The Strangest Execution of Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury

The Strangest Execution of Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury

During the reign of Henry VIII, between 1509 and 1547, it is estimated that between 57,000 and 72,000 English subjects were executed, although this might be an exaggeration and we shall never know.

The execution of Margaret Pole, 8th Countess of Salisbury (14 August 1473 – 27 May 1541), stands out as one of the most unjust as well as extremely grisly, totally unfit for a frail lady of 67 and relative of the king.

Margaret de la Pole had the misfortune to be of English royalty with a strong Yorkist bloodline. She was the daughter of George, Duke of Clarence, the brother of Richard III and Edward IV, and one of the few surviving members of the Plantagenet dynasty after the Wars of the Roses. Her first cousin was Elizabeth of York, mother of Henry VIII. Margaret was godmother and governess of Henry’s daughter Mary.

A famous son of Margaret was Reginald Pole (12 March 1500 – 17 November 1558), a cardinal of the Catholic Church and the last Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury, holding the office from 1556 to 1558, during the Counter-Reformation. During the 1530s, with the religious change in England, Reginald fled abroad. He refused to acknowledge Henry as supreme head of the new Church of England and staunchly disagreed with his break from the Catholic church and the Pope, an act of high treason on behalf of Reginald. This left Margaret in a precarious situation.

In May 1539 Margaret and other members of her family were attainted as traitors. Some were executed. Margaret was imprisoned in the Tower. As part of the evidence for the Bill of Attainder put against Margaret, Thomas Cromwell produced a tunic bearing the Five Wounds of Christ, symbolizing Margaret's support for Roman Catholicism and of her son, the exiled cardinal. The supposed discovery, six months after her households were searched at her arrest, is surely a fabrication of the truth.

On the morning of 27 May 1541, she was taken from her cell to the place within the precincts of the Tower of London where a low wooden block had been prepared instead of the customary scaffold. According to an eye witness account by the Lord Mayor of London, the execution was performed by "a wretched and blundering youth who literally hacked her head and shoulders to pieces in the most pitiful manner." 

The executioner missed her neck the first time, gashing her shoulder. It took a further ten blows to finish her off. A second account tells of how she managed to escape from the block and that she was hewn down by the executioner as she ran. This second account concurs with the first in that it says that eleven blows were required.

Execution of Margaret de la Pole in the Tower of London, copper engraving, "Review of Fox's Book of Martyrs" by William Andrews, 1826:

Henry had killed her because she had the audacity to have given birth to children who were too closely related to him and was therefore too close to his throne. 

The unlawfully judged the elderly woman did not deserve her cruel end. Following the execution of his mother, Cardinal Reginald Pole said that he would ‘Never fear to call himself the son of a martyr.’ And 345 years later, Lady Salisbury became exactly that. On the 29th December 1886, Pope Leo XIII beatified Margaret, making her Blessed Margaret Pole, a Catholic martyr. Her feast day is the 28th of May, the date that some sources give as her execution date.
The Strangest Execution of Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury
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