Post-classical history


May 1541: The Death of the Last Plantagenet

‘The old lady being brought to the scaffold set up in the Tower, was commanded to lay her head upon the block, but … refused, saying “So should traitors do, and I am none.” Neither did it serve that the executioner told her it was the fashion; so turning her greay head in every way, shee bid him, “If he would have her head, to get it as he could.” So that he was constrained to fetch it off slovenly.’

Lord Herbert of Cherbury, The Life and Reigne of King Henry VIII1

Margaret, Countess of Salisbury, the Earl of Warwick’s sister, had lived through all the conspiracies against the Tudors, from Lord Lovell’s rising in the year after Bosworth to the Pilgrimage of Grace and her son’s ‘missions’. Her life binds together the whole tragic story of the White Rose in decline, until its final extermination. Although Henry VIII had at first admired this stately lady, in the end he decided to kill her. He did so not merely because he wanted to revenge himself on Reginald Pole, but because she was the last Plantagenet – a living reproach to the Tudor dynasty.

She had been born in 1473. Her mother, a daughter of Warwick the Kingmaker, died when she was four, while her father George, Duke of Clarence, was murdered in 1478 for plotting against his brother Edward IV. (According to rumour, he was drowned in a butt of Malmsey and for the rest of her life his daughter wore a tiny wine keg on her bracelet.) Brought up with King Edward’s family, she and her brother the Earl of Warwick spent most of Richard III’s brief reign at Sheriff Hutton Castle in Yorkshire.

Judging, as far as one can, from a clumsy portrait of her painted in later life (now in the National Portrait Gallery), Margaret Plantagenet inherited the good looks of the House of York, but after her world turned upside down at Bosworth, she was lucky not to disappear into the Tower or a nunnery. What made the little girl’s very existence peculiarly dangerous for the new dynasty was her claim to the throne. Unlike Elizabeth of York, she had never been bastardized by Parliament. However, Henry VII’s mother found a safe husband for her. This was a cousin of the Tudor king called Richard Pole, one of his most reliable henchmen, a country gentleman who, although he came from Buckinghamshire, was of Welsh origin. He had been knighted for his services at Stoke Field.2

At the time of her wedding in either 1486 or 1487, she was about fourteen and her husband in his late twenties. Admittedly, the match was inferior to one with the great magnate to whom her hand would have been given had her uncle Richard stayed on the throne, justifying Warbeck’s charge that Henry Tudor married ladies of the blood royal to ‘certain of his kinsmen and friends of simple and low degree’. Yet it was better than disappearing into a convent, and the pair seem to have been happy enough: we know from one of her letters that she mourned Richard Pole when he died. They had five children who survived infancy, four sons and a daughter.

The years of their marriage were overcast in turn by the supposed return of the ‘Duke of York’ from the dead, her brother Warwick’s alleged plot and unjust execution, and the threat by her cousin Edmund de la Pole. None of these endangered Margaret, however, because of her husband’s commitment to the new dynasty. During the middle years of Henry VII’s reign she often visited court, since not only did Richard Pole hold important offices (such as Prince Arthur’s Lord Chamberlain, President of the Prince’s Council in Wales and Controller of the Port of Bristol), but also he became Chief Gentleman of the Bedchamber. In 1499 he was made a Knight of the Garter. Margaret herself became one of Katherine of Aragon’s ladies-in-waiting as soon as she arrived from Spain.

After Sir Richard died in 1504 she spent the next few years away from Bockmer, their pleasant home amid the Buckinghamshire woodlands, and lived with the nuns of Syon Abbey, although without taking vows. (In the harsh fashion of the day her children were attached to the households of various noble families.) However, she emerged when Henry VIII came to the throne. After he handed back her Neville mother’s lands in 1513 she became one of the five biggest landowners in England, with large estates in seventeen counties, notably in Hampshire and Essex as well as throughout the West Country. A dozen stewards were required to administer them. How high a place she occupied in the royal favour is shown by her investiture as Countess of Salisbury, and at the time the only English peeress in her own right.

