Margaret Plantagenet was born on 14 August 1473 at Farleigh Castle near Bath as the daughter of George, Duke of Clarence and Isabel Neville. Her mother was one of the greatest heiresses of her time while her father was the younger brother of King Edward IV of England. An elder sibling was stillborn or died shortly after birth. In 1475, she was joined in the nursery by a younger brother named Edward. A second brother died in infancy, and her mother died shortly after his birth at the age of just 25.
Her father would try to remarry twice after her mother’s death, first with Mary of Burgundy and second with Margaret of Scotland, daughter of King James II but both matches ended due to King Edward IV’s involvement. Meanwhile, George grew more and more discontent with his brother. He had been disloyal before and had always been forgiven. Margaret was just three years old when he was arrested, and he was privately executed the following year. Margaret and Edward were now orphans and the children of a traitor.
They became the royal wards of their uncle, the King, who took full responsibility for their care. Margaret had nothing to inherit, as opposed to her brother, and was utterly dependent on her uncle. The lands of her father had been forfeit due to his attainder for treason, but the lands of her mother were exempt from this. Her brother had succeeded as Earl of Warwick upon his birth, and his wardship was quite valuable. In 1480, his custody and marriage were granted to Thomas Grey, Marquess of Dorset, the son of King Edward IV’s wife Elizabeth Woodville by her first marriage. Margaret remained in the care of the King until his unexpected death in 1483. In the following months, her young cousin King Edward V and his little brother Richard were imprisoned in the Tower of London and declared illegitimate with another uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, being declared King Richard III. Margaret’s brother was moved by Richard to the household of his wife Anne, the sister of their mother, Isabel. Richard realised that George’s children and especially the young Earl, could still pose a threat to him, despite being barred from the throne by their father’s attainder.
Margaret joined her younger brother at Sheriff Hutton Castle in Yorkshire with a cousin of theirs, Joh de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln. They would spend the next two years of their lives there. In 1485, destiny changed once more when Henry Tudor became King of England. The new King Henry VII also realised the importance of the siblings at Sheriff Hutton Castle, and he sent Robert Willoughby to take possession of young Edward. Margaret and her brother, along with Edward IV’s daughters (including Elizabeth of York) were to go to the household of his mother, Margaret Beaufort. Here, the new King could keep a close eye on them. Henry married Margaret’s cousin Elizabeth of York on 18 January 1486 and in September the 12-year-old “my lady Margaret of Clarence” was listed as being present at the christening of their first-born son Prince Arthur.
She was also present for Elizabeth’s coronation in November 1487. However, by then, she was listed as “my Lady Margaret Pole Doughter to the Duc of Claraunce.” Sometime between September 1486 and November 1487, Margaret had married Sir Richard Pole – his mother was a half-sister of the King’s mother. A lowly marriage was one way to neutralise her claim to the throne. But the new King remained uneasy about her younger brother’s claim to the throne and the 11-year-old boy was confined to the Tower in 1486.
Nevertheless, Margaret and Richard’s marriage appears to have been a happy one. Margaret gained a place at court and was in regular attendance on Queen Elizabeth and Margaret Beaufort. Her husband became lord chamberlain to Prince Arthur, which required personal attendance on the Prince, even when he was in Wales. Margaret and Richard went on to have five – possibly six – children together. Henry was born in 1492. Arthur, Ursula and Reginald were born by 1500 and Geoffrey was born around 1504.
In 1499, Margaret’s brother was executed for treason after an escape attempt and after spending many years in the Tower. He had been described as an “imbecile”, but his long incarceration probably meant that he was childlike due to a lack of education and human contact. King Henry VII bore the cost of the Earl’s funeral, and he was not interred as a traitor within the Tower. Margaret – who was pregnant at the time – must have been grieved.
After the arrival of Catherine of Aragon as Prince Arthur’s bride in 1501, Richard and possibly also Margaret joined them in Wales. Margaret and Catherine formed a friendship during her short tenure as Prince Arthur’s wife. This new life came to a crashing end when Arthur died on 2 April 1502. As her husband was no longer lord chamberlain, Margaret was forced to give up her position in Catherine’s household, but the two remained in correspondence. They remained in Wales for the next two years as Catherine returned to court as a widow in limbo. Margaret too would be widowed in Wales. Sir Richard Pole died sometime before the end of October 1504. Margaret was 31 years old and had several young children.
Her financial situation became constrained during this time, and this may have been the reason why her son Reginald was given to the church. She had to borrow £40 for her husband’s funeral. Her eldest son Henry became the King’s ward, but he did not attend court during this time – he was after all the Duke of Clarence’s grandson. Margaret and Catherine found themselves in similar circumstances which probably strengthened their friendship. Catherine stoically battled on and finally became Queen of England when she married the new King Henry VIII on 11 June 1509. The new King paid for Margaret to come to court to attend the coronation.
Soon after, Margaret was appointed as one of Catherine’s principal attendants, and her son Henry became one of the King’s servants. Margaret was given the highest allowance – usually given to Countesses – and she received an annuity. The new King also began to support Reginald’s education. In 1512, King Henry granted her petition for the earldom of Salisbury – held by her grandfather Richard Neville (the Kingmaker) – which made her the Countess of Salisbury in her own right. She had risen to become one of the most powerful women in England.1