Traitors of the Tower (2010)


I am committed to promoting adult literacy. I ran my own school, Henry Tudor School in Carshalton, which I ran as proprietor until 1997, when I took up writing full-time.

From the Sutton Guardian, 1998


I met Sarah Brown, wife of Gordon Brown, the then Prime Minister, and historian friend Clare Mulley at a reception hosted by Sarah Brown at 10 Downing Street in 2010 for individuals and groups involved in literacy initiatives. On the same day, I gave a talk to emergent adult readers and their teachers at Foyle's Bookshop in London's Westfield centre, which was attended by H.R.H. the Duchess of Cornwall.


Alison Weir

Visitors to the Tower of London, touring the scaffold site will see a notice on which are listed those unfortunate persons who perished on or near that spot. Most are well-known: Anne Boleyn, Katherine Howard, Lady Jane Grey, the Earl of Essex. But towards the end of the list comes the name, Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, and the date, 1541. Who was Margaret Pole? Few have heard of her, or if they have, they know little more than the gruesome details of her end.
    Margaret Pole was born Margaret Plantagenet; she was the niece of Edward IV and Richard III, and second-cousin to Henry VIII. She was also a fascinating person in her own right, and she deserves to be better known. This is her story.

In 1485, Richard III, the last Plantagenet king, was killed at the Battle of Bosworth, and after the battle, his victorious opponent, Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, was crowned King Henry VII, the first sovereign of the House of Tudor. Henry VII was an usurper, for there were many people then living with a better claim to the throne, and while he validated his title by marrying Edward IV's daughter, Elizabeth of York, he maintained that the throne was his by right of conquest and not through marriage.
   Many of the thirty or so persons with a better claim to the throne were women and could therefore be safely discounted as claimants, as it there was a prevalent belief in England that women were not fitted to bear sovereignty over men. Elizabeth I, of course, had not yet demonstrated gust how successful a female ruler could be. Some of the potential claimants were children, but after the uncertainty of the Wars of the Roses, during which three kings had died violently, two had been deposed, and several princes of the blood had met an untimely end, the people of England wanted a ruler who could provide firm and stable government. Hence they were prepared to overlook Henry VII's dubious title in the hope that he would fulfil their expectations. He had, after all, vanquished the unpopular Richard III, who was widely seen as a tyrant.
   Amongst that long list of possible rival claimants, only one could boast direct descent in the male line from King Edward III, from whom the royal Houses of Lancaster, York and Tudor were descended, and that was Edward, Earl of Warwick, the son of the late George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence, brother of Edward IV and Richard III. Warwick was ten years old in 1485, and the nearest heir male to the throne. Queen Elizabeth of York, his cousin, being female, was heir general to the House of York, and it was then debatable whether the heir general could take precedence over the heir male. Many people, most of them Yorkist sympathisers, doubted it and harboured a secret loyalty to young Warwick, whom they regarded as the rightful king. Henry VII himself recognised how potentially dangerous Warwick could be, and almost his first act as king was to give orders that the young Earl be imprisoned securely in the Tower. So rigorously were the King's orders carried out that people were soon wondering if Warwick was alive or dead.
   Suffering such an unnatural upbringing, and being deprived of any education, undoubtedly contributed to the fact that, when Warwick did emerge into public view many years later, he appeared to be either stupid and ignorant, or mentally retarded. Thus, when this unfortunate yourg man was framed by the government and implicated in a capital crime, public sympathy was on his side. That, however, did not prevent Henry VII from having him executed in 1499.
   Warwick had one surviving sister, Margaret Plantagenet. Married off by Henry VII to a loyal servant, Sir Richard Pole, she bore him several children before being widowed in 1505. She was restored to favour and part of her inheritance under Henry VIII, and held in high regard by him for many years, being appointed godmother and governess to his only child, the Princess Mary, Unfortunately, Margaret and her sons became embroiled in the aftermath of the King's annulment of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon. One son, Reginald Pole, who became a cardinal in 1536, wrote a bitter diatribe against Henry VIII's marriage to Anne Boleyn, and the others became involved in what was later called the Exeter Conspiracy, a plot with the alleged aim of deposing and murdering the King and setting up Margaret's cousin, the Marquess of Exeter, in his place.
   As a result of these transgressions, Margaret and her family were sent to the Tower. A wave of executions followed. Margaret herself escaped that time but was sent to the block on a trumped up treason charge in 1541. She was savagely butchered to death, a fate that shocked even that violent age.
   Edward and Margaret Plantagenet have never been the subject of a joint biography. A short academic biography of Margaret was published by Hazel Pierce in 2003. In the 1960s the Catholic writer, Hugh Ross Williamson, wrote a superb trilogy of semi-factual novels about the House of Clarence: "The Butt of Malmsey", "The Marriage made in Blood" and "A Matter of Martyrdom", but these have long been out of print. In 2014 Philippa Gregory published "The King's Curse", a novel about Margaret Pole.
   This book is not about Edward and Margaret alone, for it deals with the wider issue of Tudor policy in relation to the descendants of the Plantagenets. Not only the children of Clarence, but also several of their relatives in whom flowed the blood of the House of York, went to the block under the Tudors. These families were persecuted not so much because of what they had done, which was perhaps very little, but because of who they were, and this persecution lasted until 1570, 85 years after Bosworth. This book chronicles the fate of all these White Rose families, but its central figures are Edward and Margaret Plantagenet, the last persons in the royal line to bear the surname Plantagenet.
   Much is known about them, and there is extensive documentation of many aspects of their lives, both public and private, and in particular of the intrigues surrounding them. Thanks to the reports of government agents, we also know a host of personal details; the primary sources and the finds of archaeologists tell us something of the long-vanished homes in which they lived.
   Warwick's innocence is hardly in doubt:  it was accepted by most people in 1499, just as it is accepted today by historians. But what of Margaret Pole? Did she, as Henry VIII,claimed, believe she had more right to occupy the throne than he did? Was she involved in a plot against him? The evidence points to a surprising conclusion.
   This is a compelling and often tragic story, set against the colourful background of the Tudor court, the peaceful country residences of the rich and powerful, the villas and salons of Renaissance Italy, and the grim prisons of the Tower. It is a tale peopled by many famous and fascinating characters: the feeble, witless Warwick and his indomitable sister;  the first two Tudors, Henry VII and Henry VIII, crafty princes in the Machiavellian mould, utterly ruthless, and inordinately suspicious of anyone near in blood to the throne; Katherine of Aragon, a good friend to Margaret, whose cause Margaret espoused to her own detriment; the Princess Mary, whom Margaret would protect and defend in adversity as if she were her own child; Margaret's sons: her heir, Lord Montagu, whose careless tongue cost him his life; Reginald, the learned Cardinal, whose censures from the safety of Italy caused Henry VIII to look upon the Pole family with something approaching paranoia; and the feckless Geoffrey, who never forgave himself for betraying his brothers.
   Intrigue and treachery are the backbone of this book, a book that tells a different saga of the Tudor age, one which answers the question: what happened to the surviving Pantagenets after 1485?

