Monday, November 15, 2010

Margaret Beaufort : Mother of the Tudor dynasty - Elizabeth Norton

I’m a confirmed Yorkist so, while I know lots of scurrilous facts about Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII, courtesy of the many books I’ve read about Richard III, I’ve never read a biography of her. So, I was pleased to come across this new biography by Elizabeth Norton. Margaret was an ambitious woman who put her considerable energies into helping her son to the throne of England. Margaret’s family, the Beauforts, were descended from the adulterous relationship between John of Gaunt, uncle of Richard II & Katherine Swynford. Although they eventually married, this in itself wasn’t enough to legitimise their children. Richard II did legitimate the children as a favour to his powerful uncle, never imagining that they would be close enough to the throne to cause a problem. However, when Henry Bolingbroke, son of John of Gaunt, usurped the throne in 1399, he stipulated in an Act of Parliament that his half-siblings had no rights to the throne.

The Beauforts were loyal to the Lancastrian royal family & were well-established in the nobility by the time of Margaret’s birth in 1443. Her father was the first Duke of Somerset & Margaret was a great heiress. She married four times, the first when she was only six years old. This marriage was dissolved when the young husband, John de la Pole’s, family was disgraced. Margaret was married again at the age of 12 to Edmund Tudor, a half-brother of Henry VI. The Tudors were the children of Catherine de Valois, widow of Henry V & Owen Tudor. Tudor was much lower in rank than the Queen & the marriage was a scandal. Catherine’s son, Henry VI, was fond of his half-siblings, & took them into his household, granting them titles & planning good marriages for them.

Edmund was made Earl of Richmond & Margaret was considered an excellent match for him. An indication of Margaret’s religious nature comes from a story told later by John Fisher, Margaret’s chaplain. She told him that she was inspired by a vision of St Nicholas in a dream to accept Edmund’s suit, although in reality she would have had little choice in the matter. Although it was customary for very young girls to be married, the marriages were not usually consummated until the girl was older, especially as Margaret was considered quite small for her age. Edmund Tudor was anxious for an heir & he did not wait. Margaret almost immediately became pregnant & six months into her pregnancy, her husband died of the plague. At the age of 13, she was a mother & a widow. Her son, Henry, became the focus of her life. Although she married twice more, she had no more children, & it was said at the time that this was due to the physical trauma she suffered giving birth at such a young age. This is a possible portrait of Margaret as a young woman (from

Margaret’s next husband, Henry Stafford, son of the Duke of Buckingham, was chosen by Margaret & her brother-in-law, Jasper Tudor. Margaret & the Tudors were firmly in the Lancastrian camp & with the rise of Richard, Duke of York, the Wars of the Roses were about to begin. I’m not going to go into the machinations of the Wars. Everyone is called Richard, Edward, Elizabeth, Henry or Margaret & it’s very confusing! I’ll concentrate on what Margaret was doing rather than who won which battle. Margaret’s marriage to Stafford seems to have been happy. Her son, Henry, was in the care of his uncle Jasper Tudor, & Margaret kept in contact with them both. As Henry VI slid into periods of madness & the Duke of York pressed his claim to the throne, Margaret & Stafford tried to stay clear of trouble.

Eventually, after the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471 when Henry VI’s only son, Edward, Prince of Wales, was killed, the Lancastrian cause seemed lost. Henry VI had been imprisoned in the Tower of London by the Yorkist King Edward IV & after his son’s death, he was quietly murdered. The only possible candidate left on the Lancastrian side was Margaret Beaufort & her son, Henry Tudor. Although their Beaufort claim was dubious, Henry VI had apparently considered making Edmund Tudor his heir before the birth of his own son & so there was a possibility that Henry Tudor could stake his claim. In the 1470s, this was unlikely. The Yorkists had won decisively & Henry & Jasper Tudor fled into exile in Brittany. Margaret accepted the status quo & she was more concerned with the death of her husband, possibly from wounds he suffered during the Battle of Barnet.

