Guest article written by: Alan Freer
On the morning of 27th May 1541 an elderly, stately woman walked with dignity, as befitted her birth, from her cell in the Tower of London, in to the yard, and to East Smithfield Green, within the precinct of the brooding castle walls. She had been informed earlier that day that she was to die. Her reply had been to say that no crime had been proved against her. In an effort to play down the event, no wooden scaffold had been built, no large crowd of onlookers was to be present; only the Mayor of London and a few dignitaries were to witness her death. She knelt at the simple, low block of wood, which was to be her final pillow, and commended her soul to God. Turning to the thin line of bystanders she asked them to pray for the King and Queen, for young Edward, Prince of Wales, and for Princess Mary, of whom she was Godmother. She asked that she be particularly commended to the Princess. With a final prayer she placed her delicate, royal neck on the block. The executioner, a clumsy novice, hideously hacked at her neck and shoulders before the final decapitation was accomplished. So died the last of the great and mighty Plantagenet family.
Margaret Plantagenet was born at Castle Farley, near Bath, in August 1473. She was the daughter of George, Duke of Clarence, and Isabel Neville, daughter of Warwick the Kingmaker. From both her father and mother she received a generous helping of royal blood and could call two of her uncles King (Edward IV and Richard III). Little is known of her early years but it can be assumed that they were passed as any child close to the throne of England. When she was five years of age her father met his death in somewhat confusing circumstances for plotting against his brother, Edward IV. Her sickly mother had died the year before so Margaret and her little three-year-old brother, Edward, were left orphaned.
Young Edward, inheriting the earldom of Warwick from his grandfather, Richard Neville, via his mother, had a particularly tragic, short and star-crossed life. Richard III, realizing that the boy had a stronger claim to the throne than himself, had him shut up in closer confinement in Sheriff Hutton Castle. With Richard’s defeat and death at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, Edward was brought to London on the orders of the new king, Henry VII. Unfortunately young Warwick’s position remained precarious. He still had the best claim to the crown and Henry kept him imprisoned in the Tower for the rest of his life purely for no other crime than being the son of George, Duke of Clarence.
This injustice was resented by many and there were still supporters of the Yorkist cause in England. Rumours were riff concerning his condition and whereabouts. Some believed he had escaped while others said he had died in the Tower. It was probably the latter that brought about the rising centred on Lambert Simnel. Sir Richard Symonds, a Yorkist, used this innocent, gentle natured, scholar as a substitute for Warwick. Although Simnel was a non-entity, the threat to the House of Tudor was real. One of the supporters was probably Elizabeth Woodville, the Dowager Queen – her rapid confinement in a nunnery by her son-in-law speaks volumes for her complicity. More dangerous was the adherence of Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy, the late King Edward’s sister. She raised two thousand German troops and sent them to Ireland. The puppet imposter Earl of Warwick was crowned King Edward VI in Dublin on 24th May 1487. After a meeting of the Royal Council at Charterhouse, Richmond, it was decided that the real Edward, Earl of Warwick be taken from the Tower, paraded through the streets of London and attend Mass at St. Paul’s Cathedral. This did not stop the forces of the counterfeit Earl, swelled by Irish soldiers, from landing in Lancashire and marching south. Henry met and defeated the rising at Stoke, killing most of the leaders and taking the hapless Lambert prisoner. He quickly realized that Simnel was an innocent dupe and set him to work in the royal kitchens. There is a tale that he ended up the King’s falconer. The affair did, however, give young Edward one day of freedom – it was to be his last. He was returned to the Tower where he was denied all contact with the outside world. It is even said that “he could not discern a goose from a capon.” Nevertheless, the mere fact that he was alive must have been a cause of anxiety for Henry.
The Tudor Dynasty still sat on an unsteady throne. The advent of Perkin Warbeck, claiming to be the younger of the Princes in the Tower, Richard Duke of York, posed a real danger to Henry’s power. Warbeck was taken prisoner and lodged in the Tower with Warwick.
In late 1498 or early 1499 a young man by the name of Ralph Wilford, together with his Austin Canon tutor, claimed to be the Earl of Warwick. Both Wilford and his tutor were arrested and executed on Shrove Tuesday, 12th February 1499. This relatively minor incident must have brought home to the King that while Warwick lived he would ever be a thorn in his side.