Part One: Edward Plantagenet

Chapter One: The Butt of Malmsey

Chapter One describes briefly the genealogy and descent of the royal Houses of York and Lancaster, and chronicles the life and death of George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence, younger brother of Edward IV and father of Edward and Margaret Plantagenet. Clarence was rich, well-endowed with lands and a fine London house, but he was denied by his brother - who did not trust him, and with good reason -the one thing he desired most: political power. His great offices were mere sinecures. Edward's distrust was well-founded because Clarence defied his orders on several occasions and betrayed him twice.
  Matters came to a head in 1477.  In 1469, against Edward's will, Clarence had married Isabella Neville, daughter and heiress of Warwick the Kingmaker. What little is known of her is recounted here. She bore her husband four children, of whom two died young, before dying herself soon after the fourth was born. The cause was almost certainly puerperal fever, but Clarence put it about that the Duchess had been poisoned by an agent of Queen Elizabeth Wydeville, whom he detested. This was patently nonsense, but the Duke went on stirring things up and finally overstepped the mark by abusing the King's justice. This led to his arrest and imprisonment in the Tower in 1477. Early in 1478 he was attainted by Parliament, after a dramatic confrontation with the King, and executed in the Tower, almost certainly by being drowned in a butt of Malmsey wine. Fifty years later, his daughter Margaret was painted wearing a bracelet to which was attached a miniature wine cask, in memory of the father who had died when she was four.

Chapter Two: Royal Orphans     

Clarence left two orphaned children, Margaret and Edward, then only three. They were made wards of the Marquess of Dorset and probably brought up with their royal cousins, the children of Edward IV, at the Palace of Sheen. The effect on them of their father's attainder is discussed here, and the origins of Edward's titles as Earl of Warwick and Salisbury.
   There follows an account of the events of the years 1478 to 1485: the death of Edward IV in 1483, the brief reign, deposition and probable murder of his son, Edward V, that same year, and the usurpation and reign of the uncle who probably murdered him, Clarence's younger brother, Richard III. 
   Even before he usurped the throne, Richard acted swiftly to bring Warwick under his control, taking him into his household and placing him in the care of the boy's aunt, Anne Neville, Richard's wife. There is some evidence that Warwick regarded himself as a prisoner. Although Richard would later assert - incorrectly - that Clarence's attainder barred his son from succeeding to the throne, he clearly recognised that Warwick had a strong enough claim to make him a potential rival, and a dangerous one at that if he fell into the wrong hands - for Warwick had a better claim to the throne than Richard.
   In June 1483 Warwick was declared incapable of inheriting the crown due to his father's attainder. The implications of this are discussed here, but there was no basis in law for Richard's assertion: the attainder applied to Clarence's ducal title and estates only. That Richard III recognised this became apparent in 1484 when, after his own son died, he named Warwick his heir. Then, almost at once, he changed his mind and chose another nephew to succeed him, John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln, a grown man of good reputation. The probable reason for this sudden change of heart is discussed here.
   In 1484 Lincoln and (nominally) Warwick were placed at the head of the newly established King's Household in the North at the castles of Sandal and Sheriff Hutton in Yorkshire. It seems likely that several other royal children, including Margaret Plantagenet and the daughters of Edward IV, later came to join them. In 1485, Elizabeth of York, Edward's eldest daughter and the de jure Queen of England was sent there by Richard for security purposes when the self-styled Lancastrian claimant to the throne, Henry Tudor, was planning to invade England from Prance and claim the throne. An account of the children's life at Sheriff Hutton is given here.
   Warwick and probably his sister were still at the castle in August 1485 when Richard III was killed at the Battle of Bosworth.

Chapter Three: The Feigned Lad

Warwick first learned of the change of dynasty when Sir Robert Willoughby arrived at Sheriff Hutton some days after Bosworth on urgent business. His mission was twofold: to arrange an escort to take Elizabeth of York to Westminster so that the new King could fulfil his vow to marry her, and to conduct Warwick
to the Tower.
   Henry Tudor's claim to the throne is evaluated and compared with Warwick's. Many people, including Henry VII, recognised that Warwick, as the only direct descendant in the male line from Edward III, had a very strong claim indeed, and was therefore, despite his age, a potentially dangerous rival and, even now, a possible focus for rebellion. Hence Warwick was sent to the Tower, there to endure for many years the strictest confinement; he was denied companions, creature comforts and education, and so securely held that many believed him dead.
   It was Warwick's own cousin Lincoln who determined in 1486 to capitalise on the rumours of Warwick's death. Lincoln conspired with his aunt, Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy (sister of Edward IV, Clarence and Richard III), to promote an imposter, Lambert Simnel. It was claimed that Simnel was Warwick. This "feigned lad", as Henry VII called him when he discovered, after frantic enquiries, who the boy really was, first appeared in Ireland. Despite Henry VII parading the real Warwick through the streets of London, many Yorkists flocked to support Simnel, and in 1487 he was crowned 'Edward VI' in Dublin. Soon afterwards, Lincoln invaded England with an army, but met his death with thousands of his men at the bloody Battle of Stoke. The victorious Henry VII set Simnel to work in his kitchens. Warwick remained in dreary captivity.
   We do not know what happened to Margaret Plantagenet during these years. One theory is that she went to live with her paternal grandmother, Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, who had retired in religious seclusion at Berkhamsted Castle. This is indeed a possibility, and is discussed with other theories at the end of the chapter.

Chapter Four: The Marriage Made in Blood

In 1489, Henry VII signed a prestigious treaty with the Spanish sovereigns, Ferdinand and Isabella, for the marriage of his son and heir, Arthur, Prince of Wales, to Katherine of Aragon, their youngest daughter. This marriage alliance was a great diplomatic achievement for Henry VII because it brought with it the recognition he sought among the established monarchies of Europe.
   But the alliance was threatened almost from the start. Already the Yorkists were conspiring anew, and in 1491 another imposter appeared. Perkin Warbeck, claimed at first to be Warwick, then changed his mind and said he was Richard of York, the younger of the Princes in the Tower. Notwithstanding this confused beginning, many of the crowned heads of Europe supported Warbeck in his claims, and Henry VII, rightly, saw the advent of this new pretender as a serious threat to his dynasty and the Spanish alliance.
   Warbeck's career as a royal imposter lasted several years. In 1497 he was captured by Henry VII. Having confessed his true identity, he was allowed to live at court under house arrest. These silken chains chafed, however, and in 1498 Warwick escaped. He was caught almost at once, and this time Henry VII was not so lenient. He sent Warbeck to the Tower and had him shut in a cell where no daylight could penetrate. Those who saw Warbeck some months later were horrified at the change in him. Not surprisingly, the young man was desperately planning another escape.
   In February 1499 another pretender, Ralph Wulford, was executed. King Ferdinand apparently insisted that he would not send his daughter to England until Henry VII had eliminated all rival claimants to the throne. That meant Warbeck amd Warwick. Under no circumstances would Henry jeopardise the precious Spanish alliance. In August 1499 the government formulated a secret conspiracy to entrap Warbeck and Warwick in a treasonable plot. Warbeck was moved to a cell near Warwick and the two men easily found means to communicate. Predictably, Warbeck involved the gullible Warwick in a plot to escape and make a bid for the throne. The Council was duly informed of what was afoot by the agent provocateur who had set up the plot to frame the prisoners. Both Warbeck and Warwick were arrested and executed. The climax of this chapter is the trial and execution of Warwick.
   After Warwick's death, the Spanish ambassador in London informed King Ferdinand that not a doubtful drop of royal blood remained in England. That was not quite true, but it served to reassure Ferdinand. Katherine of Aragon came to England and married Prince Arthur in 1501. Years later, when her second husband Henry VIII was pursuing the annulment of their marriage, she voiced her belief that her troubles were visited on her because her firsi marriage had been "made in blood".

Part Two: Margaret Plantagenet

Chapter Five: My Lady Pole

In 1494 Margaret Plantagenet had been married by Henry VII to Sir Richard Pole, a relation of Margaret Beaufort, the King's mother. Sir Richard was considered to be a "safe" husband for a Yorkist princess, as were the men chosen by Henry VII as bridegrooms for Edward IV's daughters. Sir Richard was chamberlain to Prince Arthur, and he and Margaret travelled to Ludlow in 1501 in the household of the newly-wedded Prince and his Spanish bride. It was probably at Ludlow that a firm and lasting friendship was forged between Margaret Pole and the soon-to-be-widowed Katherine of Aragon.
   What is known of Margaret Pole's married life is recounted here, with details of the five children known to have been born to her: Henry, Arthur, Reginald, Geoffrey and Ursula. Margaret's life is reconstructed in the context of the lives of other well-born wives of the period. Her position after the death of Warwick is evaluated, with regard to her inheritance and her political status.
   There is an account of an alleged Conspiracy against Henry VII plotted by Margaret's cousins, the de la Poles and the Courtenays, in 1501-2, which led to a fresh persecution of the relatives of the Yorkist kings. Fortunately Margaret was not involved. The chapter ends with the death of Sir Richard Pole in 1505 and an account of the early years of Margaret's widowhood.

Chapter Six: Royal Favour

In 1509 Henry VIII came to the throne. This chapter opens with an assessment of the new King’s attitude towards his mother's Yorkist relatives. He was initially tolerant and generous, but his underlying policy was the same as his father's.  If any one of these scions of York threatened his security as king, they were to be eliminated immediately. Henry VIII first implemented this policy in 1513, with the execution of Edmund de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, Margaret's cousin; thus was set the pattern for the next forty years.
   As a young man, Henry VIII was very fond of Margaret Pole, his second cousin. He had enormous respect for her, and his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, was Margaret's devoted friend. In 1513 Henry reversed the attainder on Warwick and created Margaret Countess of Salisbury, a title she inherited from her mother. The King also sponsored the education of Margaret's bright and intelligent son Reginald, and created the eldest boy Lord Montagu.
   This chapter relates these events, building up a detailed picture of Margaret’s life at this time, and describing her various houses and residences, of which the chief was Warblington Castle in Hampshire. There was also a fine london house inherited from Clarence, The Erber in Dowgate Street by the Thames. Family affairs such as Montagu's marriage are dealt with here. Thus emerges a portrait of a wealthy and influential noblewoman, one of the chief luminaries of the court of the young Henry VIII.

Chapter Seven:  The Lady Governess

Henry VIII's greatest desire was to have a son to succeed him, but Queen Katherine's sons all died young.  In 1516, however, she bore a healthy daughter, the Princess Mary, to whom Margaret Pole had the honour of standing godmother. This marked the beginning of a period that saw Margaret reach the peak of her influence at court and her sons rising to prominence as they neared manhood.  In 1520 Margaret was appointed Lady Governess to the Princess Mary, an appointment that reflects the great confidence the King and Queen reposed in her abilities and wisdom.
   However, when, in 1521, the Duke of Buckingham, a descendant of Edward III, was executed for treason, having allegedly plotted to seize the throne for himself, Lord Montagu was one of those arrested as accessories. He was fortunate to escape with a crippling fine, which ensured that he remained in penury for the next four years at least. Margaret had been well trained in youth to tread the precarious path between loyalty to her family and loyalty to her sovereign, and fortunately she managed to retain the trust of her royal patrons. In 1522 Montagu was restored to favour, and the King paid for Reginald Polto go to the University of Padua in Italy to complete his studies.
   In 1525 the Princess Mary was sent to Ludlow Castle on the Welsh border, the traditional residence of the princes of Wales, to be educated and to learn something of the art of statecraft. With her, in sole charge, went her Lady Governess, Margaret Pole, with strict instructions from the Queen and Cardinal Wolsey governing the daily care of this precious child, Margaret was very fond of her charge. Already she and Queen Katherine had discussed the possibility of Mary's marriage to Reginald Pole, seeing in this second "union of the Roses" a workable solution to the problem of the succession, for the Queen had never produced the longed-for son and was now past her menopause. But the King did not favour the idea;  his intention was that Mary should marry a foreign prince.

