In the late 15th century Margaret Beaufort came to prominence as a major figure in the Wars of the Roses and was notably the mother of the first Tudor monarch. She was influential in bringing the country together and orchestrating a new power in the kingdom from the chaos of civil war. Her singular aim in life over six decades was to give birth to a new kingdom, one in which her son would rule over.
From a precarious childhood to a political powerhouse Lady Margaret Beaufort’s formidable character has been the source of rumours and conspiracies, particularly the plotting of the infamous murder of the young Princes in the Tower of London. Yet, as a wily diplomat, she always had answers for her staunchest critics and is today remembered for her piety, charitable donations and more famously for being the matriarch of the Tudor dynasty. Her story of cunning, self-preservation, political brilliance and as Kingmaker is rarely told.
Ward of the crown
Born at Bletsoe Castle, Bedfordshire to John Beaufort, Duke of Somerset and Margaret Beauchamp of Bletso, there is some debate about Margaret’s birth date, having been either 1441 or 1443. Her father was to lead a military campaign to France on behalf of King Henry VI which prompted Somerset to discuss with the king the matter of his potential death - while he was fighting in France - and what authority would be placed on his daughter Margaret. As Somerset was a lieutenant-in-chief to the crown this status created a wardship and meant that the responsibility for his heir would be placed under the crown in a feudal system.
Somerset returned from France unscathed but managed to fall out with King Henry, finding himself banished from the court on a charge of treason. Margaret’s father then became ill and is alleged by some sources to have committed suicide. But as his only surviving heir Margaret secured a small fortune and had a claim to the throne. She had not yet reached her 1st birthday. Not long afterwards King Henry VI reneged on arrangements he had with the Duke of Somerset, resulting in all her lands and wardship being given to William de la Pole, a statesman, military commander and favourite of King Henry, who handed him the title 1st Duke of Suffolk.
At the age of three, Margaret was contracted to marry John de la Pole, the son of William 1st Duke of Suffolk, the very man who had appropriated Margaret’s lands through theft. This ambitious move was seen by King Henry as a cunning way for William to try and secure a future with a ward (Margaret) who had a potential claim to the throne. However, Suffolk was arrested on the charge of treason and the betrothal annulled. Margaret’s wardship was instead granted to Henry VI’s half-brothers Jasper and Edmund Tudor, with the intention of marrying her to Edmund, the 1st Earl of Richmond.
As King Henry had no legitimate children of his own he arranged this betrothal to Edmund to make sure that if he was forced to give up his reign the dynasty would continue. At only 12 years of age, Margaret was married to Edmund, 12 years her senior in 1455, finding herself once again used as a pawn in the desperate game of assuring legitimate heirs for ruling the country.
Teenage pregnancy and Wars of the Roses
This was a period of civil disruption in what became known as the Wars of the Roses, a violent conflict between the Lancastrian and Yorkist factions vying for control of the crown. Edmund Tudor, a Lancastrian and married to Margaret, was captured and taken prisoner. Within a year while in captivity at Carmarthen Castle in Wales, he died of the plague in 1456. Margaret was now at just 13, a widow and pregnant with Edmund’s child. Edmund’s brother Jasper Tudor took Margaret into care and on 28 January 1457, despite a painful and complicated labour she gave birth to a healthy son Henry Tudor. Margaret’s immature body had made the birth difficult, with one witness noting that it was a miracle she survived. This life-threatening trauma was something Margaret would later reflect on when she devised protocols around birth and upbringing.
As security for the infant Henry was of paramount importance Margaret became betrothed at 14 to Sir Henry Stafford, son of Humphrey Stafford, 1st Duke of Buckingham. They were wed on the 3rd January 1458 and due to both being cousins a special dispensation allowed the marriage to go ahead. While the newlyweds lived at Woking Palace near the old village of Woking in Surrey, Margaret’s infant son was kept under the care of Jasper Tudor at Pembroke Castle in Wales.
Margaret : Maternal love and self-preservation
The civil war continued between bitter enemies, the Yorkist and Lancastrian factions. The House of Plantagenet (Lancaster) represented by a red rose, and the House of York, represented by a white rose. continually fought over control of the throne of England, culminating in the Battle of Towton on 29 March 1461. The Yorkists overwhelmed their opponents and their victory saw them placing Richard, the Duke of York’s son Edward on the throne as Edward IV, the first Yorkist King. The battle had seen Margaret lose her father-in-law and forced her brother-in-law Jasper Tudor to flee to first Scotland and then France to try and drum up support for the Lancastrian faction.
