Of the many executions ordered by Henry VIII, surely the most horrifying was that of sixty-seven-year-old Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, hacked to pieces on the scaffold by a blundering headsman.
From the start, Margaret’s life had been marred by tragedy and violence: her father, George, Duke of Clarence, had been executed at the order of his own brother, Edward IV, and her naive young brother, Edward, Earl of Warwick, had spent most of his life in the Tower before being executed on the orders of Henry VII.
Yet Margaret, friend to Katherine of Aragon and the beloved governess of her daughter Mary, had seemed destined for a happier fate until religious upheaval and rebellion caused Margaret and her family to fall from grace. From Margaret’s birth as the daughter of a royal duke to her beatification centuries after her death, Margaret Pole: The Countess in the Tower tells the story of one of the fortress’s most unlikely prisoners.
Margaret Pole: the Countess in the Tower tells the story of an amazing woman who navigated two eras of history. Born into the Medieval world, during the reign of her uncle, Edward IV, she survived the change of dynasty and prospered during the reign of Henry VII; marrying and starting a dynasty of her own. During the reign of Henry VIII, she was accorded the title of Countess of Salisbury in her own right, and given the charge of her cousin’s most prized possession; his only daughter and heir, Mary Tudor.
Susan Higginbotham tells Margaret’s story in great detail. Starting with a childhood marred by her father’s attainder and execution by his own brother – Edward IV – the reader is drawn into Margaret’s life and family. From the highs of being governess to the princess, through the lows of her years of imprisonment in the Tower, and eventual execution at an age – 67 – when she should have been allowed to spend her days in quiet retirement, surrounded by her grandchildren; Susan Higginbotham tells a fascinating story of family tragedy, national politics and religious upheaval.
What Margaret thought of the death of her uncle Richard III we cannot know, but as she rode south on the orders of the new King Henry, she must have done so with some trepidation. Orphaned, with her closest relative a boy younger than herself, she had no powerful male relations to speak up for her, nor could her female ones be of much help. Her paternal grandmother, Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, was the mother of a defeated king; her maternal grandmother, Anne Beauchamp, Countess of Warwick, had been stripped of her lands during Edward IV’s reign….Thus, young Margaret’s future rested largely in the hands of a man neither she nor most other people in England had even met.
Engaging and sympathetically told, Susan Higginbotham’s narrative is a joy to read. It draws you in to Margaret’s life, relating her fears and hopes – and a deep and enduring love for her family.
Susan Higginbotham has undertaken an incredible amount of research for this book, an endeavour which shines through on every page. The author has reconstructed Margaret Pole’s life and death, using every primary source available. Highlighting contradictions and explaining omissions, she takes the countess’s story from her earliest days to her final, dreadful moments… and beyond. Included at the end of the book is an appendix of over 30 pages of written evidence taken in the Exeter Conspiracy; a conspiracy involving at least 2 of her sons, which would see her imprisoned in the Tower for years before she was sent to the executioner’s block. It made for some absorbing reading late into the night.
All the key players in Margaret’s story are discussed, their actions and influence on Margaret’s life analysed and assessed. From Henry VIII to Princess Mary and Margaret’s own children. Susan Higginbotham’s analysis is unrivalled, her words painting vivid portraits of all the main characters who had a part to play Margaret’s life and explaining her relationships in detail.
Moreover, Margaret’s story is firmly placed in the wider context of English and European politics of the time; and in the great upheaval of the Reformation. Where there is contention, the author presents all possible arguments, before giving her own opinion and explaining her reasoning. She makes clear where information is lacking and highlights where she is providing her own theory and opinions.
In my recent interview with her, I asked Susan Higginbotham if she saw Margaret as a victim or a heroine, and she replied:
I would say a heroine, because she had strong beliefs which she maintained in the face of pressure, and she conducted herself with courage and dignity throughout adversity. I don’t think she would like to be remembered as a victim.
This biography of Margaret reinforces Susan Higginbotham’s statement. Margaret is portrayed as a strong, independent woman, who had raised a large family single-handed, following the death of her husband. Margaret had a strong faith and demonstrated great loyalty to the Tudor dynasty. Her courage and strength of purpose shines through on every page – as does her intelligence. Margaret Pole was no meek and feeble woman, she stood up for her beliefs, herself and her family, while always maintaining her loyalty to the crown.
Susan Higginbotham treats Margaret Pole with great compassion and dignity, telling her story – and that of her family – in such an engaging manner that the book is impossible to put down. Knowing how events will eventually play out makes it no less compelling.
It is a fascinating story and – ultimately – a sad one; however, it’s also a story of faith, courage and perseverance. Margaret Pole: the Countess in the Tower is a wonderful read – shining a light on the life of a woman whose story deserves to be told.
Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia