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Imagine … At dawn a grey-haired old lady is awoken. They tell her she is to be put to death in an hour, condemned without trial. She is led to a secret place of execution, where she must die by the axe. Her neck is placed on the block, but she resists and the first stroke falls on her shoulder. She flees. The axeman pursues her, catches her, and delivers eleven bloody strokes to her neck and shoulders. In manus tuas …

The old lady was Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury and last of the Plantagenets. She was put to death about the 28th of May 1541.

Portrait of woman c.1535 – formerly believed to be Margaret Pole

The countess was a significant figure in the hellish game of succession to the English throne, and this grisly event has received much comment over the centuries.

But what is the source?

We know of two accounts by foreign ambassadors to the court of King Henry VIII.

The first is by Eustace Chapuys, ambassador of the Holy Roman Emperor in the period 1529-45. It is taken from his letter to the Queen of Hungary, written in French and dated 18 June 1541 – Calendar of State Papers Spain, vol.6 part 1 no.166 (pp.329-334):

Since my last of the 26th May, the news of this place is that on the 27th following three of the chief promoters of the last conspiracy in the Northern counties—an abbot and two gentlemen—were hung and quartered. ( About the same time, the very strange and lamentable execution of Mme. de Salisbury, the daughter of the duke of Clarence, and mother of Cardinal Pole, took place at the Tower in the presence of the Lord Mayor of London and about 150 persons more. 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; but at last, perceiving that there was no remedy, and that die she must, she went out of the dungeon where she was detained, and walked towards the midst of the space in front of the Tower, where there was no scaffold erected nor anything except a small block. Arrived there, after commending her soul to her Creator, she asked those present to pray for the King, the Queen, the Prince (Edward) and the Princess, to all of whom she wished to be particularly commended, and more especially to the latter, whose god-mother she had been. She sent her blessing to her, and begged also for hers. After which words she was told to make haste and place her neck on the block, which she did. But as the ordinary executor of justice was absent doing his work in the North, a wretched and blundering youth (garçonneau) was chosen, who literally hacked her head and shoulders to pieces in the most pitiful manner. May God in His high grace pardon her soul, for certainly she was a most virtuous and honorable lady, and there was no need or haste to bring so ignominious a death upon her, considering that as she was then nearly ninety years old, she could not in the ordinary course of nature live long. When her death had been resolved upon, her nephew, the son of Mr. de Montagu, who had occasionally permission to go about within the precincts of the Tower, was placed in close confinement, and it is supposed that he will soon follow his father and grandmother. May God help him!

Clearly not a first hand account, and Chapuys is way off on the lady’s age – she was 67 years at death, by my reckoning. The nephew referred to is Sir Henry Pole.

The second account is by the French ambassador, Charles de Marillac, in a letter to the King of France of 28 (& 29) May 1541 – Letters and Papers vol.16 no. 868 (1540-41) pp.409-429:

What has here happened since he wrote last, on the 22nd, gives matter to write. To begin with, a case more worthy of compassion than of long letters, the countess of Saalberi, mother of Cardinal Pol and the late lord Montaigue, was yesterday morning, about 7 o’clock, beheaded in a corner of the Tower, in presence of so few people that until evening the truth was still doubted. It was the more difficult to believe as she had been long prisoner, was of noble lineage, above 80 years old, and had been punished by the loss of one son and banishment of the other, and the total ruin of her house. Further reflections upon this. The manner of proceeding in her case and that of a lord who was executed at the same time (who is not yet named, but is presumed to be lord Leonard de Clidas, formerly the King’s lieutenant in Ireland) seems to argue that those here are afraid to put to death publicly those whom they execute in secret. It may be added that yesterday all the heads which were fixed upon the bridge of the river which passes by this town were taken down; in order that the people may forget those whose heads kept their memory fresh, if it were not that this will people the place with new, for Marillac hears from a good place that, before St. John’s tide, they reckon to empty the Tower of the prisoners now there for treason.