Chapter Eight:  Scruples of Conscience

In 1527 Henry VIII took steps to have his marriage to Katherine of Aragon dissolved on the grounds that it was unlawful and incestuous because she had been his brother's wife. However, just as an approach was about to be made to Pope Clement VII, the Pope was taken prisoner by the Emperor Charles V, Katherine's nephew, and was therefore in no position to give Henry the answer he wanted. Clement soon heard that the real reason why the King wanted an annulment was his desire to marry Anne Boleyn, the lady who was believed by many to be his mistress. Clement delayed giving a decision on the case, hoping against hope that the King would tire of Anne and return to his wife. But as time went by and his frustration grew, Henry became ever more determined to end his marriage. The King's "Great Matter" dragged on for six years before being resolved, but its repercussions were to last far longer than that.
   These repercussions extended to the Pole family. Reginald returned to England just as the storm broke over the King's marriage. Margaret had brought the Princess Mary to court in 1527 for her betrothal to the heir to France, but took her back to Ludlow to protect her from the gossip about the Great Matter. Both Reginald and his mother were convinced that Anne Boleyn was the cause of the King's scruples of conscience, believing she herself had invented them; consequently they regarded Anne as a heretical whore, sent by the Devil to ensnare the King. Most religious conservatives at court would have agreed with them. It was not long before Reginald, sickened by what was going on, left England and resumed his studies in Paris.
   But Henry VIII needed the support of his nobility, and in 1530 he recalled Reginald Pole, hoping to use the latter’s formidable intellectual talents to his own advantage. He had paid for Pole’s education, and now he meant to have some return on his investment. He had had no trouble in persuading Lord Montagu to sign a petition from the nobility of England to the Pope, urging His Holiness to declare the King's marriage invalid, but Reginald was another matter. Although he initially, perhaps out of gratitude and loyalty, travelled to Italy to argue Henry's case, in December 1531 he refused to compromise his principles any longer. He turned down the carrot dangled by Henry in the form of the archbishopric of York, and chose exile in Padua, northern Italy, instead. His life there is documented here, and the effect of his defection upon his mother and her family.

Chapter Nine: The King's Indignation                

By 1533 Henry VIII had severed all ties with the Church of Rome, declared himself Supreme Head of the Church of England, married Anne Boleyn, and had his new Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, declare his marriage to Katherine invalid and their daughter a bastard, henceforth to be known as the Lady Mary. In that year Anne Boleyn bore a daughter, the future Elizabeth I. When Elizabeth's household was set up three months later, a vindictive Anne demanded that her stepdaughter Mary be sent to wait on the new heiress to the throne. Mary's household was broken up, amidst harrowing scenes, and Margaret Pole dismissed. It was an agonising parting, for Margaret had always stood as a bulwark between the Princess and her formidable father, and knew that her former charge would now find life very hard indeed. 
   Henry VIII now turned on those who had supported Queen Katherine, including Margaret and her relatives. He tried to wring from her an admission that she had had dealings with the traitorous Nun of Kent, whose visions supported Katherine and damned the King. When this failed, he contented himself with banishing Margaret from court. The strain of all this had a profound effect on her health, and she was ill for the first half of 1534.
   Katherine of Aragon had always felt an affiliation with the Yorkist relatives of the King, regarding them as representing the ancient blood royal of the realm; in Spain, her native land, such things were regarded as of paramount importance. Hence, during the years of the Great Matter and its aftermath, the White Rose families came to be identified very much with her cause.  In the wake of the Reformation, they were also seen as reactionaries, clinging to the old faith and the old ways. Thus they stood doubly in peril, not only because of their dangerous closeness to the throne, but also because, by 1534, it was treason to support the former Queen and her daughter and to acknowledge the authority of the Pope over the English Church. Most of the King's Yorkist relatives managed to maintain a low profile at this time. Not so Margaret, who continued to brave the King's wrath by her continuing concern for the Lady Mary's welfare.
   In February 1535 Henry VIII asked for Reginald Pole’s candid views on his annulment and remarriage. Later that year,, whilst Pole was composing a treatise by way of reply, news came to him that Henry had ordered the executions of Sir Thomas More, John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester and several Carthusian monks, all of whom had refused to swear an oath recognising the royal supremacy and the King's marriage, as was required of them by law. This news hardened Reginald's resolve - there would be no more compromises.

Chapter Ten:  The Treatise

Anne Boleyn was executed for treason in 1536. Within days, the King married Jane Seymour, who was to bear him a son, the future Edward VI, in 1537. Jane was the hope of the Catholic party at court, and a friend to the Lady Mary. Margaret Pole immediately felt the benefit of this, for within a month she was invited to return to court. It was confidently expected that Mary would soon join her there.
   Then, out of the blue, Reginald Pole's treatise arrived, a bitter and outspoken diatribe against the King and his ill-advised second marriage. From the safety of Italy, Reginald had addressed Henry VIII in terms that no man had ever dared use to him in his whole life, nor ever would again, terms that left Henry boiling with anger. Yet he was a practised dissembler, and wrote courteously to Reginald, inviting him to return to England to resolve certain difficulties in the treatise. Pole saw through this ploy and refused to leave Italy, where he was made a Cardinal by the Pope soon afterwards. The King's reaction was petulant and deadly: Reginald Pole might be out of his reach, but the rest of his family were at hand. Let them put one foot out of line and he would exact vengeance on them.  In his opinion, they were his worst enemies, having nurtured that viper in their bosom.
   Margaret was horrified when she learned what Reginald had done, and grasped at once the implications for herself and her other children. She dutifully wrote, as the King demanded, castigating her son and condemning the treatise. But she and her family privately supported Reginald, and it was at this time that Lord Montagu and his cousin the Marquess of Exeter (whose background and career are described here), with other disaffected conservative lords, began secretly to conspire against the King. This was at a time when the dissolution of the monasteries was underway, and the closure soon afterwards of Bisham Abbey, where Warwick lay buried, completed the alienation of the Pole family from Henry VIII.

