The Untold Life of Royal England’s Margaret Beaufort

A power in her own right, the mother of the first Tudor king changed British history

The Untold Life of Royal England’s Margaret Beaufort
The coat of arms of Lady Margaret Beaufort outside St Johns College which she founded in 1511, Cambridge University, Cambridge, England, circa 1990 / RDImages / Epics / Getty Images

The word Tudor conjures up names such as Elizabeth I, Henry VIII or Thomas Cromwell, thanks to the popular “Wolf Hall” series. But these historical giants would not possess the acclaim garnered today without the founder of the Tudor dynasty, Margaret Beaufort. The mother of the first Tudor king, Henry VII, Margaret cleverly navigated the dangerous era of the Wars of the Roses, resulting in her son’s toppling the established system and monarchy.

Born May 31, 1443, at Bletsoe in Bedfordshire, Margaret was the daughter of Margaret Beauchamp, the Duchess of Somerset. John Beaufort, the Duke of Somerset, died just one year after the birth of his daughter in questionable circumstances that many believe to be suicide (a sinful act that cast shame upon the family). The death of her father left Margaret a wealthy 1-year-old, pinning a target on her back for power- and money-hungry men.

Despite this, Margaret led a relatively happy childhood, primarily raised by her mother, which was an uncommon practice for the time. Officially, King Henry VI assigned Margaret two successive guardians, the first, Earl William de la Pole, and the second, the Duke of Suffolk. Despite their designated role in her upbringing, the young Margaret was raised by her mother alongside her half siblings, forming close bonds that would endure the rest of her life. Margaret and her mother enjoyed a close relationship. Proud of Margaret’s intelligence, the duchess ensured her daughter was highly educated and fluent in French, a skill that would prove invaluable to Margaret’s passion for translation later in life.

Upon the Duke of Suffolk’s death in 1455, Margaret’s wardship was transferred by the king to his half brothers, Edmund and Owen Tudor. At the age of 12, Margaret was old enough to enter into a marriage contract and married her guardian Edmund. While she was technically old enough to marry at such a young age, it was uncommon for so youthful a bride to engage in sexual relations with her husband. “It wasn’t the done thing,” said Dr. Elizabeth Norton, historian and renowned author of the book “Margaret Beaufort,” adding, “It was … perfectly acceptable to marry a child in the 15th century, but you didn’t have sex with them while they were a child.”

However, Edmund’s greed to possess Margaret’s inheritance became too great for social constraints to stand in his way, leading to Margaret’s rape by her husband. While all interpretations of Margaret’s mindset at this time are conjecture, it is reasonable to assume that the 12-year-old child was devastated by Edmund’s assault. Modern science and contemporary understanding of brain development and trauma indicate that Margaret was not mentally or emotionally mature enough to consent to sex, and even in the age of young marriages, Margaret’s bedding was controversial.

In 1456, Margaret became pregnant at age 13. Soon after, Edmund was captured at Carmarthen Castle, contracted plague and died. In Pembroke Castle in Wales, with only her brother-in-law Jasper by her side, Margaret underwent an arduous labor, resulting in the birth of her only child, Henry Tudor. It is assumed that the birth was not only emotionally but also physically scarring, as Margaret never got pregnant again. According to Norton, “the fact that [Margaret] never seems to conceive another child suggests that she suffered a birth injury.”

In a time when religion was the explanation for all extraordinary events, Margaret, a particularly pious person, viewed her and Henry’s survival as a miraculous sign from God. Taking her divine cue to protect her son at all costs, Margaret jumped to safeguard both her and her child’s future. Politically savvy at the young age of 13, Margaret was fully aware of her precarious situation as a widow with a massive fortune. By the spring of 1457, Margaret herself arranged her next marriage to Henry Stafford, the second son of the influential Duke of Buckingham.

A moment to fully appreciate Margaret’s laudable agency in this pairing is crucial to understand her character. In the mid-15th century, women did not select their husbands at any age. The forethought and autonomy connected to this decision was an outlier for the time, not to be repeated until her great-granddaughter, Elizabeth I, chose to remain unmarried.

As a second son, Stafford had no hope of inheriting the duchy but was still situated in a politically advantageous position. The match secured wealth for Stafford and political sway for Margaret, ensuring that both parties received what was otherwise unavailable. At the age of 15, Margaret married Stafford, though he was 20 years Margaret’s senior. It is generally accepted that this union resulted in a loving coupling, a stark departure from her previous marriage. It also appears that Margaret was in good standing with the family as she was specifically mentioned in the wills of both her mother- and father-in-law. The duke would have been expected to include Margaret, but the duchess’s addition of her daughter-in-law implies a close bond, as there was no precedence for the duchess to consider Margaret for any type of inheritance at the time.

