Thursday, May 27, 2021

An Overlooked English Martyr

I recently rewatched "on-demand" the two seasons (2019 and 2020) of the STARZ series, The Spanish Princess, based on Philippa Gregory's fictionalized version of the familiar story of Henry VIII's unlucky first wife, Catherine of Aragon. It is a sequel to two previous series: The White Queen about Henry's maternal grandmother, Queen Elizabeth Woodville (ancestress of all English monarchs since Henry VIII and all Scottish monarchs since James V), and The White Princess about Henry's mother Queen Elizabeth of York. Apart from the absurdly ahistorical and contrived ending to the second season of The Spanish Princess, its intertwined stories of Catherine, her (fictionalized composite character) lady-in-waiting Lina de Cardonnes, and Catherine's sister-in-law, Margaret Tudor, Queen of Scotland, and their families are all superbly portrayed. But the character I find most interesting is the tragic Yorkist Princess Margaret Pole ("Aunt Maggie"). She was devoted to Henry VIII's older brother Prince Arthur whose household she and her husband managed. But her life and relationship to the Tudor dynasty (including her Yorkist cousin Queen Elizabeth) had been forever damaged by the execution in 1499 of her (probably mentally defective) brother Edmund, then the last legitimate male representative of the Yorkist line, as part of the cost of securing the usurper Tudor line and to make possible Arthur's and Catherine's wedding and the English-Spanish alliance it was meant to guarantee. "Aunt Maggie" is perfectly played by Laura Carmichael, who as Downton Abbey's Lady Edith certainly knows something about playing a privileged character with lots of bad luck. 

The real "Aunt Maggie," Margaret Plantagenet (1473-1541), was daughter of Edward IV's and Richard III's traitor brother George, Duke of Clarence. Margaret was married off in 1487 to King Henry's cousin, Sir Richard Pole, whom she loved and with whom she was apparently happy, but who died in 1505 leaving her a poor widow with five children. Richard Pole had been Chamberlain for Henry's first son, Arthur, and Margaret in turn became lady-in-waiting to Arthur's wife, Catherine of Aragon, a role she resumed later when Henry VIII married his widowed sister-in-law. After Henry VIII's accession, he made her Countess of Salisbury in her own right. She was very wealthy and prominent, and King Henry supposedly considered her the saintliest woman int he kingdom. Her son Reginald Pole entered the Church but served on the continent, thereby avoiding Henry's Reformation, eventually eventually returning, during Mary Tudor's Catholic restoration, as a Cardinal and Archbishop of Canterbury - the last Catholic Archbishop in that long line.  His opposition to Henry's religious policy led him to send the King his treatise, Pro ecclesiasicae unitatis defensione.  Margaret's and her son's fidelity to the Catholic faith (and their potential claim as surviving Yorkist heirs to the English throne) eventually caused Henry VIII, England's 16h-century anticipation of Stalin, to imprison her in the Tower in her old age, where she was eventually executed 480 years ago today on May 27, 1541. Her son, Cardinal Pole, subsequently said he would "never fear to call himself the son of a martyr." In 1886, Margaret she was duly beatified by Pope Leo XIII. May 28 is the date assigned for Blessed Margaret Pole's liturgical commemoration.

Margaret was but one of many martyrs of Henry's Reformation, of whom the most famous was, of course, Saint Thomas More (portrayed in the series as Margaret's friend and tutor to her son, the future Cardinal). But, of the multitude of English martyrs of the Reformation, the often overlooked martyr Margaret lived a life that dramatically encompassed all the complex factors and conflicting interests of that era that pushed and pulled people in so. many different direction and played such a significant part in that tragic (but hardly inevitable) chain of events, which - together with the dangerous combination of despotic power and narcissistic self-absorption in Henry himself - brought about the tragic accident that became the English Reformation. 

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