Margaret Pole: The Countess in the Tower 
by Susan Higginbotham.
Amberley, 214 pp., £16.99, August 2016, 978 1 4456 3594 1
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A painting​ in the National Portrait Gallery offers a grey-white face, long, guarded, medieval, remote: ‘unknown woman, formerly known as Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury’. It is painted on a dateable oak panel, and the dates suit the presumed subject, but the artist is anonymous. Where is Hans Holbein when you need him? The sitter might as well be carved, for all she suggests flesh or circulating blood. Put a different hood on her, and she could be a man – one of her own Plantagenet relations. She is the daughter of a duke and the niece of two kings, Edward IV and Richard III. On her wrist, emblematic, is a small barrel. Her father was Shakespeare’s ‘false, fleeting, perjured Clarence’, who died in the Tower of London at the age of 29, attainted for treason and supposedly drowned in a butt of malmsey.

A possible portrait of Margaret Pole (c. 1535)

A possible portrait of Margaret Pole (c. 1535)

The barrel, though, may have been strung on Margaret after her death. The picture was cleaned in 1973, and study suggested that some original features have almost vanished. A pearl necklace is just a shadow now. The hands are the standard-issue long-fingered type; a black ribbon, added later, may conceal damage to the paint. Margaret – if it is she – wears coral and ermine. She would have been a widow when the portrait was painted, but she holds a sprig of honeysuckle, symbol of love and marriage.

Margaret was a great heiress, grand-daughter of the Earl of Warwick who was known as ‘the Kingmaker’. Born in 1473 into a world of bloody dynastic feuds, she survived under the first Tudor and thrived under the second, until she and her family, long suspected of plots against the regime, were destroyed. The French ambassador said she was ‘above eighty years old’ when Henry VIII had her beheaded, while the Imperial ambassador said she was ‘nearly ninety’. In fact she was 67. The chronology defeated observers, as if her life stretched back into a fabulous era when dragons roamed.

Susan Higginbotham’s carefully written book comes with a misleading cover puff: ‘At last, a biography of one of the most fascinating women of the Tudor period’, who has ‘too long been overlooked’. But Margaret Pole, one of the great magnates of Tudor England, is not overlooked. In The King’s Curse (2014) she was ground up by the great fictionalising machine that is Philippa Gregory, and in 2003 she was the subject of a major biography by Hazel Pierce: Margaret Pole: Loyalty, Lineage and Leadership. Pierce’s book is thorough and scholarly, and her work is acknowledged in Higginbotham’s biography, which is less detailed, but serious and judicious. Based in North Carolina, Higginbotham is a lawyer by background and has written several historical novels, spanning different eras. Through her website she keeps lively links with readers and writers. She is a close student of the sources, and careful not to stuff her novels with false excitements. Her fiction is stiff and chary, as if she is too constrained by her knowledge of the pitfalls to turn her characters loose in their own lives. Seldom distracted from voicing their headline concerns, her people give each other a lot of information, in unmodulated voices, each time they speak. Higginbotham is more comfortable with biography, but this has not deterred her publisher from dressing up her new book like a historical novel of the type she doesn’t much like, with a moody wash of colour and a woman with trailing skirts and half a head. Margaret Pole’s death, notoriously, was not a clean end. In some versions, the plucky old girl refused to kneel at the block, and the headsman had to pin her down. Even the more sedate accounts agree that, like Thomas Cromwell, she was hacked about by a second-string executioner. Higginbotham’s narrative begins with this bungled beheading – so either the jacket designer was in the dark about the contents, or someone at her publisher has a mordant sense of humour.

Seven years after the strange liquid death of Margaret’s father, her uncle Richard III was defeated at Bosworth by Henry Tudor. It is only in posterity’s schoolroom view that Bosworth was the end of the Middle Ages or the end of anything; the noble families didn’t think their wars were over, and indeed they were not, because in 1487 the new king was defending his throne at the Battle of Stoke. A Yorkist pretender had been crowned in Dublin, a child who claimed to be the Plantagenet heir, Edward, Earl of Warwick, Margaret’s 12-year-old brother. Henry Tudor had the real Warwick in custody, and was able to produce him, so the rebellion came to nothing. Stoke was a decisive victory. Henry’s adult opponents were dead or driven abroad. It was children who caused him a problem. The sons of Edward IV, 11 and 13 years old, had been held in the Tower by their uncle Richard III, and last been seen by Londoners in the summer of 1483. But no one could be sure they were dead, and not escaped abroad, or living under assumed names. The little Earl of Warwick remained alive and shut away. But for the rest of his reign Henry VII would be plagued by pretenders, persistently rising from the dead.

