Lady Margaret Beaufort has always been sort of a cipher to me, not quite as knowable as either Elizabeth Woodville or Marguerite of Anjou. Perhaps that’s because she was never a Queen, but the mother of a King. She wasn’t royal, although she was descended from royalty. Her son, Henry Tudor, by rights, should never have become King. Margaret, with her deep faith, believed that it was always God’s plan that Henry should be king. In the BBC 1/Starz miniseries, she’s played by actress Amanda Hale with a furrowed brow and a fierce expression. In her only scene in the first episode, she wears a red dress and chastises Jacquetta Woodville for her daughter’s marriage to the Yorkist king. Reading about her life, I found a much more fascinating woman. Throughout her life, Margaret took matters into her own hands, whether it was finding a husband or safeguarding and protecting the interests of her son. She was genuinely pious, extremely clever, and pragmatic. Due to her wealth and status, Margaret was able to chart her course in a way that other women of the era were not able to do.
Lady Margaret Beaufort was born on May 31, 1443. Her father was John Beaufort, the 1st Duke of Somerset, a grandson of John of Gaunt and his mistress, later wife, Katherine Swynford. The Beauforts were seen as acquisitive and ambitious, ruthless and unscrupulous, traits which John of Gaunt was often accused. Despite subsequent kings’ favor, the prejudice against the Beauforts origins remained. No matter how much money and power they acquired, they were barred from the throne (Henry VII got around this because he was only a Beaufort on his mother’s side).
Her mother was Margaret Beauchamp, a widowed heiress with several children. Poor John Beaufort had endured 17 years as a prisoner of war, the longest imprisonment of any English aristocrat during the Hundred Years War. Henry V had decreed that there would be no prison exchange with the French unless they swore to uphold England’s rights to the throne of France, which they were not prepared to do. It wasn’t until Henry VI reached his majority that John was released in exchange for the Count of Eu. By the time of his release, John was an embittered man, broken in both body and spirit, heavily in debt. Margaret believed that Henry VI had saved her father’s life, and as a result she revered the king throughout her life. That’s understandable; she wouldn’t exist if Henry hadn’t gotten her father freed.
Margaret never knew her father; he died before she was a year old. At the time of her birth, he was preparing to go to France to lead an important military expedition. It not only failed spectacularly, but Beaufort’s behavior led him to be arrested. While he was abroad in France, he took every opportunity to enrich himself. He was about to be tried for treason when he died, allegedly a suicide, which was covered up. Margaret was his only child, and suddenly at the age of one, she was a very wealthy little girl. Before he left for France, John had negotiated with the King that in case of his death, Margaret’s wardship and marriage would belong only to his wife.
After her father’s death, her wardship was given to William de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk. However, she was allowed to remain with her mother. As Suffolk’s star fell, he betrothed Margaret to his son, looking to secure his son’s future. The marriage was later dissolved and Margaret never counted it as one of her marriages. Under canon law, since she was under twelve at the time of the marriage, it didn’t count. After Suffolk’s fall from grace and death, Henry gave her wardship to his half-brothers, Jasper and Edmund Tudor.
Margaret’s first real marriage was to Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond when she was 12, and he was 24. Although 12 was not considered too young to consummate a marriage, most couples waited until the bride was older, say 14. Not Edmund Tudor, even though Margaret looked young for her age, and probably hadn’t even hit puberty yet. He wanted to make sure she was pregnant as quickly as possible. As long as she produced an heir, he would enjoy a life interest in her estates even if she and the child died. The consummation and subsequent pregnancy caused Margaret untold psychological and physical damage. One historian has compared the consummation of their marriage to marital rape. Years later, Margaret prevented her namesake granddaughter’s marriage to King James IV of Scotland from happening too soon, sensing that the groom couldn’t be trust not to consummate the marriage while she was still a pre-teen.
At an age, when some girls were still playing with dolls, Margaret was married, pregnant and living in Wales which was like living in the Wild, Wild West. Her husband was Henry VI’s lieutenant in the region. Edmund soon clashed with supporters of the Duke of York. He was captured and imprisoned in Carmarthen Castle where he died of the plague. Margaret was almost seven months pregnant and now a widow. She managed to get to her brother-in-law Jasper’s castle where she gave birth to her only child Henry Tudor on January 28, 1457. Her labor was arduous and at one point it looked like both mother and child might not make it. The birth left Margaret unable to have more children, and her marriage made the thought of sex repugnant to her.
