Lady Margaret Beaufort is one of the most fascinating and at times unfairly maligned characters from English history. Thanks to fictional works she is often viewed as a mean, cold and vengeful woman, obsessed with power and easily the worlds greatest mother-in-law from hell. But the true story of this woman is far more thrilling and versatile. We know from accounts that she had a great sense of humour and loved gambling, she loved throwing a good party and was certainly more fun than the religious fanatic we're presented with in programmes such as The White Princess. In this blog I will explore the life of Lady Margaret Beaufort, the first great Tudor and the Queen who never was.
Margaret was born, most likely, on the 31st May 1443 in Bletsoe Castle, Bedfordshire. I say most likely because we aren't 100% sure on her year of birth, 1441 is sometimes suggested. That she was born on the 31st May is beyond doubt, as Margaret herself insisted Westminster Abbey celebrated her birthday on this day, but the year of birth divides opinion. Most agree however that the more likely option is 1443 owing to a key piece of evidence in which her father had negotiated with King Henry VI the wardship of his unborn child should be die whilst on campaign in France. Margaret was the sole heiress of John Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, and was thus born into great wealth. John Beaufort was the legitimised grandson of John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster who was the third surviving son of King Edward III by his mistress Katherine Swynford. John and his daughter Margaret therefore had a trickle of royal blood in their veins, albeit through an illegitimate line. It also meant that she was a blood relation of King Henry VI, to whom her family were utterly devoted, they were Lancastrians through and through.
John of Gaunt and Henry VI can be seen below.
John Beaufort had fought in campaigns alongside the previous reigning monarch, Henry V and became a leading wartime commander in what was left of English occupied France. By 1443 he had been elevated to the Dukedom of Somerset and was also made Earl of Kendal. This provided enormous prestige for the Beaufort family and with it, great wealth. It also came with great responsibility. Shortly after the birth of his one and only child, John Beaufort began his expedition to France to lead an important military campaign on behalf of Henry VI. It did not go well. He was soon plundering towns which had signed peace treaties with King Henry's court and also accepted money from the Duke of Brittany which resulted in the freeing of many prisoners causing further disquiet in the region. He eventually returned to England but was banished from court on a charge of high treason. This would have likely resulted in his death but before this could appear it appears that John Beaufort took his own life.
With her fathers death, Margaret as the sole legitimate heir to Beaufort line inherited his fortune and moved a step closer in the line of succession to the throne of England, although she was never viewed as a serious contender by her contemporaries at the time. What cannot be underestimated is Margaret's great wealth. It was valued at being approximately £1,000 per year, not much by todays standards, but in the 1440's this was a huge sum of money. To put it into perspective, those with land at the time valued at £25.00 were considered wealthy enough to be taxed, and Margaret's annual income outstripped this extravagantly. Unfortunately, her fathers previous behaviour significantly tainted the Beaufort's in the eyes of the King and court, and on Margaret's first birthday the King broke his previous promise to maintain her wardship and instead granted all her lands to William de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk. The Duke of Suffolk was another distant relation of the King and by extension, Margaret herself. De la Pole soon fell from favour, and whilst imprisoned negotiated the betrothal of his son John to Margaret. At the time of the marriage Margaret was just one year old. It was a marriage of words only, and after three years was dissolved by the King. Margaret herself refused to acknowledge it's validity and treated her second husband as her first. The choice of her second husband was, as per the standards of the day, something about which Margaret had little control. As one of the wealthiest and ennobled young women in the country, her marriage was personally selected for her by the King. He had chosen his half brother, Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond. Margaret's wardship had been granted to Edmund and his younger brother Jasper. Margaret and Edmund were married in 1455, Margaret was 12, Edward was 25. In marrying Edmund, Margaret now became formally known as the Countess of Richmond and she was soon pregnant with Edmunds child. Although teenage pregnancy was not uncommon in medieval England, this was a brutal act on Edmunds part and could very nearly have killed his young bride. Edmund was soon taken into the Wars of the Roses, fighting for King Henry but was captured by the Yorkists and died of the plague in 1536. 13 year old Margaret was now a heavily pregnant widow in the care of her former brother-in-law, Jasper.
