The Exeter Conspiracy and the destruction of the White Rose of York

One thing that unequivocally brought some semblance of stability to England in the late middle ages was the marriage between Henry Tudor, later King Henry VII and Princess Elizabeth of York, daughter of King Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. The Wars of the Roses had been tearing the country in two for over three decades, with the crown passing back and forth between the waring houses of York and Lancaster. These two colossal noble houses were cadet branches of the House of Plantagenet, and whilst we refer to this strife as the "Wars of the Roses", at the time it was known as the cousins war.


24 of the next 32 years of rule was held by the York's, so they could arguably be called the primary victors, especially with the extinction of the House of Lancaster in the legitimate male line. The York's could have gone on for decades more, if it weren't for their innate ability for staggering self-destruction. At the crux of the York family were three brothers - Edward, later Edward IV, George Duke of Clarence and Richard, later Richard III, seen below.


George and Richard married two sisters, Isabel and Anne, daughters of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. The Earl of Warwick was England's preeminent noble, with vast riches, lands and power. He rebelled against Edward IV in the wake of his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, the daughter of minor landed gentry, who had fought in favour of the Lancastrians against the Yorks. Possibly with the end goal of having himself made King, George sided with Warwick and would eventually pay the ultimate price for rebelling against his brother and King. He was privately executed in February 1478, in the rather unusual method of being drowned in a vat of malmsey wine. George and Isabel had two children, Margaret and Edward.


The next phase in the history of the York's is perhaps the most notorious. When Edward IV died on the 9th April 1483, his eldest living son Edward became King Edward V. Edward was only 12 at the time and the deceased King's will stipulated that his youngest brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester would act as Lord Protector whilst his son was in his infancy. What happened next is fiercely debated, and no real conclusive story has ever been sufficiently proven to be 100% accurate, but what is beyond any doubt is that within a matter of weeks, Edward V and his younger brother Richard, Duke of York vanished without trace. History of course knows them as The Princes in the Tower. Richard, Duke of Gloucester was then proclaimed King Richard III, and alongside him, Anne Neville who was now Queen.


The reign of Richard III was short, lasting just over two years. He was killed at the battle of Bosworth Field in August of 1485, Anne having predeceased him by five months. His rule was ultimately overthrown by the machinations of two highly formidable women - Elizabeth Woodville, widowed Queen consort of Edward IV and Lady Margaret Beaufort, a great-granddaughter of John of Gaunt, fourth son of King Edward III and an ardent member of the old Lancastrian faction. Elizabeth and Margaret brokered a marriage alliance between Elizabeth's eldest daughter and Yorkist heir owing to the apparent deaths of the Princes in the Tower, also called Elizabeth, and Margaret's only son, Henry Tudor. In one marriage, the rival houses of Lancaster and York were united. This was enough to take on and defeat Richard III, with Henry and Elizabeth being proclaimed King and Queen on 30th October 1485, and with that, the House of Tudor begun. Henry and Elizabeth can be seen below.


Whilst the rule of Henry VII was assured and the country was finally at peace, two people remained alive who arguably had a stronger claim to the throne then Henry could ever claim, the children of George, Duke of Clarence - Margaret and Edward. As the male-line niece and nephew of a former King, their closeness to the throne was an ever-present concern for Henry VII. Edward, despite being only ten years old was kept in the tower of London as a prisoner by Henry VII and would never leave it's walls. When he inadvertently become embroiled in a plot to escape the tower, he was put on trial and beheaded a week later at the age of 24. Perhaps owing to his long incarceration, he was severely mentally disabled. It was thought at the time that his execution was in response to growing pressure from Ferdinand and Isabella of Aragon to assure the position of their daughter Catherine's intended marriage to Henry VII's heir, Prince Arthur.


In 1487 Margaret was married to a cousin of the new King, Sir Richard Pole. They would have four sons - Henry, Arthur, Reginald and Geoffrey and a daughter - Ursula. Sir Richard died in 1505 leaving Margaret to raise the five children with no income or lands, these having all been seized by the Crown in the wake of her brothers execution. Margaret returned to favour when Henry VIII came to the throne in 1509 and was appointed as a lady in waiting to his Queen consort, Catherine of Aragon. In 1512, Parliament restored Margaret's brothers lands and titles, including The Earldom of Salisbury. Margaret became one of only two woman in 16th century England to be a peeress in her own right with no titled husband, becoming Countess of Salisbury. The other was Anne Boleyn, who prior to her marriage to Henry VIII was made Marquess of Pembroke. As Countess of Salisbury, Margaret managed her lands well and was soon the fifth richest peer in England.