Warbeck chose this time to make a bid for freedom and take Warwick with him. The plot failed and Perkin, together with his confederates, was tried and condemned at Westminster on 16th November and executed at Tyburn on the 23rd. Henry obviously decided to rid himself of all his dynastic problems. On the 21st November Warwick was arraigned before the Earl of Oxford, the High Constable of England, not for attempting to escape from prison, as many historians would have you believe, but on the manufactured charge of conspiracy, with others, to depose the King. In his naivety, the young man pleaded guilty and was condemned to death. He was beheaded on the 28th November on Tower Hill. Thus, within a week, Henry had freed himself of the two most dangerous threats to his throne.
There is firm evidence that Edward’s death was encouraged by Ferdinand, King of Spain, who refused to allow his daughter, Catherine of Aragon, to marry Prince Arthur while there was any doubt over the succession. The Spanish Ambassador’s dispatches show that he attached great importance to the execution. Many years later, when Catherine of Aragon was so bitter over Henry VIII’s efforts to divorce her, she confirmed to Lord Bacon “that it was a judgment of God, for that her former marriage was made in blood, meaning that of the Earl of Warwick.
Meanwhile Margaret had married Sir Richard Pole in about 1494, son of Sir Geoffrey Pole, whose wife, Edith St. John, was half-sister to King Henry’s mother, Margaret Beaufort. The Poles were in high favour and the match, made at the instigation of the King, was a sure way of keeping Margaret close and safely within the royal control. Richard was a landed gentleman of Buckinghamshire and Henry made him a squire of his bodyguard and a knight of the Garter. He was granted various offices in Wales including the constableships of Harlech and Montgomery Castles and was appointed Sheriff of the county of Merioneth. In addition he held the controllership of the port of Bristol, England’s second largest port and a position of trust and authority.
In 1495 Richard Pole raised troops against Perkin Warbeck and in 1497 he served in the King’s army against the Scots with “five demi-lances and 200 archers” and again “600 men-at-arms, 60 demi-lances and 540 bows and bills.” In about 1500 he was appointed Chief Gentleman of the Bedchamber to Prince Arthur and took control of the Welsh Marches on behalf of the King. In 1505 he died leaving Margaret a widow with five children – Henry, Arthur, Reginald, Geoffrey and a daughter Ursula.
Margaret’s relationship with Prince Henry, later Henry VIII, must have been good. On his accession he granted her an annuity of £100 a year and on 14th October 1513 he created her Countess of Salisbury and gave her the family lands of the earldom of Salisbury. Her brother’s attainder was reversed and the Parliament of 1513-14, on the instructions of the new King, made full restitution of all the right of her family. She therefore became an extremely rich lady with lands in Hampshire, Wiltshire, the West Country and Essex. However, Henry did nothing without a price – he had learnt that from his father. There was a heavy charge of redemption money claimed by the King. There is a record that she paid Cardinal Wolsey, the Chancellor, £1000 as first payment of a benevolence of five thousand marks for the King’s wars and, in 1528, she was sued for a further instalment of £2,333, 6 shillings and 8 pence – a vast amount of money.
In 1516 Margaret took on a role that was to influence the rest of her life. On the 18th February the Queen, Catherine of Aragon, was delivered of a healthy child, a girl. Two days later the royal daughter was borne in pomp and solemnity to the Church of the Observant Friars at Greenwich and baptized with the name of Mary. “The Lord Cardinal was her Godfather, the Lady Catherine and the Duchess of Norfolk were her Godmothers at the font, and the Countess of Salisbury was her Godmother at the bishop.”
By May 1520 Margaret was head of Princess Mary’s household. As it was probably dawning on Henry that Catherine would never produce a male heir, this was recognition that Mary was most likely to become Queen of England and that only a person of the highest rank could have charge of his daughter’s welfare.
Other members of Margaret’s family benefited from the King’s favour. Her eldest son, Henry, was created Baron Montague and much of the lands originally held by the Neville family were conferred on him (for a fee of course). He was referred to as Lord Montague in official documents and was a witness to the great peace Treaty of London in 1518. Young Henry became a member of the royal household and accompanied the King in 1520 to the Field of the Cloth of Gold and also to his meeting with Charles V of Spain. The family seemed to prosper under the Tudors but what occurred in 1521 was to sow the seeds of disaster and bring the Countess to that morning on East Smithfield Green.
