Tudor Tuesday: Lady Margaret Beaufort

Lady Margaret Beaufort, by Unidentified painter from Wikimedia Commons

Lady Margaret Beaufort
Born: May 31, 1441/1443
Died: June 29, 1509
Married: Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond; Sir Henry Stafford; Thomas Stanley, 1st Earl of Derby
Children: King Henry VII

If you’re going to start a series about a particular dynasty, it’s a good idea to start at the beginning. It’s a good place to start.

That’s not to say that Margaret Beaufort was the very first person ever in the Tudor line. Obviously not. But if you have to pick a person, then it seems like a good idea to start with the woman who A) gave birth to the first Tudor king and B) spent the rest of her life promoting and politicking to keep her son’s lands and titles intact and then help put him on the path that led to the English throne.

So.

In a world…. where women did not have official power in English politics, women could actually wrest a good deal of power for themselves, whether it was obvious (Eleanor of Aquitane, Margaret of Anjou) or not so obvious (Elizabeth Woodville, Elizabeth of York). Though she started playing the great game of thrones young, Margaret Beaufort learned quickly and she learned well.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Margaret Beaufort was born in Bletsoe Castle in Bedfordshire, England on May 31 in either 1441 or 1443 (most historians agree on the 1443 date, but it’s still up in the air). She was the great-granddaughter of John of Gaunt and his mistress, Katherine Swynford (who he married in the end, and so his children with her were legitimized) . John of Gaunt was the third surviving son of Edward III. This heritage made young Margaret a pawn in the game of thrones that was English politics during the Wars of the Roses (there’s a reason George R.R. Martin used this time period as the foundation for his Song of Ice and Fire series). It would also allow a slightly older Margaret to become a player in her own right.

By the time she was three (or perhaps six, the records disagree), Margaret had been married to John de La Pole, 2nd Duke of Somerset, who was perhaps a year older than she was. This marriage was more of an official arrangement between the families for the sake of land rights, and it was dissolved by 1453, when the children were no more than about ten years old. Margaret never recognized this marriage.

She did recognize her next marriage, to Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond. He was a son of Catherine de Valois, the wife of Henry V and mother to Henry VI. After Henry V’s death, she secretly married Owen Tudor, a Welsh courtier. Though the Tudor line had royal blood in it, it came from Catherine’s side, which was seen as less legitimate than if it had come from a male ancestor. So it goes in medieval politics. Henry VI ended up choosing Margaret as a bride for his half-brother, reasoning that Margaret’s royal blood (from Edward III) would help strengthen Edmund’s claim to the throne should Henry VI die without an heir.

So Margaret married Edmund Tudor when she was all of twelve years old, and he was twenty-four. Now, while we have plenty of examples of noble and royal teenagers getting married, these weddings were not the rule for most people of the time. And while noble teenagers might marry young– ten, twelve, fourteen– the marriages weren’t generally consummated until the girls were older. These were different times, for sure, and children were treated as adults at a much younger age, but even in such an era they realized that girls weren’t fully grown at fourteen, and that pregnancy– an already dangerous proposition for any woman– was even more dangerous for immature bodies.

That said, Edmund Tudor didn’t bother to wait, and Margaret became pregnant when she was just twelve years old. Disturbing, yes, for Margaret was always a small woman, but at age twelve, she was even smallery and physically immature. When she gave birth to her only child, Henry, at age thirteen it was so traumatic that it likely caused her injuries that made her sterile, for she never had another pregnancy.

The Wars of the Roses had just begun at this point in history, and the two sides– Lancaster and York– were deeply divided. Edmund Tudor was a Lancastrian, which makes sense because that was the house of Henry VI, his half-brother. But Edmund was captured by Yorkists less than two years after he married Margaret, and died of plague while in captivity. So at age thirteen, Margaret was widowed and became a mother.

Margaret and baby Henry were living in Pembroke castle in Wales, under the care of Edmund’s brother Jasper. Within a year of giving birth, Margaret re-entered noble society. Her situation was precarious, and without a husband to help her, there was no guarantee that she could keep her child safe. So at fourteen, Margaret went husband hunting.

Monumental brass of Edmund Tudor, father of Henry VII. In St. David’s Cathedral in Pembrokeshire, Wales. via Wikimedia Commons

With Jasper’s help, Margaret settled on Sir Henry Stafford, the second son of Humphrey Stafford, Duke of Buckingham and married him on January 3rd, 1458. Sir Henry’s status guaranteed some safety for Margaret and for baby Henry, who remained at Pembroke Castle. They had a happy marriage overall, and prospered together, but the Wars of the Roses were simmering in the background.

