The Revenge of Margaret Pole

by Heather R. Darsie

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On 28 July 1540, a great, accomplished man of Tudor Times was beheaded on Tower Hill. That man was Thomas Cromwell, briefly the 1st Earl of Essex, and Henry VIII’s Chief Minister.

Cromwell sought to reform and consolidate the legal system the secular legal system and move away from canon law. Cromwell succeeded in establishing new courts, such as the Court of Augmentations. He was able to reduce the size of Henry’s Privy Council, too. By 1536, there were nineteen members.

Portrait of Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein the Younger, via Wikimedia Commons

Cromwell established the King’s power through Parliamentary statute. This was Cromwell’s attempt at unifying the laws of England, and, no doubt, giving Henry more power and control. The only laws under this new doctrine not subject to the King’s statutes in Parliament were the laws of God and Nature. This power of the King-in-Parliament arose out of the need for Henry to make laws for governing the church during the Reformation. Cromwell was able to extend the concept of King-in-Parliament generally, although Henry required the agreement of Parliament before he could act. Henry could not just pass statutes on his own to affect his own ends.

On 14 November 1538, Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, was arrested. The charge was treason. She was the niece of Edward IV and Richard III of England by way of their brother George Plantagenet, 1st Duke of Clarence. Born 14 August 1473, Margaret was one of the few Plantagenets who had survived the Wars of the Roses She was the mother of four boys, Henry, Arthur, Reginald, and Geoffrey, as well as a daughter named Ursula all of whom presented a threat to Henry’s right to the throne.

Unknown Woman, formerly identified as Margaret Pole, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery via Wikimedia Commons


Margaret’s son Arthur died young, and Reginald became a Cardinal. Reginald fled England to Rome because of his disagreement over the treatment of Katharine of Aragon. He published a treatise in 1536 refuting Henry’s religious supremacy in England, then had the audacity to send it to Henry to read.  Reginald was elevated from the position of deacon to cardinal in December 1536 and actively worked against the religious reforms being put in place in England. Reginald did not return to England during the rest of Henry’s reign, but under Mary I returned as Papal Legate.

It is thought that Margaret’s daughter Ursula married Henry Stafford, 1st Baron Stafford in 1519. Ursula was thus related by marriage to Thomas Howard, 3d Duke of Norfolk. Howard had married Ursula’s sister-in-law, Elizabeth Stafford, in 1513.

Her son Geoffrey was involved in the 1536 uprising known as the Pilgrimage of Grace. Though Geoffrey was under Henry VIII’s standard, he was not truly loyal in his heart. Geoffrey did not have much of a chance to openly turn his coat, though Geoffrey may have been involved in other rebellious behavior stemming from the Pilgrimage of Grace. By February 1537, the Pilgrimage of Grace was briefly revived.

Pope Paul III sent Reginald on various diplomatic missions on the Continent from 1537 through 1539 in hopes of allying catholic monarchs against Henry. Letters allegedly exchanged between Margaret’s sons Geoffrey and Reginald about the Pilgrimage of Grace were discovered, leading to Geoffrey’s arrest on 29 August 1538. Geoffrey was thereafter held in the Tower of London. Geoffrey provided evidence against Margaret and his brother, Henry. He pleaded guilty to the charge of treason at his December 1538 trial, and was pardoned on 4 January 1539.

Margaret’s son Henry was arrested on 4 November 1538 and Margaret herself shortly after, on 14 November 1538.  This was the culmination of what was known as the Exeter Conspiracy. Henry was beheaded on 4 January 1539.

Margaret was arrested as part of the fallout from the Exeter Conspiracy. And then, something extraordinary happened: an Act of Attainder was passed against Margaret in 1539. Margaret would have been familiar with just how serious and dangerous an Act of Attainder was. Her father was executed following the Act of Attainder passed against him in 1478.

Typically, the purpose of attainder, which means “tainted,” was used to gain lands for the King from a traitor which the king otherwise would not be able to claim. An Act of Attainder had been passed against the Duke of Buckingham in 1523 so Henry VIII could seize all of the disgraced Duke’s properties. Other uses included acting against fleeing fugitives. It was a move by parliament, rather than the court, to punish a person and in the case of fleeing fugitives deprive them of assets that may be used to raise money for actions against the king.

