much younger than his brothers, and the court had what it wanted: revenge and two of the most dangerous families dead, with other members in the Tower or exile.

    The grandson in the Tudors was called Geoffrey Pole, but obviously this is a mix up with the son called Geoffrey Pole. However, at least two grandsons were arrested and held in the Tower. Lord Montague’s son was arrested and kept in the Tower until after 1542, and due to his youth he was released as Henry regained some sanity and of course there was no Cromwell to push him to believe imagined plots. So now the eldest son of Margaret executed, Author, the second son died in 1535, Reginald beyond the Sea and safe, hunted and a wanted man, condemned for his and his families alleged crimes; Sir Geoffrey Pole, insane, pardoned and eventrually beyond the Sea, and their sister, Ursula married and to become important later in history. Two grandsons are known to have been in the Tower: Henry Pole, son of Montague and Arthur Pole, son of Geoffrey. Authur died in the Tower in 1570.

    Margaret was in the Tower for almost two years after her son and his cousins were executed. The Exeter plot claimed the death of Edward Courtney and Sir Edward Neville and Sir Nicholas Caraw. The latter were meant to have known about the plot and not told about it and this was also bringing the death penalty. Cromwell also, unsuccessfully tried to have Lord Lisle and Sir Thomas Wyatt and Dr Richard Sampson implicated in the plot as a last purge. He did not succeed, as all three were pardoned, but he almost did. However, he was the victim of his own plots: his enemies got him in the end. But I digress.

    Margaret was probably harmless, but as the matriarch of this powerful and rival family, the daughter of George, Duke of Clarence the third son of Richard, Duke of York, and as such a true Plantagenet. She is also 67 years old at the time of her death and a grand lady. So what if anything is she guilty of. Guilt by association perhaps? But no, she is most likely one of those who hoped to put Mary on the throne instead of Henry, but then knew it would come to nothing so they onlly showed loyalty to Queen Katherine. It is not clear if she either knew of or approved off the plots of her sons, and did she really just dismiss them as mere fantasies and hopes.

    It seemed that Margaret may have had some hopes of putting Mary on the throne earlier in her life but not planning a rising against Henry. It also seems her sons were merely being hopeful rather than active plotters and the Exeter plot in the royal imagination. Yes, they may have said some stuff in letters to Reginald that were not very sensible about how things may be better if Henry died of his leg, but it was only Reginald who was up to anything concrete. He had allowed himself to be sent to various rulers to get support for the Pilgrimage of Grace and written against Henry and the divorce and against his rule in general. His writings had showed a great deal of ingratitude as well as in the eyes of the regiem being treason. But he was out of reach and Henry saw the execution of his brother and mother as the way to silence his cousin in the cruelest possible manner.

    Before going on progress to the North in the Summer of 1541 Henry wanted the remaining traitors in the Tower cleared. The unfortunate Countess of Salisbury was therefore brought from her prison and refused to submit to the executioner as she had done nothing wrong. On 27th May 1541 she was killed, in a horrible manner as she refused to lay her head at the block. The executioner had to chase her around the scaffold and she must have died horribly. She was in the 1970’s declared a martry and Blessed Margaret: as having died for the faith of Christ. Her son Reginald later became the last Archbishop of Canterbury (Catholic) under Queen Mary, dying on the same day as her: 17th November 1558. The Tudors feared the White Rose: but it was a Tudor who relied on the White Rose for ultimate support of her and her policies: Mary, the Queen the Courtneys and Poles had for so long hoped for.

  8. Correction: Blessed Margaret was declared Blessed in 1888. N.B It is also of interest that there were hopes amongst these families that Mary and Reginald would have married, but not likely as he was destined for the Church and his studies very early on took him this way and was of course sponsored by Henry VIII. A marriage would have made these families even more dangerous: but it it was given willingly by Henry then it may have altered much of the horrible history that followed in his reign and helped Mary to remain the amenable Princess that she was in 1533-4.

  9. As I understand it, which doesnt mean a lot, this family were the last of the Yorkist line, the Plantagenets and therefore had a stronger claim on the throne then Henry himself. Yet none of them had ever threatened rebellion,. or shown the slightest interest in staking a claim. Reginald Pole, the best claim, was quite happy being a Cardinal , but Henry ordered him home, presumably to lop his head off, on some trumped up charge. He wisely refused, so out of total spite, Henry killed his aged mother instead. I am glad I never had to go drinking with him! Of all Henrys victims, Margaret is the one I feel most for. 67 was a venerable age then, the poor woman didnt know what was happening, and she was literally kacked to death. Imagine someone doing that to your old mom, or grandmother. Horrendous!

