Margaret was born into the England of the Wars of the Roses and was the daughter of George, Duke of Clarence, one of Edward IV’s younger brothers and was of the House of York. Margaret’s only surviving sibling was Edward, Earl of Warwick. In the first 12 years of Margaret’s life would come the death of Edward IV, the disappearance of his sons Edward V and Richard Duke of York, Richard III taking control of the crown and the Battle of Bosworth Field which brought Henry VII to the throne. After the Tudor family came to power, the remaining members of the House of York were systematically dealt with through marriage, imprisonment and eventually, execution. Margaret’s brother Edward, who was the next male Yorkist claimant to the throne, spent the remainder of his days in the Tower and was executed in 1499.
Henry VII arranged for Margaret to be married to Sir Richard Pole, whose mother was a half-sister to Henry’s own mother, Margaret Beaufort. Pole’s father was Geoffrey Pole, esquire, who may have been descended from the Welsh princes of Powys. Margaret bore Richard five surviving children Henry, Arthur, Ursula, Reginald and Geoffrey. Margaret’s husband died in 1504, and Margaret’s income was severely reduced to the point that she sent her son Reginald to the Church, where he was to eventually become a cardinal and Archbishop of Canterbury. When Henry VIII became king in 1509 Margaret’s fortunes improved when she went to attend on Queen Catherine of Aragon, whom she had also served in her short time as Princess of Wales before the death of Prince Arthur. In 1512 Margaret was granted the title of Countess of Salisbury in her own right, restoring her to a title that was previously held in her family. The restoration brought a good income from the Salisbury estates and lands, eventually making Margaret one of the wealthiest peers in England.
In the 1520s and 30s, Margaret’s relationship with the crown became strained because of Margaret’s support of Catherine of Aragon and the Princess Mary, as well as her sons’ relationship with Edward Stafford, the Duke of Buckingham, who was executed for treason. Margaret’s son Reginald spoke out against the Royal Supremacy an act of treason, although from the safety of Italy. Some of the members of the family closer to the King’s wrath weren’t so lucky. Geoffrey Pole was arrested and Margaret was kept in custody, first at her interrogator William Fitzwilliam’s residence, but was later transferred to the Tower of London. In May 1539, an act of attainder was passed against her for aiding and abetting her sons Henry and Reginald and having ‘committed and perpetrated diverse and sundry other detestable and abominable treasons’. Although imprisoned in the Tower, Margaret was fairly well-appointed and even had new clothes made by the Queen Kathryn’s tailor in March 1541. However, a rising in the north may have been the tipping point and at 7 o’clock in the morning on May 27th 1541, Margaret was executed.
The story of the actual execution is rather horrible, although it has sometimes been falsely embellished with tales of the executioner chasing Margaret around with an axe. There wasn’t any chasing, but Margaret did have the misfortune to have an inexperienced axe man who was, according to the Calendar of State Papers, ‘a wretched and blundering youth … who literally hacked her head and shoulders to pieces in the most pitiful manner’. She was laid to rest, like many others executed before and after her, in the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London. In 1886 she was beatified by Pope Leo XIII.