She also acquired several fine country houses, notably Clavering Castle in Essex and Bisham Manor by the Thames in Berkshire, next to the priory, together with a London ‘inn’, Le Herber, which was a palatial mansion that stood on the site of today’s Cannon Street Station. Her favourite, all but regal, residence, however, was the great castellated house of red brick, surrounded by a deep moat, that she built at Warblington in east Hampshire, on the Sussex border near Havant and not far from the sea. Destroyed in the Civil War, only one side of a gatehouse turret and a few other fragments survive, next to a farm, but she would still recognize Warblington church nearby (from where Dr Helyar fled abroad).

Save for Queen Katherine, no woman in the kingdom lived with more splendour than the Countess of Salisbury. Her Planatagenet arms (with the lions of England and lilies of France) were carved on the stonework and over the gateways, painted on the glass of the larger rooms’ windows, embroidered on the hangings in the dining chamber and on the testers over the beds. Numerous tall ‘standing cupboards’ were laden with plate of gold, silver gilt and silver, together with vessels of Venetian glass. Her household included seventy-three indoor servants, among whom were a steward, a comptroller, a clerk of the kitchen, a marshal of the hall, an usher of the hall, six gentlemen waiters and even a fool.

One of her lesser houses was a castle in south-west Hampshire (now in Dorset), opposite the Isle of Wight and near the Augustinian priory of Christchurch. In the great church here she built a resting place for herself and her husband that they were never to occupy. Implausibly ascribed to Pietro Torrigiano (who designed Henry VII’s tomb at Westminster Abbey) and completed in 1529, the Salisbury chantry with its fan tracery ceiling still stands in the north aisle. The last of the Plantagenets could have left no more regal a monument than this lovely little chapel.

For a long time Margaret, whom Henry VIII, in his own words, ‘loved and honoured as [he did] his own grandame’, was deeply respected at court. She became Queen Katherine’s valued friend and a much-loved governess to the Lady Mary, almost a second mother. She ran the princess’s household with amiable efficiency, her commands to the child invariably beginning with the gentle words, ‘Madam, your mother would wish’. These years from 1516 to 1521 were probably among the happiest of her life. Yet the king’s comparison with his grandmother was unfortunate, as he may have realized later. His father’s claim to the throne came from Margaret Beaufort’s remote kinship with the House of Lancaster, but there was nothing remote in any way about Lady Salisbury’s descent from the House of York.

The Poles prospered. Henry VIII not only created her eldest son a peer but made her second son Arthur an Esquire of the Body and then, still more flattering, a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber, which implies that the king enjoyed his company and regarded him as a close friend. Talented, witty, a natural courtier and a hero in the tournament, Arthur was knighted, together with her youngest, least gifted, son Geoffrey. Neither had ever performed any outstanding services so the accolades were an expression of the king’s respect for their mother. As we know, Reginald had equal reason to be grateful to royal favour. Her children’s rise in the world seemed complete when her daughter Ursula married Lord Stafford, who was the Duke of Buckingham’s heir and the greatest catch in England.

But at the duke’s fall in 1521 Lady Salisbury lost favour with Henry, because after Ursula’s marriage the Staffords and the Poles had grown too friendly for his liking. As has been seen, even Arthur was banished from court, suspected of involvement in the Duke of Buckingham’s mythical plot, and when the king and queen left Windsor that summer, Margaret was forbidden to accompany Mary, losing her post as governess and told to keep away from court. In 1525 she was reinstated, however, while the following year Henry visited her house at Warblington. Nothing further disturbed her good relations with him until he divorced Queen Katherine.

Sometimes Margaret could be ruthless in family matters. Sir Arthur had married a rich heiress, Jane Lewkenor from Bodiam Castle in Sussex, and when he died around 1527–8, probably from the sweating sickness, without leaving sons, Margaret made his widow take a vow of chastity so that her fortune would be inherited by his daughters. (But she did not force her to enter a convent, as sometimes stated.) Twelve years later, when her mother-in-law was in no position to object, Jane asked Bishop Barlow of St Asaph for help. A keen enthusiast for the New Learning, who had no sympathy for vows of chastity, Barlow freed her from any commitment and she quickly found a new husband.