On the 28th January 1457 Margaret went into labour at Pembroke Castle and gave birth to her son Henry. Owing to her youth, Margaret was not yet fully developed physically, and it is probable that the birth did irreparable damage to her body. She would never carry another child to term, and somewhat unsurprisingly was said to possess a repellence for sex in later life. This aside, she appears to have developed an incredibly close bond to her son and unlike his brother, Jasper Tudor seems to have been a more kindly character. He soon helped to negotiate a third marriage for Margaret which would provide both her and her infant son with some much needed security. Margaret was wed to Sir Henry Stafford, the second son of the Duke of Buckingham. They split their time between the royal court and Woking Palace which Margaret expertly restored. She was separated from her young son who remained in the wardship of Jasper Tudor in Wales. This was not uncommon for noble children at the time, and Margaret was given clearance to visit Henry when she wanted to.
Pembroke Castle can be seen below.
Margaret's world was turned upside down in 1461 when the rule of King Henry VI was overthrown by the Yorkists, and Edward of York ascended the throne through conquest, becoming King Edward IV. As staunch supporters of the Lancastrian cause, Lady Margaret and her husband were not trusted by the new ruling house and were punished accordingly. Margaret's son was stripped of his title as Earl of Richmond which was given to the new King's younger brother, George, Duke of Clarence, along with his lands which also went to George. Margaret was a vocal supporter of the displaced Henry VI, and spent much of her time away from the royal court. She briefly engaged in a negotiation with her one time enemy, the aforementioned George, Duke of Clarence when he became disaffected by his brothers rule. This would come to nothing however and soon George was back on speaking terms with his brother the King. One can imagine Margaret's behaviour did little to further ingratiate her with King Edward. The former King, Henry VI was briefly reinstated to rule in 1470. At this point Margaret would have likely returned to the court and been reunited with her son, but it was not to last. Henry was displaced again less than a year later and Edward IV was back on the throne. Margaret, perhaps sensing that Edward would want to neutralise any Lancastrian claimant to the throne begged Jasper Tudor to take her son abroad to France to live in exile. Jasper agreed but this must have been an incredibly difficult thing for Margaret to come to terms with. She would not see her son again for 14 years.
King Edward IV and George, Duke of Clarence can be seen below.
After a relatively long and harmonious marriage, Margaret's third husband was killed from wounds suffered fighting alongside the York's at the Battle of Barnet. Sir Henry Stafford had been persuaded to change his allegiances, which one would imagine was something Margaret rallied against considerably. She was now 28 years old and a widow once more. With her son in exile and no one to tell her what to do, for perhaps the first time in her life Margaret had some agency over her actions. This was a time of staggering patriarchy however, and Margaret was soon married, this time to Thomas Stanley, a prominent member of Edward IV's court. The difference in this marriage however is that it appears Margaret herself negotiated it. This was not a marriage of love or even affection, but one of straightforward convenience. The marriage allowed Margaret to return to court and work on rehabilitating her image. It also gave her close access to the royal family and potentially other Lancastrian supporters who were also biding their time. Margaret's efforts clearly worked, and she was soon welcomed into the bosom of Queen Elizabeth's inner circle and was even named godmother to one of the Princesses. I rather suspect Margaret did all of this whilst chewing the inside of her mouth ferociously. As I have already explained, she was as Lancastrian as it was possible to be. This compliance with the Yorkist rule is not one of true devotion but merely a rouse which enabled her return to the centre of position and power.
Elizabeth Woodville and Richard III are seen below.
