Blessed Margaret Pole’s ancestry did not suggest that she would die a heroic death. The niece of Edward IV and Richard III and daughter of George, Duke of Clarence (who was executed for treason by his brother) and Isabel Neville, she had a complicated inheritance, to say the least. A peeress in her own right as Countess of Salisbury, she was married off by Henry VII to Sir Richard Pole, one of his loyal supporters and a connection of Henry’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort. They had five children together, but Margaret was widowed early and left in what Victorian hagiographers liked to call straitened circumstances, i.e. little land, less income, and a precarious situation vis-a–vis the king. A partial solution to this problem was found in dedicating the third son, Reginald, to the Church, where he subsequently became a cardinal, archbishop of Canterbury and a papal legate, while Margaret herself found refuge among the nuns of Syon until she was returned to royal favour in 1509.
The royal favour was fickle, however, and Margaret’s situation was not helped by her sons, Geoffrey, Reginald and Henry, who all, in various ways, incurred the royal ire. Geoffrey was pardoned; Henry was executed; Reginald was loud in his condemnation of Henry VIII’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon; and their mother found hesrself imprisoned in the Tower of London for two and a half years on trumped-up charges. Some say she was treated well; others, that the cold and damp caused her much pain. She knew she could die at any moment, but her spirit was unbroken. She carved the following verse 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!
When, on the morning of 27 May, 1541, she was told she was to die within the hour, she retorted that she had been found guilty of no crime. In fact, her refusal to yield on the point of papal authority, and her son Reginald’s constant plotting, made her death a certainty. Chapuys, the ambassador to the Holy Roman Emperor, described her death as cruel and messy: at first, ‘when the sentence of death was made known to her, she found the thing very strange, not knowing of what crime she was accused, nor how she had been sentenced.’ Then, because the usual executioner had been sent North to deal with rebels, the execution was performed by ‘a wretched and blundering youth who hacked her head and shoulders to pieces in the most pitiful manner.’ Her last words were, ‘Blessed are they who suffer persecution for righteousness’ sake.’
Is this just the story of a stubborn old woman who refused to compromise when compromise would have assured her a comfortable old age? I think it is more than that. Those who met her were impressed by her indomitable spirit and the clarity with which she saw the consequences of opposition to the king’s will. How could she not, given her family history? But she was prepared to suffer for what she believed to be right. There could be no going back on that. She is a reminder that courage in the elderly is no less great than courage in the young; that we may meet our biggest challenges when we are at our weakest and least able to cope with them; and that a lifetime of prayer and fidelity is the surest way of ensuring that we do so with grace and constancy. May Bl. Margaret Pole pray for all who are growing old and experiencing trials the young may know nothing of; and may all of us, whatever our age, give thanks for the inspiration the elderly are to us.