May 28

In May, 1541 an old lady was hacked to death in the Tower of London on the orders of Henry VIII. The victim was Margaret Pole (1473-1541), Countess of Salisbury, and her crimes were being a loyal Catholic and a member of an inconvenient family.

Margaret was born into royalty. She was the daughter of George, Earl of Clarence, brother to two Yorkist kings, Edward IV and Richard III, but when Richard died in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth, her heritage made her a target of the new Tudor dynasty. Over the next few decades Margaret would see her family members picked off, one by one, by Henry VII or Henry VIII. Her brother Edward was imprisoned in the Tower for years but was still executed for a conspiracy in which he had no part.

Despite her dangerous relations, Henry VIII treated Margaret well. She was named Countess of Salisbury in her own right, one of only two women in the sixteenth century with an aristocratic title independent of a husband; she was named to Princess Mary’s household and was a lady-in-waiting to Queen Katherine. Her peril, however, emerged in the 1530s with the divorce of Katherine and the king’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. Margaret opposed the divorce and stood by Mary even after she had been declared a bastard. But it was her son Reginald Pole who brought her the most trouble. Reginald was a brilliant scholar, destined for a career in the Church and the recipient of Henry VIII’s patronage. However, Reginald broke with Henry on religious grounds, called on Englishmen to rebel against him, and was named a Cardinal by the pope. Henry sent assassins to murder Reginald and not too long after had Margaret and two of her sons arrested for conspiring with Reginald against the king. One son was executed, the other exiled, and Margaret, after years in the Tower was condemned to beheading. She maintained her innocence and wrote a poem carved in her cell, declaring this:

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!

In an era when it was considered the height of good manners to go calmly to one’s execution and make a humble speech of contrition, Margaret refused to cooperate in her death. She did not lay her head on the block as required and had to be held down. The rookie executioner struggled to make a clean chop to the neck of the struggling victim and, in fact, it took ten whacks before the poor woman died. The official report blamed the “blundering youth” who “hacked her head and shoulders to pieces”. The Catholic Church considers her a martyr; she was beatified in the nineteenth century.

But there may have been some posthumous revenge. Visitors to St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle are told that the body of Henry VIII lies underneath its stones. There was, however, a different story told shortly after: in the 1550s Reginald Pole was now the Archbishop of Canterbury and it is said that he and Queen Mary, who had suffered so much at the hands of her father, had Henry’s corpse disinterred, burnt and the ashes scattered in the river.

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