Chapter Eleven:  The Pilgrimage of Grace

In October 1536 the King's northern subjects rose against him in protest at the dissolution of the monasteries and the royal supremacy. This rebellion was called the Pilgrimage of Grace, and it was one of the worst crises of Henry's reign. The King dissembled once more, promising the leaders of the revolt all they demanded, but then sent the Duke of .Norfolk to execute summary and terrible justice on them.
   The Pope, meanwhile, had sent the new Cardinal Pole to Flanders to co-ordinate the uprising by means of spies, on behalf of the Church of Rome. When Henry VIII learned of this, he made several unsuccessful attempts to have the Cardinal assassinated by his secret agents in Flanders. But before Pole could do any harm, the Pilgrimage of Grace was suppressed and he was obliged to return to Italy, heavy-hearted with failure.
   When, in the autumn of 1537, the King made no secret of the fact that he wanted "brainsick Pole" converted to his cause or dead, Margaret retired for good from court and went to live at Warblington. She was now 64 and doubtless weary of treading a tightrope at court and being forced to deny her love for her son.
   It was at Warblington that the next drama of her life was to unfold.

Chapter Twelve: The Exeter Conspiracy

By the middle of 1538, Henry VIII was resolved to eliminate all the Poles and their Yorkist cousins the Courtenays, the family of the Marquess of Exeter. Thomas Cromwell, the King's chief adviser and secretary, had planted a spy in Margaret Pole's household at Warblington, with instructions to note down anything of an incriminating nature. Other spies had been trailing Lords Montagu and Exeter, who had been surprisingly indiscreet.
   In August Margaret's younger son Geoffrey, an ineffectual man of little backbone, was arrested and subjected to rigorous questioning over several weeks. Unable to withstand the pressure, he broke down and confessed that he knew that his brother Montagu and the Marquess of Exeter were plotting a conspiracy against the King with the intent of setting Exeter on the throne.
   Montagu and Exeter were arrested in November and imprisoned in the Tower of London. They were presently joined there by their wives and even their children - Henry's desire for vengeance embraced even these innocents. Margaret was placed under house arrest at Cowdray Castle in Sussex and questioned, while Warblington was ransacked by the King's men. Among her possessions they found a banner bearing the royal arms of England - undifferenced.  Only the sovereign was allowed to use such a coat of arms. Henry VIII immediately assumed that Margaret had been involved in the conspiracy. Whether he was right or not is discussed here.
   Montagu and Exeter went to the block in December 1538, the same month in which the Pope entrusted Cardinal Pole with the task of rallying the Catholic powers of Europe against Henry VIII .
   The Exeter conspiracy was almost as serious a crisis as the Pilgrimage of Grace, and once again, to the King's chagrin, Reginald Pole was deeply involved in it. To Henry, this was the worst kind of treason, and he retaliated by publicly proclaiming Pole a traitor along with the rest of his family.

Chapter Thirteen:  The Tower

In June 1539 Margaret Pole was moved from Cowdray to a prison cell in the Tower, where she kept company with her young grandson, Henry Pole, and Gertrude Blount, Lady Exeter, and her son, Edward Courtenay. Lady Exeter was pardoned and released in December 1539, but because of Reginald Pole's activities on the Continent, the King was in no mood to pardon Margaret Pole.
   Her imprisonment was hard. She was elderly, not in the best of health, full of grief, and cold.  Her cell was freezing in the winter. In April 1541, hearing of her plight,
the King's fifth wife, Katherine Howard, sent Margaret Pole a set of new, warm clothing, but she was not to need these welcome items for long. That same month, a northern rebellion led by a White Rose sympathiser, Sir John Neville, broke out,
and Henry VIII convinced himself that Margaret Pole was a threat to him.
   The climax of this chapter, and of the book, is the sudden, brutal execution of Margaret Pole in May 1541. Her death was indeed terrible. Although we can thankfully dispose of an oft-quoted myth attached to this event, the truth is shocking enough, and it shocked even that violent age.

Chapter Fourteen: Afterwards

This chapter opens with an account of how Reginald Pole, and indeed the world at large, reacted to Margaret Pole's execution. It assesses her life and her status as the last of the Plantagenets, and evaluates how far she herself was responsible for her death.
   Poor little Henry Pole was expected to follow his grandmother to the block, but even Henry VIII stopped short of executing a child.  He seems instead to have allowed the boy to starve to death in the Tower. Whatever happened, Henry Pole disappears from recorded history after 1542.
   Reginald Pole became archbishop of Canterbury under Henry's daughter, Mary I, and led the Counter-Reformation in England. He was in part responsible for the burning of the Marian martyrs, and became much villified as a result. He died within hours of Mary in 1558. To the English people he had come to represent all that they hated about the Church of Rome. His tragedy was that he realised, before his death, that he had failed in his efforts to restore what he regarded as the true faith to his beloved country.
   Mary I was succeeded by Anne Boleyn's daughter, Elizabeth I, but the persecution of the Pole family was not yet over. In 1562 Margaret's grandsons, Arthur and Edmund Pole, were sent to the Tower and condemned to death on a charge of high treason. Arthur's crime had been to encourage Elizabeth's Catholic subjects to view him as the rightful King of England by virtue of his descent from Clarence. Edmund had aided and abetted him. Both were lucky to escape execution. The Queen magnanimously commuted the sentence to life imprisonment.
   Tudor paranoia about the descendants of the Plantagenets was at last abating. By August 1570 both Arthur and Edmund Pole were dead. Their inscriptions remain today on the walls of the Tower, mute testimony to the final sufferings of the beleaguered Pole family.
   In 1886, Margaret Pole was beatified by the Roman Catholic Church, Her canonisation is still awaited.

