Margaret Pole, Tudor Matriarch and Martyr

Plantagenet Heir, Roman Catholic Martyr

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Margaret Pole Facts

Known for: Her family connections to wealth and power, which at some times of her life meant she wielded wealth and power, and at other times meant she was subject to great risks during great controversies.  She held a noble title in her own right, and controlled great wealth, after she was restored to favor during the reign of Henry VIII but she became embroiled in the religious controversy over his split with Rome and was executed on Henry’s orders. She was beatified by the Roman Catholic Church in 1886 as a martyr.
Occupation: Lady-in-waiting to Catherine of Aragon, manager of her estates as Countess of Salisbury.
Dates: August 14, 1473 – May 27, 1541
Also known as: Margaret of York, Margaret Plantagenet, Margaret de la Pole, Countess of Salisbury, Margaret Pole the Blessed

Margaret Pole Biography:

Margaret Pole was born about four years after her parents had married, and was the first child born after the couple lost their first child on board a ship fleeing to France during the Wars of the Roses.  Her father, Duke of Clarence and brother to Edward IV, switched sides several times during that long family battle over the crown of England.  Her mother died after giving birth to a fourth child; that brother died ten days after their mother.

When Margaret was only four years old, her father was killed in the Tower of London where he was imprisoned for rebelling again against his brother, Edward IV; rumor was that he was drowned in a butt of Malmsey wine.  For a time, she and her younger brother were in the care of their maternal aunt, Anne Neville, who was married to their paternal uncle, Richard of Gloucester.

Removed From the Succession

A Bill of Attainder disinherited Margaret and her younger brother, Edward, and removed them from the line of succession.  Margaret’s uncle Richard of Gloucester became king in 1483 as Richard III, and reinforced young Margaret and Edward’s exclusion from the line of succession.  (Edward would have had a better right to the throne as son of Richard’s older brother.) Margaret’s aunt, Anne Neville, thus became queen.

Henry VII and Tudor Rule

Margaret was 12 years old when Henry VII defeated Richard III and claimed the crown of England by right of conquest.  Henry married Margaret’s cousin, Elizabeth of York, and imprisoned Margaret’s brother as a potential threat to his kingship.

In 1487, an imposter, Lambert Simmel, pretended to be her brother Edward, and was used to try to gather a rebellion against Henry VII.  Edward was then brought out and displayed briefly to the public.  Henry VII also decided, about that time, to marry the 15-year-old Margaret to his half-cousin, Sir Richard Pole.

Margaret and Richard Pole had five children, born between about 1492 and 1504: four sons and the youngest a daughter.

In 1499, Margaret’s brother Edward apparently tried to escape from the Tower of London to take part in the plot of Perkin Warbeck who claimed to be their cousin, Richard, one of the sons of Edward IV who had been taken to the Tower of London under Richard III and whose fate was not clear.  (Margaret’s paternal aunt, Margaret of Burgundy, supported Perkin Warbeck’s conspiracy, hoping to restore the Yorkists to power.) Henry VII had Edward executed, leaving Margaret as the sole survivor of George of Clarence.

Richard Pole was appointed to the household of Arthur, eldest son of Henry VII and Prince of Wales, heir apparent.  When Arthur married Catherine of Aragon, she became a lady-in-waiting to the princess.  When Arthur died in 1502, the Poles lost that position.


Margaret’s husband Richard died in 1504, leaving her with five young children and very little land or money. The king financed Richard’s funeral. To help with her financial situation, she gave one of her sons, Reginald, to the church.  He later characterized this as abandonment by his mother, and bitterly resented it for much of his life, although he became an important figure in the church.

In 1509, when Henry VIII came to the throne after his father’s death, he married his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon. Margaret Pole was restored to a position as lady-in-waiting, which helped her financial situation. In 1512, Parliament, with Henry’s assent, restored to her some of the lands that had been held by Henry VII for her brother while he was imprisoned, and then had been confiscated when he was executed.  She also had restored to her the title to the Earldom of Salisbury.

Margaret Pole was one of only two women in the 16th century to hold a peerage in her own right. She managed her lands quite well, and became one of the five or six wealthiest peers in England.

When Catherine of Aragon gave birth to a daughter, Mary, Margaret Pole was asked to be one of the godmothers. She served later as a governess to Mary.

Henry VIII helped provide good marriages or religious offices for Margaret’s sons, and a good marriage for her daughter as well.  When that daughter’s father-in-law was executed by Henry VIII, the Pole family fell out of favor briefly, but regained favor.  Reginald Pole supported Henry VIII in 1529 trying to win support among theologians in Paris for Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon.