Once again Margaret saw her lands being taken away, this time by England’s new ruler Edward IV, who gave them to his brother, the Duke of Clarence. The generous gift of lands that belonged to Margaret didn’t dampen Clarence’s ambition to take the throne for himself. In 1469, tired of his brother’s reign he incited a rebellion with the help of the Earl of Warwick against Edward resulting in the brief capture of Edward.
Margaret herself, beginning to learn how to play the game of politics, seized the opportunity to communicate with Clarence in order to gain back her lands and more importantly her young son Henry. Not long afterwards Edward was back in power again. Warwick’s determined insurrection resulted in a brief reinstallation of the Lancastrian Henry VI. His short-lived reign was ended with the Yorkist victory at the Battle of Barnet.
During this tumultuous and violent period, Margaret started to make use of her cunning and a talent for self-preservation in a world of changing alliances. She encouraged Jasper to flee but this time to also take her now 13-year-old-son Henry with him. It would be fourteen years before Margaret saw her beloved and loyal son again.
Marriage of political convenience
In June 1472 Margaret married for the fourth time nobleman Lord Thomas Stanley, not out of love but more to do with political expedience as it allowed Margaret to return to King Edward’s court, giving her a possible route to help make her son king. A close relationship developed between Margaret and Edward’s queen, Elizabeth Woodville, who asked Margaret to become godmother to one of her daughters.
After Edward died the throne was seized by Richard of Gloucester, the brother of Edward. To Margaret, this was an opportunity to serve the new queen Anne Neville. Again Margaret utilised her talent for diplomacy as she managed to negotiate with King Richard III an agreement for the return of her son. But behind an outward appearance of respect for the king, Margaret conspired with Elizabeth Woodville over ways to replace Richard with her own son Henry, who was still living in exile with his uncle Jasper Tudor. Woodville was the mother of young sons Edward (briefly Edward V but never crowned) and his younger brother Richard (Duke of York), who after having been placed in the Tower by King Richard under the pretext of keeping them safe, mysteriously disappeared, presumed murdered.
Such a mysterious event is said to have made Margaret anxious about her own son’s safety while King Richard ruled. Her secret talks with Woodville continued and soon grew into a plot to drive out King Richard and replace him with young Henry Tudor, with both women agreeing to betroth Henry to Woodville’s daughter Elizabeth of York. The scheme was designed to attract both Yorkist and Lancastrian factions to come together.
Who actually killed the Princes in the Tower or plotted their disappearance has been debated for centuries. It has always been assumed, in popular culture and influenced by writers such as Shakespeare, that King Richard was the culprit who gave the order for the boys to be murdered and secretly disposed of, given his young nephews were a threat to his continued reign. But one view is that such a sinister event quickened Henry’s rise to the throne. Could it be that Margaret herself, ruthlessly determined that her son would become king and rule a new kingdom created by her, carried out the order herself? Historians with favourable opinions of Margaret believe that such a pious woman, who dedicated a great deal of her life to charity and setting up institutions of educational enlightenment, couldn’t have been involved in such a dark and sinister affair.
The moment for Margaret to seize the opportunity to dethrone King Richard came in 1483 when the Duke of Buckingham raised a rebellion against King Richard. But Henry Tudor who was privy to this plan was in Brittany and had to set out for England to take part in the rebellion. His arrival was too late, while Buckingham failed in his endeavours and was executed. Henry returned across the channel to wait for another day when he could claim the throne. Margaret was lucky to have survived execution herself for her part in supporting Buckingham’s rebellion.
For a king associated with malevolence and wickedness, Richard demonstrated leniency towards Margaret and Instead of having her killed, or imprisoned with her titles and lands removed, simply banished her to a life of self-isolation. She was refused correspondence with her son, but being both cunning and ingenious Lady Beaufort found ways to keep in contact with Henry Tudor and inform him of her efforts to put him on the throne.