Because she was a girl Margaret did not represent the same threat. No one would stage a rebellion in her favour while there were male Yorkists to mount a challenge. Her early years are obscure. Her mother, the great heiress Isabel Neville, died in 1476 after giving birth to her fourth child; this last baby, like Isabel’s first child, did not live. Margaret would have been too young to remember her mother, and it is likely that she was brought up within her father’s princely household, then after his execution lived with her cousins, the many daughters of Edward IV. After Richard III seized the throne, he sent Margaret to Yorkshire with her brother. The two children were of use to him; their maternal family, the Nevilles, commanded allegiance in the north. After Richard was killed, Margaret came to court under the new regime, and in September 1486 she attended the christening of Arthur, the first Tudor prince. There are only glimpses of her in these years: ‘my lady Margaret of Clarence’.

When she reached her teens, a marriage was arranged with Richard Pole, a modest landowner with solid Tudor connections, who had been rewarded for loyalty by being made constable of several Welsh castles. The date of the marriage is uncertain; 1487 is likely. Margaret was 14, and probably remained at court rather than living with her husband. The king’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, was protective of young brides; her own body had been wrecked by a pregnancy at 13. It was five years after the likely date of Margaret’s marriage that her first son was born. It was the beginning of a fertile new line. The remnants of the Plantagenets had no difficulty in breeding, while the Tudors were less lucky. Margaret’s daughter Ursula would have 13 children, and three of her four sons would marry heiresses and have large families. Besides Ursula, four of Margaret’s children lived to adulthood. Her husband’s career flourished. He was made knight of the Garter, and appointed chamberlain to the young Prince of Wales. Margaret may have been deprived of her dynastic importance, but her marriage was honourable and stable, and she retained her status, if not her family’s great titles and wealth.

Her brother’s royal blood, however, remained a danger. He had been shut up for most of his life and, one later chronicler said, ‘could not discern a goose from a capon’. This phrase has been interpreted as meaning Edward was of low intelligence; it only means that he was unworldly, and Higginbotham sees this. His naivety meant that, when threats to the regime mounted, he was easily entrapped. The most persistent of the pretenders who plagued Henry was Peter Warbeck (baptised ‘Perkin’ by the regime to make him sound silly), who claimed to be Richard of York, the younger of the vanished princes. European rulers keen to destabilise England had promoted the claims of this plausible, glamorous young man, but by the summer of 1498 he was in the Tower, about to embark on the last act of his mysterious life. Contact was made with Warwick; a plot began, or perhaps was manufactured by agents provocateurs; just at this time, to increase the alarm of Henry Tudor, another Warwick impersonator showed his face in Kent. The new pretender, Ralph Wilford, was arrested and killed before the conspiracy bred any action. But the king’s horoscope was looking nasty and, according to a Spanish commentator, he aged twenty years in two weeks. It was time to be rid of Warwick. Henry was negotiating a glorious marriage for Prince Arthur, to a daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella. He needed to convince the Spanish he was secure in his kingdom. The alleged plot between the earl and Warbeck was flimsy and perhaps government-sponsored, but both men were tried and executed.

