Sunday, May 28, 2017

May 28 ~ Execution of Blessed Margaret Pole, martyr of Henry VIII's revolution

A contemporary drawing of
Lady Margaret Pole.
Today marks the feast day of Blessed Margaret Pole, who was executed on May 27, 1541 by order of Henry VIII's rogue parliament. Mother of Cardinal Reginald Pole, the last Catholic archbishop of Canterbury, and governess to Henry's daughter, the princess Mary (later Queen Mary).

Margaret's crime was ostensibly treason, based on the discovery of an old tunic in her possession which displayed the five wounds of Christ. According to her persecutors, this garment was a clear connection to the so-called "Pilgrimage of Grace" — a popular uprising against Henry VIII in 1536. In reality, it was a symbol of her Plantagenet heritage, Margaret being one of the few remaining descendants of that fallen house. It is speculated that Henry demanded Margaret's death as a way of striking at her son, Reginald, who had been made a Cardinal by the Pope in 1537. Hearing of his mother's condemnation, Reginald wrote:
"You have heard, I believe, of my mother being condemned by public Council to death, or rather to eternal life. Not only has he who condemned her, condemned to death a woman of seventy — than whom he has no nearer relative, except his daughter, and of whom he used to say there was no holier woman in his kingdom — but at the same time her grandson, son of my brother, a child, the remaining hope of our race. See how far this tyranny has gone, which began with priests, in whose order it only consumed the best, then [went on] to nobles, and there, too, destroyed the best." [as recorded in Butler's Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs and Other Principal Saints.]
Lady Margaret's execution was not an ordinary affair. A contemporary description from a French observer is recorded in Martin Haile's Life of Reginald Pole (1910):
Without any process, solely on the King's warrant under the Act of Attainder passed two years previously, the venerable lady, sixty-nine years of age, was put to death at an hour's notice. Well might the French ambassador Marillac, writing to Francis I the following day, call it, "a case more worthy of compassion than of long letters." She was beheaded "yesterday morning before 7 o'clock, in a corner of the Tower, in presence of so few people that till evening the truth was still doubted." He continues —
"It was the more difficult to believe as she had been long a prisoner, was of noble lineage . . . and had been punished by the loss of one son, and the banishment of the others, and the total ruin of her house. . . . The manner of proceeding in her case, and that of a lord who was executed at the same time, seems to argue that those here are afraid to put to death publicly those whom they execrate in secret."
There is some disagreement in the historical record of the actual events of the execution. The English version, recorded long after, represents Blessed Margaret refusing to put her head on the block. After being struck once by the executioner, she is described as rising up and sprinting away, with the executioner running after her, striking her multiple times. A contemporary account by French ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, seems much more reliable. Haile explains:
A woodcut of Margaret's execution,
based on the ludicrous account of
Herbert of Cherbury,
[Eustace] Chapuys had returned to England as ambassador from the Queen Regent of Flanders in the previous July and from his accurate pen we have a more trustworthy account than that of Lord Herbert of Cherbury, written at a later period and which represents the saintly and dignified woman vainly refusing to lay her head on the block and being chased round the scaffold by the executioner sword in hand. In the first place there was no scaffold: Henry VIII's orders were peremptory and there was no time for its erection; nor was it a likely thing that the venerable Margaret Pole would depart from the attitude of humble resignation which distinguished the last moments of all those who laid down their lives for their faith. 
Chapuys, after recording the hanging of the Abbot of Croxton and two gentlemen [Lee and Thorne] in the North, says—
"About the same time took place the lamentable execution of the Countess of Salisbury at the Tower, in the presence of the Lord Mayor and about 150 persons. When informed of her sentence she found it very strange, not knowing her crime, but she walked to the place in front of the Tower where there was no scaffold but only a small block. She there commended her soul to God and desired those present to pray for the King Queen Prince and Princess. The ordinary executioner being absent a blundering youth, garfonneau, was chosen, who hacked her head and shoulders almost to pieces."
Chapuys calls her, "A most virtuous lady."
Margaret Pole was beatified by Pope Leo XIII in 1886. For a good account of her life, visit this site: Margaret Plantagenet Pole, Countess of Salisbury.

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