With this advantageous marriage securing Margaret’s safety in a world hostile to women, she began mastering the art of politics.

In 1460, the House of York in the person of King Edward IV assumed the throne. Young Henry, as the son of the half brother to Henry VI of the House of Lancaster, posed a constant threat to Edward’s reign. Margaret treaded carefully, ingratiating herself within the new court to protect her son’s interests. Supported by her husband, Margaret went above and beyond to thoroughly portray her devotion to the Yorkist cause, with Stafford publicly switching allegiances from Lancaster to York and fighting in Edward’s battles to maintain the throne.

In a political misstep, Margaret publicly supported Henry VI’s brief resurgence in 1470, going so far as to introduce her son to his royal uncle. While strategically unwise, this breach in façade demonstrates Margaret’s maternal devotion. Prioritizing the introduction of Henry to the king meant Margaret was publicly declaring him as a close relative and beacon of light for the Lancastrian cause, should the king or the king’s son ever fall.

Unfortunately for Margaret, this was the last time Henry VI would sit on the throne, as Edward quickly regained his crown and put an end to the old king’s life and Lancastrian stronghold on the monarchy.

In 1471, Henry and his uncle Jasper were besieged at Pembroke Castle. Fleeing to Brittany, they were provided sanctuary from England. Margaret’s son and closest friend lived in a precarious state of exile for the next 14 years, leaving her as the de facto emissary for her son’s lands and wealth. Seriously wounded at the decisive Battle of Barnet, Stafford died too, leaving Margaret alone, exposed and out of political favor.

Refusing to allow her diminished status to negatively affect her son, Margaret married for one final time to Lord Thomas Stanley in the summer of 1472. Margaret flouted the preconceived notions of men dictating her life by instigating and securing this advantageous match. A clever pairing, the marriage was another strategic political alliance, granting Stanley access to Margaret’s vast lands and fortunes while awarding Margaret with another politically safe husband. Stanley was famous for never fighting in one battle of the Wars of the Roses. His vast possession of land, wealth and armies, however, made his favor important to both the Yorkist and Lancastrian causes. Margaret once again secured her and Henry’s relative safety with her powerful new husband.

Working from house arrest following Henry VI’s deposition, Margaret worked to reaffirm her status within the York court. With the support of her new husband, Margaret assumed the role of double agent, a covert and difficult position Margaret would master until her son’s eventual return. Careful political maneuvering, paired with the goodwill her husband garnered, allowed Margaret to gradually gain favor in King Edward and Queen Elizabeth Woodville’s court. This was never more apparent than Margaret’s role during their child’s christening, with Margaret earning the coveted role of holding baby Bridget throughout the ceremony.

More respected men throughout the entirety of English history have attempted, and failed, to achieve what Margaret was able to complete.

This rise in status demonstrates Margaret’s aptitude to navigate the political arena of an enemy court. At one point, Margaret’s position was so respected, King Edward allotted 400 pounds back to Tudor Henry (not to be confused with the dead Henry VI) from his seized estates, even going so far as to seriously consider wedding his eldest daughter, Elizabeth of York, to Margaret’s son. Surviving drafts of a pardon from Edward to Henry still exist, an unimaginable feat at almost any point during Edward’s reign. A strategic marriage, a keen observational eye and a cunningly capricious personality aided Margaret in her meteoric rise. More respected men throughout the entirety of English history have attempted, and failed, to achieve what Margaret was able to complete.

Then, without warning, Edward died on April 9, 1483. The king’s death was a devastating blow to Margaret’s agenda. Up until this time, Margaret had had no ambition to see her son on the throne of England; she merely wanted his exile revoked and his land, wealth and titles restored. But Edward’s death alone did not greatly alter Margaret’s plans. Indeed, they expanded with the ascension of his brother, the famous Richard III, to the throne.

With a reputation that precedes him, Richard is well known. His connection with the death of the two princes in the tower will forever tarnish his contribution to English society (which was substantial and often overlooked). Understanding the unpredictable nature of Richard following the disappearance of the two boys, Margaret prayed for an alternative route for her son’s return. In contact with the dowager Queen Elizabeth, cloistered in sanctuary with her remaining children in Westminster Abbey, Margaret began to plot with renewed vigor. The Duke of Buckingham, Richard’s closest friend, contacted Margaret to gauge her willingness to aid his coup. The offer was simple: If Henry and Jasper would bring armies to help Buckingham depose Richard, he would pardon Henry and restore his lands and titles.

