Before we get into Margaret Pole (who you may have come across as Maggie Pole, played by Laura Carmichael on The Spanish Princess), let’s dive into some ROYAL FAMILY TREE TIME because guess what: this is all very confusing.
Once upon a Late English Medieval wartime, time there were three Plantagenet brothers. The eldest, Edward, was handsome and talented and clever, and he usurped the English throne to become King Edward IV, husband of Elizabeth Woodville. The middle brother, George, supported Edward’s campaign to become King… then changed his mind and switched sides. Eventually, Edward had George executed as a traitor. When Edward later died in battle, the youngest brother — Richard — became King Richard III, who you may know from maybe murdering the princes in the tower.
Out of this clusterfuck of brotherly scheming emerges our lovely Margaret, the oldest surviving child of the traitorous middle son, George. Margaret was biologically related to basically everyone fighting over the English throne. In addition to her royal uncles, she was the daughter of Isabel Neville and therefore the niece of Richard III’s wife Anne Neville. She was also, through marriage, connected to both Margaret Beaufort and the entire Beaufort family. These connections brought her both security of wealth as well as put her in danger due to her proximity to all the various schemes going constantly on around her. It feels like a huge time between the Wars of the Roses era and Queen Elizabeth I’s era, but Margaret Pole lived through it all, a human personification of the way that fortunes can ebb and flow depending on who’s in power. She was a force upon herself, but so much of what went on in her life was just blowback from the bonkers schemes literally everyone around her was constantly getting up to. That being said, she repeatedly got herself out of incredibly dire situations so was more than up for the challenge of surviving and thriving in this chaotic environment.
To begin her life with tragedy and scheming, Margaret’s mother Isabel died as a result of giving birth to one of Margaret’s younger siblings. George, already paranoid and prone to suspicion, decided that actually Isabel had been poisoned to death by her servants. And so, he marched an amazingly-named Welsh (?) servant named Ankarette Twynyho into court to put her and another random servant on trial for poisoning Isabel to death. They were both found guilty and were executed immediately; shortly afterward, George’s brother King Edward IV had both servants posthumously pardoned. This just made George even madder at his brother Edward, which resulted in a lot of scheming and finally with Edward having George executed as a traitor. By this point, Margaret was three years old and was sent (along with her brother, also named Edward) to be raised by their Uncle Richard and Auntie Anne.
Now, Margaret was likely too young to understand what the fallout of George’s treason but it becomes very important, so I’ll do my best to spell it out. Basically, all of George’s land and property were seized from him and returned to the King, because traitors don’t get to be in charge of land or to keep their own money. But the thing is, Margaret’s maternal grandfather — who did not die a traitor — had left behind inheritance, too. And this Neville money was divided up between Margaret’s dead mother, Isabel, and Margaret’s Auntie Anne. Because Anne hadn’t had any children yet, the current heir to this Neville inheritance was, at this time, Margaret’s younger brother Edward, because: primogeniture! So, though Margaret and her brother didn’t have any of their father’s money to inherit, her brother Edward was still the heir to their Neville grandfather’s fortune.
This whole inheritance scenario remained unchallenged because, five years later, her uncle Edward died in battle and her Uncle Richard took over the throne as Richard III. Shortly after that, Anne Neville died in childbirth, leaving behind no children. Margaret and her brother Edward, now sort-of heirs to the throne (but not really, because of George’s treason; but enough that Richard was a little skittish about keeping them around) were shipped off to a separate household. When Richard III died in battle, a new King claimed the throne: a certain Henry “daughter of Margaret Beaufort” Tudor, aka King Henry VII. But our Margaret was still related to the royals, as Henry VII married her cousin, Elizabeth of York. This new royal couple became the new guardians to Margaret and her brother, so they moved back to the royal court. And pretty soon after that, Henry arranged a marriage for his fourteen-year-old niece: his thirty-year-old cousin, Sir Richard Pole. This marriage, between Margaret (a York) and Pole (a Lancaster), helped cement the merger between these two royal houses that began with Henry VII’s marriage to Elizabeth.
