Why did the Pole and Courtenay families matter?

In the 4th episode of Wolf Hall, Thomas Cromwell was shown discovering that Henry Pole, Lord Montagu, and Henry Courtenay, marquis of Exeter, amongst the visitors to Elizabeth Barton (the nun who has been prophesying that Henry will not be King if he divorces Katherine of Aragon and marries Anne Boleyn). He is then shown questioning Margaret Pole, countess of Salisbury and Gertrude, marchioness of Exeter. But why were the Pole and Courtenay families important? And why did it matter if they were meeting with the woman predicting doom for Henry and England?

The answer lies in the fifteenth century Wars of the Roses and the Tudors own claim to the English throne. The Wars of the Roses had been fought between the descendants of Edward III. On one side were the Lancastrians, descended in the male line from Edward III’s third son, John of Gaunt. On the other side were the Yorkists, descended in the male like from Edward III’s fourth son, Edmund of Langley, and from the daughter of Edward III’s second son, Lionel of Antwerp.

In 1485, Henry Tudor, the Lancastrian claimant, seized the throne from the Yorkist King Richard III. Henry’s claim was tenuous at best – his mother, Margaret Beaufort, was a great-granddaughter of John of Gaunt and his third wife Katherine Swynford. Furthermore, John of Gaunt and Katherine’s children were born before they were married – they were later legitimized but were declared ineligible for the crown. The Tudors’ claim to the throne was, therefore, based more on conquest than his ancestral claim. Both Henry VII and Henry VIII were aware of the vulnerability of their position and concerned to protect their dynasty.

The problem they faced was that there were still Yorkist descendants who could feasibly claim the throne or who rebels could seek to place on the throne. Margaret Pole was the daughter of George, duke of Clarence, the younger brother of Edward IV and Richard III. In 1485, her brother, Edward, earl of Warwick, was the next in line to the throne after Richard III. In 1487, the Lambert Simnel rebellion favoured her brother’s claim to the throne. To prevent her becoming involved in future rebellions, Henry VII married her to Sir Richard Pole, a relative and loyal servant of his. When her brother was executed in 1499, her sons inherited his claim to the throne. Meanwhile, Margaret was appointed to the household of Katherine of Aragon, first when she was married to Prince Arthur and again when she married Henry VIII. The two women were to become close friends. In 1512, she was restored to the earldom of Salisbury (inherited from her maternal grandfather). She was one of only two women in 16th century England to hold a peerage in their own right (the other was Anne Boleyn) and was one of the five richest peers in the country.

However, her unwavering loyalty to Katherine of Aragon and Princess Mary soured her relationship with Henry VIII. Meanwhile, her eldest son, Reginald Pole was appointed as a Cardinal in 1536 and attacked the royal supremacy. Finally, in 1538, Margaret found herself and her sons – Henry Pole, Lord Montagu, and Geoffrey Pole – accused of conspiring with Henry Courtenay and Reginald Pole with Geoffrey being the principal informant. Reginald was safely abroad and Geoffrey secured a pardon but Lord Montague was executed in January 1539 and finally, in May 1541, Margaret too was sent to the executioner’s block.

Henry Courtenay, marquis of Exeter, meanwhile was descended from Katherine of York, daughter of Edward IV and younger sister of Henry VII’s wife, Elizabeth of York. His father had been imprisoned in 1504 so Henry was brought up with the young Prince Henry. He became a close companion of the King, with his own apartments in the royal household. His accounts even include a reference to the snowball fight discussed by Henry VIII and Suffolk in Wolf Hall. However, he was religiously conservative and his wife, Gertrude, was another prominent opponent of religious reform. The marchioness visited Elizabeth Barton in disguise and brought her to one of their houses. Gertrude was another close friend of Katherine of Aragon and Princess Mary. He was a problem for Cromwell as he was a religious conservative in a position of influence in the privy chamber. In 1538, the Courtenays were accused of treason, Henry was executed in 1558, his son was imprisoned until 1553 and Gertrude, released after 18 months, had to live in obscurity until Mary succeeded to the throne. Her return to court was tainted by her son’s involvement in another conspiracy and, her health having declined, she died shortly after Elizabeth I succeeded to the throne.

So, the Poles and Courtenays were important because they had a claim to the English throne. And, they were religious conservatives who remained loyal to Katherine of Aragon. There was every chance that they could be used as figureheads by rebels in England or a foreign invasion or that they could become rebels themselves. Their meeting with Elizabeth Barton could have been an indication of a conspiracy forming against the King. As it was they escaped entanglement in 1534 but they would never be free of suspicion.

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