Henry’s attitude towards Margaret did not alter noticeably when he decided to divorce the queen, and she was allowed to remain as the Lady Mary’s governess. But everything changed as soon as he married Anne Boleyn in 1533. When he sent a lady to demand the surrender of Mary’s jewels and plate, Margaret indignantly refused. She was dismissed from her post, despite offering to pay for the upkeep of the princess’s household, and never saw Mary again. Before Margaret’s dismissal, Queen Katherine wrote to Mary, ‘I pray you, recommend me unto my very good lady of Salisbury and pray her to have a good heart, for we never come to the kingdom of Heaven but by troubles.’3

Although Margaret returned to court after Queen Anne’s downfall (and even received a royal grant of land in Yorkshire), the king grew increasingly hostile towards the Poles after Reginald’s De Unitate, despite her spirited pretence at being horrified by her son’s behaviour. Already irritated by her loyalty to Queen Katherine and to the Lady Mary, and by her conservatism in religion, during the Cardinal’s mission in 1537 Henry began to see her as a dangerous enemy.

She showed a shrewd sense of self-preservation when Sir Geoffrey was arrested. ‘I pray God, madame, he do you no hurt,’ said her alarmed steward. ‘I trow 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,’ she answered, knowing very well that her words might be reported to the authorities. A letter to her eldest son, written after Geoffrey’s arrest, reveals the same wariness:

Son Montague, I send you heartily God’s blessing and mine … This is the greatest gift that I can send you, for to desire God of his help, which I perceive [there] is great need to pray for. And as to the case as I am informed that you stand in, mine advice is to refer you to God principally and upon that ground so to order you both in word and deed to serve your prince [while] not disobeying God’s commandments.4

On 12 November, accompanied by Bishop Goodrich of Ely, the Earl of Southampton (who had interrogated Geoffrey) arrived at Warblington to question the countess. During this initial interrogation she strongly denied having corresponded with Reginald in recent years or having burned compromising letters. On 14 November Southampton and the bishop reported to Cromwell that they had cross-examined the lady for two days, from morning till night, sometimes gently and sometimes roughly, but could get nothing out of her. She was ‘manlike’ in her behaviour – either her sons ‘have not made her privy nor participants of the bottom and pit of their stomachs, or else she is the most arrant traitresss that ever lived’.5

She seemed ‘somewhat appalled’, however, on being told that she must leave Warblington, which made them hope she was going to confess what they wanted. Taken to Southampton’s house in Sussex, Cowdray, she was kept there until the following May, treated with every indignity by the earl and his wife, who refused to speak to her. (Yet Lady Southampton became so frightened of Margaret that she refused to be left alone in the house with her, while Southampton said he found her presence disturbing.) Despite relentless bullying, she gave nothing away. Her interrogators reported to the Lord Privy Seal that they had never come across anybody like her before: ‘we may call her a strong and constant man rather than a woman’.

On 12 May 1539 the Countess of Salisbury was included in the Act of Attainder passed against the leaders of the Pilgrimage and those implicated in the ‘Exeter Conspiracy’. She and the steward of one of her Welsh estates, Hugh Vaughan, were accused of allying themselves with the ‘false and abominable traitors Henry Pole, late Lord Montague and Reginald Pole, sons unto the said Countess, knowing them to be false traitors and common enemies unto your Majesty and this your realm’. Margaret and Vaughan were further charged with ‘sundry other detestable and abominable treasons to the most fearful peril and danger of the destruction of your most royal person’.6 No details were given, but during the proceedings Cromwell rose in the House of Lords and displayed an embroidered tabard.

