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Catholic Heroes… Blessed Margaret Pole (Plantagenet)

January 19, 2021 saints No Comments

By DEB PIROCH

Margaret Pole (1473-1541) was born a princess into the royal Plantagenet family. Her mother died when she was only three. Her father, the Duke of Clarence, some will remember from Shakespeare’s play, Richard III. Margaret’s uncle, Richard III, allegedly murdered the Duke by drowning him in a vat of wine. (Actually, her father was executed for treason against King Henry IV.)
These times were dangerous and one’s star rose or fell based on one’s connections. Her first cousins, the little princes, were murdered by King Richard III and walled up in the Tower. After Richard was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field in the Wars of the Roses, the Tudors took power, beginning with King Henry VII. He married a cousin of Margaret’s, and saw that she herself married another of his wife’s cousins, Sir Richard Pole, in 1487. They would have five children together, four sons and a daughter. The times represented an upswing in her fortunes.
Pole himself would rise to office as the chamberlain for the King’s eldest son, Arthur, Prince of Wales, and Margaret became lady-in-waiting briefly to Arthur’s wife when he married Catherine of Aragon. But Prince Arthur, betrothed at age 11 and married at 15, died 20 weeks later, in 1502. His court dissolved and three years later Margaret was widowed.
As the family properties had not been restored, she and her children were dependent, living on Catholic charity at Syon Abbey. The King even had to pay for her husband’s funeral. Then, King Henry VIII ascended the throne seven years later, in 1509. Again, Margaret’s fortunes would rise. This, in part, because he married his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon.
During the reign of Henry most of her family’s lands were restored and also the title Countess of Salisbury. Her children did well. Her third son, Reginald, studied for the priesthood in Padua, Italy — paid for in part by King Henry VIII himself. And she became Baptism and Confirmation sponsor, as well as governess, to the future Queen Mary. Clearly, these were Catholic halcyon days.
As all must know, the end to the story is not a good one. King Henry, drunk on power, began his own war on the Church from the moment he determined to gain an annulment and marry Anne Boleyn. Doing so required that he put aside his legitimate wife, Queen Catherine. In 1533 his daughter by Catherine, Mary, was declared a “bastard.” Margaret Pole would not treat Mary that way, despite the rise of Anne Boleyn. She refused to return Mary’s jewels and other property to Henry and even offered to continue to work for her godchild at her own expense, but the Crown turned down the offer and sent her away.
Meanwhile the King was in communication with her son, wishing Reginald to also approve his marriage to Anne Boleyn. In 1532 the King would offer Reginald Pole the Archbishopric of York and Westminster, if he would endorse his annulment. Reginald would not, instead going abroad into exile. Pole would be the “undoing” of his whole family. He sent Henry his own well-argued treatise against the marriage by 1536. The King in turn shared this information with Margaret, who it is said “reproved” her son and tried to make amends. Though not yet ordained beyond deacon, Reginald Pole was named a cardinal and then papal legate to England by Pope Paul III soon after.
By this time, 1538, Margaret was one of the wealthiest personages in England. Henry VIII, angry over her son the cardinal’s opposition, took revenge as it so often suited him; trumping up charges as necessary and executing anyone in the vicinity. The so-called “Exeter Conspiracy” — probably invented — led to the arrest of Margaret’s two sons, Geoffrey and Henry, and her son’s second cousin. Geoffrey was later released but son Henry and the second cousin were executed. Margaret was imprisoned in the Tower of London.
Again, as was the case with her father before his execution, she was “attainted,” meaning legally stripped of her title and property. As “evidence” six months after her imprisonment, Chancellor Thomas Cromwell found an article of clothing in her belongings, a tunic embroidered to represent the five wounds of Christ. This, he alleged, was symbolic of Margaret’s treasonous support of her son, Reginald.
This was “stuff and nonsense,” yet nevertheless meant that Margaret was imprisoned in the Tower for two and a half years and could be executed at any time, on the King’s whim.
With these words, Cardinal Pole said he would not hesitate to describe his relationship with his mother. As we know from history, both Queen Mary and her mother, Queen Katherine of Aragon, were solidly Catholic. A look into the future allows us to witness how Margaret, through her son, played a role even after her death, in attempts made to maintain Catholicism in England.
We all know Henry VIII lived a horribly dissolute life, during which he also destroyed the English Church. After the death of Henry and the short rule of his “boy king” son, Queen Mary ascended the throne. This is the same Mary who had been under the tutelage of Margaret Pole as her governess and goddaughter. And the same Margaret who remained loyal to both Mary and her mother.
When Mary assumed the Crown, Reginald Pole would finally be ordained from deacon to priest, and then made archbishop of Canterbury (1556). He also became the chief adviser for Mary, and the chancellor for Oxford and Cambridge. He would die in office, because he had the “luck” to die 12 hours after Queen Mary. The year was 1558, which marked the rise of Elizabeth I and a red wave of martyrdom for Catholics, who would be persecuted for generations to come.

Margaret’s Demise

For traitors on the block should die;
I am no traitor, no, not I!
My faithfulness stands fast and so,
Towards the block I shall not go!
Nor make one step, as you shall see;
Christ in Thy Mercy, save Thou me!
— Words allegedly scrawled on Margaret’s cell wall in the Tower.

On May 27, 1541, Margaret was informed she was to die. Confused, as she had not even been tried for a crime, she was approximately 70 years of age. But she went calmly to her death. Her last words were said to have been: “Blessed are they who suffer persecution for justice’ sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
She was beheaded in a private execution, as befitted a royal. Unfortunately, the executioner was clumsy and had to raise the axe multiple times, finally severing her head from her body. This was the fate King Henry VIII assigned to one some say he called “the holiest woman in England.”
She was beatified in 1886 by Pope Leo XIII — the oldest ruling Pontiff who died at age 93.
Her feast day is May 28.

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