Story Of London

The Execution of Margaret Countess of Salisbury 1473 – 1541

The Execution of Margaret Countess of Salisbury
by Bill McCann

Everyone has heard the horror stories of botched executions with victims running screaming around the scaffold etc. The story of Margaret, Countess of Salisbury, is one of the authentic examples of such horror. Her only crime was that she was the mother of a Cardinal who stood up to Henry VIII.Her screaming ghost is still said to haunt the tower on the anniversary of her death.

The Execution of Margaret Countess of Salisbury 1473 – 1541

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Margaret was the daughter of the Duke of Clarence, who was brother to Edward IV. He was secretely put to death, reputedly in a butt of Malmsey wine, by Edward at the Tower on February 19th 1478. She was therefore of Plantagenet stock and a child of The War of the Roses. She married Sir Richard Pole and their son, Reginald Pole became Archbishop of Canterbury. Her eventual fate was determined by her son’s attitude to the divorce of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. Pole opposed the divorce and was suspended from the Archbishopric by Henry. In defiance, he was made a cardinal by Pope Paul III in 1536 and sent as a legate to the Low Countries to confer with the English Malcontents.

Henry immediately set a price on his head and looked for other means of retaliation. Guided by Thomas Cromwell, Henry launched, in 1538, a grand assault on religious images which were denounced as objects which encouraged superstition. The income to the royal coffers from the subsequent destruction and confiscations was considerable but the greatest prize of all was the destruction of the shrine of St Thomas à Becket at Canterbury. This brought the Crown two great chests of jewels – “such as six or eight strong men could do no more than convey one of them”- and another twenty-four wagon loads of varied treasures.

A shocked Pope threatened excommunication and interdiction but Henry was unmoved. In retaliation he issued a proclamation that declared Becket “a rebel who fled to the realm of France and to the bishop of Rome to procure the abrogation of wholesome laws”. Henry, however, was not satisfied with revenge on the World Stage alone. In August 1538 he had one of Margaret’s other sons, Geoffrey, arrested. Although Geoffrey was eventually contemptuously pardoned, he did provide Henry with evidence against his mother, his brother Lord Montague and his cousins the marquess of Exeter and Sir Edward Neville.

The evidence against Montague was that he had said in private that he liked “ well the doings of my brother the Cardinal and I would we were both over the sea”. He is also supposed to have said, again in a private conversation, that when Henry VIII was a young child his father, Henry VII, did not like him. This was enough to convict him of high treason. The evidence against Neville was that once, when a guest at Cowdray House, the splendid mansion of the Earl of Southampton at Midhurst in Sussex, he said that “the King was a beast and worse than a beast”. Again this was enough and both Montague and Neville were executed in December 1538.

Southampton, accompanied by other members of the Privy Council, went to Margaret’s house at Warbledon in Hampshire where they interrogated the servants and searched the property. The only evidence they came up with was that the Countess had forbidden her servants to read the Bible in English and that she had once been seen burning a letter. Margaret, was then taken to Cowdray and subsequently to the Tower. It was felt that there was not enough evidence to convict her of high treason but she was condemned to death as a traitor by an Act of Parliament (Act of Attainder).

Henry kept her a prisoner in the Tower for a further two years. Then, following an abortive conspiracy in the north, he had her executed on May 27th 1541. Margaret did not realise what was happening. When she was told to lay her head on the block she set off to wander slowly and aimlessly around Tower Green. She was forcibly returned to the block, but the executioner was young an inexperienced. Perhaps put off by the advanced age and obvious senility of the old Countess, he botched the execution. It was not until the third or fourth stroke of the axe that Margaret’s head was severed from her body.

It is said that every year, on the anniversary of the execution, her ghost can be seen and heard re-enacting the terrible scene on Tower Green.

Related Reading:
Henry VIII : The King and His Court
Edward IV (Yale English Monarchs Series)