Margaret Plantagenet, 8th Countess of Salisbury

Born: August 14, 1473

Farliegh Hungerford, Somerset, England

Died: May 27, 1541

Tower Hamlets, London, England (Age 67)

Countess of Salisbury in History

Margaret Plantagenet was born the eldest child of George, Duke of Clarence (a younger brother of King Edward IV) in a peaceful period in England, where the Yorkists had decisively defeated their rivals the Lancastrians (for the time being) in the civil war known as the Wars of the Roses. Although England was an essentially peaceful place for the first ten years of Margaret's life, the story within the household that Margaret and her younger brother Edward grew up in was quite different. In 1476, Margaret's mother Isabel died of a sudden sickness. Two years later, Clarence was attainted and executed for supposedly conspiring against his brother the king (for the second time), leaving Margaret and Edward as orphans at the ages of seven and three respectively. Things became more complicated in 1483 when Edward IV died and the throne was usurped by his youngest brother, the Duke of Gloucester, who had the late king's two sons imprisoned (and most likely murdered) and ascended the throne as Richard III. Margaret's brother was now considered to possess a more legitimate claim to the throne and, along with Margaret herself, was kept under close watch by the new king.

The situation was further complicated when Richard III was defeated and killed at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 and was succeeded by the Lancastrian Henry VII. Edward, who was at least able to style himself Earl of Warwick after his maternal grandfather, was imprisoned in the tower, now being considered the most obvious Yorkist claimant. In 1487, a rebellion broke out amongst the remaining Yorkists (primarily the Earl of Lincoln, who Richard III had named as his heir). The Yorkists championed a young man named Lambert Simnel, announcing that he was the young Earl of Warwick (who of course was still Henry VII's prisoner) and did battle against the royal army at Stoke, where they were soundly defeated (Lincoln being killed in the action). To avoid anyone using Margaret in the same way, the king decided to marry her to a man well below her social status named Richard Pole. The marriage seemingly turned out to be a happy one and resulted in five surviving children. Richard Pole would be one of the king's most trusted servants, until his death in 1504, and was given a number of rewards for his services. 1499, however, would prove to be another tragic year for Margaret. For several years, another pretender to the throne, named Perkin Warbeck, had been causing trouble for King Henry. He was finally captured and imprisoned, but when he and Warwick supposedly attempted an escape from the tower, both men were executed. Warwick's death not only eliminated the Plantagenet name in the legitimate male line, but also put the finishing touches on the tragedy of the family Margaret grew up with. After her husband's death, Margaret lived in relative poverty until Henry VII's death in 1509. She was to be rewarded by the new King Henry VIII - at least initially.

In 1512, the king restored Margaret to her full inheritance, which included the Earldom of Salisbury and all the vast estates and incomes that came with it, making her the first woman in England to hold a title in her own right. This was a surprisingly generous move on the part of Henry, considering the immense threat that Margaret and her three sons posed to him as possible claimants to the throne. For the next twenty years, the new countess lived in relative peace and was able to substantially build up her wealth and influence within her territories. She was even appointed as governess to Henry VIII's daughter Mary at one point. Although the countess and the king were not without their quarrels during this span of time, things did not truly begin to deteriorate for the Pole family until 1536. It was in this year that the king received a letter from Margaret's son Reginald (who had been given by his mother to the church and had become a cardinal), condemning Henry for severing himself from the pope (which he had done several years earlier in order to obtain a divorce from his first wife, Katherine of Aragon). Although Margaret admonished her son for his traitorous behavior, she and her eldest son Henry were nonetheless arrested and thoroughly questioned. Henry was found guilty of conspiring with his brother and was executed in early 1539, while Margaret remained imprisoned in the tower for another two years.

The countess was treated with kindness during her imprisonment and was given all that a woman of her standing deserved. Unfortunately, the ongoing threat of foreign invasion (with the involvement of her son Reginald) and even that from those loyal to the countess within England, slowly but surely sealed her fate. It was ultimately decided that the countess was to be executed. This was done so in May of 1541 with particular barbarity, due to the youth and inexperience of the executioner. Certain sources claim that upwards of ten strokes of the axe were required before her head was severed. Although Reginald Pole was a significant threat to the security of Henry's throne, it is unlikely that his mother, a woman of sixty-seven, was a fellow conspirator. For this reason, contemporaries and historians alike will conclude that the countess's execution was simply the king's continued elimination of anyone who posed a threat to his position. Margaret Pole was the last legitimate member of the legendary Plantagenet family and followed in the foot steps her father and brother had laid down straight to the chopping block (although Clarence had supposedly been drowned in a barrel of wine). She was looked at by many as a Catholic martyr who had defied a heretic king. This is evident by the fact that she was beatified in 1886 by Pope Leo XIII.

Countess of Salisbury in Shakespeare

Appears in: Richard III

The Countess (though unnamed) appears briefly in Richard III, along with her brother, as a young girl who is mourning the death of her recently murdered father (although this detail is not fully known). It is later reported by Richard III that she has been married off to a man of low social standing so that she will be out of the way. In reality it was Henry VII, not Richard III, who married Margaret off to a lower-class man, and the marriage did not occur until 1487, two years after Richard's death at Bosworth.


Pierce, Hazel. ‘Pole, Margaret, suo jure countess of Salisbury (1473–1541)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [, accessed 2 March 2010]

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