Book Corner: Margaret Pole, the Countess in the Tower by Susan Higginbotham

indexOf 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.

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George, Duke of Clarence – Margaret’s father

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.

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Cardinal Reginald Pole – Margaret’s most famous son

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.

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Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury

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.

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Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

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My book, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK and worldwide from Book Depository. It is also available on Kindle in both the UK and USA and will be available in Hardback from Amazon US from 1 May 2018.

Be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter.

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©Sharon Bennett Connolly 2016

Book Corner: Hanging Mary by Susan Higginbotham

51lmZWdly4L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_In 1864 Washington, one has to be careful with talk of secession. Better to speak only when in the company of the trustworthy, like Mrs. Surratt. A widow who runs a small boarding house, Mary Surratt isn’t half as committed to the cause as her son, Johnny. If he s not escorting veiled spies, he s inviting home men like John Wilkes Booth, the actor who is even more charming in person than he is on the stage. But when President Lincoln is killed, the question of what Mary knew becomes more important than anything else. Based on the true history of Mary Surratt, Hanging Mary reveals the untold story of those on the other side of the assassin’s gun.

 Hanging Mary is a wonderfully deep, thought-provoking book which transports you back to 19th century Washington and walks you through the months leading up to the Lincoln Assassination, the assassination itself and, finally, the dreadful aftermath. More than a novel, Hanging Mary allows you to experience the lives of the men and women caught up, however unwittingly, in the conspiracies of John Wilkes Booth.

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Mary Surratt’s boarding house

As the title suggests, the eponymous heroine, Mary Surratt pays the ultimate price for her southern sympathies. One of the 2 narrators, Mary tells the story of how her respectable boarding house and its residents were caught up in the plot to kill the president.

The other narrator is Mary’s boarder, Nora Fitzpatrick, a young woman who sees Mary as a surrogate mother. A spectator, rather than a conspirator, Nora watches the unravelling of the lives of those in the boarding house. Caught up in the aftermath, but unable to desert her former landlady, she bears witness to the events as they unfold. Between them, Mary and Nora, reveal the story of the plot to kidnap Lincoln, which eventually led to his assassination at Ford’s Theatre. We watch the comings and goings at the boarding house, are introduced to the dashing actor, John Wilkes Booth, and to Mary’s own son, John H Surratt.

As the story develops we experience the fear of not knowing what will happen, of being imprisoned and of not knowing what is happening in the wider world as the tale moves inexorably to its conclusion.

Nora: ….Mr Wilson came to our room. “Collect your things, Miss Fitzpatrick. You’re to be released, and your father is waiting to take you home.”

“What about the others, sir?”

“The orders concern only you, miss”

I embraced Anna. “They’ll free you and your mother soon, I just know it. They’re investigating and realizing that we’re innocent of all this.”

“I hope so.”

Brushing my eyes I left the dejected Anna behind, I followed Mr Wilson to the office where I had been searched. There my father was pacing around. “Nora!” He took me into his arms. “My darling child, I have been frantic with worry.”

“And she’s safe and sound, just as I told you,” Mr Wilson said. “Can we give you a ride in the ambulance? It’s a dreary day, as you know.”

“Thank you, but I prefer to take my daughter home myself,” my father said stiffly.

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Surrattsville, where the family owned the local tavern.

You cannot read this book without being touched by Mary’s story. It draws you in, takes hold and refuses to let you go. By the climax of the trial, it was impossible to put the novel down; I read late into the night, feeling that witnessing the end of Mary’s journey was an obligation that had to be seen through. The words paint images in your mind that are vivid, at times horrifying, but which let you know that you are witnessing history and a brutal justice.

The book stays with you for days afterwards, thinking of the dignity of the woman who faced her fate with as much stoicism as she could muster. The novel reminds you of the humanity and compassion of those who stuck by Mary in her time of need; those who supported and helped her and tried to obtain a reprieve, even though they didn’t know her.

Susan Higginbotham has used her extensive research skills to recreate life in 1860s Washington. The book is full of little tidbits of information which will amaze the modern reader; such as that petitioners could walk straight into the White House and ask to see the president (can you imagine that?). The locations are described in vivid detail; down to the graffiti on the prison walls and the crowds outside the White House during the president’s speech. You find yourself immersed, not only in the story, but in the heart of Washington DC itself; in the social life and the politics and in the death throes of the Civil War itself.

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Mary Surratt

The strength of this book, however, is in the characters. Mary Surratt is a sympathetic heroine, trying to make it through life as best she can after her late husband had wasted away most of their money. She is caught between supporting her son, an active sympathiser of the South, and protecting her daughter, Anna. Her all-too-human trait of going with the flow, and her failure to recognise the dangers surrounding the plotters, draws her  into the edges of the conspiracy, but how much she actually knew, and whether she committed treason, is  open to interpretation.

John Wilkes Booth comes across as a smooth-talking, gallant charmer, who tends to know the right thing to say. It’s easy to imagine how his swarthy, confident manner could draw Mary into his conspiracy, to make her believe she is just being helpful, but doing nothing wrong. However, Booth’s refusal to be taken alive meant anyone associated with him was caught up in the web of conspiracy, and left Mary with no one to attest to her level of involvement – or lack thereof.

The author has used the memoirs of those involved, court transcripts and newspaper reports in order to recreate Mary Surratt’s life as faithfully as possible. Telling the human side of the story the book takes you on an emotional rollercoaster, with moving and powerful imagery. But it is well worth the disturbed sleep, to be able to experience such a wonderful, thought-provoking, poignant story.

This is a book not to be missed and a story that needed telling – I can’t recommend it highly enough. The language, history, the personal stories – even the locations – all combine to make this novel a unique piece of literature and an experience in itself.

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Susan Higginbotham‘s meticulously researched historical fiction brought to life by her heartfelt writing delights readers. Higginbotham runs her own historical fiction/history blog, History Refreshed by Susan Higginbotham, and owns a bulletin board, Historical Fiction Online. She has worked as an editor and an attorney and lives in Apex, North Carolina, with her family.

Available from Amazon in the UK & the US.

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Pictures are courtesy of Wikipedia.

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My book, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK and worldwide from Book Depository. It is also available on Kindle in both the UK and USA and will be available in Hardback from Amazon US from 1 May 2018.

Be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter.

©2016 Sharon Bennett Connolly