[Spoiler alert – this is not for the squeamish! The execution of Margaret Pole is one of the darkest marks in Henry VIII’s reign – and considering how dark some of them were, that is saying a lot…]
Born Margaret of York, Margaret Pole was the daughter of George, Duke of Clarendon (brother of King Edward IV ad King Richard III) – which made her, along with Elizabeth of York, one of the few remaining Plantagenets after the War of the Roses. Margaret loyally served Catherine of Aragon for years…then continued to support her after the annulment, which started her troubles. She might have gotten away with it, but her youngest son Reginald Pole had become a Cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church. He wrote against the King, denying Henry’s religious supremacy in England and urging others to do the same. In late 1537, Reginald supported the insurgents in the Pilgrimage of Grace, working with the Pope to try to persuade France and Spain to help replace Henry with a Catholic ruler (the plan was that he would be released from his vows to marry the King’s daughter Mary, combining their claims).
Because Reginald was smart enough to remain outside England’s reach, Henry took his anger out on the man’s relatives. In November 1538, Margaret and her children were arrested for having corresponded with Reginald. Her manor was searched at the time, but then six months later Cromwell “found” a tunic bearing the Five Wounds of Christ (the banner adopted by the Pilgrims) and used it as evidence that she supported the treasonous plan to place her son on the throne. She was sentenced to death, and held in the Tower for two years.
Henry finally decided to execute his frail, 67-year-old relative in 1541. This is when the story gets bad. Margaret Pole continued to deny that she was a traitor – and based on that, refused to lay her head down on the block. Forced down, she continued to struggle and try to free herself. That would have been difficult for any executioner, but hers was said to be a “blundering youth” who missed. Many times. The Calendar of State Papers contains a report that he “hacked her head and shoulders to pieces” – it took eleven blows to finally decapitate her.
So perish all the King’s enemies….