The subtitle of this book is “Loyalty, Lineage and Leadership”. I knew very little about Margaret Pole other than she died for her faith and suffered a horrendous execution. First published in 2003, this appears to be the definitive biography of her. The origins of this book lie in Pierce’s thesis which she completed in 1997. Pierce is a trained historian who taught at Bangor University in Wales and she has written extensively on fifteenth and sixteenth British history and on the Pole family in particular.
This book is storytelling and historical research at its best. Pierce has meticulously studied the primary sources to piece together the story of Margaret and her family. Little is known of Margaret’s early life. There is more information about her marriage and then a good deal of data on her life after her husband’s death. What I like about this narrative is the thoughtful insight into the life of her subject. Pierce gives information on Margaret’s status at court and her connections there. She gives a list of her properties and there is a map showing their location. She tells us who her connections were, who her servants were, how she administered her properties and how she arranged marriages for her children.
There are two chapters dedicated to an assessment of the conspiracy that caused the fall of the Pole family. Here is where Pierce is at her best. She unravels the details of the Exeter conspiracy directly from the primary sources and then recounts the consequences. This is the tale of a woman whose children caused her arrest and death. Pierce pulls no punches here. She praises her subject but she is also honest in saying when Margaret and her children made mistakes. Margaret’s son Cardinal Reginald Pole does not come off in a good light here. It was very easy for him to exercise his right to criticize the king when he was in Rome. He either didn’t realize the consequences to his family or he didn’t care.
This book exposed some myths for me. There is very little evidence Margaret supported the church as other medieval noblewomen did. Her only response to the religious changes in England at the time was to not allow her servants to have the Bible in English. Her one fault as far as King Henry VIII was concerned was her loyal support of his daughter the Lady Mary.
The other mythical episode in Margaret’s life concerns her execution. Here, Pierce gives the accounts from the primary sources and explains that orders for her beheading were rushed. The execution took place in a small corner within the confines of the Tower and was not witnessed by many people. Due to unrest in the north of England, the professional executioner had been sent there and so Margaret’s executioner was inexperienced and made a mess of it. She did not refuse to put her head down on the block or run around the scaffolding but died with dignity. I highly recommend this book not just for the information on Margaret Pole’s life but also for the excellent historical research that went into the writing.