Margaret realised she needed a protector in the volatile political situation & less than a year after Stafford’s death, she married for a fourth time. Her husband was Thomas, Lord Stanley, a man with strong Yorkist connections. He was a bit of a slippery customer though & had managed to avoid actually committing himself in battle to either side throughout the Wars. Margaret & Lord Stanley were accepted, if not trusted, by Edward IV. Everything changed when Edward died suddenly in April 1483. His young son, Edward V was swiftly deposed by his uncle who became Richard III.

Suddenly, the opportunity the Tudors had been waiting for had arrived. Richard’s usurpation had not been a popular move & the rumours that he had murdered his nephews in the Tower led to a rebellion in late 1483 headed by the Duke of Buckingham, a connection by marriage of Margaret. This is when Margaret’s reputation as a political schemer & intriguer stems from.  She had been in communication with her son although she hadn’t seen him for over ten years. Although Buckingham’s rebellion failed, Margaret conspired with Elizabeth Woodville, Edward IV’s Queen who had been stripped of her property & titles by Richard III. The two women decided that Henry should marry Elizabeth’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth of York. Although Richard had declared the Woodville marriage illegal which made the children illegitimate, most people still considered the children of Edward IV the rightful heirs. If Henry & Elizabeth married they would unite the claims of York & Lancaster. Margaret was central in the plot that saw Henry invade England in August 1485 & defeat Richard at Bosworth.

Margaret was content for Henry to claim the throne through her as no woman could have successfully claimed the throne at this period. She styled herself The King’s Mother & was treated as Queen Dowager in all but name. She began signing her letters Margaret R which could have stood for Margaret Richmond or could have been meant to be mistaken for Margaret Regina. Although mother & son had seen little of each other, Henry knew how much he owed Margaret & they seem to have been genuinely fond of each other. Henry married Elizabeth of York to consolidate his claim but Elizabeth seems to have been dominated by Margaret who was certainly a forceful personality. The photo above (from is of Henry & Elizabeth's gorgeous tomb in Westminster Abbey, sculpted by Pietro Torregiano.

Margaret spent the years of Henry’s reign using her influence to further her pet projects. She was very interested in education & supported two colleges at Cambridge University – Christ’s College, which she founded, & Queen’s College, which had been supported by previous Queens of England. She was encouraged in all this by her chaplain, John Fisher, who later became Bishop of Rochester & was executed by Henry VIII. Fisher seems to have been genuinely fond of Margaret. He certainly admired her for her piety & her support of learning & preached her funeral sermon. Norton quotes extensively from this sermon & it certainly humanises Margaret. Very few of her letters survive &, as with most medieval women, it's difficult to really hear their own voices.

Margaret’s religious leanings became more pronounced as she grew older. The most familiar portrait of her shows her in a religious habit (this image is from Margaret was in her sixties in 1509 when her son, Henry VII, died. She was devastated & survived him by only a few weeks. She lived long enough to see her grandson, Henry VIII, crowned & had some influence in setting up his first Council. Margaret had achieved her greatest ambition.

Elizabeth Norton’s book is well-researched & beautifully produced by Amberley Publishing. Amberley specialise in history & local studies & they publish many books on the Tudors. Elizabeth Norton has written books on four of Henry VIII’s Queens & is currently writing about one of Henry’s mistresses, Bessie Blount. I enjoyed reading about Margaret Beaufort. She was a strong woman who negotiated the political whirlpool of the 15th century with great skill & intelligence. Unusually she realised her ambitions & died peacefully, knowing that she had achieved her goals.


  1. From what I understand, Margaret Beaufort was not a woman you messed with. If I were Elizabeth York, I would have been quite afraid of her.

    Good Post!

  2. Thanks for commenting, Theresa. I agree, Margaret was certainly a formidable woman & Elizabeth of York has always been portrayed as quiet & timid, apart from the letter she may or may not have written to the Duke of Norfolk about her desire to marry Richard III! I wouldn't have wanted to cross Margaret.

  3. An ambitious and yet admirable woman. We cannot really judge her because she suffered a lot, (being the daughter of a man who killed himself because of shame and the like--). Besides, Elizabeth of York might have been a haughty child and perhaps, even a whore, just like her mother! (Apple trees don't bear orange fruits.)