I am no traitor, no, not I: The life and death of Margaret, Countess of Salisbury

On this day in history, 14 August 1473, Isabel Neville, the wife of George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence, gave birth to her only surviving daughter, Margaret Plantagenet.

Margaret was born at Farleigh Castle, situated in a charming valley along the river Frome, nine miles away from Bath. While the castle currently stands in ruins, traces of an original manor house and the foundations of a chapel are still visible. A deep, dry moat, which would have been familiar to the Plantagenets, continues to course along the area, and the nearby church of St. Leonard, built in 1443 and restored in the Victorian era, remains in active use.

It was within the confines of this medieval fortress, embraced by rolling hills and surrounded by devout Catholic imagery, that one of the final members of the Plantagenet dynasty came into the world. If Margaret’s birth was a quiet, unremarkable affair, her life was anything but.

The east gate of Farleigh Castle

In 1473, Margaret’s relatives were the most powerful in the country. A great heiress, she was the niece of the reigning Yorkist king, Edward IV, and on her mother’s Neville side, Margaret could trace her ancestry to equally ambitious, equally ferocious stock: her grandfather, the Earl of Warwick, was the formidable ‘Kingmaker’ to emerge from the Wars of the Roses. Warwick’s wife, Anne Beauchamp, was herself descended from the mighty Despenser family. In the cult of English ancestry, Margaret was one of history’s best-placed women.

Never knowing that her Plantagenet blood would seal her tragic fate, the world that Margaret entered was one engulfed in fierce rivalry and bloodshed, a country ravaged by civil war. In 1460, her paternal grandfather, Richard of York, was killed in cold blood, campaigning against Margaret of Anjou’s forces in an attempt to depose the Lancastrian king Henry VI. Years later, her maternal grandfather, Warwick, died in a confrontation with her uncle, Edward IV, after unsuccessfully attempting to crown Margaret’s father, George, Duke of Clarence, and restoring Henry VI to the throne.

Long after Edward returned to the throne, tragedy continued to loom in Margaret’s life. She was bereaved of her mother, Isabel, at three years old. Months after Isabel’s death, her father, Shakespeare’s ‘false, fleeting, perjured Clarence,’ accused one of Isabel’s ladies of poisoning her, only to be tossed in the Tower, attained for treason, and allegedly drowned in a vat of malmsey.

When her uncle, Edward IV, died at the age of forty, the only surviving son of York – Margaret’s uncle – Richard, Duke of Gloucester, declared the invalidity of Edward’s marriage, the illegitimacy of his two sons (commonly referred to as the Princes in the Tower), and decreed that Margaret and her brother Edward were barred from the throne due to their father’s attainment, establishing his own iron-clad right to succeed as Richard III. An orphan, yet one with royal blood, Margaret’s fate largely rested in the hands of the new King.

This delicate situation was not to last, however. On 22 August 1485, Richard III was slain by Henry Tudor’s forces at the Battle of Bosworth. Henry married Margaret’s cousin, Elizabeth of York, and Margaret and her brother Edward were quickly absorbed into the new King’s household. Too young during Edward IV’s rule to participate in court ceremonies, and far removed from the court during Richard III’s reign, Margaret remained relatively unnoticed until the reigns of Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch, and his successor, Henry VIII. And, less than a year later, when Henry and Elizabeth’s first born son, Arthur, was christened at Winchester, ‘my lady Margaret of Clarence’ was listed among the guests, heralding the start of a checkered, remarkable career in the royal household.

NPG 1173; Unknown woman, formerly known as Margaret Tudor

In November 1487, King Henry VII arranged Margaret’s marriage to his cousin, Sir Richard Pole, whose mother was the half-sister of the ‘King’s Mother’, Margaret Beaufort. While not strictly an even match – Margaret’s blood may have been tarnished, but it was still royal – Richard Pole had proven himself in the new King’s government in spades. At the time of the marriage, Pole held the position of being Arthur, Prince of Wales’s chamberlain, and so when Arthur married Catherine of Aragon in 1501, Margaret became one of her ladies-in-waiting, journeying with the hopeful couple to the damp, cold marshes of Ludlow. Unfortunately, Catherine’s entourage soon dissolved when young Arthur tragically passed away a few months later, leaving the crown to his younger brother, Henry.

Following her husband’s death in 1505, Margaret’s position at court continued to fluctuate. Her fortunes improved when Henry VIII, then a charismatic and vigorous sovereign, ascended to the throne in 1509. He took his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon, as his bride, and Margaret was again appointed to the new Queen’s household. In 1512, the Earldom of Salisbury was restored to Margaret in her own right, the lands of which had equipped her with a prodigious income. But in 1518, the countess found herself embroiled in a land dispute with the King, who decided to siphon the lands in question into the Crown’s possession.

In 1520, Margaret was appointed as governess to Henry’s only daughter, Mary, and traveled to join the intelligent, amber-haired Princess’ household in Ludlow. However, in 1521, Margaret was abruptly dismissed from her position when the Duke of Buckingham, into whose royal-blooded family Margaret’s daughter, Ursula, married, was executed; only to be restored to her former post a few years later.

