Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Sunday, May 31, 2015

Lady Margaret Beaufort: The Kingmaker

Lady Margaret Beaufort (born 31 May 1443)


In 1485 Henry Tudor, earl of Richmond, defeated Richard III at Bosworth Field, ending thirty-three years of civil war. He was immediately proclaimed king: his victorious supporters shouted "God save King Henry" after the battle, while Thomas, lord Stanley, placed Richard's crown on the head of the new "king."

A sixteenth-century portrait of
Lady Margaret Beaufort,
as a widow, at prayer
The fifteenth-century political crisis in England that resulted in thirty years of civil war had pitted cousin against cousin in a struggle for the crown. The so-called War of the Roses had begun in 1455 with a rebellion against King Henry VI by Richard, duke of York.

The chief opponents in this civil strife were cousins, all descendants of Edward III. (Indeed, Philippa Gregory has linked her novels about this period under the series title "The Cousins' War.")

As these cousins and their numerous supporters struggled, first one branch of the family, then the other, controlled the throne of England. While Henry Tudor's victory at Bosworth seemed to put an end to the bloody contest between Lancaster and York, the new king still faced something of a dilemma. 

While the rival claimants to the English throne had fought it out on the battlefield, the contest had also raised questions of a woman's place in the royal succession. The Lancastrians had argued their superior claim to the English throne by excluding inheritance through the female line, while the Yorkists had made their claims to the throne through the female line.

But in 1485, after his victory at Bosworth, if the new Tudor king wanted to justify his right to the throne, he would have to do so through a woman, his mother, Margaret Beaufort.* But, while justifying his claim to the throne through a woman, Henry VII would have to deny another woman, his wife, Elizabeth of York, the right to make the same claim.

Although Margaret Beaufort would never become queen of England in her own right, she nevertheless would go on to wield considerable political power in the role she assumed as "the king's mother." Indeed, an alternative history of the Wars of the Roses might be written--for the more familiar and obvious battles of fathers and sons we might well substitute the equally bloody battles fought by mothers on behalf of those same sons. We've already looked at the role of one of those powerful women, Cecily Neville, duchess of York (who, remember, styled herself as "queen by right")--now it's time to look at her Lancastrian opposite, Margaret Beaufort.

Margaret Beaufort was the only child of John Beaufort, duke of Somerset, and his wife, Margaret Beauchamp. Through her father, Margaret Beaufort was the descended from King Edward III, and the Tudor claims to the throne of England came through her paternal line. Yet Margaret's mother was also a considerable force in her daughter's life. 

The daughter of Sir John Beauchamp of Bletsoe, Margaret Beauchamp had been an heiress in her own right; following the death of her husband, the dowager duchess had control not only of her own possessions but those of her husband as well, thus insuring her independence. More importantly, Somerset had arranged that, in the event of his death, the rights to his daughter's wardship and marriage were to be left in the hands of her mother.

Although Henry VI had revoked this agreement after Somerset's death in 1444, Margaret continued to live with her mother; unlike many wealthy heiresses, she remained under her mother's care and guidance until 1453, when her wardship was transferred to Jasper and Edmund Tudor. She sustained a strong identification with her mother and her maternal lineage throughout her life.

Lady Margaret Beaufort's tomb effigy,
Westminster Abbey
Margaret Beaufort's "War of the Roses" was fought initially on a matrimonial battlefield. She was married four times, each alliance a politically expedient skirmish in her war of succession.

The first of these unions was in late January or early February of 1450, when William de la Pole, earl of Suffolk, married his seven-year-old son John to the six-year-old Margaret. Suffolk, a Lancastrian supporter of Henry VI, had been awarded Margaret's wardship (though not custody--as I noted above, she remained under her mother's care) by the king as acknowledgement for the "notable services" he had performed. As Margaret Beaufort's biographer Linda Simon notes, this marriage was not without implications for the succession:
As a staunch Lancastrian, unwilling to consider the claims of the family of York, [Suffolk] believed that there was only one real heiress. Margaret Beaufort was a potential queen, and if his ward did not claim the crown for herself, she must pass that glorious inheritance to her son.
Suffolk suffered almost immediately for his presumption; he was indicted for treason, chief among the accusations against him that he had attempted to secure the English throne for his son by marrying the boy to Margaret, "presuming and pretending her to be next inheritable to the crown." (Although the two children had been married, Margaret had not been removed from her mother's guardianship. Later in her life, Margaret Beaufort would never acknowledge this marriage.)

Henry VI dissolved Margaret's marriage to Suffolk's son in 1453. He then granted the wardship and marriage of the nine-year-old girl to his half-brothers, Jasper and Edmund Tudor, the sons of another woman whom we have already discussed, Katherine of Valois (as queen of England, she was the mother of Henry VI; by her second marriage, she was the mother of the Jasper and Edmund).

