By birth, Blessed Margaret Pole was a Plantagenet – a member of the royal family that ruled England from 1154 to 1485. Kings Edward IV and Richard IV were her uncles, and by marriage she was a first cousin to Henry VII Tudor. Her royal blood was the cause of both her prominence and her death.
King Henry VII gave Margaret in marriage to one of his favorite knights, Sir Richard Pole. Richard and Margaret had five children. One of them was Reginald Pole (1500-1558). Reginald felt called to the clergy, was made a cardinal in 1536 and in 1549 came close to being elected pope. He was a leader in the Catholic Reformation spearheaded by the Ecumenical Council of Trent. Named papal nuncio to England in 1554 when Catholic Mary Tudor succeeded King Edward VI, Cardinal Pole formally received that country back into union with the Holy See and died as the last Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury.
Henry VII had at one point charged Margaret’s brother with treason and confiscated his property. When his son, young Henry VIII, became king, he repaired this injustice to the Poles by returning to Margaret her brother’s estates and creating her Countess of Salisbury. At that time, Henry had only praise for this noble matron. He even called her the saintliest woman in England. Since she was now a widow, the monarch invited her to come to court and serve as governess to his daughter, Mary Tudor.
After a while, however, the king determined to get an annulment of his marriage to Princess Mary’s mother, Queen Catherine of Aragon. Catherine had not given him a male heir. Furthermore, he was attracted to a woman of the court, Anne Boleyn. When the pope declared himself unable to grant the annulment requested, Henry broke not only with the pope but with the Catholic Church. He had the Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, issue an invalid declaration that the marriage to Catherine was null; and Henry VIII proclaimed himself head of the Church in England.
While seeking opinions favorable to his divorce, Henry had asked Reginald Pole for his view. Pole wrote a respectful but strong denunciation of the King’s arguments. Henry now turned against Reginald’s whole family. To revenge himself, he executed Margaret’s other son, Lord Montague, as well as her nephew, the Marquis of Exeter. In 1539, the king got Parliament to pass a law declaring the Pole family guilty of treason. Margaret had approved her son Reginald’s statement on the royal marriage, and since she disapproved of the ruler’s attack on the papacy, she withdrew from the court. But she could not escape his vindictiveness. A board of inquiry that subjected her to a long interrogation could find nothing treasonable in her actions. Nevertheless, she was jailed in the wretched Tower Of London, and held prisoner for two years.
There never was a trial. Quite likely, the authorities realized that no jury would convict the respected Countess Margaret. Finally, on May 27, 1541, on only an hour’s notice, Margaret was led out into the square and beheaded. Since the official headsman was not present, his amateurish assistant plied the axe, causing further grief by his clumsy hacking.
Thus died Margaret Pole, a commanding matron of 70 years, for her loyalty to the pope. She was truer to her royal blood than the misguided king who shed it. On December 29, 1886, Pope Leo XIII declared this queenly woman a blessed martyr. She is a glory of Catholic motherhood and widowhood. Her feast day is May 28.
–Father Robert F. McNamara