Margaret Beaufort: ‘Mother Superior’ or ‘M’?

   Posted by: Isolde Martyn   in

A paper presented at the Second Symposium of the Sydney Branch of the Richard III Society on 13 February 1988 and  also to the Plantagenet Society of Australia in June 2006. This updated version was presented to the Richard III Society in Sydney in March 2007

One of the questions I once had to answer in a university exam was ‘Who had more impact on England in the fifteenth century, the Elizabeths or the Margarets?’ I think few people would opt for any answer but ‘the Margarets’.
When I first gave this talk on Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry Tudor, Margaret Thatcher was prime minister and I’m sure Margaret Beaufort would have seen Mrs Thatcher as a kindred spirit. Not only did they both achieve equality in a man’s world in later life, but they also clearly relished their power, displayed enthusiasm for the portfolio of education and possessed the ability to organize anything from a canteen to a cabinet. Think of Margaret Beaufort as a pint-sized Thatcher with pebble eyes (reminiscent of her great grand-daughter, Elizabeth I, in later life), pious clothing, gold-rim spectacles and arthritic hands.
So how significant was Margaret Beaufort? Was her role in deposing the Plantagenets played up by Tudor historians? I cannot help feeling an admiration for the woman in that she was intelligent, sensible, patient, tenacious, astute and a skilful assessor of other people’s capabilities and weaknesses, and successful against incredible odds. Equally, she was cunning, subtle, highly political and possibly machiavellian. Was she the pious ‘Mother Superior’ of Tudor England, thinking about her place in Heaven?  Or the ‘M’ of Yorkist England? Well, perhaps I shouldn’t say ‘M’ since she wasn’t on the Yorkist government side but I think you get the picture. So how far would this woman go to achieve her ambitions?

Margaret’s family, the Beauforts, were descended from Edward III. They were the legitimised progeny of Edward’s third son, John Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and Kathryn Swynford, his children’s governess. Henry IV barred his Beaufort half-brothers from the royal succession in 1407 by act of parliament to prevent them becoming rivals to his descendants.
Margaret was born on 31 May 1443 in the reign of Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou. She never knew her father, John Beaufort. He was captured by the French in 1421 and held prisoner for 17 years, the longest time for an English prisoner in the Hundred Years War. In 1442, he married the widow Margaret Beauchamp of Bletsoe. It seems he was not in good health after his long imprisonment but in 1443 he led a major expedition to France. It was an extremely expensive failure and he was banished from court on his return. He died in May 1444 after and maybe he committed suicide. His tomb can be seen in Wimborne Minster, Dorset.
Margaret’s mother married a third time, so Margaret should not be seen as an only child because she had five half-brothers and sisters from her mother’s first marriage. The large extended family was important to her as proved by the times she countered Henry VII’s wishes in order to protect their interests. This network of relations linked her to some of the major Yorkist families as well as Lancastrian ones

For a noblewoman to be successful in fifteenth century England, she needed either wealth or beauty. Elizabeth Woodville achieved a crown through her physical attractions, but Margaret Beaufort was a plain bluestocking. History might have been quite different if Edward IV had thought her bedworthy for they were of similar age but Margaret Beaufort, at least, had the asset of wealth.
As a child, she was a substantial heiress and the Duke of Suffolk became her guardian [i]  but as he sensed himself falling from power, he quickly betrothed his son to her. King Henry VI had the match dissolved and the little girl was summoned to court and passed to the guardianship of his two half-brothers, Edmund and Jasper Tudor. In her old age, she told her confessor that she dreamed that a bishop had introduced her to Edmund and so she decided that it was God’s will she should marry Tudor.[ii]

Up unto this time she was brought in up her mother’s care. She was taught French (she later translated several books with the help of a French woman in her household), but only a little Latin, and her obvious pious leanings were given full encouragement. Like her mother, she became a benefactress of the Abbey of Croyland. In other words, she was groomed for the role of a typical fifteenth century noblewoman that is depicted in any Book of Hours, to give charity to the poor and needy, and to support the Holy Church.