Margaret’s daughter, Ursula, had married Henry, Lord Stafford in 1518/19. Henry’s father was Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham. Like Margaret, the Duke could claim royal blood on both the male and female line. His grandmother was Margaret Beaufort (not the mother of Henry VII) descended from John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and his grandfather was Humphrey, Earl of Stafford, descended from Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, youngest son of Edward III. Both Margaret Pole and Edward Stafford had more royalty in them than any Tudor King. With Henry VIII having only a female child the Duke of Buckingham saw himself as heir to the kingdom. Never a prudent man, the Duke freely voiced his intention to of seizing the throne should Henry die. The King patiently had him watched and early in 1521 he pounced. The Duke was arrested. The House of Lords pronounced him guilty of treason and condemned him as a traitor. On Friday 17th May at about eleven o’clock the Duke was delivered by the Sheriffs of London, John Kyeme and John Skevyngton, to the scaffold at Tower Hill where he was beheaded. In July the court moved from Windsor to Easthampstead and Margaret was not allowed to accompany her charge, Princess Mary. She had fallen under suspicion due to her close association with the Duke of Buckingham. It would be four years before Margaret was reunited with Mary.
In 1525 Margaret went with Mary to Wales and in the summer of 1526 the King visited her great house at Warblington in Hampshire (a single tower of the house still stands). Unfortunately the reconciliation between the King and the Countess was short-lived.
Henry, desperate for a male heir, broke with Rome, divorced his Queen and married Anne Boleyn. The divorce proclaimed Mary a bastard but Margaret stayed loyal to her Princess. A lady was sent from the court to retrieve Mary’s jewellery but Margaret refused to hand them over. When she was dismissed from her post she declared that she would follow the Princess at her own expense. Her fidelity was much appreciated by Catherine of Aragon but the King was careful to separate his daughter from a woman she regarded as a second mother.
Margaret briefly returned to favour in 1536 at the fall of Anne Boleyn but then two things happened concerning her son, Reginald, which was to change everything. Reginald had been a great favourite of the King. Henry had paid for his education even to the extent of financing a year’s study in Padua, Italy. The King sent him as an emissary into Europe to seek approval for his divorce from Catherine of Aragon and, when he returned, offered Reginald the archbishopric of York or the wealthy bishopric of Winchester, even though he was not yet ordained a priest. The young man realized that with Henry, royal favour came at a price. With the final break with Rome he chose exile. The bombshell came when Reginald published “De Unitate Ecclesiae.” It castigated everything that Henry had done relating to the Church and the King was never a man to take opposition. In recognition of his work for the Catholic faith Pope Paul created Reginald Cardinal, even though he was still not a priest, and made him papal legate to England.
Henry went through the roof. Margaret could see the danger if her son could not. In desperation she and Henry, Lord Montague, wrote to Reginald a strongly worded reproof (all for the consumption of Henry’s spies). She denounced him as a traitor and even expressed her regret that she had given birth to him. Margaret was fighting for her life and those of her family. The previous year such respected men as John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, and Sir Thomas More, once Chancellor of England and a close royal friend, had both met their Maker on Tower Hill for offending this King. The years of 1535 and 36 saw the emergence of that monster of absolute power, tyranny.
The letters and protestations from Margaret and her family were all for the benefit of King and Council and Henry was well aware of this. The King, speaking to the French ambassador, stated openly that he would destroy all of those of the white rose – referring to the Pole connection to the Yorkist, Plantagenet monarchy.
In the summer of 1538 the blow fell. Geoffrey Pole, Margaret’s youngest son, was arrested and committed to the Tower on 29th August. He lay for two months in prison and, in late October, began his interrogation. He was questioned about private conversations and letters sent to and received from Reginald by himself and other members of the family. Geoffrey was faced with the rack and, knowing that he would inevitably implicate his mother and elder brother, he attempted suicide and seriously injured himself. After long periods of interrogation he broke and supplied the “evidence” the King required not only against Margaret and Henry but also against Henry Courtenay, Marquis of Exeter, Sir Edward Neville and others. Henry had Montague and Exeter arrested and committed to the Tower on 4th November.
It was now Margaret’s turn. A spy within her household, Gervase Tyndall, was called before Chancellor Cromwell at Lewes and reported circumstances concerning the escape abroad of the Countess’ chaplain, John Helyar, Rector of Warblington. He also spoke of clandestine letters, sent via a Hugh Holland, to Cardinal Pole. The Earl of Southampton and the Bishop of Ely were sent to Warblington to “examine” the Countess. They questioned her all day but could not extract and admission. Nonetheless they seized all her possessions and moved her to the Earl’s house at Cowdry.
