The Tragic Dignity of Margaret Pole

A brief mention of today’s saint, Blessed Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury (+1541), the daughter of George, Duke of Clarence, who was in turn the brother of Kings Edward IV and Richard III, of Shakespeare’s fame – but the last of the Plantagenets has been somewhat maligned, methinks. When Richard fell in the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, she was one of the few surviving members of the Plantagenet dynasty to hold her lands, after the upstart Welshman Henry Tudor claimed the throne – some say illegitimately – as Henry VII, thus beginning a familial hegemony that would end with the tragic excommunicated spinster Queen Elizabeth – who, after falling into a drawn-out melancholia, purportedly died wailing at hideous spirits others could not see.

But back to Margaret, who was left impecunious for a time, until the reign of Henry’s eponymous successor and son, the Eighth, when she reclaimed favour, even acting as governess for Henry’s daughter Mary Tudor. For a good part of her life, she was one of richest, most landed and influential women in England, producing four sons and one daughter by her husband, Richard Pole.

Yet all was undone in the later, paranoid, and tyrannical part of Henry’s reign, the once-fair and handsome king, now ridden with disease and pustules and so obese he could no longer walk. This was long after he had parted ways with the Church, claiming to himself full supremacy in matters temporal and spiritual, dissolving the monasteries, and arrogating all ecclesiastical wealth and lands into the royal coffers, putting to death, by means mostly foul, any who were even suspected of being ‘against’ the King’s new role as the English vicar of Christ.

Well, one who was against the King and his sacrilegious usurpation was Cardinal Reginald Pole, one of Countess Margaret’s four sons, who, as special envoy to England, gave aid and advice to the Pilgrimage of Grace to overthrow Henry, and install a more Catholic regime.

Henry could not touch Cardinal Pole, who was in exile on the continent, so he took his rage out on his Eminence’s mother, arresting and throwing her in the dank Tower of London with no trial, and no charge, where she was kept for two and a half years, albeit with a few more amenities than the usual prisoner – a faint touch of mercy.

That is, until the fateful morning of May 27th, 1541, when the Countess, now 67 years old – a venerable age in that era – was told she was to be executed within the hour. She demanded to know her crime, but none was given. Escorted to the courtyard, her head was to be removed in private, in keeping with her noble station. But in indignation, she refused to lay that same noble head upon the block. Further, as the main executioner had been sent north to deal with the rebels, an inexperienced youth was summoned to do the dastardly deed. Hence, the dignified Margaret Pole, trying to avoid the swinging axe, was, by eyewitness accounts, quite literally and brutally hacked to death as she ran about, a sign of the bloody chaos of Henry’s reign, and of the undoing of England. The dissolution of the kingdom begun under Henry has now just about reached completion.

Margaret was beatified by Pope Leo XIII in 1886, precisely ten years before the same Pope, in the papal bull Apostolicae Curae, declared Anglican orders ‘null and void’. A century and thirteen years after that, Pope Benedict XVI, with the 2009 Apostolic Constitution, Anglicanorum Coetibus, would provide for an Anglican rite in the Catholic Church, easing the way for conversions back to truth and unity, while keeping one’s own traditions.

God always has His time and His ways, even if they seem rather chaotic and haphazard from our perspective. The saints still intercede, standing before the throne of God, and, with that, we may hope that what England was, she may, even in some small part, be again.