In 1531 a cook Richard Roose was executed as per the 1530 Act of Poisoning. This Act made murdering someone by poison the crime of high treason. Roose was not a member of the nobility, but a cook for Bishop John Fisher. Roose poisoned the food prepared for Bishop Fisher and his guests. The Bishop did not eat the food and was thus spared, but some of his guests that evening were not so fortunate. Roose admitted to the poisoning. Henry ordered that Roose be punished via Attainder through an ex post facto law, making poisoning an act of high treason.  An Act of Attainder was posted against Richard Roose in 1531. Roose was executed by being boiled alive.

The definition of high treason requires a bit of explanation for a modern audience. It is was more than simply criminal disloyalty.  Prior to this Act of Attainder against Roose, this type of criminal activity would have been treated as an act of petty treason, being the act of a servant attempting to kill his master.  Because of the 1530 Act of Poisoning defining poisoning as an act of high treason i.e. being an act of treason against the state, this opened the floodgates for many others to die through similar Acts of Attainder as that against Roose. Thus by paving the way for Henry to elevate poisoning and a further two activities s to be defined as High Treason, Henry, thanks to the brilliance of Cromwell’s legal mind, was able to circumvent the courts.

It should be noted that using an Act of Attainder to circumvent the legal system was not unheard of, it just was not very common. However, what distinguishes Roose, and subsequent other victims, was that an attainted person usually had to be in open rebellion against the king, and either a fugitive or dead. Roose was neither of these things.

By 1534, two years after Cromwell was appointed Henry’s Chief Minister. The first victim of this new Act of Attainder was Elizabeth Barton, the Nun of Kent. The Act was used by Parliament to condemn Barton to death. It was a handy tool in Reformation England: no trial or other recognized judicial proceeding was required before someone could be ordered executed. And, importantly, like Roose, Barton was not a member of the peerage.

Barton’s Act of Attainder is important for another reason. She had not actually committed high treason, or conspired to commit it. As such, the courts could charge her with little more than sedition. But Barton was a dangerous person who, as the Maid of Kent, had openly prophesied the death of Henry VIII if he left Katharine of Aragon for Anne Boleyn. She, and her supporters who died with her, were also Catholic. Simply put, the dangerous Catholic nun could not be allowed to live while Anne Boleyn was Queen and the Reformation was still fresh. Cromwell and others working, for him produced Barton’s alleged confession, allowing an Act of Attainder to be passed against her.

The Acts of Attainder against both Roose and Barton set dangerous legal precedents, and provided guidance for securing further attainders without due legal process in the future.

Cromwell noted his desire to do away with the tradition of sanctuary in 1536. In preparing his notes for Parliament, Cromwell wrote, “specially to speak of the utter destruction of the sanctuaries.” Cromwell was spurred on by communications received in 1534 about how some of the wealthy sanctuaries in the north were also dens for murderers and felons.

Furthermore, by doing away with monasteries, the Act of Attainder became more vicious. Prior to the removal of sanctuaries, a person accused of a crime could flee to a religious establishment and claim sanctuary. The person may or may not have had to declare their presence and suspected crimes. So long as the person did not leave the religious establishment, that person was free from apprehension. This is why Elizabeth Woodville, former Queen Consort of Edward IV and Henry VIII’s grandmother, sought sanctuary for herself and her daughters after Edward died. Elizabeth and her daughters did not leave sanctuary until after Richard III swore he would not harm Elizabeth’s daughters.

Another option for a felon was to abjure the realm in lieu of being prosecuted, and likely sentence of death. Abjuring the realm was taken very seriously. The traitor who chose to abjure was escorted to a port and closely watched until the traitor boarded a ship for foreign lands. Under an Act of Attainder, making it law that the accused was a traitor rather than someone being found by a court of law to be or pleading guilty of being a traitor, it was simply the law that the subject of an Act of Attainder was a traitor. This did not give the person the option to abjure the realm, another nasty feature of the revisions to the Act of Attainder.

Margaret Pole was apprehended on or about November 14, 1538 and initially kept at Cowdray House. Margaret was interrogated, but gave up nothing. Evidence exhibiting her traitorous behavior had yet to be produced. It was likely that Margaret was seized because of Henry VIII’s hatred for her son Cardinal Pole and the activities of her other sons, Henry and Geoffrey. Margaret also was a peeress in her own right, and was one of the top five richest individuals in England.

It took six months for solid evidence against Margaret to be shown.

