Complex and compelling, iron-willed and ingenious, that’s the view of the historian, Nicola Tallis, on one of the most famous yet mysterious figures in Tudor history.
Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII, helped win her son a throne and create a groundbreaking dynasty into the bargain. But her story has often been just an afterthought in the telling of the Tudors while Margaret herself has sometimes suffered from stereotyping.
Now, new research and analysis from Nicola Tallis has brought a fresh perspective to Margaret’s life. Her book, Uncrowned Queen, the Life of Margaret Beaufort, Mother of the Tudors, has just been published in the US and it offers an in depth look at the Tudor matriarch, set against a vivid portrait of the ever changing world she inhabited. Royal Central caught up with Nicola who gave us an insight into her new book and the woman who inspired it.
Nicola, thanks for talking to us. Let’s start with the title – why Uncrowned Queen?
Nicola Tallis: After a considerable amount of time spent consulting the sources for Margaret’s life, this was how I came to know her – as a woman who became the most important woman in England, but who was never actually a queen. This didn’t stop her from behaving like one though, and she took great care to ensure that she was always associated with the dynasty that her son, Henry VII, was creating. She styled herself ‘the King’s Mother’, and joined Henry and his wife, Elizabeth of York, on ceremonial occasions.
What first attracted you to Margaret Beaufort’s story?
Nicola Tallis: Margaret’s story is a writer’s dream – it’s a true Tudor thriller! It’s jam packed with highs and lows: with tragedy, ambition, power, uncertainty and violence. Margaret lived through all of this, overcoming the numerous obstacles that were thrown at her throughout the course of her life and not only surviving, but thriving. To the modern eye I think it’s very easy to forget that she was a real living, breathing person, and this is something I was also eager to highlight – I wanted to humanize her. Thanks to the abundance of surviving source material (pretty rare in itself!), I was able to get a pretty good sense of her character, and I hope that this comes across in the book.
Do you think there was one moment in her life when she decided all paths had to lead to the Crown?
Nicola Tallis: Yes, but contrary to some depictions I don’t think it was from the moment of her son’s birth! It came much later, in 1483, following the unexpected death of Edward IV. After the deposition of Edward V, and Richard III’s subsequent accession to the throne, it quickly became clear that the new king wasn’t a universally popular choice. It wasn’t long before Margaret seized on this and began plotting Richard’s downfall, whilst simultaneously planning for her son to marry Elizabeth of York and thereby strengthen his own tenuous claim to the throne. It was a smart move! However, by working to dethrone Richard, Margaret placed herself in great peril – clearly a risk that she was willing to take, and one that eventually paid off.
What most surprised you about Margaret Beaufort?
Nicola Tallis: Her intelligence and the power she came to wield. The queenship of Margaret’s great-granddaughter, Elizabeth I, is largely well respected and admired, but although she wasn’t a queen I feel as if the foundations were very firmly laid by Margaret. I think her intelligence has been largely underestimated – including by me initially. She wasn’t as learned as her great-granddaughter – but then again she wasn’t given the same opportunities. However, she had a huge thirst for knowledge. She adored books and later patronized several printers, she translated texts from French to English, and she had some understanding of Latin. What was more, Margaret was an extremely practical woman, and her son Henry VII clearly had confidence in her abilities. It was probably for this reason that she became the King’s unofficial Lieutenant in the Midlands, administering justice there on her son’s behalf.
Do you think Margaret ever regretted she couldn’t be queen herself?
Nicola Tallis: This kind of question can only ever be completely speculative, as nobody knows what Margaret may or may not have regretted. However, in my view I suspect that no, she didn’t regret that she couldn’t be queen. Why would she? Her ambitions were clearly all for her son, and she only espied an opportunity for him to become king in 1483 – prior to this there’s nothing to suggest that she had eyes on the crown. Once Henry succeeded to the throne in 1485, Margaret was queen in everything but name anyway! She had all of the power, all of the privileges, and all of the riches that she could possibly want.
Margaret has a reputation as austere, ruthless even – did you like her?
Nicola Tallis: I liked her a lot – I still do! Of course I was aware of Margaret’s reputation when I began researching the book, but it’s so important to try and clear your mind of any preconceptions and approach your subject from an objective viewpoint. When I was reading the sources, it didn’t take me long to figure out that actually, there was a lot to like. I’m certainly not trying to say that Margaret was perfect, because there’s no doubt that she could indeed be ruthless and rapacious too. But, there’s also much evidence of her generosity, her kindness, and even her sense of humour. On balance I felt that there was more evidence for her good character than vice versa, and I couldn’t help but warm to her.
Uncrowned Queen: the Life of Margaret Beaufort, Mother of the Tudors by Nicola Tallis is published by Basic Books and can be found at all online retailers as well as bookstores. Nicola Tallis has a PhD in History from the University of Winchester and is the author of books including Crown of Blood and Elizabeth’s Rival: The Tumultuous Tale of Lettice Knollys, Countess of Leicester,