The tabard was accepted as damning evidence. The Deputy at Calais, Lord Lisle, received a description in a letter from one of his officials:

There was a coat-armour found in the Duchess [sic] of Salisbury’s coffer, and by the one side of the coat there was the King’s Grace his arms of England, that is the lions without the flowers de lys, and about the whole arms was made pansies for Poles and marigolds for my Lady Mary … And betwixt the marigold and the pansy was made a tree to rise in the midst, and on the tree a coat of purple hanging on a bough in token of the coat of Christ, and on the other side of the coat all the Passion of Christ. Pole intended to have married my Lady Mary and betwixt them both should again arise the old doctrine of Christ.7

Whether the tabard had been embroidered at Margaret’s command during the Pilgrimage or whether it was a cunning forgery run up by Cromwell’s agents, everyone who saw it realized that its symbols spelled out the White Rose programme – Mary as queen and Reginald Pole as king consort, together with the restoration of Catholicism – which could only happen if Henry VIII were deposed. Nothing could have summed up better why Henry and Cromwell had been so frightened of the Pole family.

In autumn 1539 the countess was brought from Cowdray to spend what was left of her life in the Tower. Neither she nor her two gentlewomen, whom she was unable to pay, had any change of clothing. What they had soon wore out and was in any case inadequate for the winter, from which she suffered miserably, confined in a cold, damp and unheated cell. Only in 1541, towards the end of her imprisonment, did the latest queen, Katherine Howard, intervene and see that she was given new clothes, including a furred petticoat.

Still more distressing for the old lady was the fact that her two grandsons were also in the Tower, although neither had been attainted. In King Henry’s eyes, however, they shared their parents’ guilt. Gertrude Courtenay, formerly Marchioness of Exeter, was released in 1540, but her son Edward had to remain in the Tower. Some people expected that Lady Salisbury would also be released. However, she was the mother of the cardinal whom the king hated more than anyone else in the world. In consequence, she and Henry Pole were specifically excluded from the general pardon of that year.

It appears that the king ordered young Henry Pole to be treated particularly harshly, to ensure that he rotted to death. Described by the cardinal as ‘the remaining hope of our race’,8 he had inherited Warwick’s claim to the throne. In July 1540 the French ambassador reported that Edward Courtenay, who was then about twelve, had grown taller and been given a tutor. But ‘the little nephew of Cardinal Pole … is poorly and strictly kept and not desired to know anything’.9 Margaret must have feared for the boy’s life, remembering how when she was a little girl certain other royal children had disappeared in the Tower.

Early in 1540 the ‘Botolph Conspiracy’ at Calais (which by then was not quite as prosperous as formerly but still a cherished possession of the crown) ensured that Cardinal Reginald Pole stayed very much in the king’s mind. The aged Deputy, Lord Lisle – a bastard of Edward IV, born in 1461 and another survivor from the Yorkist court – had acquired a new chaplain, Gregory Botolph, once a monk at Canterbury. Later alleged to have fled with the plate when his monastery was dissolved, he was known by friends as ‘Sweetlips’, but whether on account of musical, social or sexual talent is unclear. His plan was to hire 500 men and seize the town for the pope and the cardinal, whom he claimed to have seen at Rome on a recent, secret visit, and he recruited over a dozen accomplices. Yet while he may have visited Rome, it is improbable that he had met either Paul III or Pole, while his ‘plot’ sounds more like a confidence trick.

Even so, when Sweetlips’s letters were intercepted, the authorities took the plot very seriously and he was attainted by Parliament. What happened to him afterwards is unknown, but two of his accomplices were hanged, drawn and quartered in August 1540. Ridiculously, the king even suspected poor old Lord Lisle, bumbling and hopelessly inefficient, and he was sent to the Tower. Where Pole was concerned, Henry’s imagination always ran riot. His obsession may also explain why Lord Leonard Grey was executed the following year, despite having served well as Deputy in Ireland – his real offence was to have let the young Earl of Kildare escape and join the cardinal.