Margaret’s belongings were raided for evidence of her traitorous activity. Eventually, Thomas Cromwell produced embroidered clothing showing the Five Wounds of Christ and possibly another item showing the Plantagenet and Tudor coats of arms joined together. The first item was taken as proof that Margaret herself was involved with the Northern Rebellion, part of the Pilgrimage of Grace because the five wounds of Christ were depicted on the banner of the rebels. The second item, if it existed, showed an intent by Margaret for her son Cardinal Pole and Henry’s daughter Mary, a Catholic, to wed and then seize the English throne. The existence of the second item might be historical fiction, bearing in mind the self-exiled Reginald was a Cardinal and therefore had taken a vow of celibacy.  The only evidence for this was there had allegedly been some discussion of the match between Margaret and Katharine of Aragon, Mary’s mother, many, many years earlier.

After Cromwell displayed the item or items to Parliament in 1539, an Act of Attainder was passed against Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, in May 1539. Margaret’s lands and titles were stripped from her, with control of these lands reverting to the Crown. Henry now had possession of Margaret’s wealth thanks to Cromwell’s actions. Margaret was hurriedly moved from Cowdray House to the Tower of London

Throughout 1539, Cromwell dedicated himself to the Cleves match and the Reformation. When the Cleves match fell apart immediately after Henry was married to Anna of Cleves, it was necessary for the king to find a scapegoat and Cromwell was the ideal candidate.

Thomas Cromwell was arrested on 10 June 1540 under suspicion of treason. Cromwell reportedly angrily threw his hat on the table in front of him when he saw the Duke of Norfolk approaching with the guard. Cromwell, a brilliant statesman and savvy lawyer, certainly knew that his time literally and figuratively, was up. Cromwell was taken into custody and sent to the Tower, where he awaited his fate.

Immediately before his arrest, a Bill was addressed and read three times in Parliament between 3 June and 7 June. The purpose of the bill, which became 32 Hen. VIII, c. 12, “Concerning Sanctuaries,” was to limit the availability of sanctuary to felons. It set the day limit at forty, and prohibited certain crimes from being applicable to sanctuary. Murders, traitors, and other heinous felons were unable to seek sanctuary Keep in mind, too, that to claim sanctuary, a person had to physically reach a religious establishment. The monasteries in England were dismantled by mid-1540 following the Second Suppression Act of 1539. This, too, was Cromwell’s work.

The Act of Attainder against Cromwell was passed on 29 June 1540, signed by Henry VIII as King-in-Parliament. Cromwell’s own legal consolidation worked perfectly against him: there was no charge filed, no judge, no jury of his peers, no trial, no opportunity to refute the evidence. No sentencing hearing. Habeus corpus was thrown out the window. And without further ado, Cromwell’s bad deeds were memorialized in his Act of Attainder, he was outlawed, and executed on 28 July 1540.

Margaret Pole outlived Cromwell by almost ten months. She was brutally executed on 27 May 1541. At least the last Plantagenet countess saw the man who doomed her die be executed as a result of his own machinations.

Love learning about the Queens of England? Are you interested in Tudor history or Women’s history? Then check out my book, Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s ‘Beloved Sister’, a new biography about Anne of Cleves told from the German perspective!

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Sources & Suggested Reading

  1. Stacy, William R. Richard Roose and the use of Parliamentary Attainder in the Reign of Henry VIII. University of Wisconsin, Marshfield: The Historical Journal. Vol. 29, 1. Pp 1-15. (1986). Printed in Great Britain.
  2. Trenholme, Norman MacLaren. The Right of Sanctuary in England: A Study in Institutional History. University of Missouri, vol. I, no. 5 (1903).
  3. Shoemaker, Karl. Sanctuary and Crime in the Middle Ages, 400-1500. Fordham University (2011).
  4. The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence. Accessed 25 July 2018.
  5. The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. Reginald Pole. Accessed 25 July 2018.
  6. Elton, Geoffrey R. Thomas Cromwell, English Statesman.      Accessed 25 July 2018.
  7. Pierce, Hazel. Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury 1473-1541: Loyalty, Lineage and Leadership. Cardiff: University of Wales Press (2003).
  8. Johnson, Ben. Dissolution of the Monasteries. Accessed 24 July 2018.
  9. McSheffrey, Shannon. Seeking Sanctary: Crime, Mercy, and Politics in English Courts, 1400-1550. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2017).
  10. Gunn, Steven J. Early Tudor Government, 1485-1558. Macmillan International Higher Education (1995).

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