Reginald Pole and Margaret’s Fate

Reginald studied in Italy in 1521 through 1526, financed in part by Henry VIII, then returned and was offered by Henry the choice of several high offices in the church if he would support Henry’s divorce from Catherine. But Reginald Pole refused to do so, leaving for Europe in 1532.  In 1535, England’s ambassador began suggesting that Reginald Pole marry Henry’s daughter Mary. In 1536, Pole sent Henry a treatise which not only opposed Henry’s grounds for divorce – that he had married his brother’s wife and thus the marriage was invalid – but also opposing Henry’s more recent assertion of Royal Supremacy, power in the church in England above that of Rome.

In 1537, after the split from the Roman Catholic Church proclaimed by Henry VIII, Pope Paul II created Reginald Pole – who, though he had studied theology extensively and served the church, had not been ordained a priest – Archbishop of Canterbury, and assigned Pole to organize efforts to replace Henry VIII with a Roman Catholic government.  Reginald’s brother Geoffrey was in correspondence with Reginald, and Henry had Geoffrey Pole, Margaret’s heir, arrested in 1538 along with their brother Henry Pole and others. They were charged with treason.  Henry and others were executed, though Geoffrey was not.  Both Henry and Reginald Pole were attainted in 1539; Geoffrey was pardoned.

Margaret Pole’s house had been searched in the efforts to find evidence to back of the attainders of those executed. Six months later, Cromwell produced a tunic marked with the wounds of Christ, claiming it had been found in that search, and used that to arrest Margaret, though most doubt that. She was more likely arrested simply because of her maternal connection to Henry and Reginald, her sons, and perhaps the symbolism of her family heritage, the last of the Plantagenets.

Margaret remained in the Tower of London for more than two years. During her time in prison, Cromwell himself was executed.

In 1541, Margaret was executed, protesting that she had not taken part in any conspiracy and proclaiming her innocence. According to some stories, which are not accepted by many historians, she refused to lay her head on the block, and guards had to force her to kneel. The axe hit her shoulder instead of her neck, and she escaped the guards and ran around screaming as the executioner chased her with the axe. It took many blows to finally kill her – and this botched execution was itself remembered and, for some, considered a sign of martyrdom.

Her son Reginald described himself afterwards as “son of a martyr” – and in 1886, Pope Leo XIII had Margaret Pole beatified as a martyr.

After Henry VIII and then his son Edward VI had died, and Mary I was queen, with the intention to restore England to Roman authority, Reginald Pole was appointed papal legate to England by the Pope. In 1554, Mary reversed the attainder against Reginald Pole, and he was ordained as a priest in 1556 and finally consecrated as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1556.

Background, Family:

  • Mother: Isabel Neville (September 5, 1451 - December 22, 1476)
  • Father: George, Duke of Clarence, brother of king Edward IV and of Richard, Duke of Gloucester (later Richard III)
  • Maternal grandparents: Anne de Beauchamp (1426-1492?), wealthy heiress, and Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick (1428-1471), known as the Kingmaker for his roles in the Wars of the Roses
  • Paternal grandparents: Cecily Neville and Richard, Duke of York, heir to King Henry VI until Henry’s son was born, and regent for the king during his minority and during a later bout of insanity
  • Note: Cecily Neville, Margaret’s paternal grandmother, was a paternal aunt of Margaret’s maternal grandfather, Richard Neville. Cecily’s parents and Richard’s grandparents were Ralph Neville and Joan Beaufort; Joan was the daughter of John of Gaunt (a son of Edward III) and Katherine Swynford.
  • Siblings: 2 who died in infancy and a brother, Edward Plantagenet (February 25, 1475 - November 28, 1499), never married, imprisoned in the Tower of London, impersonated by Lambert Simnel, executed under Henry VII

Marriage, Children:

  • Husband: Sir Richard Pole (married 1491-1494, perhaps on September 22, 1494; supporter of Henry VII). He was a half-cousin of the first Tudor king, Henry VII; Richard Pole’s mother was a half-sister of Margaret Beaufort, Henry VII’s mother.
  • Children:
    • Henry Pole, a peer at the trial of Anne Boleyn; he was executed under Henry VIII (a descendant was among those who killed King Charles I)
    • Reginald Pole, a cardinal and papal diplomat, last Roman Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury
    • Geoffrey Pole, who went into exile in Europe when accused of conspiracy by Henry VIII
    • Arthur Pole
    • Ursula Pole, married Henry Stafford, whose title and lands were lost when his father was executed for treason and attainted, restored to a Stafford title under Edward VI.

Books About Margaret Pole:

  • Hazel Pierce. Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, 1473-1541: Loyalty, Lineage and Leadership. 2003.
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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Margaret Pole, Tudor Matriarch and Martyr." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2023, April 5). Margaret Pole, Tudor Matriarch and Martyr. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Margaret Pole, Tudor Matriarch and Martyr." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).