Undoubtedly, there was some sort of plot to rescue Margaret from the Tower. In an undated letter to a French bishop, written some time during 1540, Reginald refers to what had been planned ‘for my mother’s release’ and to a friend of his who was the brains behind the scheme, but who had been put in prison as a result of pressure by the English authorities, although he had since been set free.10 It has been suggested the ‘friend’ was Sweetlips Botolph of the Calais Plot, but the identification is far from certain.11 If it was Botolph, then the plan can never have had much chance of success.

In 1540 the sores – the infection had spread – on Henry VIII’s leg were causing him even more acute pain, unbalancing his mind still further. His monstrous obesity (we know from his armour that by now he measured a good four and a half feet around the waist and nearly five round the chest) cannot have helped either his mental equilibrium or his temper. He became more suspicious than ever, arresting the servile Bishop Sampson of Chichester for supposedly writing in secret to the pope. Early in 1541 Sir Thomas Wyatt, who was liked by everybody, and Sir John Wallop went to the Tower of London on baseless charges of corresponding with ‘the King’s traitor Pole’, regardless of the former having done his best to arrange for Pole’s murder in 1539. (Both were pardoned at the intercession of Queen Katherine Howard, Wyatt on condition that he returned to his unfaithful wife.) The king also ordered the arrest of the Gentleman Porter at Calais, Sir John Palmer, another loyal servant who was innocent of any wrong doing.

When interrogated by Cromwell, Lord Darcy had told him that he hoped ‘shall there one head remain that shall strike off thy head’, and in June 1540 the Lord Privy Seal, only recently created Earl of Essex, was arrested at the council table by an exultant Duke of Norfolk. Despite his frantic pleas – ‘Most gracious Prince, I cry for Mercy! Mercy! Mercy!’ – he was beheaded on Tower Hill on 28 July. After his death, the French ambassador Marillac heard that the king was calling him ‘the most faithful servant he had ever known’, which seemed to imply that he had been a victim of slander, executed in error. There were rumours that he was punished for the fiasco of his master’s marriage to Anne of Cleves, the ‘Flanders Mare’. Yet it was undoubtedly Henry who brought him down, deciding that in secret Cromwell was ‘a miserable heretic sacramentary’, to use his minister’s own phrase.12 Cranmer had tried to save him, writing to the king of the Lord Privy Seal’s loyalty, diligence, wisdom and experience. But Henry believed the man had outlived his usefulness.

In April 1541 a conspiracy came to light in the West Riding of Yorkshire, an attempt by a dozen wealthy gentlemen in the Wakefield area, headed by a Mr Leigh, together with several parsons, to revive the Pilgrimage of Grace. They planned to seize and kill the evangelical Archbishop of York, Robert Holgate, who was President of the Council of the North, and then call in the King of Scots: until he arrived, they hoped to use Pontefract Castle as a base for raising supporters in a revolt against Henry’s ‘bad government and tyranny’.13 However, the rising was nipped in the bud. Chapuys, who says the plot was provoked by the reprisals of 1537, believed that had it got off the ground it would have been even more dangerous than the Pilgrimage – this time the Northerners had no illusions about Henry. About 50 people were involved, of whom 25 were captured. Fifteen were put to death, and Sir John Neville of Chevet (often mistakenly described as the brains behind the plot) was executed on a charge of ‘misprision’, that is, failing to report the plot soon enough.

It seemed that the Northerners’ spirit had finally been broken. In 1541, planning to meet James V and ensure Scotland’s neutrality in the event of an invasion from Flanders or France, King Henry at last summoned up the courage to visit the North Country, and before setting out he made a clean sweep of the state prisoners in the Tower. Those involved in the recent rising were going to die in any case.