Years of fighting between the houses of York and Lancaster came to a head in 1461, at the Battle of Towton. The Yorkists were victorious, Henry VI was removed from the throne, and Edward IV was proclaimed king of England. Jasper Tudor fled to Scotland and then France, where he tried to raise support for the Lancastrians. He lost the guardianship of little Henry, who was stripped of his lands by Edward IV, who gave them to his brother, the Duke of Clarence. Still, Margaret was allowed to visit her son, even though she was on the side opposing Edward IV.

Eight years later, after much political maneuvering and discontent between the royal brothers, the Duke of Clarence rebelled against Edward IV and captured him, briefly putting Henry VI back on the throne. Margaret used the opportunity to negotiate with Clarence for custody of her son and to regain his holdings, but the chance passed quickly. Edward VI soon regained the throne in 1471, forcing Jasper Tudor to flee back to France. Margaret begged him to take thirteen-year old Henry with him, and he did. It would be fourteen years before Margaret saw her son again.

1471 was an awful year for Margaret. Not only were her brother-in-law and son exiled, her husband, Henry Stafford, died of injuries he sustained at the Battle of Barnet. Because she was a widowed woman with wealth, lands, and royal blood living in the reign of a man (Edward VI) who opposed her family, Margaret had to marry again to ensure that she kept her lands and her rights, and do what she could to help Henry in his exile. In June of 1472, Margaret married Thomas Stanley, the Lord High Constable. Historians generally view this marriage as one of convenience. It allowed Margaret to return to the court of Edward IV, where she could continue to work for her son’s benefit. And it gave Stanley access to Margaret’s considerable holdings, for through all of these wild happenings, Margaret retained her wealth.

Margaret must have had considerable charm and the ability to smile in the face of people who hated her, for she gained enough influence in the Yorkist court to be named godmother to one of Queen Elizabeth Woodville’s children. This was a major sign of favor, and a good sign for Margaret and Henry’s futures, as Edward was always trying to flush Jasper and Henry out of hiding to remove them as threats. There was a time that Edward proposed a marriage between his daughter Elizabeth and Henry, hoping to flush Henry out of his hiding place to imprison or kill him. But it seems that Margaret caught wind of this and managed to warn Henry of Edward’s plan.

Things were going relatively smoothly for Margaret throughout the rest of Edward IV’s reign. She kept her lands, did her best to increase her influence at court, and had a harmonious marriage.

Everything changed, though, after Edward VI’s death in 1483. His young son Edward was supposed to become king after his father, but Edward IV’s brother, Richard, put a stop to that. Using an array of political tactics that included declaring Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville to be null and void, thus making their children bastards ineligible for the throne. Richard had his brother’s sons Edward V and Richard imprisoned in the Tower of London, where they eventually disappeared and were never heard from again. The fate of those princes has been debated for hundreds of years, with most people believing that, if they met with foul play, Richard III is the most likely suspect. There is a theory that Margaret Beaufort had a role to play in their disappearance and probable murders, but the first mention of this did not come about until decades after the fact, and there is evidence that Margaret was involved with a plot to rescue the princes.

The White Tower on the grounds of the Tower of London

After Richard III’s usurpation of his nephew’s throne and the disappearance of the princes in the tower, Margaret really began to see a path to the throne for her son, according to contemporary sources. While her connection to the deaths of the princes has no evidence, she is almost certainly responsible for Buckingham’s Rebellion in the summer of 1483. In that, the Duke of Buckingham conspired with Jasper Tudor and Henry to raise an army against Richard III. Henry’s forces were to sail from France and meet up with Buckingham’s, though a storm prevented Henry from landing, and he was forced to return to France. Buckingham was soundly defeated and executed. Margaret was, miraculously, not also executed for her role, but Richard placed her under house arrest and stripped her of her lands. These were given to her husband, so while she might still have access to them, she didn’t have direct control of them– a galling situation for a women who took pride in the power and wealth she had maintained all her life.

House arrest did not prevent Margaret from continuing her scheming, though. She opened lines of communication with the former queen, Elizabeth Woodville thanks to Elizabeth’s physician. The two women arranged a union between their children to unite the houses of Lancaster and York. Henry Tudor would return from France, lead an army against Richard III, and marry Elizabeth of York.

Henry VII of England, Margaret Beaufort’s only child, as a young man. via Wikipedia

Henry’s campgain against Richard III began in August, 1485. His cause was greatly supported by the French throne (who wanted to see a man more favorable to them on the English throne), and so he set sail, landing at Mill Bay in Wales on August 7, 1485 and marched inland, meeting the army of Richard III at Bosworth Field on August 22. For a while, it was difficult to say who would prevail, and Lord Stanley– Henry’s step-father– remained out of the action. He had connections to both sides, and was waiting to see which way the battle would go. When the tide began turning toward Henry, Stanley made his decision. He and his men entered the fray on Henry’s side, and when Richard III was pulled off his horse and killed, it was Stanley who placed the crown on his stepson’s head and declared him king.