Margaret’s husband Lord Stanley may have suspected that his wife’s son could be king one day, which is possibly why he showed allegiance to King Richard publicly and supported him during Buckingham’s rebellion but kept a low profile during the Battle of Bosworth when King Richard fought the now 28-year-old Henry Tudor on Bosworth Field. It was to be the defining battle to launch the Tudor dynasty.
In a triumphant victory for Henry, which saw King Richard’s body hacked to pieces, the moment the crown was placed on Henry Tudor’s bloody and bruised head, saw a new king, a new ruling house and the beginning of one of the most successful royal families...the Tudors.
The first Tudor king’s mother
Henry Tudor’s success at attaining the crown of England in 1485 was without doubt due to the indefatigable persistence and support from his mother Margaret, whose love for her son and belief in his divine right to be king had driven her through dangerous and turbulent times. Now with a new life as a Countess and also referred to as ‘My Lady, the King’s Mother’, Margaret was living a life that afforded her high social standing and independence. As previously arranged by her and former queen Elizabeth Woodville, Henry married Woodville’s daughter Elizabeth of York. However, Countess Margaret was not happy about having a status seen as below her daughter-in-law's and to appease her mood she was allowed to wear the same quality clothing as the new queen and permitted to walk just a pace behind her. Margaret, as the king’s mother, had much influence in the Tudor court which was noted by visitors who observed that her son Henry listened to her views and often took her advice.
Countess Beaufort, in a privileged position to operate beyond her duties as Queen Mother, wasted no time in putting two legal acts in place, influenced by her own personal experiences as a victim of injustice. The first was to make void the enforcement of taking land and property that had happened to her during the reign of Henry VI and Richard III. The second act guaranteed that she would enjoy all her properties and titles, and could pursue any legal action as any single unmarried person might or may do at any time', despite still being married. Both passed in 1485. These new laws benefited Margaret and her son Henry and also guaranteed Margaret any wealth granted to her for her use as well as stem any covert attempts to use her lands against her.
Scholar Polydore Vergil, the chronicler at the time, stated that Henry and his mother’s partnership involved a share of his private and public resources which he freely gave to Margaret. This act curtailed any moves on Margaret’s side to seek further powers from her son or the court. These legal agreements underlined a genuine love and sense of loyalty between son and mother, quite unlike anything that had been seen before between royal relations. But Margaret’s loyalty to others at court who she felt she could trust also helped to strengthen her son’s position and the Tudor dynasty which had just begun and was to last over a hundred years.
Chastity and charity
In 1499 the still married Countess Margaret Beaufort took an unexpected vow of chastity and moved away to live alone at Collyweston in Northamptonshire, while still living the life of a royal. It was during this time reflecting on her personal traumatic experiences of childbirth as a teenager that she implemented new protocols surrounding birth and upbringing. Despite her difficult relationship with her daughter-in-law, the Queen Elizabeth of York, they both acted together to arrange royal marriages, particularly that of her grandson Arthur (eldest son of Henry VII) and the Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon. Margaret’s position of influence over family matters increased when Elizabeth died in 1503 rendering the Countess as the senior female at court. When the fifteen-year-old Prince Arthur tragically died from fever, it was Margaret who rose to the challenge to salvage the politically disastrous situation. She stepped in to help to tutor Arthur’s younger brother Henry, making sure that the future young Henry VIII’s upbringing was appropriate for a king in the making.
Loved son’s death
The son she had given birth to at just 13 years of age and who had fought to keep alive during a turbulent period of civil unrest until he became king, tragically died before her on 21 April 1509. As devoted as a mother could be she arranged Henry VII’s funeral where she was given precedence over all other women. Having been made the executor of his will by Henry himself she was also instrumental in making arrangements for her grandson’s coronation. At just 18 when Henry VIII became England’s new ruler he relied on his grandmother’s wisdom and advice to select members of his privy council.
Countess Margaret Beaufort died on 29 June 1509, just one day after Henry VIII’s 18th birthday and two months after her own much-loved son Henry VII had passed away. The formidable, pious and perhaps ruthless Lady Beaufort, who had endured much during her life, became one of the most powerful women at court. She also founded two colleges in Cambridge as well as donating funds to a grammar school in Wimborne. But her greatest legacy will always be as the matriarch of the Tudor dynasty. Without her assistance, devotion and loyalty to her son, Henry VII may have never become the first Tudor monarch.