Margaret’s brother was 24. It is unlikely she had seen him for many years, but in any case, mourning for a traitor was inadvisable. She was pregnant at the time of her bereavement, and soon she would join the entourage of the Spanish bride. When Prince Arthur held court in Ludlow with the 15-year-old Catherine of Aragon, Richard Pole was with him, and a friendship began between the bride and the chamberlain’s wife which was to outlast Catherine’s life and have deep and lasting consequences for Margaret Pole. The bridegroom Arthur was dead within months. His brother came to the throne in 1509 as Henry VIII, married the widowed Catherine, and in a first flush of goodwill began to repair the damage to Margaret’s fortunes. When Richard Pole died in 1504 Margaret had had to borrow money to give him a suitable funeral. But three years into his reign, the young Henry VIII restored her to the greater part of her revenues and gave her back a family title, creating her Countess of Salisbury in her own right. With the accession of the young king – uxorious, beautiful and benign – England seemed to have entered a golden age: and at his coronation, all the spectators, and presumably Margaret Pole with them, ‘with great reverence, love and desire, said and cried: “Yea, yea!”’

It was, Pierce says, as if Margaret had won the lottery. She was now one of the richest people in England. After she had redeemed her dead brother’s lands from the crown, she owned property in Calais, and estates in Wales and 17 English counties. She built herself a castle at Warblington, close to the sea on the Hampshire-Sussex border. It was sumptuously furnished and built of brick – a modern material – but moated, crenellated, archaic in form. Her London palace, Le Herber, stood in a busy mercantile quarter, approximately where Cannon Street Station is now, and she rented out the tenements around as workshops, stables and an inn. Inventories paint the picture: tableware of silver and gold, Venetian glass, mother-of-pearl, tapestries portraying the journeys of Ulysses and the discovery of Newfoundland; the countess herself, tall, stately, wears ermine, tawny damask, black satin and black velvet. Looking to her last end, Margaret commissioned a chantry at Christchurch Priory. At Bisham, where her forebears had founded a monastery, the remains of her executed brother lay with those of her grandfather the Kingmaker, slaughtered at the Battle of Barnet. Her son Arthur joined them, dying young, probably in the sweating sickness epidemic of 1528. Arthur had been a courtier, an able jouster and a great favourite with Henry, serving in his privy chamber. Margaret’s whole family had been elevated with her on the wheel of fortune. Ursula married into the powerful Stafford family; of Margaret’s sons, only Reginald did not marry; by the age of seven he was ‘given utterly to God’. Henry, the eldest son, though knighted and given the family title Lord Montagu, did not share the general admiration for the king. But Margaret herself was an ornament to Henry. She was, Pierce says, ‘intelligent, unquestionably virtuous, traditionally pious, and possessed an easy familiarity with the convoluted etiquette of a royal court’. By 1520, as an indication of the trust placed in her, she had been appointed lady governor to the Princess Mary, born in 1516 and the only child of the royal marriage to survive for more than a few weeks.

As the heir to the throne, Mary enjoyed a separate household, and in 1525 she was sent to Ludlow to hold court. The countess was to look after the little girl’s health and diet, ensure that she did not wear herself out in learning French and Latin, and see that her immediate environment was kept spotless, ‘so that everything about her be pure, sweet, clean and wholesome, as to so great a princess doth appertain’. Mary’s food, Henry ordered, was to be served with ‘joyous and merry communication’. Whether the countess was up to this is hard to say, but later the Imperial ambassador was to declare that Mary regarded her as ‘a second mother’. When Henry began proceedings to annul his first marriage, when Catherine was discarded and the Princess Mary downgraded to ‘Lady Mary, the king’s daughter’, Margaret proved fiercely loyal and protective. In an effort to force their co-operation, Henry separated his wife and child, and Margaret – who was Mary’s godmother – offered to serve the young girl at her own expense. She was no longer, though, the sort of influence Henry wished for his daughter. After his marriage to Anne Boleyn and the birth of their daughter, Elizabeth, Mary was sent to join the household of the infant princess. There, she was surrounded by connections of the Boleyn queen. Margaret was superfluous; curtly, Henry wrote her off as a fool. If he had trusted her once, he no longer did so. The prestige of her ancient family, her traditionalist stance in religion, and her status as a peer in her own right – all these defined a woman who might wish to resist the new order. And her gender did not necessarily disqualify her from becoming leader of the opposition – if that was what she chose.