This move once again had dynastic significance. As Michael Jones and Malcolm Underwood suggest, "Henry's initial intention in dissolving Lady Margaret's marriage with John de la Pole may have been to nominate his half-brother, Edmund Tudor, earl of Richmond as his heir, in the right of Margaret Beaufort." A twelve-year-old Margaret was married to Edmund Tudor in 1455; by November of 1456 Edmund Tudor was dead, his adolescent widow six months pregnant.

Margaret gave birth to her only child, Henry Tudor, on 28 January 1457. In their biography of Margaret Beaufort, Jones and Underwood note that her "chief concern" throughout her life was to protect her son's interests. To this end, the thirteen-year-old widow participated actively in arrangements for her next marriage, to Henry Stafford, a staunch Lancastrian.

Discussions for the match began in March 1457, the ceremony taking place on 3 January 1458. Margaret's decision about the alliance was to prove a good one. After Edward IV came to power in 1461, Stafford was reconciled to the Yorkist king, securing a pardon for both himself and for his wife. Wounded fighting for Edward IV and the Yorkists at the battle of Barnet, Stafford never recovered; he died in 1471.

Within the year, in fact before the arrangements for Stafford's burial were complete, Margaret married for a final time. Her strategy at this point is clear; she married a Yorkist supporter, Thomas Lord Stanley. Once more her marriage reflected her carefully calculated decision.

In the mean time, after his mother's marriage to Stafford, Henry Tudor had become the ward of the Yorkist William Lord Herbert, who intended to marry the young Henry to his own daughter, obviously recognizing what Jones and Underwood call Henry's "long-term political future." But in 1469, Henry Tudor's fortunes changed dramatically after Herbert's defeat by Lancastrian forces and with the brief restoration of Henry VI. Margaret's interest was, "first and foremost," the safety of her son, with whom she was reunited in London.

But after the Lancastrians were defeated at Barnet, Jasper Tudor and his nephew fled first to Wales, then to France. Edward IV was returned to the throne, but as Stanley's wife, the Lancastrian Margaret Beaufort was intimately involved with the Yorkist court. In 1479, for example, she carried the king's youngest daughter to her christening, while in 1483, during Richard III's coronation, she carried Queen Anne's train, "taking precedence over all other peeresses, even over King Richard's sister."

Within the year, however, Margaret Beaufort took the "calculated but highly dangerous step" of supporting, perhaps even initiating, the rebellion of Henry Stafford, duke of Buckingham against King Richard. The Tudor historian Polydore Vergil was later to conclude that she "was commonly called the head of that conspiracy." Head of the plot or not, her "astonishing role in the conspiracy of 1483" is discussed at some length in both of the recent biographies written about her; in their discussion of Margaret's role in events, Jones and Underwood conclude that her participation demonstrated her "ruthless practice of realpolitik." After the insurrection failed, Richard initiated efforts to pass an act of attainder in Parliament against Margaret Beaufort, "mother to the king's great rebel and traitor, Henry, earl of Richmond." 

Richard charged that she had "conspired and committed high treason, especially by sending messages, writings, and tokens" to her son, and that she had "conspired and imagined the destruction of the king" by supporting Buckingham's treasonous rebellion. But, because of the "good and faithful service" of her husband" and "for his sake," she was spared the act of attainder. Her person and her considerable property were to be controlled by her husband, however; Stanley was to keep his wife "so straight with himself" that she could neither communicate with her son "nor practice anything at all" against the king.

Margaret's effort to defeat Richard did not end with Buckingham's defeat. Later in the same year, her efforts to bring Richard III down led to a coup d'etat of a different sort. Margaret's new strategy continued the war she had waged on the matrimonial battlefield, but this time her her effort was to arrange a marriage between her son and Edward IV's daughter Elizabeth. 

Plans for such a marriage had first been considered while Edward IV was still alive, but at that point Margaret had warned her son not to return to England from the safety of France even if Edward offered such a marriage. Richard III, too, had suggested a marriage between Henry Tudor and one of Edward's daughters. But after the failure of Buckingham's rebellion Margaret herself pursued the alliance, sending her personal physician to Edward IV's widow, Elizabeth Woodville, then in sanctuary at Westminster with her daughters. Between them, the two women arranged for the marriage of the "Lancastrian" heir Henry Tudor and Elizabeth of York, the oldest surviving heir of Edward IV; in Brittany, Henry Tudor pledged himself to the match on 25 December 1483. 

Once her son became king of England, Margaret Beaufort could abandon her matrimonial strategy for a new tactic. She had waged her battle on Henry's behalf by successful marriages, her own and then his. Now she could continue to act on her son's behalf--and her own--as "my lady the king's mother."

At the beginning of her son's reign, Margaret was accorded an honor that was "semi-regal," and she easily dominated both her son's royal household and his queen. One Spanish observer noted that Elizabeth of York "was kept in subjection" by "the king's mother"; another, commenting on the influence of "the king's mother," wrote that "the queen, as is generally the case, does not like it."

Margaret's arrangements for the royal household extended even to the birth of a child, her plans compiled in her "Ordinances as to what preparation is to be made against the deliverance of a queen as also for the christening of the child of which she shall be delivered." She directed the arrangement of the "lying-in chamber," the procedure for the queen's retirement to await the birth, the composition of the queen's attendants, and the baptismal ceremony.