Fortunes wheel turned back towards Margaret in April 1483. Edward IV died unexpectedly at the age of 40 and his son Prince Edward was proclaimed King Edward V. Of course this young boy was never crowned, because soon he and his young brother Prince Richard, Duke of York had disappeared and Edward IV's brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester ascended the throne as King Richard III instead. The disappearance of the "Princes in the Tower" continues to be one of histories greatest mysteries. The generally accepted rule is that Richard III ordered their deaths in order to secure his place on the throne. There are some however that also suggest Margaret may have had some hand in their destruction. Certainly their disappearance pushed her son two steps closer to the throne, but broadly speaking there isn't contemporary evidence to support the claim. Margaret was also soon "in bed with the enemy" and had begun negotiations with Edward IV's queen dowager, Elizabeth Woodville, mother of the two missing Princes. You would have to be a remarkably calculating and immoral person to actively plot with the mother of two children you had had secretly killed. We know Margaret was strong and ruthless, but she was also known for her piety and I do not believe she would have moved so despicably against two children. Margaret and Elizabeth's plan was simple. The queen dowager would offer her eldest daughter and the Yorkist heir Princess Elizabeth, in marriage to Margaret's son, Henry Tudor. They would overthrow Richard III and establish a new ruling dynasty which united both the Lancastrians and the Yorks.
Unfortunately this simple plan was delayed owing to the uncovering of the Buckingham Rebellion against Richard III, in which both Margaret and possibly Elizabeth were also implicated. The Duke of Buckingham had been at one time a close and vocal supporter of Richard III, but he was also committed to the memory of Edward IV and appears to have some had misgivings about the way in which Richard had seized power. The rebellion was to begin with various armies marching on London from across England, from locations including Essex, Guildford, Devon and Maidstone. Henry Tudor was to sail from Brittany with forces numbered at 3,500 and join up with the army. Some of Henry's ships were held back due to back storms in the channel and he was forced to turn back. In England the plot had unravelled thanks to the Kentish forces launching their rebellion ten days earlier than planned, which unfortunately outed both Buckingham and Margaret as key players in the entire affair. Buckingham was soon captured and quickly beheaded. Margaret herself was convicted of high treason and could very well have received the same fate, but instead she was stripped of all her lands and titles, and placed under house arrest in her husbands home. The hope was that Margaret would be blocked from communicating with her son, which was clearly not the case. She was soon in regular correspondence with Henry and they once again started to conspire an invasion of England.
Henry Tudor was spurred into action when Anne Neville, Richard III's queen died at the age of just 28. The rumour was soon circulating that Richard was to remarry, and his choice of bride would be his own niece Princess Elizabeth. Arguably 50% of the support Henry had gathered was as a result of his planned union to the Yorkist heir, if she were out of the picture then his hopes of ever becoming King were considerably diminished. Anxious to ensure he did not lose the thing that would solidify his rule, Henry began to assemble armies and set sail from France just a few months later. Henry and Richard's armies met at the Battle of Bosworth Field. Margaret Beautfort's husband Lord Stanley had until now been a supporter of Richard, at least for the sake of appearances, but he was reticent to commit to sending forces and did not respond when the summons came to fight against Henry Tudor. On the field he switched allegiances and fought alongside Henry. The result was a decisive victory for Henry Tudor, who proclaimed himself King Henry VII. Richard was killed in battle, and violently. When his remains were discovered in 2013, examinations of the skull suggested eight blows to it alone. It is also believed that he was shown little to no respect by the winning Tudor army. According to some sources, his body was stripped naked and thrown across the top of horse and paraded for all to see as it was carried back to Leicester.
Lady Margaret Beaufort was now exactly where she wanted to be. Her son was King, and she fashioned a new royal title for herself - "My Lady the Kings Mother". Margaret was distinctly unwilling to accept a status lower than queen dowager Elizabeth Woodville, despite Elizabeth significantly outranking her. She even petitioned to be recognised above her daughter-in-law the queen, for Henry had gone ahead with the marriage as planned, making Princess Elizabeth his queen consort. Margaret insisted that her robes were made to the same quality as the queens and grudgingly walked merely half a pace behind her. Certainly the change she made to her signature is telling of how she viewed her own status. Until Henry's reign she had signed off documents as M.Richmond, she now changed this to Margaret R. Whilst this R could have still stood for Richmond, I strongly suspect it stood for Regina, the common Latin phrase used by female sovereigns, the male equivalent being Rex. If this is the case, it's a rather desperate cling to false status, because whatever her position or power, she was not a reigning queen and to sign herself off as one seems frankly a bit pathetic. As historian Sarah Gristwood pointed out "A place had to be created for the sort of 'king's mother' Margaret was determined to be. Perhaps if Margaret had become a queen, a role that she clearly felt fortune had denied her, she would not have felt the need to press for her rights quite so stridently."