A sudden impulse made him decide to include Margaret, Countess of Salisbury. Early, either on 27 or 28 May, she was woken and told without explanation that she was to die that morning. The execution took place at 7 a.m. ‘When informed of her sentence, she found it very strange, not knowing her crime, but she walked to a place in front of the Tower where there was no scaffold but only a small block,’ reports Chapuys. ‘She there commended her soul to God and desired those present to pray for the King, Queen, Prince and Princess.’ In particular, she sent her blessing to the Lady Mary, before being told to stop talking and lay her head on the block. The ordinary executioner being absent on professional business in the North, according to Chapuys, ‘a blundering youth [garçonneau] was chosen, who hacked her head and shoulders almost to pieces’.14

But the ambassador was not present. A seventeenth-century source says the old lady refused to kneel and tottered round, screaming, ‘So shall all traitors die and I am none!’, before being caught and held down on the block.15 The countess was buried beneath the floor of the chancel of the chapel at the Tower of London, St Peter ad Vincula, where her skeleton – and skull – were discovered during a nineteenth-century restoration. With characteristic pettiness, the king sent commissioners down to Christchurch Priory to deface the heraldic devices on the painted roof bosses of her chantry chapel’s ceiling, which presumably included her royal arms. One wonders whether there were white roses among them.

In his despatch, Chapuys gives the Countess of Salisbury a fitting epitaph. ‘God in his high grace pardon her soul, for certainly she was a most virtuous and honourable lady.’16 He adds that she and her son were killed because of their Yorkist blood, the ‘last of the White Rose faction’, while even Hall goes so far as to say, ‘and she was the last of the right line and name of Plantagenet’.17 The ultimate descendant of the longest reigning, most illustrious dynasty in English history, she was worthy of her royal forebears. Yet she died not only for her ancestry but also for her loyalty to the old religion, which the Catholic Church recognized in 1876 by beatifying her as a martyr.

The king’s behaviour towards Margaret Plantagenet revealed his abiding fear of the White Rose. In contrast, although it was clear that she really had plotted against him, Lady Exeter was released and given a pension; spared because she did not have Yorkist blood in her veins. Henry was even frightened of Margaret’s little grandson. Chapuys reported that after Margaret’s death young Henry Pole, who until then ‘had occasionally permission to go about within the precincts of the Tower was placed in close confinement, and it is to be supposed that he will soon follow his father and grandmother’. The ambassador adds, ‘God help him!’ No payments for the boy’s meagre diet are recorded after late 1542. How he died remains a mystery.

Marillac was convinced that the countess had been executed without warning and with such little publicity, ‘in a corner of the Tower’, because of fears that her killing might cause widespread outrage. Older people must surely have recalled the Earl of Warwick’s murder and his curse. But Henry VIII was wrong if he thought he had exorcised the curse by killing Warwick’s sister. His son would die at fifteen and his two daughters would both be childless.

30. May 1541: The Death of the Last Plantagenet

1. Lord Herbert of Cherbury, The Life and Reigne of King Henry VIII, London, 1649, p. 648.

2. H. Pierce, Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury 1473–1541, Cardiff, University of Wales Press, 2003, p. 14.

3. LP Hen VIII, op. cit., vol. VI, 1126.

4. LP Hen VIII, op. cit., vol. XIII (ii), 855.

5. Ibid., 818.

6. Pierce, Margaret Pole, p. 171.

7. St Clare Byrne, Lisle Letters, vol. 5, no. 1419.

8. LP Hen VIII, op. cit., vol. XIV (ii), 212.

9. LP Hen VIII, op. cit., vol. XVI, 1011.

10. Ibid., 403.

11. Pierce, Margaret Pole, p. 176.

12. Bernard, The King’s Reformation, op. cit., p. 574.

13. CSP Sp, op. cit., vol. VI (i), 158. For a detailed account, A.G. Dickens, ‘Sedition and conspiracy in Yorkshire during the latter years of Henry VIII in Reformation Studies, London, Hambledon Press, 1982, p. 5–20.

14. Ibid., 166.

15. The Life and Reigne of King Henry VIII, p.648; CSP Sp, vol. VI (i), p. 332.

16. Hall, op. cit., p. 842.

17. CSP Sp, op. cit., vol. VI (i), 166.

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