As far as anyone knows, the marriage between Margaret and Richard was as good as any arranged marriage was, back in the day. Certainly, they had good luck vis-a-vis children not dying in their infancy. Between 1492 and 1504, they have five surviving children: Henry (born 1492), Arthur (born 1499), Reginald (born 1500), Geoffrey (born 1501), and Ursula (born 1504). But of course it wasn’t all sitting around and glamorously giving late-Medieval/early-Renaissance childbirth, Margaret was also in the midst of an awful lot of courtly scheming throughout this whole time period. For instance: midway through this series of babies, a man known as Perkin Warbeck (great name) showed up on the scene, claiming to be one of the long-lost grown-up princes in the tower in a kind of proto-Anastasia Romanov scenario.
Perkin Warbeck was almost definitely not Margaret’s long-lost cousin/heir to the throne, but his presence was convenient for anyone who wanted to get Henry kicked off of the throne. And guess who one of his supporters was? Margaret’s brother, Edward! So the thing is, the King was like, “Pretending to be a long-lost Prince is not technically illegal, but let’s keep an eye on this guy, OK?” And things were weirdly fine until evidence arrived showing that Perkin had been scheming with Margaret’s brother Edward to overthrow King Henry VII. And so both Edward and Perkin were set up in the Tower of London, then both were executed for their not-very-skillful scheming. The death of Edward meant that Margaret was now the last remaining Plantagenet — and more importantly, that Edward’s inheritance (from his maternal grandfather, remember?) was now returned to the crown. Margaret was now without any inheritance at all.
Luckily, her brother’s scheming didn’t affect Margaret to any great degree, as both she and her husband went to to be awarded prestigious positions within the royal household. Margaret was named lady in waiting to Katherine of Aragon, newly arrived to marry Henry VII’s son Prince Arthur; Richard was named Arthur’s Chief Gentleman of the Privy Chamber. Then, of course, things took a turn when Arthur passed away unexpectedly in 1502. Katherine and Arthur’s entourage was dissolved, sending Margaret away from the royal court. But remember, she was still only midway through giving birth to her five children. 1504 found her welcoming her fifth and final child, Ursula, as well as seeing the death of her husband, Richard. Margaret, a titled noblewoman, was effectively now a penniless widow and mother of five. With nowhere else to turn, she went with her children to live in an abbey among nuns. She further cut costs by shipping her son Reginald off to be trained for the priesthood (remember that, he becomes very important later on).
But then, in a way that I wonder if she wound up half-expecting, her fortunes turned yet again in 1509. While Henry VII hadn’t been a huge fan of Margaret, his successors were. When Henry VIII took the throne in 1509, and along with it, marrying his brother’s widow Katherine of Aragon, they were happy to invite Margaret back to court in the position of lady-in-waiting once more. Three years later, Henry VIII further elevated Margaret’s status by restoring her former title of Countess of Salisbury, along with some of her last brother’s seized lands. Her own favor at court waxed and waned, partly due to her own actions and partly due to those of her children. In 1516, she fought with Henry VIII over some lands she felt should go to her due to her connection to the Beaufort family; Henry disagreed, retaining them for himself. Yet, he clearly favored her when she was selected in 1520 to act as Governess to his daughter Princess Mary.
Around that same time, her son Arthur was appointed to be one of the gentlemen of the King’s Privy Chamber. However, Arthur’s patron — Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham — was found guilty of treason and was gruesomely executed. Buckingham’s actions tainted the reputation of both Arthur, as well as of Margaret’s daughter Ursula, who was married to one of Stafford’s sons. Margaret herself was removed from the position of Governess due to her connection to the scandal. Yet, as regular as clockwork, Margaret managed to regain her previous standing and was re-appointed to the role of Princess Mary’s Governess in 1525. Yet, when Henry VIII annulled his marriage to Mary’s mother, Katherine, the girl was demoted from Princess to Lady and had all of her household staff removed. Margaret, fiercely loyal to the young woman, offered to stay on as Governess — even offering to pay her own salary. Henry refused her proposal, and Margaret was again sent from the royal court.
Frankly, that was probably calmer for her anyway, as things at court were going bonkers with the whole Anne Boleyn-being-tried-and-executed-for-totally-fake-charges-of-adultery scenario. In fact, Margaret’s eldest son Henry Pole was one of the jurors who found Anne Boleyn guilty. After Anne Boleyn’s beheading in 1536, Margaret was invited back to royal court… but her son Reginald (remember, I said he’d be important later on!!) would soon complicate things yet again.
