Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of Thomas Jefferson’s Crème Brulee: How a Founding Father and His Slave, James Hemings, Introduced French Cuisine to America.
You never know what you’ll find when you go hunting around old churches. In 1876, a restoration crew was at work in the Tower of London’s appropriately named Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula (St. Peter in Chains). In the crypt, where so many executed prisoners were buried, they found the remains of a tall, elderly lady. And since only one elderly lady was executed in the Tower, its is very likely that these bones are the relics of Blessed Margaret Pole, whose feast day we celebrate on May 28.
Henry VIII is notorious for his cruelty to his wife and daughter, his execution his friends, most famously Thomas More, but Blessed Margaret is the only member of the English Royal Family to fall victim to the king.
Henry once described Margaret as “the saintliest woman in Christendom.” Bear in mind, the king offered this fine tribute years before he wanted Margaret’s head — literally.
Margaret Pole was a member of the House of Plantagenet, the family which had been ruling England since 1154. Two of her uncles were kings, Edward IV and Richard III. The famous “Little Princes in the Tower,” who went missing and were almost certainly murdered during the reign of their uncle Richard III, were her first cousins. You would think that coming from England’s royal family Margaret would have been guaranteed a life of privilege and ease. Instead, she suffered more than her share of tragedy.
It started when Margaret was only three years old. Her mother gave birth to a baby boy, yet after the delivery both mother and child fell seriously ill and they died a few weeks after the birth.
Not long after this double tragedy, Margaret’s father picked a fight with his sister-in-law, Queen Elizabeth Woodville. He made the fatal of error of declaring that Elizabeth’s marriage to Edward IV was bigamous, and therefore their children were not legitimate and as such barred from inheriting the throne. All families squabble, and usually they patch things up, but to make such a reckless accusation in the royal family was not going to end well. Edward had his brother George arrested, locked him in the Tower, and for good measure seized all of his wealth. While in the Tower George died under mysterious circumstances. Shakespeare tells us assassins drowned poor George in a vat of wine. It’s a great story, but it almost certainly didn’t happen.
As for Margaret, at age five she was an orphan and penniless. One of her aunts took her in, raised her, and arranged for her to have something few women received at the time—a fine education. Margaret grew up to be a sophisticated, devout young woman.
And things began to look up for her after her uncle, Richard III, was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field. The new king, Henry VII, liked Margaret and married her off to one of his cousins, Sir Richard Pole.
A few years later, when Henry arranged for his eldest son Prince Arthur to marry the Spanish princess, Katharine of Aragon (the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella), Margaret was named lady-in-waiting.
Katharine and Margaret were both intelligent, pious, and vivacious. They became close friends. But once again, Margaret’s life was about to unravel. Only four months into the marriage, Arthur died, Katharine’s entourage was broken up, and Margaret was sent home to her husband and children. Two years later Margaret’s husband died, leaving her with so little money she had to borrow funds from King Henry to pay for the funeral.
About this time she decided to dedicate her son Reginald to the Church. Whether she did so out of religious devotion or for economic reasons (one less mouth to feed, one less child to clothe and educate) is still being debated. Whatever her motives, Reginald went on to become a splendid churchman. When he was only 36 years old he was made a cardinal, and at the papal conclave of 1549 Reginald came within one vote of being elected pope.
In 1509 Henry VII died, and his second son became Henry VIII. The new king married his brother’s widow, Katharine of Aragon, made Margaret Countess of Salisbury (which overnight made her very wealthy indeed), and restored her to Katharine’s new royal household. And when Princess Mary was born, the new king and queen asked Margaret to be godmother and governess of their daughter. Henry’s favor and generosity extended to Margaret’s children, so these were happy days for the entire Pole family
Tragically, this halcyon period began to unravel in 1527 when Henry became infatuated with Anne Boleyn and sought an annulment from Katharine. Henry’s passion for Anne would tear England apart and all but destroy Catholic life in the country, yet Margaret remained faithful to Queen Katharine, Princess Mary, and her Catholic faith. In Rome, Margaret’s son Reginald took a public stand, siding with the pope against the king. No one can doubt Reginald’s priciples, but his sense of what was prudent is open to question. He made matters worse by writing a book in which he called Henry “a robber, a murderer, and a greater enemy to Christianity than the Turk.” And he urged Emperor Charles V—Katharine’s nephew—to invade England and depose Henry. Reginald’s rant was rash and dangerous. Criticism made Henry VIII vindictive. Margaret wrote to her son, reproaching him for jeopardizing the lives of their entire family.
Margaret’s fears were well-founded. Henry was determined to marry Anne Boleyn, and not the pope, the Catholic monarchs of Europe, or opposition at home were going to stop him. He sent Katharine and Mary away from court, housed them far apart from one another, and never let mother and daughter see each other again. Because Margaret had remained loyal to the old queen and the princess, she was banished from court, too.
In spite of his mother’s letter, Reginald made matters worse by declaring he would not recognize Henry as Supreme Head of the Church in England. Since Henry couldn’t get his hands on Reginald, who was safe in Italy, the king ordered the arrest of the Pole family in England. Margaret’s eldest son Henry was executed. Her young grandson was imprisoned in the Tower for the rest of his life. Margaret was also sent to the Tower where she was confined for two years, never knowing when she would be tried, what would be the charge, nor how it all would end.
Outside Margaret’s prison, England was in turmoil, with the English people torn between loyalty to their king and dismay over the cruelty with which Henry treated his family and friends, and the destruction he was wreaking upon the Church. Rebellions flared up across the kingdom in a futile attempt to force Henry to reverse his anti-Catholic policies. Although Margaret had nothing to do with these insurrections, Henry used the uprisings as an excuse to have Margaret executed. She was a staunch Catholic. She had remained loyal to Katherine and Mary. Her son had urged the Holy Roman Emperor to invade England and overthrow the king. And then it was found that some of the rebel leaders were Margaret’s distant relatives.
Early in the morning on May 27, 1541, Margaret learned that she would be executed that day. She had never had a trial. This was a summary execution ordered by the king.
Typically, large crowds turned out for the execution of a prominent person. But Henry’s advisors knew that having an elderly lady (Margaret was about 68 at the time) climb a scaffold in front of a throng of sympathetic witnesses would be a public relations disaster. Instead, in front of very few witnesses, Margaret was led out to a courtyard where a small headman’s block had been set on the ground. She knelt and placed her neck on the block. The Tower’s professional executioner was away, so a young novice was given the job. He blundered badly, hacking at Margaret’s neck and shoulders until she was dead.
In 1886, ten years after Margaret’s relics were discovered beneath St. Peter ad Vincula, Pope Leo XIII beatified her along with 63 other English martyrs. It would be an act of great generosity if the current English government would exhume Margaret’s remains from the Tower chapel so they could be enshrined with the relics of other English martyrs in Westminster Cathedral.