Uncrowned Queen: The Life of Margaret Beaufort, Mother of the Tudors
by Nicola Tallis
Published July 28, 2020, by Basic Books
Though recent pop culture entries have portrayed Margaret Beaufort as a power-hungry and hysterical religious zealot bent on gaining power for her son at all costs, the truth of Margaret’s life is more complex and less villainous than much historical fiction makes it out to be. As the descendant of Edward III of England and her parents’ sole surviving legitimate child, Margaret was heir to extensive lands and wealth, making her a pawn in the decades-long political struggle later known as the Wars of the Roses, which came to an end with the accession to the throne of Margaret’s only child– Henry Tudor. After becoming both mother and widow at the age of 13, Margaret set out to make advantageous marriages that would ensure her son’s safety in childhood and his fortunes as an adult. After Richard III’s accession to (or perhaps usurpation of) the English throne in 1483, Margaret plotted to bring about an end to Richard’s reign, a dangerous scheme that paid off in the end, for after the Battle of Bosworth Field in August 1485, Richard III was dead, and Henry Tudor was crowned king, thus beginning England’s most famous dynasty– the Tudors.
“We are fortunate enough to have access to a relatively complete set of her surviving accounts between 1489 and 1509. Among her payments for silk, rose water, lavender, offerings and rewards, there is a fascinating constant. Throughout hundreds of pages of transactions, one can rarely be found on which her carefully scrawled signature does not appear at the bottom– this was a woman who was in full control of her money and knew where it was going down to the last penny.”
In Uncrowned Queen, Tudor historian Dr. Nicola Tallis creates a vivid portrait of Margaret Beaufort’s life. Using extensive primary resources, Tallis tells how Margaret– at first a pawn in others’ schemes– eventually learned to become a political player in her own right and used what power she had to gain safety, for herself and ultimately put her son Henry in the position to gain the throne, thereby changing English history forever. Though she was a woman in a misogynistic era, Margaret made alliances among England’s most powerful men and women, among them Henry VI, Edward IV, and Queen consort Elizabeth Woodville, thereby gaining independence that was nearly unheard of for a woman of her time. After her son’s accession to the throne, Margaret gained power that was unrivaled by any woman of her time.
In this accessible and eminently readable biography, Tallis takes the reader through Margaret’s life, from her tangled ancestry dating back to the controversial Katherine Swynford and her marriage in 1396 to John of Gaunt, son of King Edward III, all the way to Margaret’s grandson Henry VIII’s accession to the throne and her death in 1509. Though the emphasis is on Margaret’s life, the events and politics of the era are discussed, as well. Without this discussion, it’s impossible to understand why Margaret would have plotted with the Duke of Buckingham in Buckingham’s rebellion of 1483, which ultimately failed. Tallis’s explanation of the politics also helps to explain how, even after the failed rebellion, after having her lands stripped from her and being placed under house arrest, Margaret was able to avoid being executed for treason and went on to keep plotting against Richard III, an effort that paid off for the Tudors in late 1485.
Though having at least a basic background in the history of the Wars of the Roses is helpful, Tallis’s narrative is clear and mostly straightforward, save for some wandering into the weeds of English history towards the beginning. Her sources are extensively documented, and she addresses the origins of the rumors that Margaret was somehow involved with the disappearance– and probable murders– of the young Princes in the Tower. Tallis also acknowledges that two of her primary contemporary sources were biased in Margaret’s favor. It is important for historians to acknowledge this sort of bias, as it gives the reader a clue as to how much skepticism should be taken when approaching biased accounts– whether they are for or against the person in question.
For those with an interested in English history of the Wars of the Roses and the Tudor dynasty, Uncrowned Queen provides a wealth of insight into the fascinating life of Margaret Beaufort, who used her intelligence to maneuver her way from being a pawn from an ill-favored branch of the royal line to becoming the most powerful woman in England and the mother of the Tudor dynasty.
Thank to you NetGalley and Basic Books for providing me with a free ebook in exchange for an honest review. This did not affect my opinion in any way.