So a person we haven’t yet discussed is Eustace Chapuys, the Spanish Ambassador. He was hanging around Tudor court for years, reporting back to the Katherine of Aragon’s parents how their daughter and granddaughter were being treated. Much of what we know about life in Tudor court is from Chapuys’s records, which are obviously biased, but also very thorough and contain lots of exciting gossipy bits. So Chapuys, a supporter of Lady Mary to be returned to the status of Princess, seems to have been encouraging Margaret’s son Reginald to marry her. Because of Margaret’s Plantagenet background, her children were — to some — seen as potential heirs to the throne. A marriage between Reginald Pole and Lady Mary would, perhaps, present a powerful Catholic alternative to Henry VIII and his latest Protestant Queen. Now, since Chapuys was in England and Reginald was off on the continent, they communicated by letters — many of which went through Reginald’s brother Geoffrey Pole as an intermediary. But Reginald was not content just to scheme a way to marry Lady Mary; he was also running around Europe, doing his best to convince other Princes that Henry VIII should be deposed for how he had broken with the Catholic church. The other princes were mostly like, “I mean… go ahead if you want to, but we’re not touching this with a zillion-foot pole.”
In 1537, Reginald attained the role of Cardinal, and the Pope assigned him a very important job: to help coordinate a series of English marches and protests meant to force Henry VIII to replace his Protestant government with a Catholic one. Part of this was the infamous Pilgrimage of Grace, which quite terrible failed, and which wound up with more than 200 Catholics executed for being involved in it. So basically, Reginald was all up in every plan to dethrone Henry VIII, and it was all being communicated in letters through his brother Geoffrey. The King’s right-hand goon Thomas Cromwell knew what he was up to, and in fact, sent assassins to Italy to kill Reginald; no luck. With Reginald hanging out on the continent and therefore impossible for Henry to arrest, the King turned his vengeance against the Pole family members still in England. Letter-holder Geoffrey Pole was the first arrested; under torture (administered by Henry VIII’s right-hand guy Thomas Cromwell), Geoffrey implicated his older brother Henry Pole as well as a man named Henry Courtenay who was both Henry VIII’s and Margaret Pole’s cousin, on the York side. In response, Henry VIII had basically every Pole family member arrested he could find, including Margaret herself.
Following the investigation and torture, only Geoffrey was pardoned. Everyone else, including Margaret, were found guilty of high treason and sentenced to be executed. Just as had happened to her father, Margaret’s property was seized by the crown, leaving her again without any assets to her name. She remained a prisoner in the Tower of London for two and a half years, kept in a room together with her grandson (Henry Pole’s son, also named Henry), as well as the young son of Henry Courtenay — a sort of return to her previous job as Governess, but in the saddest possible way. As per many of the royals and aristocrats held in the Tower as prisoners, Margaret kept living a fairly luxurious life with her own servants and an allowance for new clothing. During her time imprisoned, Cromwell himself was arrested and executed; she may have hoped that fortune was, yet again, turning once more in her favor.
But despite Cromwell’s fall from grace, Margaret’s execution date was set. She was beheaded, aged 67, on May 27, 1541. Due to her noble birth, this was not to be held publicly, but rather before a group of about 150 notable witnesses. This group included Chapuys, from whom we learn details such as that Margaret continued to deny any involvement in treasonous activities. It is also his account that notes that, with the regular executioner unavailable, her execution was performed by a less-skilled man “who literally hacked her head and shoulders to pieces in the most pitiful manner.”
Following her execution, Margaret Pole was buried within the Tower of London in the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula. Her eldest son Henry Pole was executed at the same time, as was her cousin Henry Courtenay; all other family members were eventually released from the Tower of London. Her son Reginald became the most notable of all as, when Henry VIII’s Catholic daughter took the throne as Queen Mary I, Reginald was appointed to the prestigious position of Archbishop of Canterbury. He was the last Catholic to hold that post.
On December 29, 1886, Margaret Pole was beatified by Pope Leo XIII as a Catholic martyr.
Philippa Gregory’s novel The King’s Curse shares the story of Margaret Pole as well as that of her children. Another novel exploring her story is Margaret Pole: The Countess in the Tower by Susan Higginbotham. In terms of non-fiction, I recommend the biography Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury 1473-1541: Loyalty, Lineage and Leadership
by Hazel Pierce. And of course Laura Carmichael is doing a fantastic job bringing Margaret “Maggie” Pole to life on the STARZ series The Spanish Princess!
Ann Foster is a writer and historian with a research interest in the intersection of women, history, and pop culture, especially the lives and stories of figures both well-known and half-forgotten. patreon.com/annfosterwriter