With Margaret’s female peers, there is a gap between what they say and what they do, what they are and what they appear to be. In theory, after she married, a woman’s personal property and real estate were at her husband’s disposal. In practice, pre-nuptial agreements, trusts and the legally sanctioned breach of entails created some flexibility. Most aristocratic women outlived their husbands, and once a woman was widowed she was able to assert her independence and have a say in her family affairs, while cultivating the trope of the ‘defenceless widow’ in any dealings with the authorities. When historical novelists are looking for ways to empower their heroines they opt for making them hotshot herbalists or minxy witches. But literacy was their usual weapon, not spells, and many of them picked up enough legal knowledge to fight their corner in civil disputes. As widows, or as deputies to living husbands, they handled complex legal and financial affairs with aplomb, while assenting – outwardly at least – to their status as irrational and inferior beings. Gaily agreeing that the chief female virtues are meekness and self-effacement, they managed estates, signed off accounts, bought wardships and brokered marriage settlements, all the while keeping up a steady output of needlework. In some cases, they conspired against the crown while claiming, if it went badly, that their weak female brains had been addled by male influence, and that ‘fragility and brittleness’ allowed their trust to be easily abused.

It was Gertrude Courtenay, Marchioness of Exeter, who claimed to be brittle and fragile; one of the most persistent of the aristocratic plotters against Henry, she was in trouble in 1533 for her contacts with Elizabeth Barton, the ‘Nun of Kent’, whose florid line in prophecy was discomfiting to the regime. The nun sought out eminent supporters, especially those who, like Margaret and like Gertrude’s husband, had a claim to the throne, and pressed on them the contents of her visions: unless he went back to his wife and to Rome, Henry would expire in torments. Thomas More and Catherine herself were wise enough to steer clear of the nun. It seems Margaret was questioned about her contacts with Barton, but she came to no harm as a result and, unlike Gertrude, she escaped without grovelling. Whatever her private feelings at this point, in public she was pragmatic and circumspect. Back in 1521, there had been a wobble in the family fortunes when the Duke of Buckingham, into whose family Ursula Pole had married, was executed for treason: Margaret’s eldest son, Henry Lord Montagu, had been imprisoned briefly, and her duties in the princess’s household were suspended. Buckingham was alleged to have said that the lack of sons to carry on the Tudor line was God’s punishment for the imprisonment and death of the young Earl of Warwick. Margaret kept silent on the matter. What a contemporary described as her ‘nobility and goodness’ soon put her back in royal favour. Ten years on, her situation was more difficult to negotiate. Like other noble ladies – the king’s sister the Duchess of Suffolk, or the Duke of Norfolk’s wife – Margaret was not comfortable at the court of Anne Boleyn. But Lord Montagu attended Anne’s coronation – as he would later attend her trial. When Henry imposed an oath which recognised him as head of the church in England, the countess and her household complied. In 1886, Margaret would be beatified by Pope Leo XIII as a martyr to Henry’s regime. But it is difficult to detect in her conduct the heroic virtues assumed by Rome, and easier to see self-protective caution at work. Elizabeth Darrell, later Thomas Wyatt’s mistress, refused the oath; Lady Hussey, wife of one of Mary’s household, was imprisoned because she would not accept Mary’s exclusion from the succession and insisted on addressing her as a princess. But Margaret kept any dissident thoughts to herself, avoiding jeopardy until, in the summer of 1536, the actions of her son Reginald plunged her whole family into trouble.

Reginald was the most interesting and talented of Margaret’s children, and the one to whom she was not close. He was the child Margaret had been carrying when her brother Warwick was executed. When Reginald was seven, and Margaret a widow with an uncertain future, she sent him to be educated at Sheen with the monks of the Charterhouse. Later, he would castigate her in the accents of a hurt child for what seemed to him abandonment, telling her that as she had given him up when he was so young, she should not interfere between him and his conscience. Family solidarity, the code of survival, did not mean much to Reginald, brought up under an alien roof; if he were to lose his earthly family, he said, he would still have the fellowship of the saints in paradise.

