Margaret Beaufort – an often overlooked and forgotten figure in English history – actually played a large part on the process of making England the country it is today. She was the mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother of English monarchs Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I, respectively. It is often thought that her dedication to see her son Henry Tudor on the throne of England is the reason why the Tudors ever came to power in the first place.
She was born to John Beaufort, 1st Duke of Somerset (grandson of Edward III through his mistress-turned-wife, Katherine Swynford) and Margaret Beauchamp of Bletsoe, at Bletsoe Castle in 1441/1443. Some time after her birth, her father was on his way back to England after leading a campaign in Cherbourg and Gascony under Henry VI, and soon died in 1444; his death is purported to have been suicide.
Following the death of her father, Margaret, being the only child and heir, inherited his lands and fortune. Before her father departed on campaign, an arrangement of wardship was made between her John Beaufort and King Henry VI, but the arrangement was broken, and wardship of her lands were transferred to William de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk; Margaret remained in the care of her mother, though.
Margaret, being the descendant of an English king and having just inherited a large fortune and lands, was now more than just a marketable maiden, she was a real catch, in terms of the medieval marriage market. Before long, she would have a marriage arranged.
In 1444, Margaret was married to the Duke of Suffolk’s son, John de la Pole. The wedding is estimated to have been held between January and February 1444, when Margaret was about 1-year-old; in this traditional arrangement, the couple would be expected to reconfirm these vows when they were of age (12 and 14 for the female and male respectively). Soon after, however, the marriage was dissolved, and Henry VI granted wardship over Margaret to his half-brothers, Jasper and Edmund Tudor.
Margaret’s second marriage
The Welsh Tudor brothers were responsible for Margaret’s care over the next decade, and on 1st November 1455, she married Edmund Tudor. She was 12 years old, and he was 24 – not uncommon for the era.
In that same year, a war for control of the Kingdom of England broke out between the Houses York and Lancaster: the War of the Roses. Edmund was a Lancastrian, and was taken captive by York forces at Carmarthen, where he soon died of the plague, leaving Margaret – now 12/13 and pregnant – in the care of his brother, Jasper Tudor, at Pembroke Castle. Soon afterwards, in January 1457, the teenage Margaret gave birth to a baby boy, Henry Tudor.
The birth was a difficult one as a result of the young age and size of the mother, and both nearly died. It seems that Margaret was physically damaged by the birth, as she would never have another child, despite later marriages. Margaret and Henry remained at Pembroke Castle, until it was overtaken by Yorkists in 1461, and the castle transferred to a Lord Herbert of Raglan. Henry, now two, was forced to live with his family in Wales, and then went on to be exiled in France with his uncle, Jasper Tudor, at the age of 14. Although Margaret and her son rarely saw each other, it is clear that the two kept in close contact with each other, and had an affectionate relationship, demonstrated by their surviving letters: ‘my dearest and only desired in this world’.
Despite the couple’s short relationship, Margaret had requested to be buried alongside Edmund at her death, but her change in status to the King’s mother meant she wasn’t deserving of a Welsh burial.
Third marriage: Henry Stafford
In 1458, the still-young Margaret married Henry Stafford, the son of Humphrey Stafford, 1st Duke of Buckingham. Margaret and Henry Stafford enjoyed a long marriage of 14 years, but he died as a result of wounds sustained at the Battle of Barnet against Yorkist forces – those his wife supported.
Their relationship appears to have been quite happy, with wife following husband across the country for business, and perhaps even accompanying him to Parliament.
Final marriage to Thomas Stanley
Margaret, now around the age of 28, and was thus widowed a second time. In June 1472, 11 years following Yorkist victory in the Wars of the Roses and accession of Edward IV, Margaret embarked onto her fourth marriage to Thomas Stanley, the Lord High Constable of England and Baron Stanley.
As a result of her connections to her son, the exiled Henry Tudor – a distant relative of Henry VI’s – Margaret was banished from court by Edward IV. However, her marriage to Thomas Stanley, who was a loyal subject of the King’s, allowed her to return to court, where she was appointed as godmother to one of the daughters of Elizabeth Woodville, Edward IV’s Queen Consort.
In 1483, Edward IV died and the English throne was seized by Richard III (who is suspected to have ordered the killings of his two nephews, Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York). Margaret returned to court once more, this time in the service of the new Queen, Anne Neville; Margaret carried the Queen’s train at her coronation, such was her status.
However, while serving under Queen Anne Neville, Margaret began plotting with the Dowager Queen, Elizabeth Woodville. With the disappearance of her sons, a plan was made between the two women to put Henry Tudor on the throne, deposing Richard III. It was also agreed that Henry would be betrothed to Elizabeth of York, the eldest daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville – a marriage which would unite the once warring houses of Lancaster and York.