(I also put forward Margaret Pole's story for a novel, Lady of Grace. The project has been shelved while I write other books.)

By Alison Weir, 2007

I have always been fascinated by the curious and ultimately tragic story of Elizabeth and the Earl of Essex, a dark-haired, handsome and dashing adventurer thirty years her junior.
   Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, was the dashing stepson of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, Queen Elizabeth's great favourite. After Leicester`s death in 1588, the grief-stricken and vulnerable Queen was only too willing to have this glorious young man, Essex, fill his place in her affections, and in no time at all, Essex was wielding considerable influence at court. Yet from the start, his relationship with the Queen was tempestuous. There was, to all appearances, passion, at least on her part, and capriciousness on his. Storms inevitably brewed up. If Elizabeth turned down Essex`s requests, he would sulk or withdraw temporarily to the country, knowing that she needed his company more than he needed hers.
   For Elizabeth was now nearing sixty. For years, she had been courted and flattered by all manner of princes and noblemen, and had been regarded as the greatest matrimonial prize in Europe. She had carefully cultivated the image of Gloriana, the Virgin Queen who was lauded by the poets and the playwrights, and who had become a legend to her own subjects. But her beauty – such as it was – had long faded, and the time for marrying was long past. Through the attentions of Essex and other handsome men of the court, she could keep up the pretence that she was eternally youthful, beautiful and desirable.
   To feed her vanity, and secure favour, advancement and material benefits for themselves, Elizabeth`s male courtiers – notably Sir Christopher Hatton, Sir Walter Raleigh and Essex himself – treated her as if she were the most seductive of women, and fawned upon her accordingly. Essex`s courtship was overt and direct, and Elizabeth thrived upon it. `As a man, I have been more subject to your natural beauty than as a subject to the power of the King,` he told her. This was music to the ageing Elizabeth`s ears, and Essex naively drew the conclusion that she was so enslaved to his charms that she would permit none to challenge his influence.
   He was wrong. Elizabeth herself was never quite sure of her feelings for him. True, she enjoyed flirting with him, but she could never make up her mind whether she was in love with him, or whether he was a substitute for the son she had never had. Nor was she willing to allow him a monopoly on her emotions. Thus she still showed favour to – and flirted outrageously with - other men, much to Essex`s chagrin. He even challenged one to a duel.
   Despite Elizabeth`s generosity, Essex was soon deeply in debt to her, and when she sought repayment, he reminded her that love and kindness were more important than money. Aware at this point that she needed him as much as he needed her, she foolishly relented, and made him yet more lucrative grants. Thus the pattern for their relationship was established, with a besotted Elizabeth allowing Essex to get away with ever-more outrageous behaviour.
   Essex sought not only royal favour but also adventure, and when Elizabeth forbade him to accompany Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake on a naval expedition to destroy the enemy Spanish fleet, he stole away with them anyway, incurring the Queen`s fury. Yet as always, she came round and forgave him.
   At home, Essex set himself up as a rival to the Cecils, father and son, the Queen`s chief ministers. But while the Cecils were consummate statesmen, Essex would never be more than a court favourite, yet he was continually manoeuvring to oust his rivals and make himself the Queen`s principal adviser. His rash ambition led to the formation of court factions and a bitter power struggle that would dominate the latter years of Elizabeth`s reign.
   Having set himself on a collision course between the Queen and her counsellors, Essex veered wildly between favour and disgrace. Eventually, Elizabeth gave way to pressure and appointed him to the Privy Council, and also sent him on foreign expeditions, but all this was never enough for the ambitious Earl, and their relationship was consequently even more tempestuous. In 1595, Essex carried out a daring and successful raid on Cadiz, and at last proved himself a national hero. After that, he was unstoppable.
   But Elizabeth was jealous of Essex`s success and his popularity with her subjects, which she saw as a potential threat to herself. Yet she was so in thrall to him that he was able to dominate both her and her Council. It all went to his head, of course, and he repeatedly ignored advice to rein in his ambitions. There were more quarrels with the Queen, more withdrawals from court. `I shall break him of his will and pull down his great heart,` Elizabeth declared. Once, after she had told him to go to the Devil, he drew his sword and would have lunged at her, his anointed sovereign, had not Lord Nottingham stayed his hand.
   After that, many people expected to hear that Essex had been sent to the Tower, or even beheaded, for an attempt on the Queen`s life – or for gross lese-majeste, at the very least. But Elizabeth did nothing, much to everyone`s astonishment. By now, however, each was growing tired of the other: Essex was weary of Elizabeth`s temper and fickle moods, while she was determined that he should conform to the same conduct that was expected of other courtiers. She feared – and with good reason - he would attempt to `touch her sceptre`.
   Essex now remained in the country, sulking, but when he learned that there was trouble in Ireland, eager for adventure, he offered the Queen his sword. The resulting campaign was a complete disaster, and, defying Elizabeth`s explicit orders to remain at his command, Essex fled back to England, famously arriving at Nonsuch Palace and bursting unannounced into the Queen`s bedchamber while she was in a state of undress. There she sat, wigless, her grey hair about her shoulders, her wrinkled face unpainted, the image of indestructible youth that she had flattered herself she presented to Essex destroyed forever.
   Hell indeed had no fury like Elizabeth scorned. Essex was placed under house arrest. The Queen wanted him indicted for treason, but her councillors warned her that he was guilty of no more than incompetence. All the same, she kept him in confinement, hoping to find enough evidence to convict him. Soon, his health collapsed and it was rumoured that he had died. When he recovered, Elizabeth resolved to have him tried for treason, but he apologised, grovelling, and at the last minute she cancelled the trial.
   Public indignation at Essex`s continuing imprisonment was now mounting. Elizabeth, who could not afford further to risk her diminishing popularity, had him subjected to gruelling questioning, and after it had been shown that there was indeed a case to answer, she stripped him of all his offices and much of his income, and kept him confined to his house in London.
   From there, he made contact with disaffected friends and supporters, and plotted against those councillors whom he believed had worked for his downfall. He would rid the Queen of such treacherous advisers, he vowed, and be reconciled with her. He even contemplated breaking into her apartments, placing her under restraint and ruling England in her name.
   In 1601 – with the government tracking his every move – Essex staged his brief, ill-fated rebellion. But he had overestimated his popularity and credibility, and within hours it was all over and he was a prisoner in the Tower of London. The verdict at his trial was a foregone conclusion, and he was sentenced to death.
   Many people believed that, if Essex begged the Queen for mercy, she would spare his life, but his pride was such that he would not make any `cringing submission`, as he put it. Wasted with grief as she was, Elizabeth did not hesitate to sign his death warrant. It took three strokes to sever Essex`s head.
   The Queen showed no further outward sign of regret for the loss of one whom she had come to regard as a deadly threat to her throne, but on a personal level she remembered Essex with great sadness, and for the rest of her life, she wore a ring he had given her. She outlived him by two years, a weary, sad and depressed old woman, whose popularity had declined and whose spirit was broken. It would be left to future generations to invest her with the greatness she deserved.
   This is a poignant tale of an ageing woman with a much younger lover, a woman who tried to ward of the ravages of age with a pretence of youthfulness, yet who was in the end defeated by the consequences of her infatuation. The story of Elizabeth and Essex is one of high drama; it is not as well known as that of Elizabeth and Leicester, yet it is every bit as fascinating and compelling. These were two vivid and charismatic characters whose turbulent interaction was fuelled by passion and conflict, and whose clashes of interests propelled them headlong towards an inevitable tragic conclusion.


Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, the niece of Edward IV and Richard III, had once been governess to the future Queen Mary I, but in the wake of Henry VIII’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon, whom they supported, she and her family came to represent a threat to the King. In 1536, Henry asked Lady Salisbury’s son, Cardinal Reginald Pole, to write down his views on his marriages. He knew that if he could gain Pole`s support, the Catholic world would look more kindly on him. Safely living in Italy, Pole could not resist writing just what he thought of the King and Anne Boleyn. His book mortally offended Henry. It was nothing less than treason, and it damned him in the King’s eyes. From now on, he was filled with a deep hatred of Pole. It was clear that Pole could never return to England while Henry lived.
  In much distress, Lady Salisbury spoke out against the book. She said she wished she had never given birth to such a traitor. She wrote to Reginald with a strong reproof, and sent the letter to the Privy Council first. It was all in vain, for Henry knew that her views were the same as the Cardinal`s. `The King will kill us all,` her sons warned.
   Henry never forgot Reginald Pole`s treason. He had the family watched. He was all too aware that royal blood ran in their veins. He told one envoy that he would destroy them.
   In 1538, Henry sent Lady Salisbury’s younger son, Geoffrey, to the Tower for aiding his brother in exile. Geoffrey Pole, in great fear, blurted out something about a plot. It seems there had been something of the kind, inept and half hearted, but it was made out that the Poles and their friends had plotted to kill the King. Later that year, the King had Lady Salisbury`s eldest son, Lord Montagu, arrested, along with his cousin, the Marquess of Exeter. Both were sent to the block. There was a round- up of other family members, and even the children were sent to prison in the Tower.
   Lady Salisbury’s castle had been searched. A white silk tunic had been found, bearing the royal arms of a king. Only a monarch might bear such arms. She firmly denied that she had ever meant to dispute the right of Henry VIII to the throne, but this did not save her. In March 1539, she too was taken to the Tower, where she was put in a cold cell. She had no warm clothes and was given only poor fare to eat. Henry wanted her out of the way because he feared that she might be the focus of another conspiracy against the Crown.
   In May 1539, she was condemned by Act of Attainder to lose her life and her goods. The King took all her lands, but he did not send her to the scaffold. She was sixty-five, a great age in Tudor time, so he may have thought she would die soon anyway. She lay in the Tower for two years, weak and cold, until in May 1541, there was a revolt against Henry`s rule in Yorkshire. The King, as ever, feared a plot to depose him and put someone else on the throne. He remembered that Lady Salisbury still lived, and that her sons were traitors. She had had nothing to do with the revolt, but he chose to see her as a threat to his safety. In spite of the pleas of his fifth queen, Katherine Howard, he ordered that the death sentence be carried out.
   On the morning of 28 May 1541, the aged Countess was woken by the Constable of the Tower and told she was to die that day. She told him that she was guilty of no crime. He gave her a short time to prepare her soul for death, then led her out to Tower Green. ‘When informed of her sentence she found it very strange, not knowing her crime; but she walked to the space in front of the Tower, where there was no scaffold but only a small block.’
   What happened next has passed into legend as one of the most gruesome events ever to have taken place in the Tower.
   Henry VIII’s seventeenth-century biographer, Lord Herbert of Cherbury, was told by ‘a person of great quality’ that Lady Salisbury refused to lay her head on the block.
   ‘So should traitors do, but I am none!’ she is alleged to have said. ‘Neither did it serve that the executioner told her it was the fashion; so, turning her grey head every which 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.’ Many modern writers have taken this to mean that he chased her around the block, chopping her to death.
   But neither the French nor the Imperial ambassador, who both reported the execution within days of it taking place, mentions this exchange. Nevertheless, the truth is grim enough. ‘The lamentable execution of the Countess of Salisbury took place at the Tower in presence of the Lord Mayor and about 150 persons. She there commended her soul to God, and desired those present to pray for the King, Queen, Prince, and Princess. The ordinary executioner being absent, a blundering boy was chosen, who hacked her head and shoulders to pieces.’  

by Alison Weir

Anne Askew was imprisoned in the Tower but was executed for heresy, not treason. Her story deserves to be included here.