  10. Her crime was to be a Plantagenet, Henry couldn’t execute her son so the mother would do instead, I heard another variant of Margaret’s beheading in that she refused to lay her head on the block so the executioner had no choice but to chase her round the green with his axe, it’s so awful it actually sounds comical like a scene out of Blackadder, this was Henry in his later years acting more tyrannical but what a ghastly scene, how people could watch executions is beyond me, it was a day out apparently for the ordinary people, I suppose they would discuss the days events in the taverns, if any ghost haunts the Tower it must surely be Margaret Pole.

    1. Margarate pole does haunt the tower, on the annisversary of her death on 27 may 5141 ,she is see running around the green pursued by a ghostly executionet , so ive read !

      1. Yes, in the imagination of a few not so smart people. I believe talk of this wonderful woman haunting the Tower, which is nonsense is disrespectful to her memory and belittles the terrible end which she received on the orders of King Henry Viii.

  11. just a brief correction to a pretty good summation of the Exeter Conspiracy. It was Henry Courtenay who was Marquis of Exeter. Edward was the name of his 12-year-old son who remained in the Tower until 1553.

  12. The more I study the Tudors, and Henry VIII in particular, the more I am convinced that they are a blight on the history of this great country. To say they made this country great is to believe Tudor propaganda. The Plantagenets would have been far more successful and the accession of the Stuarts, with the desperately destructive civil war, would have been avoided.

    1. As much as I agree that Henry VIII was a brute and a murderer of innocent people, the Tudor period in English history is the one that piques the interest of some who would otherwise not think twice about it. Sex, scandals, betrayal and turmoil “sells”. If the type of media we have today were around during those times, newspapers would fly off the shelves. Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up! Without the Tudors, there would be no Anne Boleyn Files, no Elizabeth I, no Mary Queen of Scots, no Nine Days Queen.
      I love the Plantagenets too, but it was the Henry VIII wives “rhyme” my mother taught me as a youngster that made me want to cross the Pond. It’s what made me want to learn more of your country’s rich history.
      if it hadn’t been for the Tudors, I’d have gone to the Mediterranean instead 😉

  13. Just snipping off the heads of the last of the White Roses.

    Seriously, of course this is shameful. No wonder the de la Poles were so opposed to the Tudors.

  14. Margaret Pole was a scapegoat for her middle son, Reginald Pole whom Henry failed to capture on the continent and whom had written against his divorce and encouraged the Northern Rebellions. More recently the family, her eldest son Henry and her son in law had been set up by Cromwell in the invention of the so called Exeter conspiracy in 1539. Henry Pole had contacted his brother and joked about the King’s death in a very vague manner and the entire clan were arrested. Their younger brother and the young grandson was also arrested. Geoffrey Pole turned King’s evidence and also tried to kill himself and was very ill in the Tower, so he was eventually pardoned and released on account of his age. The grandson vanished into thin air and it is speculated that he was poisoned. Margaret was held in the Tower afterwards. She was cared provided with clothes by Kathryn Howard, on the King’s orders and her execution is very shocking and sudden.

    In May 1541 Henry was planning a northern progress and for security reasons it was always considered necessary to execute and so called dangerous prisoners. Now very clearly a 67 years old woman is not dangerous, but Henry was slowly getting rid of rivals to the claim of his young son and the Poles were the last of the White Rose. As Henry’s agents had failed to kill Reginald Pole on his orders he became obsessed with destruction of the family and Margaret was an innocent victim of his vendetta against the Plantagenet Poles.

    Margaret was taken out of the Tower and was executed without any notice. She is reported to be confused and to be unaware of the reasons for her death. The execution was also botched and one version said that Margaret would not submit to the axe and forced the executioner to chase her around and hack her to pieces. Another says the executioner was clumsy. People often criticise Margaret for not being dignified like Anne Boleyn, but Anne had time to prepare for death and spent the night in prayer and was already prepared for death. Margaret Pole had no warning. She didn’t know what was happening and was frightened and confused. It was a vicious and monstrous execution and one which particularly sticks in my claw. It was horrible. It was vengeful and no matter what the political climate at the time, it was inexcusable. In the nineteenth century Margaret Pole was made Blessed Margaret Pole by the Catholic Church.

    Rest in peace Blessed Margaret Pole and may eternal rest shine upon you. Amen

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