Battle of Bosworth – Henry Tudor wins
Henry Tudor, still located in Wales, began to gather men to take the throne of England by right of conquest. Henry gained the support of Welsh noblemen, and began marching for London. The King mustered his troops and intercepted Henry’s army south of Bosworth Market in Leicestershire, with the two armies meeting at Bosworth Field: battle ensued.
Thomas, Lord Stanley, stepfather of Henry Tudor, and his brother Sir William Stanley had been forced into gathering a militia for the King – Richard had kidnapped Thomas’ son. It seems, however, Lord Stanley was disaffected by this move, supposedly retorting: “Sire, I have other sons”. The brothers’ reluctance to be involved saw them stay on the sidelines of the fray, but soon after, they decided that Henry Tudor would be more advantageous to support, likely as a result of Henry’s connections to Margaret, but possibly as they saw the way the battle was going. Evidence also appears to show the two were in contact with the Tudor claimant before he landed in Wales, as William would have stopped Henry’s men marching through his dominion otherwise. Perhaps Margaret helped facilitate such contact with her son.
The Stanleys thus joined in the fighting, in support of Henry. In the midst of battle, Richard III charged towards Henry, with the hope of killing him and ending the fight. Noticing that Henry’s bodyguard had separated, Thomas and William’s men surrounded Richard and killed him. They then took Richard’s crown from his body, and crowned Henry Tudor King of England on the battlefield: this moment marked the birth of the Tudor dynasty.
Mother of the King
Margaret was now the mother of a King, and styled herself as Margaret R (‘R’ for Regina – Queen in Latin). As a result, she gained legal and social liberties which were not usually granted to women at the time, and was given the ability to hold property by her own right. Henry VII made her a Lady of the Garter in 1488.
After Henry took the throne, he married Elizabeth of York, as he promised, securing his place on the throne of England by uniting the two claimant lines. Later, Margaret became a grandmother, as her daughter-in-law gave birth to Prince Arthur, a half-Yorkist, half-Lancastrian boy. Arthur’s birth cemented the claim of the Tudors’ right to rule, which was previously questionable.
Queen Elizabeth also gave birth to Margaret, Henry, Elizabeth, Mary, Edward, Edmund, and Katherine, however, only four of their offspring reached the age of majority: Edward, Edmund, and Katherine died shortly following their births, the birth of the last child, Katherine, resulting in the death of the Queen.
The couple’s first child, Prince Arthur, died of the sweating sickness in 1502 at the age of 15, shortly after his marriage to Katherine of Aragon. His death delivered a huge blow to the Tudor dynasty. He was seen as the great hope of the family line, and the living embodiment of the union of the Houses York and Lancaster. With the death of Arthur, second son Prince Henry was now the Tudor successor. Henry’s relative insignificance is reflected in Margaret’s own Book of Hours, a prayer book, which she lists important dates, such as birthdays and wedding dates. In this book, Margaret lists the birth of Henry incorrectly, but returns to correct it.
In April, 1509, King Henry VII died, and Margaret was made the executor of his will. She was also responsible for the organisation of her son’s funeral, where she was given precedence over all ladies of the Royal Family, as well as the coronation of her grandson, Henry VIII.
Margaret died in the Deanery of Westminster Abbey on 29 June 1509, one day after King Henry VIII turned 18. She was buried in the Henry VII Chapel at Westminster Abbey, between the tombs of William II and Mary II, and her estate was valued at £15,000, making her a vey rich Tudor woman.
Margaret was known during her life for her piety and philanthropic actions. She is perhaps best known for founding Christ’s and St. John’s Colleges at Cambridge University, both of which bear the Beaufort portcullis in their crests. Margaret’s devotion to her son and to the success of the Tudor dynasty is undoubted. She was dedicated to seeing her son on the English throne, and thus, was important to the founding of the Tudor dynasty, a dynasty that’s responsible for creating the England known today.
Margaret’s influence and renowned piety
Margaret played a large part in her son’s governance of England, and held great influence when it came to Henry. The new Tudor King even trusted her with some dispute resolution, thanks to her reported long memory.
It is thought Margaret’s power also saw the ‘retirement’ of Dowager Queen Elizabeth Woodville from court in 1487. The wife of Edward IV retreated to Bermondsey Abbey and lived a religious life there. Although the reason for Elizabeth’s leave is obscure, it seems Margaret was involved, with some historians citing her pride as reason for instigating this: Margaret refused to accept a status below that of her daughter-in-law Queen Elizabeth of York, taking precedence over all other women.
One of the first impressions a viewer gets of Margaret Beaufort is her great piety. In all the paintings that survive of her today, she is either seen in prayer, or holding a Bible whilst in garbs traditionally worn by widows. This nature is mirrored in her translation of a number of religious texts from French.
Although no contemporary paintings of Margaret survive, there are a few sources from that reflect the idea of her piety: at her funeral sermon, her chaplain and confessor John Fisher remarked that “She was bounteous and liberal to every person of her knowledge or acquaintance. Avarice and covetice she most hated, and sorrowed it full much in all persons.”