She established rules for the management and staffing of the royal nursery. Following the birth of her grandson Arthur in 1486, she took over his care. Her role in the lives of her grandchildren extended to her arrangements for their education. After Elizabeth of York's death in 1503, Margaret developed a particularly strong relationship with Henry, heir to the throne after Arthur's death, and was she instrumental in the marriage alliances of her granddaughters Margaret and Mary.

Meanwhile, within the royal households, she lived in close physical proximity to her son. At the residence of Woodstock, for instance, her rooms were linked to his by a shared "withdrawing" room "that belongs to the king's chamber and my lady, his mother's." In the Tower, her rooms were next to her son's bedchamber and council chamber. This physical closeness continued to the end of Henry's life; in 1508, when he was seriously ill, his mother "was in almost constant attendance": Jones and Underwood indicate that "makeshift lodgings were hurriedly erected at Richmond to house her servants as she watched over her son." A year later, as he lay dying, Margaret, "now based in her London house of Coldharbour, made regular journeys by barge along the Thames to the palace of Richmond."

The "king's mother" had a dominant place not only in her son's household but in his kingdom, where her political advice and experience were critical. Henry appointed many of his mother's trusted household officials to positions in his service. The two also shared legal advisors; Jones and Underwood note that "an overlap often existed between the councils of Margaret and her son," with these advisors and even decisions "sometimes passed from one to the other." In 1498 the Spanish ambassador to the court observed that Henry was "much influenced by his mother," and, indeed, that her authority exceeded that of many of his own advisors. 

Margaret's interest in and influence on Henry's foreign affairs were also considerable; she maintained "friendly" contact with the Yorkist Margaret, duchess of Burgundy, who posed a constant threat to the new Tudor king, for example, and she negotiated at length with the French king on her son's behalf. Most significantly, in the last years of his reign, Henry VII delegated power to his mother's council as a way of relieving the "enormous burden of work" on his own counselors. From 1499 to 1507 Margaret presided over this court, "her powers" and her authority judged to be "considerable," her role unprecedented: in this position, Jones and Underwood conclude, she "broke new ground."

While she spent a great deal of time in the royal court, the "king's mother" also maintained her own household, Collyweston, a kind of "city of ladies" that "represented a separate court establishment in its own right, particularly for the numerous aristocrat and gentry women who boarded there." Among those women were the queen's sister, as well as several other "ladies, wards, suitors and scholars." The "king's mother" negotiated marriages for many of the young women whose rearing she supervised, such political marriages benefitting her son, while at the same time demonstrating her own influence and authority.

As he lay dying in 1409, Henry designated his mother as the chief executor of his will. The "culmination of her ceremonial role" within her son's court is indicated by her part in the organization of the burial of her son Henry VII and of the coronation of her grandson Henry VIII; one contemporary account notes that the council arranging these ceremonies was headed by "the mother of the said late king." In both the funeral and the coronation, she was given precedence in the ceremonies. Her "political status" was also "enhanced," if that is possible, by her role in the interim council that governed until Henry VIII's coronation. "My lady the king's grandam," as she then became, "gave instructions for [her grandson's] marriage to Catherine of Aragon and for his coronation."

In their assessment of Margaret Beaufort's role during her son's reign, Jones and Underwood note that Margaret enjoyed a "degree of influence" that gave her "a dominating position within the realm." Throughout the twenty-four years of Henry VII's reign, from his victory at Bosworth in 1485 until his death in 1509, the "king's mother" participated "in every aspect of Tudor ceremony, government and administration and fought for the safeguarding of the dynasty." Hers was, they conclude, "a formidable achievement," even a "partnership."

For a quick overview of Margaret Beaufort, see Michael Jones's excellent essay, "Lady Margaret Beaufort," originally printed in History Today, click here. There are two excellent biographies of Margaret Beaufort: Linda Simon's Of Virtue Rare: Margaret Beaufort, Matriarch of the House of Tudor and Michael Jones and Malcolm Underwood's The King's Mother: Lady Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and Derby.

In addition to her political role, Margaret Beaufort was an educated and pious woman. Throughout her life, she was a great supporter of a variety of religious orders and their institutions, including the Benedictines, Franciscans, Dominicans, and Carthusians. She was a great benefactress to both Oxford and Cambridge colleges, she was a patron of the English printers Richard Pynson, William Caxton, and Wynkyn de Worde (who all printed books at her request), and she was, herself, a a writer. She translated into English one book (the fourth) of the Imitation of Christ (it was printed by Richard Pynson), and  her The Mirror of Gold for the Sinful Soul  was an English version of a French translation of a Carthusian devotional work, the Speculum aureum peccatorum. A selection of her letters and translations are found in Donald W. Foster's Women's Works: Volume 1, 900-1500.

Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford,
founded in 1878
and named in honor of Lady Margaret Beaufort

*This post has been adapted from The Monstrous Regiment of Women: Female Rulers in Early Modern Europe (Palgrave Macmillan).