This was the culmination of every Margaret had worked for for nearly her entire life. Through all the dangers she and Henry had faced over the past twenty-eight years, they had emerged victorious. Henry was made king as Henry VII, he married Elizabeth Woodville and they had a happy marriage. And while Henry faced his share of trials throughout his reign, there were no battles such as had been seen during the Wars of the Roses. Henry VII was, effectively, the last medieval king, and the last English king to lead his troops into battle.

For her part, Margaret made the most of her new position as mother to the king. She wielded power as a queen of England, and even signed her name as ‘Margaret R’, which could mean either ‘Margaret Richmond’ or ‘Margaret Regina’– Margaret the Queen.

It’s hard to say how the new Queen Elizabeth felt about her mother-in-law, though sources indicate that they had a good relationship. Elizabeth of York was an intelligent woman, but she didn’t have the outward desire for power that Margaret had. the dowager queen Elizabeth Woodville also seems to have had a placid relationship with Margaret, though some think that her departure to Bermondsey Abbey was forced upon her, while others think she had been planning a quiet retirement there. Whatever the reasons, Elizabeth Woodville was given the respect due a dowager queen of England.

Margaret used her power and position in her son’s court to great advantage. She was named ‘feme sole’ of her estates, which meant she had exclusive power over her lands, as though she were a queen. She wielded influence over her son’s politics, too. Enough so that foreign ambassadors noted it in their dispatches home. She also founded two colleges at Cambridge– Queen’s College in 1505, and St John’s College, which was completed by the executors of her estate in 1511. She had rights and freedoms granted to few other women of the time.

Margaret outlived her only son, who died in 1509, and lived to see the accession of her grandson, King Henry VIII before she died in 1509, the day after Henry VIII’s eighteenth birthday, and just two months after her son’s death. She is buried in the Henry VII chapel in Westminster Abbey in London.


Though popular culture has depicted Margaret as a religious zealot, she was no more or less pious than other people of the time. Religion was not an abstract idea. They believed whole-heartedly in God, in Heaven and Hell. They believed that kings and queens were place on the throne by God’s divine will, and that God showed favor (or disfavor) by who lived, who died, and who won the battle. The threat of excommunication could change the fates of entire countries, and people who dissented from the accepted religious practices faced execution if they were caught. Margaret’s faith was no different from others of the time, and the fact that she often saw her decisions as guided by God can be seen as her confirming the rightness of her path after the fact.

Margaret was also a fashionable woman who was flexible enough in her ideals to be able to move through the halls of power, no matter who the king was. That she has influence among both the Yorkists and the Lancastrians and escaped execution after Buckingham’s failed rebellion is a testament to her tenacity and her ability to read the political landscape. Where men faced execution when their rebellions failed, Margaret survived and managed to turn events to her favor.

Though she began her life as a political pawn, Margaret became a player in her own right, and wielded what power she had to the very top, and ultimately became the mother to England’s most famous dynasty: The Tudors.


A Margaret Beaufort Bibliography:

Nonfiction:

  • Uncrowned Queen: The Fateful Life of Margaret Beaufort, Tudor Matriarch by Nicola Tallis
  • Margaret Beaufort: Mother of the Tudor Dynasty by Elizabeth Norton
  • The Women of the Wars of the Roses: Elizabeth Woodville, Margaret Beaufort, and Elizabeth of York by Alicia Carter
  • Blood Sisters: The Women Behind the Wars of the Roses by Sarah Gristwood
  • The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors by Alex Jones

Fiction:

  • The White Queen – 2013 television series, based on Philippa Gregory’s novels
  • The White Princess – 2017 television series based on Philippa Gregory’s novels
  • Shadow on the Tower – 1972 BBC television series
  • The Lady Margaret by Betty King (1965)
  • The King’s Mother by Betty King (1969)
  • Destiny’s Child by Iris Gower (1999) originally published as Bride of the Thirteen Summers in 1974
  • Philippa Gregory’s novels*, 2005 onward:
  • The Constant Princess
  • The White Queen
  • The Red Queen
  • The Lady of the Rivers
  • The Kingmaker’s Daughter
  • The White Princess

*Note: I haven’t read the Betty King or Iris Gower books, so I don’t know about their accuracy or quality. I’ve attempted a few of Gregory’s books, but I find their quality to be low and their accuracy questionable. Read them if you want, but remember they are fiction, not fact. The same goes with the television series based on her novels.

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