King Henry VII and Queen Elizabeth are seen below.
Power grabs aside, Margaret did indeed wield extraordinary influence over Henry's reign. She was said to accompany all royal tours alongside the King and Queen in the early years of their marriage, and she devised a clear system of protocol around how royal heirs should be treated - in particular female members of the royal family. Indeed she worked closely alongside her daughter-in-law to block an early marriage between Princess Margaret Tudor (Henry and Elizabeth's eldest daughter) to the King of Scotland. One rather suspects that Margaret thought back to her own all too early sexual experiences and was determined to ensure her granddaughter would not suffer the same fate. There is a common misconception that Margaret and her daughter-in-law had a contentious relationship. I do not believe it's much of a stretch to believe that Queen Elizabeth will have felt Margaret's constant presence somewhat grating, but the two woman did form a respectable working relationship, the actions on behalf of Princess Margaret discussed above prove this point. In 1503, Queen Elizabeth died and Margaret was now the principle female representative of the royal family at court. Six years later, the man for whom Margaret had essentially given up her life, her son Henry, was also dead. Henry made it clear that Margaret was to be the chief executrix of his will, which was accepted by the Kings council without question. Margaret arranged her sons funeral and began the organisation of her grandson, the now King Henry VIII's coronation. Even at this late stage in her life, her influence was clearly still strong - the majority of the men selected by the new King Henry VIII for his privy council were the ones suggested to him by his grandmother.
Lady Margaret Beaufort and her grandson, a young King Henry VIII can be seen below.
Lady Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and Derby and essentially the "mother" of the Tudor dynasty died on the 29th June 1509 at the age of 66. This was five days prior to the coronation of her grandson and a little over two months following the death of her son. She died in Westminster Abbey and was buried in the Henry VII Chapel. Her tomb is situated not far from her great great granddaughter, Mary, Queen of Scots.
Margaret's legacy is certainly evident for all to see. Her machinations placed (what was essentially) a minor noble on the throne of England who would begin perhaps our most infamous royal dynasty. The Tudors reigned for 118 years, which is roughly one third of the length of time the far less famous (but no less fascinating) Plantagenets sat on the throne. Her conviction, dedication and absolute belief in her sons destiny propelled the Tudors to the very centre of power and would utterly transform not only English but world history in ways I suspect event Margaret alone couldn't have predicted. Even today, Margaret is intrinsically linked to two of the most prominent colleges of Cambridge University. She founded Christ's College in 1505 and was responsible for the creation of St John's College which was completed posthumously in 1511. Her influence is even felt at Cambridge's biggest rival, Oxford, where the Lady Margaret Hall college, the very first Oxford college to accept female applicants is named in her honour.
In recent years, Margaret's reputation has suffered at the hands of fictional portrayals, particularly in Philippa Gregory's book series and tv adaptations including The White Princess and The Spanish Princess. She is portrayed as a religious zealot, capable of atrocious acts because it's "gods will". She is seen as humourless, mean and unbelievably ruthless.
Margaret as she is seen in The White Queen, portrayed by Amanda Hale, The White Princess, portrayed by Michelle Fairley and The Spanish Princess portrayed by Dame Harriet Walter can be seen below.
The truth is, we will never know the "true" Margaret Beaufort because she died over 500 years ago, but from the evidence available to us, she was certainly more multifaceted and for want of a better word "fun" than we have been led to believe. It is known for example that she employed two fools as part of her household, and even sent a member of her staff to deputise for her at an important political meeting because she was enjoying the game of cards she was playing so much and didn't want to leave. Her household accounts show a clear expenditure on a lot of fine red and white wines, she was known to gamble and throw excellent parties. Ultimately, her more calculated or ruthless behaviour would be viewed as virtues had she been born a man. We often talk of Anne Boleyn as a woman before her time, and I rather think Margaret was of the same mould. She was extraordinary. Yes, I am sure she could be an absolute nightmare when she wanted to be, but ultimately, she lived in a time when you were either a player, or a pawn, and she chose the former. That's no sin in my book.
Written by Adam Pennington.
August 21st 2021.