Your RDA of Irony

Beheading Behavior

May 27, 1541:  Margaret Pole Almost Revives the Olympics

Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury.   Born in 1473, the poor woman had a miserable sense of timing from the start.  By the time she was four, she had been declared a traitor by her uncle King Edward IV–who executed his own brother and stripped the ensuing orphans of their property.  Her nicer uncle was Richard III, who restored young Margaret’s and her brother’s legitimacy and estates.   Margaret’s luck lasted two years–the same length as Richard’s reign.  Being a Yorkist heiress and a legitimate Plantagenet did not improve her prospects with the new king  Henry VII–who was not a legitimate anything.  Her brother Edward would spend the rest of his short life in prison; although mentally-retarded, that was a minor handicap for royalty and his pedigree made him a threat to the Tudors.  Edward was executed in 1499 at the age of 24.  Margaret was kept under a more comfortable confinement until Henry decided her fate–specifically which of his lackeys deserved a rich, young wife.

The lucky–and unctuously loyal–groom was Henry’s cousin Richard Pole.  Pole married Margaret in 1494, and apparently he did not mind at all.  There were five children within ten years, and I would like to tell you that the Poole family lived happily ever after.  Well, Richard did; he had the prudence to die in 1505.  But Margaret and her children did not.  They  lived on into the reign of Henry VIII.

He was Margaret’s first cousin, once removed, and he took the removal quite seriously.  The Poles were staunch Catholics, and they would be providing executioners with steady work for the next two generations.  Margaret was never implicated in any plots, but her decapitation in 1541 was Henry’s way of congratulating her son Reginald for becoming a Cardinal.

In Tudor England beheading was considered a privilege. It was performed before a select audience in a upper class setting. In return, the victims were expected to behave with stoic dignity. Most did.  The Countess of Salisbury definitely was the exception. The frail 67 year-old woman did not want to be executed and would not cooperate. She had to be dragged to the scaffold and would not passively place her head on the block. The executioner required assistance to hold down the struggling lady. She writhed and wiggled so effectively that the axeman missed her neck, slashing instead her shoulder. In the confusion, the Countess tried to make a run for it. She only managed to dodge around the scaffold and she was just one wounded old lady against an armed killer and his staff. The outcome was inevitable but she gave an unprecedented resistance.

The Church beatified her in 1886.  Given her surprising dexterity, you’d think that a Catholic school would have named a gym for her.

  1. Hal Gordon says:

    Eugene — In her delightful travel book, “Here’s England”, Ruth McKenney says this about the unfortunate lady profiled in your blog: “For my part, the Countess is my favorite Tower prisoner … She made her death a murder, not a ceremony; there was no stately, sorrowful pageantry about her end — only shameful, bloody injustice. There is something heartening about the Countess of Salisbury. The other Tower victims go pacing slowly, decently off to the block; you see them in tragic, mournful procession, each one almost acquiescing, at least bowing, before this intolerable fate. Young (very young) and old, they share this same attitude of rigidity; paralyzed by wicked force, they bow their heads meekly across the centuries. All of a sudden comes the Countess, screeching her indignation, galloping furiously around and around while the headsman, and finally half the guard, chase after her. I like that. Good for her!”

  2. Hal,

    I can only imagine how Showtime’s “The Tudors” would depict the Countess….

    Portrayed by Michelle Yeoh, she will wrest the axe from the executioner, cutting down him and a regiment of beefeaters. Then using a halberd, she pole vaults over the Thames and to freedom.

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