It was the king who had paid for Reginald’s education at Oxford and later in Italy, where his noble connections gave him the entrée into the smartest humanist circles. He grew up cultivated and cosmopolitan, sensitive, lively-minded. He was keenly interested in theology, but he was not ordained; he was free to marry if he wished, and propagate a Plantagenet family. When Henry began to poll the European universities about the legality of his annulment, he chose Reginald to visit the Sorbonne, and had no fault to find with the way he carried out his mission. But Reginald stayed in Italy through the reign of Anne Boleyn – supposedly preparing a learned statement on the king’s case. In the spring of 1536 the Boleyn family were destroyed, and the Pole family and other English grandees grouped themselves about the incoming queen, Jane Seymour. If Margaret played any part in the downfall of Henry’s second queen, her role was so far behind the scenes that it has left no trace. But in late June she was back at court by the side of Queen Jane, and the king was looking forward to an era of peace and fertility. At this point, Reginald delivered him a nasty surprise, in the shape of a letter denouncing him as a schismatic, heretic and disgrace to Christendom: a Nero, a wild beast.

It was not so much a letter as a small book. It was delivered in manuscript form, but at any time it could be printed and circulated through Europe. Later that year, Reginald was summoned to Rome, made a cardinal and put in charge of organising a crusade against England – economic sanctions first, war if need be. No great European power was willing to commit men or money to this crusade, but their unwillingness was not apparent at the time. England became an embattled nation. The threat seemed even greater by 1538, when the two great powers, France and the emperor, signed a peace treaty which left them free to turn their attention to the pariah nation. Reginald was present at the treaty negotiations. The danger the Tudors saw lay not in the present disposition of the Pole family – who vehemently protested their loyalty – but in their claim to the throne, and in Reginald’s actions while he was out of the jurisdiction. Henry and his ministers suspected Reginald of plotting to marry the king’s daughter Mary, and unite her claim with his.

Henry wanted Reginald to come back to England and talk the matter over, but Reginald had the sense to keep his distance. As his disgrace deepened, Margaret withdrew from court. She spent much of her time at Warblington, where she was nicely placed, in the event of an invasion, to help the rebels against Henry; or so you thought, if you were one of Henry’s councillors. Her many fortified houses and castles, the number of tenants she could turn out, the belligerent propaganda from abroad – all these brought the whole family into deep suspicion. Margaret reminded Reginald what they all owed to the Tudors, and urged him to give up his enterprise, to ‘take another way’ and serve the king: his renegade actions, she said, had plunged her into grief and fear, and ‘trust me, Reginald, there never went the death of thy father or of any child so nigh my heart.’ Thomas Cromwell, who spied efficiently on the whole family, tried to have Reginald abducted or assassinated. But Reginald, it seemed, always got a tip-off. His crusade against his native land was never launched, but many years later he would return, Archbishop of Canterbury to Mary Tudor, and join in heresy-hunting and the burning of reformers. But for now he was out of Henry’s reach, leaving his family as hostages.

Was the family sincere in deploring his disloyalty? ‘Learning you may well have,’ his brother Montagu wrote to him, ‘but doubtless no prudence nor pity.’ Reginald had compared himself to a surgeon ready to cut away diseased flesh from the body of England: not the most tactful metaphor, when your anointed king is dragging about with an ulcerated leg. Higginbotham follows Pierce in refusing to vilify Henry for his treatment of the Poles. Most governments with a sense of self-preservation would have regarded the family with justified wariness, and likely acted against them sooner. Their destruction came with a wave of arrests in the autumn of 1538. Margaret’s youngest son, Geoffrey, probably under threat of torture, denounced not only his own family but the Courtenay clan and other prominent members of the old families. Afterwards, he made a botched suicide attempt. Margaret, warned of the threat he represented to her own interests and life, said: ‘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.’

At this point she was questioned rigorously by Henry’s councillor William Fitzwilliam. ‘Yesterday … we travailed with the Lady of Salisbury all day – before and after noon, till almost night.’ Sometimes the questioners were mild, sometimes roughly spoken, ‘traitoring her and her sons to the ninth degree – yet will she nothing utter.’ Margaret continued not uttering, or uttering no proof of treason. Either her sons had not made her aware of their dealings, Fitzwilliam concluded, or she was an adept in brazen deceit. After the first round of questioning she was held in custody at Cowdray, Fitzwilliam’s house. Lady Fitzwilliam would not stay in the house alone with the countess, and the Lord Admiral soon requested Cromwell to take his guest away, sending his complaints with ‘a few Shelsea cockles’ for the minister’s table: ‘I beg you to rid me of her company, for she is both chargeable and troubles my mind.’ When Margaret was attainted in May 1539, Cromwell displayed a mute witness against her, a ‘coat-armour’ found among her effects, painted with the royal arms and the emblems of the family, ‘pansies for Pole, and marigolds for my Lady Mary’, as one witness explained: ‘Pole intended to have married my lady Mary, and betwixt them both should again arise the old doctrine of Christ.’

