This edition of ‘The women behind the Crown’ takes a look at the influence Margaret Beaufort had on her son, Henry VII. From a young age, Margaret was fully aware of her son’s position as a claimant to the throne of England. Although she was a staunch Lancastrian supporter during the Wars of the Roses, Margaret used Yorkist connections and marriages in order to hide her plans for her son and so to get closer to the throne. Margaret continuously acted in the welfare for her son and always had his lineage in mind; she solely believed Henry would one day be King. It was largely due to the work of Margaret and the support base that she tirelessly built up that her son became King; Margaret was undoubtedly the mother of the Tudor dynasty.
Margaret was born at Bletsoe Castle in Bedfordshire to Margaret Beauchamp of Bletsoe and The Duke of Somerset, John Beaufort, on 31st May, most likely in the year 1443.
Margaret’s wardship, as the only child of a wealthy couple, was given to Edmund Tudor, the King’s half-brother and The Earl of Richmond; this was shared with Jasper, Edmund’s younger brother. Margaret and Edmund were married in 1455. Edmund was twice her age at 24, but this was not uncommon for the period. This was technically Margaret’s second marriage (having been married at just three years old to John de la Pole, son of her first guardian, which was later dissolved).
The War of the Roses began the year the couple married, and The Earl and Countess of Richmond (now the King’s sister-in-law) naturally took the Lancastrian side, represented by the red rose. A year later, her husband had been captured by Yorkist forces, and died, supposedly of the plague, in Carmarthen, leaving his pregnant 13 year-old wife in the hands of his brother, Jasper. It was with Edmund that Margaret had her first and only child: the future Henry VII. The pregnancy and labour took its toll on Margaret’s young body and left her infertile. Despite two more marriages, she bore no more children. Both mother and child almost died, but eventually pulled through. A strong bond between this young mother and son was now created and would continue throughout their lifetimes.
The War of the Roses lasted 32 years, and young Henry Tudor grew up during this tumultuous time at Pembroke Castle. When Edward IV took the throne in 1461, Henry’s uncle Jasper fled abroad. Margaret’s son grew up without a father, and with lack of a father figure after this time. Edward IV gave the guardianship of Margaret and Henry, 18 and five at this time, to William Herbert, a Yorkist. Margaret refused to accept the usurper King Edward, and always held out for the return of a Lancastrian on the throne. It seems that from a young age, Margaret let Henry know that he had a claim to the throne, even if it was tenuous, being through an illegitimate female line.
Margaret then married Sir Henry Stafford, second son of The Duke of Buckingham, who was a Yorkist supporter, in 1458. Surprising, perhaps, but Margaret has gone down in history as one of the shrewdest women of the late medieval era, and not without good reason. The couple entertained the new King, Edward IV, which helped project the view that she had accepted the new blood on the throne – of course she never lost sight of the return of a Lancastrian Monarch.
After a quick turn-around for Henry VI on the throne (his second reign lasted less than a year) thanks to a helping hand from ‘Kingmaker’ Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, Yorkist Edward IV retook the throne once again in 1471. Margaret didn’t see her son much during this time, as Henry had to flee the country, aged 14, and ended up in Brittany with his uncle Jasper for more than a decade, but they exchanged letters and she sent him financial support.
As Stafford was killed in 1471, Margaret married again in 1472. Using her political guile, she chose another Yorkist supporter, Thomas, Lord Stanley. Margaret knew Stanley would see, perhaps after a while, that Henry had a chance of taking the throne, and that he was deceitful enough by nature to serve both the Yorks and Lancastrians at the same time.
While Henry was in exile, Margaret continued to pave Henry’s path to the throne, albeit subtly. As the wife of a Stanley, Margaret was taken to court and became a Lady-in-waiting to Richard III’s wife, Queen Anne. She also played a role in the Royal couple’s coronation in 1483. After numerous royal deaths, it was during this time that Margaret’s son now held a senior position as a Lancastrian claimant to the throne. Margaret was astute and, despite her fierce loyalty to the red rose of Lancaster and to the prospect of a King Henry Tudor, she knew that she would have to gain the trust of the white rose to progress with her plans. Margaret knew she had to be careful to not be seen as a threat to her opponents. She was, however, actively promoting Henry as an alternative Monarch to the current King Richard.
Margaret arranged for the betrothal of Henry to Elizabeth of York, the eldest daughter of Edward IV, to ensure that Henry’s claim to the throne could not be questioned in the future – who could dispute that a descendant of John of Gaunt and a daughter of a recent warrior King should rule the Kingdom? Margaret was also heavily involved in the 1483 rebellion, which came shortly after her son announced he would marry Elizabeth if he were to become King. However, Henry and Jasper failed to return to England to join Buckingham’s rebellion of 1483. It was after this that the uncle and nephew pairing tried again to leave the Continent and landed in Wales in 1485 with a plan to overthrow Richard III. Margaret’s beliefs that one day her son would become King culminated in the Battle of Bosworth, where Henry fought for his claim to the throne in battle. It was Margaret’s husband, Lord Stanley, his younger brother, William, and the Earl of Northumberland, famously turning their coats onto Henry’s side that secured Henry his victory; without Margaret’s marriage alliance, Stanley may not have made this decisive plan and helped win the day for the Tudors.
When Henry took the throne in 1485, Margaret became the Queen Mother. It is noted she burst into tears at Henry’s coronation. The mother and son remained close, unsurprising after she went to all that effort to get her son on the throne. A letter from Margaret to Henry says: ‘thys day of Saint Annes, that y did bryng into this world my good and gracyous Prince, Kynge and only beloved son’ – (this day of St Anne’s that I did bring you into this world my good and gracious Prince, King and only beloved son) – This simply illustrates their bond and affection for one another.
Margaret had great influence at court, being referred to as ‘My Lady, The King’s Mother’, which was an unusual styling for a Countess (she was not the Queen Mother, or Dowager Queen – that title fell to Elizabeth of York’s mother, Elizabeth Woodville, as Henry kept to his word and married Elizabeth in 1486). But Margaret made everyone fully aware that she was the mother of a King. Henry allowed his mother to retain servants, and often delegated judicial cases to her, as she had an impressive knowledge of the law. Margaret was fair, she pursued cases fervently but also abandoned them when appropriate.
Margaret supervised her grandchildren’s education, which some considered The Queen’s job, leading to a belief there may have been some animosity between Elizabeth of York and Margaret, though there is no evidence of spats or tensions between them. Margaret signed documents ‘Margaret R’ which some construe to be for ‘Regina’, Latin for ‘Queen’, however others believe it stands for ‘Richmond’, the title of her first husband (next to whom she was eventually buried; their tomb shows them holding hands).
It is testimony to her influence over Henry that Margaret was the chief executor of her son’s will when he died in 1509 (Margaret outlived her only son by two months). At his funeral and Henry VIII’s coronation, she was given precedent over all the other Royal women. One can only assume it was because of her faith in her son’s claim, and the determination she held, that led her to strive for her son’s success.
I first became aware of Margaret after reading The Red Queen by Phillipa Gregory and, even though the book is fictional, I could almost feel how strong a woman Margaret was, as well as her determination to see her son as King. I highly recommend The Cousin’s War series which covers this turbulent period in history, covering the fall of the Plantagenet’s and the rise of the Tudors, and has an edge of the supernatural to it.