Thursday, July 27, 2017

One of Henry VIII's "Loose-Ends": Blessed Margaret Pole

Last summer, I participated in a blog-tour for Susan Higginbotham's Margaret Pole: The Countess in the Tower. I finally received my hard-cover review copy this week!

Higginbotham's popular biography fortunately eschews some the pitfalls of imagining what Pole thought, how she felt, etc. The author tells the story briskly, explaining family relationships, changing fortunes of power and influence--the whole up and down on Fortune's Wheel that noble families experienced toward the end of the Wars of the Roses and the Tudor Dynasty. Margaret Pole, since she was a Plantagenet of the House of York, was in the midst of these changes from her childhood, not as an active participant, but at the beginning, almost as a pawn. Higginbotham notes that young Margaret and her brother had no powerful men to protect them or to support their legitimate claim to the throne, even during Richard III's reign. She survives her family's fall and even her brother's imprisonment in the Tower by Henry VII because of that vulnerability. Henry VII marries her off to a trusted courtier, Richard Pole, and she and he settle down to serve the king and have babies.

I wish the book would have included family trees for the major players. It is well illustrated.

When Henry VIII comes to the throne, he restores the widowed Margaret to her family holdings and gives her the title Countess of Salisbury. Higginbotham describes the households and the personnel of Margaret's estates. I wish she could have reconstructed what a day at one of Margaret's estates was like--what did she do everyday to manage her household, etc.

Her story is interwoven with Katherine of Aragon's and Mary Tudor's and thus with the whole King's Great Matter. Higginbotham's retelling of this sad story is aided by her restraint, but sometimes by necessity, Margaret Pole fades to the background. The family connections become the focus, as again, Margaret did not actively oppose Henry VIII's destruction of his marriage and family, his campaign of terror against any who did oppose him: the Carthusians, Thomas More, John Fisher, and a few other brave souls, or even his religious changes. Her sons participated in some of the trials. I do appreciate Higginbotham's comment that Margaret Beaufort, Henry VIII's grandmother, would have been shocked and dismayed to see John Fisher, the holy and scholarly Bishop of Rochester, so horribly treated and executed.

On her own estates, Margaret maintained the status quo of Catholic life, holding off any "Protestant" ideas in the person of an Evangelical cleric, but she did not participate in any resistance against Henry VIII's changes to religious practice.

Higginbotham believes that Pole's sons were involved in the Exeter Conspiracy and did make statements about the king soon dying of his leg wound or the need to have a new monarch. Reginald Pole did place his mother and family in an incredibly dangerous position with his attack on Henry's Supremacy, citing him as another Nero and warning him about suffering Richard III's fate. But Margaret, in all her statements, knowing Henry VIII's power to make and unmake, was clear that she would not participate in any rebellion against the monarch who had restored her lands and title. She would not be a traitor. Those who questioned her recognized that she was formidable in her own defense. Higginbotham includes the chilling detail that Henry VIII, wanting to leave London with his fifth queen, Catherine Howard, on a progress to the North needed to take care of any loose-ends, and thus Margaret was beheaded by an incompetent headsman, suffering great violence and pain. Well, when you know that Henry will find out more about his fifth wife soon after that progress, you know that more loose-ends will have to be dealt with.

One issue I have with the book: I think that Higginbotham should have recognized the importance of Hazel Pierce's scholarly biography, Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury 1473-1541: Loyalty, Lineage and Leadership. She cites Pierce often enough and should have explained what makes her book distinctive to that earlier work. When I first saw this book announced by Amberley, the subtitle indicated a correction to a recent historical novel by Philippa Gregory, The King's Curseand the cover did not cut off the top of the figure representing Margaret. Perhaps when the book had that purpose its relevance and impact was greater. It is well-written and achieves the purpose of telling the story of Margaret Pole, offering another perspective on the multiple horrors of Henry VIII's reign, but it lacks a certain significance.

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