Hacked to Death: The Incredible True Story of Margaret Pole

By: Emily Miller pole

March 01st is the start to Women’s History month. My goal for the entire month is to post a story every day about an absolutely dynamite, bad ass sensational woman that probably wasn’t included in the history curriculum taught in schools.  To kickstart the month, I’m starting with one of my all time favorite women, Margaret Pole.

When she was born, she had royal blood on both sides of her family and was heir to the House Plantagenet, yet she was eventually executed as a traitor in the Tower of London by her cousin. So what happened to Margaret? Fortunately the in between period is just as sensational as her death.

She was born August 14, 1473, to two key players in Britain’s War of the Roses, George Duke of Clarence and Isabel Neville. Her father George was brother to King Edward IV, and her mother Isabel was Earl of Warwick’s daughter, better known as “The Kingmaker.” She was niece to king on her father’s side, and heir to one of the richest families on her mother’s side.

The first three years of her life were charmed. She was treated like a princess, and she gained a sibling, Edward. Then her world forever changed in 1476 when her mother died in childbirth. Just a few months later, the son she had died giving birth to, Margaret’s baby brother Richard, also died.

This was the breaking point for her father, George. Stricken by grief and paranoia, he believed his wife and son were poisoned by his servants, who he then had executed. He then started to plot to overthrow his brother the King. After one too many plots, his brother King Edward IV had him executed, by drowning her father in a barrel of wine.

By age 5, she was daughter of an executed traitor and an orphan along with her 3 year old brother.

No one knew quite what to do with her and her brother, so the king her uncle Edward passed them off to one of his stepsons. When she was ten, Edward died and her twelve year old cousin Edward became King Edward V. But then he was murdered by her Uncle Richard who became King Richard III. She and her brother were then moved to a castle in York where they spent the next two years. Until their Uncle Richard was murdered on the battlefield and their lives changed forever.

The new King Henry VII married Margaret’s cousin Elizabeth and she decided to take Margaret in. However, her brother Edward, as a boy, was considered a threat to the throne. While Henry VII and Elizabeth helped raise and take care of Margaret, they threw her brother in the Tower of London, leaving her all alone.

She didn’t let her circumstances define her though. She didn’t hold any grudges toward the Kind and Queen for imprisoning her brother, and quickly became a favorite of theirs. They set her up with an advantageous marriage, becoming a countess by marrying Richard Pole. She had children and became incredibly wealthy.

Then once again her world came crashing down.

The King and Queen entered into negotiations with Spain to have their princess, Catherine of Aragon, marry their prince, Arthur of England, in a great political alliance. Spain was willing to send their daughter under one condition. Spain demanded that King Henry VII have Margaret’s brother executed. They felt there was too much political unrest in the country to leave a male heir to the Plantagenet House alive in the Tower of London.

Margaret argued on behalf of her brother saying he was no threat. (Historians of the time acknowledged that Edward was slow.) Henry disagreed however and sentenced her little brother, the last surviving family member she had to death. Spain then sent Catherine of Aragon over, and because of her title, Margaret was forced to become one of her ladies and waiting. Essentially forced to serve the woman responsible for her brother’s death.

But again, she did not hold a grudge. She became a close friend of Catherine and became her fiercest advocate for the rest of her life. She was with Catherine for her marriage to Arthur, and then her marriage to his brother King Henry VIII. The two were so close that Henry and Catherine made her godmother of their only child and heir, Mary. When Henry divorced Catherine to marry Anne Boleyn, Mary was sent to Margaret for safe keeping. That’s how highly she was regarded.

Yet this is where she falls the hardest and for the last time. One of Margaret’s sons Reginald, was a Cardinal in the Catholic church and was staunchly against Henry splitting against the Catholic church and creating the Church of England. As he was safely out of the country, he even wrote a scathing take down of Henry VIII, which displeased him greatly. Since he couldn’t do anything to Leopold, he decided to take out his anger and wrath on his mother, Margaret.

At 65 years old, Margaret was captured and brought to the Tower of London for treason against England. Henry hoped that by imprisoning his elderly mother Leopold would come back. After almost two and a half years of imprisonment Henry finally realized Leopold wasn’t coming back for her and suddenly sentenced her to death within hours on May 27th 1541. It was quite a shock. She ended up carving this on the wall in her cell at the tower:

For traitors on the block should die;
I am no traitor, no, not I!
My faithfulness stands fast and so,
Towards the block I shall not go!
Nor make one step, as you shall see;
Christ in Thy Mercy, save Thou me!

Within an hour she was brought out to the execution block. She was told to kneel. She refused. She said I am not a traitor, I have done nothing wrong, I will not kneel. The executioner again begged her to kneel. She again refused.

So the executioner took a giant whack with his ax and hit her in the shoulder. He thought this would encourage her to kneel. Instead, at 67 years of age stood there still. Angered at her insolence, he just started attacking her. She was hit with the ax a total of 11 times.

She watched all of her family die or be murdered by her own family. Yet she continued to live and fight. Even in her final moments she showed no weakness. Henry VIII tried to make a statement with her death, but instead Margaret got the last word.

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