Blessed Margaret Pole (pronounced ‘pool’), Countess of Salisbury (1473 – 1541), is sometimes called ‘the last of the Plantagenets’. Her early history was eventful, to say the least, and like all those close to the crown, she experienced the fickleness of royal favour. Her father was executed for treason; her mother and younger brother died when she was three; widowed in 1504, with five children, scanty resources and no prospects, she lived with the Bridgetines of Syon for a few years. Restored to royal favour in 1509, she enjoyed the sunshine of Henry VIII’s regard for a while but, when she refused to countenance his divorce from Katherine of Aragon, was treated mercilessly. Her eldest son, Henry, was executed; Margaret herself was imprisoned in the Tower for two and a half years and, despite her age, subjected to rough and inhuman treatment. Her death, when at last it came, was at the hands of a ‘blundering youth’ who, instead of cutting off her head cleanly, ‘hacked her head and shoulders’ so that eleven blows were needed to kill her. The following verse was found on the wall of her cell:
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!
To the very end, she protested her innocence of any crime and is today regarded as a martyr for the Faith.
I think Margaret is an encouragement to all whose family circumstances are less than ideal, and whose age or frailty makes them think that they can do nothing of any consequence — those who protest that they are ‘not the stuff of which martyrs are made’. In the sketch given above, I have said nothing of her third son Reginald’s resentment of her abandoning him, as he saw it, to the Church (where, as it happens, he had an ‘interesting’ career as cardinal, papal legate and archbishop of Canterbury) or of all the cousins and other family members who met violent deaths and/or suffered the loss of lands and estates. What stands out, I think, is her courage and her constancy. She was a woman of integrity who did not plead age as an excuse to knuckle under to Henry VIII’s demands. Even her son Reginald was forced to acknowledge there was something great about his mother, finally admitting he would ‘never fear to call himself the son of a martyr.’ Those watching The Hollow Crown on BBC1 may like to remember that those ‘old, unhappy, far-off things and battles long ago’ had a very human face and cost. The bravest were not always the youngest and most handsome. There is hope for us all.