Second hand again, and the calendar source I’ve linked says this account comes from two modern transcripts – that’s why two dates are given. Note once again the mistake as to the age of the countess: though less severe than that of Chapuys, it may suggest both ambassadors shared a common source. The grisly details of the execution are entirely absent, so on that score de Marillac does not corroborate Chapuys.

There is a third account published in 1649 in The Life and Raigne of King Henry the Eighth (p.468):

A little rebellion now appearing in Yorkshire, in which Sir John Nevil was a complice, the King took order to suppress it betimes; commanding the said Sir John Nevil to be put to death at York. Shortly after followed the Countess of Salisbury’s execution; which, whether occasioned by the later Rebellion (as being thought of Cardinal Poole’s instigation) or that she gave some new offence, is uncertain: The old Lady being brought to the Scaffold (set up in the Tower) was commanded to lay her head on the Block; but she (as a person of great Quality assured me) refused, saying, “So should Traitors do, and I am none”: neither did it serve that the Executioner told her it was the fashion; so turning her gray head every way, she bid him, if he would have her head, to get it as he could: So that he was constrained to fetch it off slovenly. And thus ended (as our Authors say) the last of the right Line of the Plantaganets.

What can be said about the source? The writer, Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1583-1648), had the assurance of “a person of great Quality”, which doesn’t tell us much. The Life and Raigne, according to a modern assessment, “while good for its time, is based upon a very partial knowledge of the sources and somewhat antiquated principles of historical scholarship”.

On questioning the sources I have to say the two accounts given by the ambassadors provide pretty thin evidence. Herbert’s account amounts to no more than distant gossip. And for the life of me I cannot find the source of the utter horror story at the top of this post.

There is said to be another source that mentions ten, rather than eleven, strokes of the axe, but that too eludes me. The nearest I can get is this citation in n.14 of the Wikipedia article on the countess: The Complete Peerage, v. XII p. II, p. 393 – but I can’t access that online, and even if I could it would require tracking down the sources (if any) cited in that work.

Perhaps the horror story is a late elaboration on the earlier accounts, written up as part of the martyrology to beatify the countess. But in the absence of a source even that would be speculation.

Having said all that, there is a recent book on the countess, by Hazel Pierce (2003), but I have no idea of her verdict on the horror story. So maybe this post should have waited until I had read it! However, as with the portrait at the top of this post, I doubt that history has left us anything reliable.

My view is that the execution was part of a terrifying campaign of political assassination, that it was botched through incompetence rather than savagery, and that the accounts above were exaggerated in various degrees in order to stir up outrage against the tyrant.


I’ll finish on a peaceful note. The Countess of Salisbury constructed a very fine chantry for her tomb in Christchurch Priory in Dorset on the south coast of England. I have visited it, but of course this is not her resting place: she was buried in the Tower of London – actually, in the graveyard of the church of St Peter ad Vincula, alongside other victims of the Tudors.

Interior of the Salisbury chantry: partly defaced by order of Henry VIII
(click image for gallery)

In the Priory an old, hand-written historical note on the empty chantry sets up a comical rivalry with the church of the countess’ burial,  describing the latter as a, “dingey red brick St Peter’s”. The Priory is a magnificent Norman construction, whereas St Peter’s was built by Henry VIII (at about the same time as the chantry).

To understand the writer’s pride click on this snippet of the Priory’s virtual tour (then click North Choir) – after a few seconds you will see the chantry, an elaborate little renaissance temple: it is next to the high altar and these days seems to be used as a sacristy. Click the X for freeze frame.

(Now that I think about it, maybe there is a serious reflection in that contrast of the two buildings – the old aristocrats, refined and exclusive, staking their claim in the future of the country, in defiance of aggressive Tudor change.)

And if you wish to lay a virtual wreath on the “real” grave of the countess, feel free …  Very odd.