Although torture was officially illegal in England, some prisoners in the Tower did suffer interrogation on the rack and by other cruel methods, such as the thumbscrews, the boot or the Scavenger’s Daughter, an infamous contraption that compressed the body so severely that blood would spurt out of the nose and other orifices.
   The first – and only – woman to be racked in the Tower was Anne Askew, in the reign of Henry VIII.
   Anne Askew was born in Lincolnshire in 1521. When she was fifteen her family forced her to marry a man called Thomas Kyme. Anne rebelled against her husband by refusing to adopt his surname, and argued with him about religion. Anne was a Protestant, a follower of Martin Luther, while her husband was a traditional Catholic. At that time, professing Protestant beliefs was heresy, and punishable by burning at the stake.
   Eventually Anne left her husband and went to London, where she gave sermons and distributed banned Protestant books. This led to her being arrested. Her husband was sent for and ordered to take her home to Lincolnshire; but Anne soon escaped, and it was not long before she was back in London, preaching.
   Again, in 1546, she was arrested, and underwent several examinations for heresy. At that time, there was a court plot to bring down Henry VIII’s sixth wife, Katherine Parr, whom her enemies suspected of heresy, and of having been in contact with Anne Askew. Sir Anthony Kingston, the Constable of the Tower, was ordered to torture Anne in an attempt to force her to name other Protestants and incriminate the Queen. The Lord Chancellor himself and Sir Richard Rich were present at the examination.
   We have her own account, written afterwards, of what happened next. 
   "Then Master Rich and one of the council charged me, upon my obedience, to show unto them if I knew any man or woman of my sect. My answer was, that I knew none.  Then said they unto me, that the King was informed that I could name, if I would, a great number of my sect. I answered, that the King was as well deceived in that behalf, as dissembled with in other matters.
   "Then they said that there were many gentlewomen that gave me money: but I knew not their names. Then they said, there were of those of the Privy Council that did maintain me: and I said, No.”
   It was then that the decision was made to put Anne Askew on the rack. The rack was an instrument designed for stretching the body and pulling limbs out of their sockets. It was a large, wooden frame on which the victim was laid on his back with his wrists and ankles roped to two rollers at each end. These rollers were turned in opposite directions until the joints were dislocated.
   Anne was taken down to a dungeon, and told to strip to her shift, then Sir Anthony Kingston ‘commanded his jailor to pinch her with the rack. Which being done as much as he thought sufficient, he went about to take her down, supposing that he had done enough. But the Lord Chancellor, not contented that she was loosed so soon, confessing nothing, commanded the Lieutenant to strain her on the rack again: which, because he denied to do, tendering the weakness of the woman, he was threatened therefore grievously by the Chancellor, who said that he would signify his disobedience unto the King. And so, consequently, the Lord Chancellor and Master Rich, throwing off their gowns, would needs play the tormentors themselves; first asking her if she were with child. To whom she answered, "Ye shall not need to spare for that, but do your wills upon me." 
   Anne wrote later: "Then they did put me on the rack, because I confessed no ladies or gentlewomen to be of my opinion, and thereon they kept me a long time; and because I lay still, and did not cry, my Lord Chancellor and Master Rich took pains to rack me with their own hands, till I was nigh dead.”
   When the wheel of the rack was turned, it lifted Anne so that she was held taut about 5 inches above its bed and slowly and agonisingly stretched. Quietly and patiently praying, ‘she abode their tyranny, till her bones and joints were almost plucked asunder.’ Her cries could be heard in the garden next to the White Tower, where the Lieutenant's wife and daughter were walking.
   Anne recorded: "Then the lieutenant caused me to be loosed from the rack.  I swooned, and then they recovered me again. After that I sat two long hours reasoning with my Lord Chancellor upon the bare floor; where he, with many flattering words, persuaded me to leave my opinion. But my Lord God gave me grace to persevere, and will do, I hope, to the very end.’
   Poor Anne was so badly injured that she had to be ‘carried away in a chair’.
   After the Chancellor and Rich had departed, ‘the good Lieutenant, taking a boat, sped him to the court in all haste to speak with the King before the others; who, making his humble suit to the king, desired his pardon, and showed him the whole matter as it stood, and of the racking of Mistress Askew, and how he was threatened by the Lord Chancellor, because, not knowing his Highness's pleasure, he refused to rack her; which he, for compassion, could not find in his heart to do, and therefore humbly craved his Highness's pardon. Which, when the king had understood, he seemed not very well to like of their so extreme handling of the woman, and also granted to the Lieutenant his pardon, willing him to return and see to his charge.
   Great expectation was in the mean season among the warders and other officers of the Tower, waiting for his return; whom when they saw come so cheerfully, declaring unto them how he had sped with the king, they were not a little joyous, and gave thanks to God there-for.’
    Anne Askew’s fate was recorded by John Foxe in his famous Book of Martyrs:
‘Wherefore the day of her execution was appointed, and she brought into Smithfield in a chair, because she could not go on her feet, by means of her great torments. When she was brought unto the stake she was tied by the middle with a chain that held up her body. When all things were prepared, the King's letters of pardon were brought, whereby to offer her safeguard of her life if she would recant, which she would neither receive, neither yet vouchsafe once to look upon. Thus, she being troubled so many manner of ways, and having passed through so many torments, now ended the long course of her agonies, being compassed in with flames of fire, as a blessed sacrifice unto God,  leaving behind her a singular example of Christian constancy for all men to follow.’
   Mercifully, the executioner hung a bag of gunpowder around her neck as a humane act in order to speed her death, and it exploded almost at once. Those who saw her die were impressed by her courage, and reported that she did not scream until the flames reached her chest.

EXECUTION (composed 1980)
No longer do the dripping stone walls
encircle me;
just the blue sky
and the gentle breeze of a warm May morning.
In silent convoy
we walk briskly on the cobbles
past green swards sprinkled with daisies,
the feet making an ominous clatter.
Towards the crouching crowd,
with awed and apprehensive faces,
who turn, eager to see
the face of one on the brink of eternity.
Mounting the wooden steps, briefly feeling the sun's warmth
and the silent call of the dim chapel beside, the chapel of rest.
Clutching the rail, black-draped,
greeting the man in black,
whose clothes are even dusty in the sunshine,
whose bare arms ripple with strength.
A whispered prayer, a blindfold refused,
sinking into forgotten skirts.
Nothing now - only the block
and the sword glinting in the last sunlight.