But by then Lord Montagu was dead, executed along with the Marquis of Exeter and other opponents of the regime. It was not a bloodbath, but a selective cull, carried through by process of law. For at least five years, Montagu, Exeter and others had been passing information to the emperor through his ambassador, urging the invasion of England, and Reginald himself had assured the readers of his 1536 letter that a host of disaffected subjects were lurking within the realm, ready to support the invaders against Henry as soon as foreign troops landed. At their trial, a Cromwellian observer said, the noblemen stood at the bar ‘with castyng up of eies and hands, as though those thyngs had ben never herd of before, that thenne were laid to theyr charge’. Margaret was perhaps guilty only by association, but at this distance it is impossible to tell. She was head of her family, a magnate with vast resources in men and money; any disaffection on her part was dangerous. Geoffrey Pole, who had given the government what it needed, was pardoned. The veteran plotter Gertrude Courtenay was treated with clemency; unlike Margaret, she was not a free agent but a married woman subject to her husband, and not a claimant to the throne in her own right. Margaret was not executed with her eldest son, but was held in the Tower for the last years of her life – the king paying her bills, outfitting her as became a great lady in furred petticoats and a satin nightgown. She was executed in 1541, the act of attainder rendering a trial unnecessary. It was a housekeeping matter, the French ambassador said; Henry, now with his fifth wife, Katherine Howard, wanted to make a progress north, and to empty the Tower before he set off, either by acts of mercy or the condemnation of detainees. On the scaffold, Margaret prayed for the royal family – all except Anne Boleyn’s daughter, Elizabeth, whom she regarded as illegitimate. Then, her prayers completed, she faced the incompetent axeman.

In​ 1876, during restoration work on the chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, the bones of a tall, elderly woman came to light. The skeleton was not complete, but part of the skull had survived, and certain other bones. This is what Margaret is now, besides paper and ink, and the ruins of her palaces: pieces of breastbone and pelvis, a single finger bone and four vertebrae. Her thoughts, her motives, are so hidden, either by her inclination or by the work of time, that it is difficult for the most diligent biographer to put her together and make her walk and talk. Her life, marked by stunning reversals of fortune, is an irresistible subject, but it presents a familiar difficulty for the historian. Was she, at this point or that, doing nothing of interest at all – or was she doing everything, in a way that was almost supernaturally discreet? Margaret’s later life, at least, is well documented, but we cannot approach her story from the inside. We know her, as we know so many of her contemporaries, through her inventories, through legal documents and official letters. Did she plot against the crown? Did she, as the regime alleged, burn the evidence that incriminated her? Or was there, as she claimed, nothing worth burning?

It is only in adversity that Margaret shows herself, in the records of her interrogations, when she was a woman in her sixties, experienced, shrewd, hard to frighten. Fitzwilliam despaired of getting anything out of her but denials, and paid her a twisted compliment in the way Tudor men did: ‘We may call her rather a strong and constant man than a woman … she has shown herself so earnest, vehement and precise that more could not be.’ When he told her that her goods had been seized, she must have known it was the beginning of the end, and ‘seemeth thereat to be somew[hat] appalled’, but neither then nor at any later point did she profess anything but loyalty to Henry and regret at her family’s folly. Only when Fitzwilliam called Reginald a ‘whoreson’ did she object, saying ‘with a wonderful sorrowful countenance’ that ‘he was no whoreson, for she was both a good woman and true.’ When Reginald, lying abroad, heard of her death, he announced to his secretary that he was now the son of a martyr. He then disappeared into his private closet, and after an hour, ‘came out as cheerful as before’.

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