This plan was advantageous for Margaret. But she now had loftier ambitions in mind and would only agree if Buckingham crowned her son king upon their victory. It can be assumed that both parties were duplicitous in this arrangement. Neither wanted the other on the throne but were willing to work together so long as Richard remained in power. However, their plot crumbled in spectacular fashion. As Henry and Jasper reached the English shore, the Duke of Buckingham’s role in the revolt was revealed, leading to his capture and execution. Thanks to Margaret’s spies, a letter was sent to Henry in time, allowing him and his uncle the briefest of advantages to sail back to Brittany.

But Margaret’s hand was revealed. Once again a traitor, Margaret was placed back under house arrest, technically cut off from the world. Her marriage to Stanley, however, protected Margaret from Richard’s wrath, ensuring a lenient punishment of house arrest enforced by Stanley.

With Richard now aware of Henry’s intention to steal his throne, Margaret’s position became dire. Richard attempted to bribe the ruler of Brittany for Henry’s capture and return while Margaret resumed her maneuvering with the dowager Queen Elizabeth, both mothers conditionally pledging their children to marriage should Henry defeat Richard. In a brilliant plan created by two women, the fatherless eldest children of each family, Elizabeth and Henry, represented a beacon of hope for the Yorkist and Lancastrian causes, respectively. Richard was an increasingly unpopular monarch, ensuring the prospect of a young Lancastrian king and a Yorkist queen on the throne as an ideal and unifying alternative.

In August 1485, with an army of mercenaries at his side, Henry sailed to England and met Richard at the Battle of Bosworth. Keen to rally morale, Richard entered the battle on foot, determined to quash this rebellion as he had done many times before. Alas, the “turn of fortune’s wheel,” as Norton puts it, was not on Richard’s side, and he fell in battle. There are tactical reasons for his defeat, but it is important to note that Stanley’s force did not enter the fray until the middle of the clash. It was their involvement on the side of Henry’s army that won the day. Margaret’s influence over her husband, while not absolute, must have been strong, swaying his decision to support her son’s claim to the throne. Richard’s defeat and Henry’s ascension began a new, earned chapter in Margaret’s life: her role as My Lady, the King’s Mother.

With this new position, Margaret was finally able to revel in her accomplishments. Starting from his birth, Margaret had promoted, supported and defended her son’s omnipotent and regal standing. Thirty years later, Henry was sitting on the throne of England, the first monarch in the newly established Tudor dynasty, and it was directly because of his mother’s actions.

Margaret’s life is unprecedented. The Duke of Buckingham plotted and financed a rebellion for the same outcome, yet he ended up dead and labeled a traitor. Margaret’s success is due to her sex: She was a woman at a time when women were undervalued and thus seemingly inconsequential. Understanding the hubris of men, Margaret married strategically, appearing as the meager wife when necessary but never assuming the role as anything other than a charade.

Even today, Margaret and her achievements are underappreciated. Norton dedicated a book to Margaret’s life, “to show Margaret as … rounded, but also, you know, showing the positive, because often that gets lost.” And it’s true. Margaret, when mentioned, is often portrayed as cold, single-minded and cruel. But there is no evidence to support this one-dimensional characterization. “Historical fiction in [Margaret’s] case has not been kind. … She’s very much now a villain, which she wasn’t,” said Norton. “Just because you don’t look at a woman traditionally doesn’t mean that it’s a negative.”

And to insist on viewing Margaret as traditional is a disservice to her contribution to history, for Margaret founded a dynasty. Margaret leveraged her role to advocate for women in her son’s court, insisting that her 9-year-old granddaughter, also named Margaret, not marry the adult James IV of Scotland until she was older and physically mature. Margaret simultaneously developed a close bond with the new Queen Elizabeth of York’s sister, Cecily, arranging a marriage between the princess and her own half brother, John Welles. And upon Welles’ death, when Cecily remarried a man below her station, Margaret advocated on her behalf to the king, saving her from harsh repercussions.

Margaret Beaufort was flawed. But she was also brave, intelligent, ruthless and loving. She lived just as complicated and influential a life as any man of her time, and yet she is often forgotten or delegated to lesser representations. Margaret changed the face of human culture through her tenacity and unflinching love for her son. She deserves the accolades, debates and study afforded to her male counterparts. For without Margaret Beaufort, Christianity, England and the world as we know it would not exist.

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