Margaret's favour with Henry VIII varied during his reign, most notably around the time he was courting Anne Boleyn. Margaret had been a governess to Henry's daughter Mary by Catherine of Aragon, and refused to acknowledge Anne as Queen. Margaret herself attempted to keep a relatively low profile, preferring to spend her time in the country away from court. Unfortunately, the actions of Margaret's third son Reginald Pole would have devastating consequences on the families position under Henry VIII. Reginald had entered the church and was studying in Padua, during which time he warned about the dangers of the Boleyn marriage and would later rebuke the royal supremacy in it's entirety. By 1536 he broke from all contact with King Henry and began to actively campaign against his rule. In 1537, Pope Paul III made Reginald a Cardinal and put him directly in charge of assisting the Pilgrimage of Grace, the biggest domestic uprising in Henry VIII's reign.


In 1538, a series of suspicions boiled over in to an all out conspiracy which would decimate the Pole family and result in the extinction of the York bloodline. This period has become known as The Exeter Conspiracy. It started when a cousin of King Henry VIII, Henry Courtenay, 1st Marquess of Exeter began to move against Thomas Cromwell's policies. As a grandson of Edward IV, like Margaret Pole Exeter had a strong claim to the crown of England in his own right. Exeter hated Cromwell, prescribed fervently to the old faith and longed to see a change in policy back to more conservative Catholic belief. Whether Exeter overtly plotted with the Poles to overthrow King Henry is difficult to prove, but it was found that he had been in regular contact with Reginald Pole, who we know was actively campaigning against King Henry. Reginald's younger brother Geoffrey arrived in London with information that a large Roman Catholic conspiracy was in the making which would restore the old ways. Cromwell heard about this through his informants and on July 29th Geoffrey Pole was arrested. Geoffrey and Reginald were accused of spearheading the conspiracy and Cromwell was able to sufficiently convince the King that Exeter was also part of it.


On the 4th of November Cromwell formally moved against Exeter, arresting him, Henry Pole (Margaret's eldest son) and Gertrude Blount, second wife of Exeter. The very next day, Sir Edward Neville, another Tudor noble and cousin of the Pole's was arrested for connections to the Exeter Conspiracy. On the 12th November, Margaret Countess of Salisbury was questioned for the first time about her knowledge of the conspiracy. By December 4th, Exeter, Henry Pole, Geoffrey Pole and Edward Neville had all been tried and convicted of treason. On the 8th December 1538 Edward Neville was beheaded on Tower Hill, with Exeter dying in the same way the following day. Exactly a month later on January 9th 1539, Henry Pole was also beheaded.


In January of 1539 Geoffrey Pole sufficiently distanced himself from the proceedings and was formally pardoned by Henry VIII. His actions and evidence would however have a devastating impact of his mother Margaret. In the same month, a former favourite of King Henry's, Sir Nicholas Carew was also implicated in the Exeter Conspiracy and arrested. He was tried, found guilty and executed on 3rd March 1539. Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury was finally formally arrested in November 1539 and sent to The Tower of London. She was sentenced to death but no date of execution was finalised. She was held in the tower for over two years alongside her Grandson Henry (son of her son Henry) and Exeter's son, Edward. Despite her imprisonment, the King supported her financially and she was given an extensive grant for clothing in March of 1541. A portrait of Carew and a woman traditionally thought to be Margaret, Countess of Salisbury can be seen below.


On the morning of the 27th May 1541, Margaret Pole as she was now styled was informed that she would be executed within the hour. She told her captors that no crime had been imputed to her and refused to acknowledge that she was guilty of anything. No scaffold was prepared, instead a low wooden block was placed directly on the floor for her to prostrate herself over. According to an eyewitness account, Margaret refused to lay her head on the block stating "So should traitors do, and I am none". Whether what happened next is impossible to prove, but it is said that the executioner was highly inexperienced and distressed at having to behead such an old woman - she was of 67 at the time, which is old by Tudor standards. According to the account, he literally hacked her head and shoulders to pieces. She was buried beside Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford in the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula within the Tower of London. Her remains were amongst those discovered during restoration work to the Chapel in 1876.


Her Grandson would spend the rest of his life in prison, dying without issue in 1542. The destruction of the Pole family effectively rendered the York lineage in the male line extinct. Margaret Pole was later beatified as a Catholic martyr by Pope Leo XIII on the 29th December 1886.


Whether there was any truth in the Exeter Conspiracy is difficult to prove. Historians to this day remain unconvinced that with the exception of Reginald Pole, no other member of the family ever overtly rallied against the King. It is more likely that the King's growing paranoia and the seeds of doubt cast by Cromwell against this family so close to the Crown was enough for their extinction to be justified. The treatment of Margaret Pole in particular continues to be viewed as one of King Henry's most senseless and cruel acts.


Written by Adam Pennington

November 19th, 2020.