Although her first experience of marriage wasn’t a winner, Margaret quickly cast around for a husband. Her chief aim was to avoid another husband being forced upon her. Margaret settled on Henry Stafford, the younger son of the Duke of Buckingham. It was a shrewd choice, a political transaction, not a personal one. Humphrey Stafford, the Duke of Buckingham, was the most important member of the Lancastrian court. He was great-grandson of Edward III on his mother’s side, and supported her uncle, Edmund Beaufort, the 2nd Duke of Somerset. It shows just how ballsy Margaret was at 13, negotiating with a 54 year-old peer of the realm. Almost four months after the birth of her son, Margaret was getting married again. A dispensation was needed since she and Henry were second cousins. One was granted, and they were married on April 6, 1547.
But the curtain was closing on the Lancastrian regime. Over the next four years, as the situation worsened between the Yorkist faction and the supporters of the King, Humphrey Stafford was slain and her former father-in-law Owen Tudor was executed at Mortimer Cross in 1461. That same year at Towton, the Lancastrian army was defeated and Edward, Earl of March, was now King Edward IV. Jasper Tudor fled to France, along with her Beaufort cousins. Margaret had shown that she was a pragmatic woman. In order to safeguard her fortunes, she and her husband sought a rapprochement with Edward who was in a forgiving mood. Unfortunately, the wardship of her son Henry Tudor was given to Lord Herbert. It meant that Henry was now living with the Herberts at their castle in Wales. Henry was treated well there, and Margaret was allowed to see him occasionally.
This was a time of upheaval for Margaret’s family. Her cousin Henry, after being pardoned and embraced by the King, thought better of it and fled to Scotland, returning with a small army. He was defeated at Hexam in 1464, the King stripping him of all aristocratic insignia before executing him. In 1465, Parliament passed an action against the Beaufort’s, formally confiscating all their landed possessions. Margaret was not going to let her families’ actions get in the way of her son’s future. Her concern was solely to protect the interests of her son, the most important person in her life. Her mother-in-law had remarried to Edward’s treasurer, Lord Mountjoy and her husband’s nephew had married the Queen’s sister Katherine Woodville. Her ability to cultivate alliances gave her an entree into the Yorkist court. These connections helped to soften the King’s hostility.
Margaret was now seen more as a Stafford than a Beaufort. Before too long Edward returned the Beaufort manor in Woking to Margaret. She and her husband rose high enough in the King’s favor that they even entertained him at their home, always a huge undertaking. What must have been going through Margaret’s head as she wined and dined the man who was responsible for so many deaths in her family? At the same time, there must have been a tremendous amount of pride and achievement that she had risen so far. But the Wheel of Fortune turned towards the Lancasters again. The Earl of Warwick and George, Duke of Clarence successfully joined forces with Marguerite of Anjou to restore Henry VI to the throne. Margaret now took her place at the Lancastrian court, confident that the future was secure for her and her son. Mother and son had an audience with the King, who evidently said something that indicated to Margaret that her son’s destiny was entwined with the crown.
Just when Margaret thought everything was secure, the Wheel of Fortune swung back towards the Yorks again. The Earl of Warwick made several blunders; he was pressured by the King of France to wage war against France’s enemy the Duke of Burgundy, in exchange for Marguerite of Anjou and her forces being allowed to journey to England. In retaliation, Burgundy decided to supply his brother-in-law Edward IV with ships, men, and money. Once Edward arrived in England, Warwick delayed in confronting Edward and his army. This gave Edward time to woo his brother, George, back over to his side. Margaret was never one to let her emotions cloud her political judgment. Now she had a hard choice to make, should she continue to support Henry VI (who she revered as a saint) and the Lancastrian cause, or support the Yorks? If Edward IV was successful in regaining the throne, Margaret knew he would not be so forgiving a second time. Her cousin, Edmund Beaufort, made his case for the Lancastrian cause, but Margaret’s husband, Lord Henry had already decided to support Edward. Always thinking about her first priority which was her son, Margaret agreed with him.
