27 May 1541 – Margaret Pole
Accuracy is all you can hope for when you’re having your head lopped off. Sadly Margaret Pole wasn’t thus blessed with a handy axeman, so several chops later and finally her head was severed on this day within the walls of the Tower of London.
For Margaret, of the royal Plantagenet bloodline, was being executed for being perhaps closer to the throne than her young, upstart second cousin Henry VIII. For her lineage was indisputably kosher – she was the very last member of the Plantagenet kings and queens. Her uncles were Edward IV and Richard III, whereas Henry VIII’s dad, AKA Henry VII had actually married into the dynasty.
Henry was descended from the house of Lancaster, which had defeated Richard III’s house of York in the War of the Roses. And while his victorious dad had married Richard’s sister Elizabeth in an apparent bid to bind the two houses, the threat of a York revival was always there. That’s why Henry’s dad had Margaret’s brother executed, plus Edward IV’s two boys, became known as the princes in the Tower, after they mysteriously disappeared.
That left the one remaining Plantagenet and, ok, so she was female and less of a threat, but, as with any royal threat, it was all too dodgy a situation for words. So, Henry did what he did best when he had a woman in the way and that was to take off her head.
To be fair, at first Henry was keen to keep her sweet, reinstating family titles and lands – so Lady Pole morphed into the much grander sounding Countess of Salisbury. After all, she was already a lady-in-waiting and good friend to his first wife and the two women had been getting on famously before Henry had even bagged Catherine. You see, Catherine of Aragon had actually been married to Henry’s brother, Arthur and it was during that time that Margaret had bonded with her.
Everything was fine, all ticked along until Henry’s rovingly rampant radar kicked in and honed in on Anne Boleyn. When she came on the scene, Catherine of Aragon’s stint as queen was so over and Henry appealed to his cousin for support. However, Margaret refused to lend it, naturally staying steadfastly loyal to her mate.
It was all change. What with divorce and a new church in the offing, the whole royal household, as well as the religious stance of the country, were in a state of flux. Her son, the critical Cardinal Reginald Pole then stuck his oar in, writing an inflammatory book bigging up the Catholic church from the relative safety of Italy. In it, he criticised the newly formed Church of England – which set Henry as the head of the church as opposed to the Catholic view that the pope was central to proceedings.
Well Henry was incensed. And in 1538, while he couldn’t get to her motor-mouth son, he could definitely get to Margaret and the rest of the family. He heartbreakingly removed her forcibly from her office as governess to his daughter Mary.
Naturally, Margaret was cross with her zealot of an offspring and even branded Reginald a traitor, because the repercussions of his ill-thought words landed the rest of the family in real trouble. Sir Geoffrey Pole, Henry Lord Montague, Sir Edmund Neville, the Marquis of Exeter, and Sir Nicholas Carew all got banged up in the Tower charged with treason and in one fell swoop they lost their heads. Indeed, Margaret was arrested ‘for carrying letters to the pope’ too.
Only then did the Cardinal understand the gravity of his misguided actions. She was taken to the Tower to await her death. Word finally came the morning of 27 May 1541 that she would die within the hour and the 67-year-old was again forcibly taken to the green area within the confines of the Tower to a private beheading reserved only for those of the royal bloodline.
Popular myth says she was chased round the block by an axe-wielding executioner, but that’s rubbish. Alright so she struggled as her neck lay exposed on the block, but who wouldn’t? As a result, the aimless executioner kept missing the mark and had to hack away, hitting her shoulder first. A few blows later and she was dead.
However, it was her final speech that was to leave a lasting influence. ‘Blessed are they who suffer persecution for justice’ sake for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven’ were her departing words and they secured her on the eventual road to martyrdom. For blessed she was – in 1886 the Pope beatified her and she is currently in an orderly queue awaiting cannonisation.