The ‘King’s Great Matter’ ultimately drove a wedge between Margaret and the Tudors – one that was to have catastrophic consequences for the Poles. Over the course of decades, Margaret had developed a particularly close relationship with both Catherine of Aragon and her daughter Mary, who regarded her as ‘a second mother’, according to the Imperial Ambassador Eustace Chapuys. So, when Henry initiated the – ultimately protracted – process of annulling his first marriage, casting Catherine aside and demoting Princess Mary to the title of ‘Lady Mary, the king’s daughter,’ Margaret stood firm in her loyalty.

Sketch of a young Mary Tudor

As the Princess’ godmother, Margaret volunteered to care for Mary when Henry ordered her to be separated from Catherine, offering to do so at her own expense. Bluffly, however, the King wrote Margaret off as ‘a fool, of no experience’.

In every aspect – her ancient bloodline, allegiance to the Old Faith, her stubborn commitment to Catherine and Mary — Margaret stood in opposition to the new order that Henry sought to establish across England. As did her son, Reginald Pole, a talented and ambitious Catholic who refused to acknowledge the King as Supreme Head of the Church of England, fled to Europe in opposition, warned of the perils of the Boleyn marriage, and urged the princes of Europe to band together in order to depose Henry.

But an era of peace and prosperity was what the King craved, and by 1536, Henry’s trust in Margaret was restored. Following the destruction of the Boleyn family and the execution of the King’s second wife, Margaret was allowed to briefly return to court. However, her favour in the ever-changing world of a capricious sovereign continued to ebb and flow, as her son, Reginald, continued to deliver Henry belligerent reminders that England was an ‘embattled’ nation.

As Reginald’s threats intensified, Margaret gradually distanced herself from the court. Now in her early sixties, although appearing much older, she spent her days at Warblington, a location close enough to the coast that Henry’s advisors voiced concerns about her potentially providing aid to rebels in case of an invasion. Margaret, however, refused to budge in her loyalty to the Tudors; she had rebuked her treasonous son and supported her sovereign, instead. On multiple occasions, Margaret wrote to Reginald, pressing him to ‘take another way’ and return to the King’s fold. Reginald’s disloyalty, she claimed, both troubled and pained her, and both publicly and privately she reproved him: ‘I [trust] he is not so unhappy that he will hurt his mother, and yet I care neither for him, nor for any other, for I am true to my Prince.’

Portrait of an English Lady, c. 1527, Holbein

Over the next several years, Reginald continued to pose a threat to both England and Margaret’s safety. In 1537, he was made a Cardinal in Rome; he was tasked by Pope Paul III to organize assistance for the Pilgrimage of Grace, a rebellion against Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries; and in 1539, he was dispatched to the Emperor’s side to coordinate an embargo against England, which he had previously warned Henry was likely to happen.

Henry was incensed. With Reginald’s skillful and yet vexing talent for escaping capture by Cromwell’s spies, the King turned to the remaining members of the Pole family – now veritable hostages – to enact revenge. Although both Margaret and her elder son wrote to the King in utter censure of Reginald’s dealings, Margaret was vigorously questioned about her potential involvement. She was often barbarously interrogated by the King’s examiners, ‘traitoring her and her sons to the ninth degree […] yet will she nothing utter.’

Then, in January of 1539, Sir Geoffrey Pole, having been arrested in August 1538 and installed in the Tower of London, was pardoned. If Margaret felt any hope over this decision, it was soon to be crushed. Soon after, her eldest son, Henry, alongside Henry Courtenay, Marquess of Exeter (a first cousin and childhood friend of the King’s), were executed for treason. England had by now become grimly familiar with the bloody deaths of its public figures. Less than six months later, Margaret herself was attainted, divested of her titles, and brought to the Tower of London — to many, the decision to imprison a frail woman in her mid-sixties smacked of cold-hearted vengeance.

As evidence in support of the attainder against Margaret, Henry VIII’s most ruthless of henchman, Thomas Cromwell, presented a tunic painted with the Five Wounds of Christ, supposedly discovered among Margaret’s assets six months after her households had been searched, cleverly shored up to prove her allegiance to the Old Faith and support for her exiled son.

Further damning still, it was revealed that the ‘coat-armour’ was painted with ‘pansies for [Reginald] Pole, and marigolds for my Lady Mary.’ This was used as evidence to inculpate Margaret in an a plot to marry her son to Mary Tudor, and restore Catholicism in the country.

Unknown woman, formerly known as Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury

In 1541, Margaret was sentenced to death, having been imprisoned in the Tower of London for over two years. Until the last, Margaret shrewdly professed her innocence. Unable to be bulldozed or frightened by interrogators, she roundly argued that she had been wrongly judged, asserted her loyalty to the King, and went to her death with aplomb and dignity. A poem, often attributed to Margaret, was discovered carved into the walls of her cell: 

​​‘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!

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