Pamela Hervey-Bathurst reports her investigations into the life of Blessed Margaret Pole
I HAVE always had a personal interest in Blessed Margaret Pole, mainly through some misguided history books — but chiefly because I thought she was a "reluctant martyr" or even a last minute coward which would in the event prove a likely personal temptation.
Also I have a devotion to the Five Wounds, which I think played a part in her conviction as a political traitor. The story given to me was that as an ancient lady of 70 (or more), on reaching the scaffold, she ran round it four times before being finally caught by the executioner and led to the block for beheading. I felt very sympathetic. Since then, on inquiry, readers of the Catholic newspapers and expert historians have kindly given me many more details of her life.
It is not widely known that there is a beautiful manor house convent — Pole's Convent FCJ, dedicated to her, situated in Ware, Hertfordshire. Mr Francis Murphy, teacher, writer, historian, living in Bedfordshire, confirmed for me that she was, indeed, the mother of Cardinal Pole, who revered her. "At the age of 41, in exile, in Italy, a prominent figure in the Church, and the Internal Reform Movement, Reginald Pole received the dreadful news, that Henry VIII had executed his mother, now in her seventieth year." He said, "that God had given him the grace of being the son of one of the best and most honoured ladies in England . . . but now He has wished to honour me still more, and increase my liability, because He has made me, in addition, the son of a martyr."
Andrew Mungovin, Bradford historian, also filled in: "She was born in 1473, her father being George, Duke of Clarence, brother to Edward IV and Richard III. Her grandfather was the Earl of Warwick, called 'The King Maker'." Her brother Edward, having a claim to the Crown, was imprisoned for 14 years in the Tower, until executed, so that there should be no doubt that claimants to the Throne when Henry VIII's brother Arthur married Catherine of Aragon.
By that time, largely through deliberate ill-treatment, he was so retarded that it was said he "did not know a goose from a capon." Margaret was then married to Richard Pole. They had five children, including Reginald, later Cardinal and Archbishop of Canterbury.
Margaret and Catherine of Aragon became close friends. After Henry married Catherine, on succeeding to the Throne, he made Margaret Countess of Salisbury in her own right, and she became governess to Princess Mary. Inevitably she supported the Queen when the question of divorce arose.
For that, and her staunch Catholicism, she was sentenced to death. She refused to kneel for the headsman on the grounds that she had committed no treason. "She was tortured, rather than executed."
Rosemary Fells, of Barnsley, confirmed Margaret's history, but was not able to answer, for sure, my belief that one of the trumped-up reasons for her actual arrest was that a vestment, embroidered with the Five Wounds and Vessels for saying of Mass were found in her linen chest during the search. She was suspected, they averred, of harbouring priests.
So she sent my query to an expert on history, (particularly local), Christine Houseley, of Havant, Hampshire, who told me that the feast of Blessed Margaret Pole has been celebrated for the past few years with a Catholic Mass in the (now) Anglican church at Warblington — adding — "I hope that she, and the members of the Cotton family near-by, who suffered so much (in fines and persecution) for their faith, would approve!"
I do not, unfortunately, know the date of her feast day. But through this, I received a copy of the story of "Warblington Church", by Norman Simmonds — which had much to say about the Blessed Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury. "The ruins of Warblington Castle can be seen from the North Porch of the church, and it may well be that the Countess, with members of her family and household, once walked to the Church, entering by the present old ships timbered porch, that even in her day was some two hundred years old.' This is a guide book well worth reading.
It also mentions — apropos of John Helyar, Chaplain to the Pole house, and then Rector of the Church, presented to the living by the Countess, subsequently, charged with high treason as being in communication with the cardinal in Italy, and who finally fled there, of necessity, himself:
"Fitzwilliam, Earl of Southampton, ally of Cromwell and the Bishop of Ely, were sent in the autumn of 1538 to examine the Countess,rand they questioned her throughout the
day, from early morning until almost night, 'aut were unable to elicit from her any incriminating admission."
Her body rests in the little cemetery of St Peter ad Vincula, within the precincts of the Tower. A sad and haunting place. I have been there — but did not see any memorial, if it was there — though there is mention of so many great martyrs, St Thomas More among them — St John Fisher, St John Houghton — I should have known. I now humbly admit that there are many historical works and novels that make much of her story — and that she is listed in the book of Forty Martyrs — by Fr Clement Tigar, SJ (1970) — The Catholic Encyclopaedia, Old and New editions.
Also a portrait believed to be of her, is in the National Portrait Gallery. Blessed Margaret Pole, looking so noble, defiant, and yet so humorous — forgive my childish ignorance and remember me and our beloved country "Our Lady's Dowry" in the company of Heaven. Spes mea est in Deo.