Late in November Montague and the Marquis of Exeter were tried before Lord Chancellor Audeley, the Lord High Steward, and a jury of peers found them guilty of treason. A week later, on the 9th December, both lords met their deaths on Tower Hill. Geoffrey, tried with his brother and Exeter, entered a plea of guilty and was condemned to death but was spared. Cromwell informed the French ambassador that he was hopeful of learning more from him. On representation from his wife, Geoffrey received a pardon for reason that he was so ill that he was already as good as dead. A few weeks after his mother’s death he went in to a haunted exile.
In the spring of 1539 Margaret was moved from Cowdry to the Tower of London and in May a sweeping Act of Attainder was brought against the dead Montague and Exeter and the Countess. Her house at Warblington was searched and letters and papal bulls found. At the third reading of the attainder bill in the House of Lords Cromwell produced a tunic of white silk, embroidered with the arms of England – three lions surrounded by a wreath of pansies and marigolds – which the Earl of Southampton stated was found at her house. On the back of the garment was the badge of the five wounds of Christ, the emblem of a recent northern rebellion. Without a trial, the Act was passed on 12th May 1539.
Because of the popularity of the Countess, Henry stayed the inevitable penalty. By April the following year there was hope that Margaret would soon be released. Now 67 years of age, she had suffered through the winter from cold and a lack of adequate clothing. What sealed her fate was another rising in the north, led by Sir John Neville in April 1541. The King was resolved to be rid of her and so, the following month, she died.
Her eldest son, Lord Montague, left a son and two daughters. The son must have died soon after his father for there is no mention of him in official documents. His daughter, Catherine, married Francis, Lord Hastings, later Earl of Huntingdon, and her sister, Winifred, married a bother of Catherine’s husband. The girls were restored to full honours and property at the accession of Queen Mary. Reginald prospered in the Church and became a chief adviser to Mary. In one of those strange coincidences of history, on 17th November 1558, at 7 o’clock in the morning, Queen Mary passed away. On the same day at 7 o’clock in the evening Cardinal Reginald Pole died. That tortured soul, Geoffrey, had travelled to Rome when he left England and thrown himself at the feet of his brother, the Cardinal. He proclaimed himself unworthy to be considered his brother as he had caused another brother’s death. Reginald obtained his absolution from the Pope and sent him to the Bishop of Liege in Flanders. There he stayed until the accession of Mary. He then returned to England and died a few days before Reginald and was buried at Stoughton. His widow, Constance, died in 1570 and was buried beside him. Geoffrey left five sons and six daughters of whom two married and one daughter became a nun.
Queen Mary killed for religion; her sister, Elizabeth, killed because of political need; but their father committed judicial murder for revenge, pride and in the name of tyranny. Henry died in 1547 having sent so many innocent men and women to their deaths. There was no sadder victim of his vengeful character than that of Margaret Plantagenet, Countess of Salisbury.
Many years ago in my youth, I attended a school in the village of Warblington, on the Hampshire coast between Portsmouth and Chichester. One of the sports in which the school excelled was cross-country running. The usual route was out the school gate, down the road, across the A27, down a potholes country lane, through a field and down, on to the shoreline. In this field stood a crumbling, almost gothic tower of brick and stone. It was surrounded by a few fallen walls and debris all over run with brambles and weeds. The lower entrance to the tower was block and a notice stated “Danger Keep Out.”
Even at that tender age I was fascinated by historical mysteries and I began to dig. I wanted to know who had built this strange, haunted folly known locally as Warblington Castle. The eventually result was a piece I wrote several years ago for a US history heritage website.
About the Author:
I am Alan Freer and live in the small village of Byfleet, Surrey, England. Edward, the Black Prince, spent much of his final years in Byfleet. I have been an amateur “historian” since the age of seven, when I purchased my first history book in 1955. Indeed, it was anticipated that I would become a history teacher, but a brief conversation just before I was due to go to university directed me to the banking industry – more lucrative but, perhaps, not so satisfying! History lead me into genealogy and I have my own website detailing the Descendents of William the Conqueror (www.william1.co.uk ). A never-ending project! When I retired from the bank in 1999 I started to write and have had a number of articles published in US history magazines or on magazine websites. Primarily I wrote for the amusement of my colleagues in my second occupation as a civil servant. I count myself most fortunate to have been born in England and would not wish it otherwise – except, possibly, Italy!!