The battle of Tewkesbury where Marguerite and Henry VI’s son, Edward Prince of Wales, was killed ended the Lancastrian hopes. Edward IV was determined to eliminate his opponents once and for al. Henry VI was quietly eliminated in the Tower of London. Edmund Beaufort was dragged out of Tewkesbury Abbey along with other Lancastrian supporters and executed. Margaret’s son, Henry Tudor, fled along with his uncle Jasper, intending to head to France. Severe storms landed them instead in Brittany where they spent most of the next 14 years. Margaret’s husband, Henry Stafford, in October of 1471 from the injuries he’d received in the earlier battle of Barnet.
She wasn’t a widow for long. Looking for a husband who was in a powerful position at the Yorkist court, Margaret settled on Thomas, Lord Stanley (who was also the King of Mann), the steward of Edward’s court. His son, George, was married to the Queen’s niece. It was yet another practical and political marriage like her first but the couple seems to have grown fond of each other. Although some historians believe that Margaret never considered herself a member of the Stanley family. By 1480, Margaret was cozy enough with the royal family to be named god mother to Bridget of York. She had even opened negotiations with Edward for a pardon for her son so that he could return from exile. But Edward died suddenly in April of 1483 which put the kibosh on the pardon. The kingdom was in flux until Richard, Duke of Gloucester, seized the throne from his nephew Edward V.Once again Margaret showed her pragmatic side, showing support for Richard III, bearing his Queen’s train at the coronation and attending the banquet afterwards. While her husband was away on progress with the King, Margaret began to have her doubts about her support. It may have been that Jasper and Henry Tudor refused to support the new king which meant that Margaret’s hopes of seeing her son again were dashed while Richard held the throne. There is an intriguing theory that Margaret may have had something to do with the deaths of the Princes in the Tower. No contemporary chronicler or source blamed Margaret but would they have suspected a woman? Regardless of who was behind the disappearance of the princes in the tower, Margaret now took a leading role in the uprising planned against Richard III. She now proposed that her son marry Elizabeth of York, claiming the throne for himself. But Richard crushed the rebellion. By the time that Henry Tudor landed at Dorset, the rebel cause was lost for the moment. Margaret’s role in the rebellion was soon no secret. Richard initially contemplated executing her for treason. Her life was spared because of her husband’s loyalty during the rebellion. Instead, Margaret was stripped of her titles and estates, and placed under house arrest by her husband.
After her son’s victory against Richard at Bosworth, aided in part by her husband and his son, mother and son met for the first time in almost fifteen years. As a present, he gave her Richard III’s book of hours. It was a symbol of how much Richard and Margaret had in common, both extremely devout but politically ruthless. The fact that her son had been able to defeat Richard with a much smaller army must have seemed to Margaret some sort of divine intervention. After the battle, it was Stanley who placed the crown on Henry’s head. He was later made the Earl of Derby by the King as a reward.
In 1499, Margaret took a vow of chastity with her husband’s permission. She moved away from her husband to her new manor of Collyweston. Her husband regularly visited her there, and Margaret reserved rooms for him. Margaret was now referred to as “My Lady the King’s Mother.” Parliament recognized that she had the right to own property independently of her husband as if she were unmarried. Mother and son were devoted to each other. Towards the end of Henry’s reign, she was given a special commission to administer justice in the north of England. Even her signature changed from M. Richmond to Margaret R. Although Elizabeth of York was Queen consort, one could say that Margaret was really her son’s partner. She was reluctant to accept a lower status than her daughter-in-law. Instead, she wore robes of the same quality as the Queen, and she walked only a half a pace behind her instead of the usual two or three paces.
Margaret was named the principal executor of her son’s will, arranging his funeral and the coronation of her grandson, Henry VIII. She managed to live long enough to see her grandson’s 18th birthday before passing away two months after the death of her son. She is buried in the Henry VII’s Lady Chapel of Westminster Abbey.
Lady Margaret Hall, the first women's college at the University of Oxford is named in her honor.
Sources:David Baldwin, Philippa Gregory & Michael Jones – The Women of the Cousins' War: The Duchess, the Queen, and the King's Mother, Touchstone, 2011
Sarah Gristwood – Blood Sisters: The Women behind the Wars of the Roses, Basic Books, 2013
Elizabeth Norton – Margaret Beaufort: Mother of the Tudor Dynasty, Amberley, September 2010