The character of Margaret Pole has risen in popularity recently since the likes of The King’s Curse novel and other fictional portrayals, however there are still few biographies on her. Many only know about Margaret’s execution in Henry VIII’s reign, not the rest of her life. Susan Higginbotham aims to remedy this and uses evidence well to piece together Margaret’s precarious life as the niece of Edward IV, a Yorkist and Henry VIII’s distant relative.
Higginbotham starts with a brief description of the Wars of the Roses and the events leading up to Margaret’s birth in a clear but concise way. She does not dwell on the subject too long but still provides the reader with enough background information in which to understand the world Margaret was born into.
‘It was against this backdrop that Isabel, Duchess of Clarence, gave birth to Margaret on 14 August 1473 at Farleigh Castle. Three years before, she had given birth aboard ship while fleeing with her parents and husband into an uncertain future. This time, whatever pains Isabel suffered in bringing her daughter into the world, she could take comfort in the fact that she was labouring in the comfort of her own bedchamber’
The author explains how Margaret’s early life was a tragic one, losing her mother and then her father in quick succession, her father’s memory now tarred with that of an attainted traitor. ‘Margaret’s status had abruptly changed from that of a duke’s daughter to a dependent orphan niece.’ Higginbotham examines the theory that Margaret’s father, George Duke of Clarence, drowned in a vat of malmsey wine. She uses one of the supposed portraits of Margaret to support her theory, as the woman in the portrait is wearing a bracelet with a charm of a barrel.
However, the death of Edward IV and the subsequent rulers significantly changed Margaret’s life. It has been proposed that Margaret and her younger brother, Edward, had better claims to the throne that Richard III, as they were the children of the second York brother (Richard was the third). Yet there have been other arguments, which state that they did not have a claim because they were the children of a traitor. Once again Higginbotham proposes a logical and thought provoking argument for why the children of George did have a claim and were a real obstacle to Richard’s plan:
‘There were two more obstacles to Richard’s taking the throne, however: Warwick [Edward] and young Margaret, his nephew and niece. Were the line of succession strictly followed, Warwick, as the son of Clarence, should have been king once Edward IV’s children were disqualified. Richard, however, claimed that due to Clarence’s attainder, his children were barred from taking the throne. In fact, as Hazel Pierce points out, the attainder did not mention the claims of Clarence’s children, and in any case Parliament could have obligingly reversed the attainder if Warwick were put on the throne.’
Higginbotham also proposes several reasons as to why Margaret’s brother Edward, Earl of Warwick, was treated differently to the Princes in the Tower. Whatever the reason, he would not be so lucky in Henry VII’s reign and Margaret would experience the first significant loss in her life (she would have been too young to remember her parents) with his execution.
Margaret’s marriage to Richard Pole and children are explored next, as well as her generally happy life during Henry VIII’s reign, which goes against the public’s stereotypical view of Henry disliking Margaret from the start. The author reminds us that:
‘In the wake of her tragic death, it is easy to forget, and is often forgotten, that at the outset of his reign Henry was well-disposed to her – as, indeed, he was to his other maternal relatives. As David Starkey points out, generosity towards his Yorkist relatives helped underscore the new king’s break with his father’s regime’
Unlike some other biographies of prominent men and women in Henry VIII’s reign, Higginbotham is careful not to dwell too much on the King’s Great Matter and his relationship with Anne Boleyn, noting that ‘if one woman in English history needs no introduction, it is Anne Boleyn’. It is easy to get sidetracked with events like that, but she manages to only refer to these events when it directly affects Margaret’s life. For example, Margaret was no longer allowed to be a part of Princess Mary’s household due to Mary’s change in status.
Higginbotham makes many interesting points when she examines the lives of Margaret’s children and their role in her fall, which I will leave for you to read for yourselves. Margaret Pole was a strong woman and deserves to finally have a biography that shows that. The amount of research the author has undertaken is shown by her scholarly analysis and use of every primary source available to her. For those interested, she has even included at the end of the book an appendix of over 30 pages of written evidence taken in the Exeter Conspiracy (which saw Margaret imprisoned for years before being executed). It is a fascinating and interesting read of a woman who needed her story to be told and this book does that.