Outliers: The death of Margaret Pole

Season Two of HRP’s Outliers podcast is here – our history fiction podcast that tells stories from the perspective of those standing in the shadows of historical events. In this Outliers blog series, we’re uncovering the true history that inspired our podcasts’ compelling stories. This week’s episode, Always Professional, explores the role and possible mindset of an executioner at the Tower of London during the reign of Henry VIII.  Author Alex Lynch chose the particularly horrific execution of Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, on which to base his story.

Margaret Pole, stained glass window in the church of Our Lady and the English Martyrs (OLEM) in Cambridge. © OLEM/ Lawrence OP on Flickr

Margaret Pole was the daughter of George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence, brother to Edward IV, and a leading figure in the Wars of the Roses. Not only did this mean that Margaret came of royal stock, but it meant that she came from the family that was historically opposed to the reign of the Tudors, a fact that would affect her throughout her life. Her brother Edward, Earl of Warwick, who posed a dangerous threat to the Tudor dynasty, was executed on Tower Hill in 1499 following over a decade of imprisonment at the Tower of London by Henry VII.

In an attempt to control her, Margaret was married off to Sir Richard Pole, an important member of the early Tudor reign. She became a close friend to Katherine of Aragon and was even put in charge of the education of Princess Mary (later Mary I). When Henry VIII decided to annul his marriage to Katherine, Margaret remained loyal to her queen, whilst still managing to weather the storm. For a while Margaret got along with Henry VIII, but when her son Reginald started to vociferously support the Pope against Henry, the King decided it was time for him to deal with the Poles.

Margaret was imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1539. Two years later there was a sudden decision to execute the frail 67-year-old Lady Pole, which might explain why an inexperienced headsman got the job. Documented history tells us the usual executioner had been called away to remove rebel heads after the Pilgrimage of Grace uprising.  The suddenness may explain why Margaret was executed inside the Tower walls. Executions inside the Tower of London were very rare. Margaret was of high-status, with powerful friends. Against a turbulent rebellious climate, Henry would have wanted to keep the execution, motivated mainly by vicious spite, as quiet as possible.

Our story is narrated by the regular head executioner, who views himself as a consummate professional. He is furious at the botched execution of Margaret Pole, who was literally hacked to death by an apprentice, rather than cleanly despatched by a single blow of the axe. Alex Lynch, the writer of Always Professional, wanted to use Margaret Pole’s story as the basis for this episode because of the rare glimpse her story provides into executions of this time. We do not know a lot about the role of the executioner at the Tower of London so it is easier to glean information from specific executions, such as poor Margaret Pole’s, which is of particular note because of its gore and horror.

A memorial dedicated to the ten people who were executed on or near this spot at Tower Green, inside the Tower of London. The Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula can be seen in the background © Historic Royal Palaces

Margaret was also the first woman to be executed within the precinct of the Tower, rather than on Tower Hill. She was buried at the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula at the Tower of London. Margaret was one of only five women – among them three queens of England – to be executed inside the Tower of London and is commemorated today on Tower Green.

Always Professional is now available to download. Listen to the new story and to all previous episodes on Apple PodcastsSpotify, or Stitcher.

You can read the full transcript of Always Professional here

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