She was about ten at the time she was married to Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond and he took her off to live with him in Wales. In England at this time, once a bride gave birth to a living child, the husband could become tenant of her estates and legally entitled to enjoy them until his death. So if you married an heiress, you would try and get her pregnant the moment she was capable if conceiving. Margaret was pregnant around her thirteenth birthday. Edmund was captured and imprisoned by the Richard, Duke of York, released, only to die of the plague in 1456.
Margaret was about six months pregnant, a widow, in Wales with the winter coming on, with her family across the other side of England.[iii]  Jasper Tudor had her fetched to his castle of Pembroke and she gave birth in January 1457. She was 13 and a half years old. John Fisher, her chaplain, who wrote her obituary, says that she was of small stature and the birth was a difficult. Whether the trauma of bringing Henry Tudor into the world was an unrepeatable experience, the consequent damage to her either physically or even mentally ensured that she never found herself in a similar situation again as far as historical records show.
A modern medical interpretation of her later infertility could be explained in various ways; a side-effect of the birth such as a haemorrhage or a pelvic inflammatory disease that could cause the closure of her fallopian tubes; a hormonal change affecting her pituitary gland. The fault may not have even been on her side. Her second husband, Stafford, perhaps, was unable to father children or maybe Margaret was only fertile a very short time each month.

Second Marriage
Two months after Henry’s birth, Jasper took Margaret to meet Humphrey, Duke of Buckingham, and in the following January she married Buckingham’s second son, Henry Stafford. It always puzzled me that Jasper never married her but maybe they truly believed it was against the teaching of the Bible.
Henry Stafford’s older brother was dead but left two sons to inherit, so Stafford was not likely to become a duke nor under compulsion to produce an heir.
In 1461 Edward of York became king and Stafford had fought on the side of Lancaster. He obtained a pardon from the new king and Edward safeguarded Margaret’s dower rights. The downside was that Edward put the wardship of Margaret’s son into the hands of the new Earl of Pembroke, William Herbert, and Henry was brought up in the fine castle of Raglan. It is likely that Herbert hoped to betroth the boy to his daughter. The separation from her only child must have been quite devastating for Margaret. Records tell us that she spent a week at Pembroke in 1467 when Henry was ten years old. A year later her brother-in-law, Jasper, returned to Wales and raised a rebellion, but was defeated.
Margaret was married to Henry Stafford for fourteen years and according to Margaret’s household books, which were preserved in the Muniments of Westminster Abbey, she seems to have been constantly in his company most of that time. Her childlessness would have given her for most of the time a greater mobility on average than many young wives of her own age enjoyed. The couple travelled quite a lot between their holdings. They had a manor at Woking and in 1468 entertained the king at their hunting lodge near Guildford. They are known to have celebrated their wedding anniversaries, which implies a very happy relationship.
Warwick’s quarrels with the king destabilised England. Herbert, taking young Henry Tudor with him, met him in battle and was defeated and beheaded by Warwick. Margaret must have been very concerned for Henry’s safety but Herbert’s widow and his wards found refuge. Margaret’s stepfather, her mother’s third husband, also joined the unrest against the king and was executed by Edward IV.
By September 1470, the balance of power shifted completely. Warwick had returned from exile and was now allied to the House of Lancaster, and Edward fled England. Margaret’s records show us she was mainly in London and the Home Counties from June 1470 to June 1471. Not only was her brother-in-law Henry VI dusted off and put back on the throne, but her other brother-in-law, Jasper, Earl of Pembroke, made a come back, retrieved Henry Tudor and brought him to London to meet the old king.
Henry Tudor was now thirteen and it was therefore easy for his mother to make a reasonable assessment of his character and future potential. The boy must have impressed her for over the following months Margaret made a great deal of effort on his behalf. She must have been fired with all manner of hopes: if Henry VI managed to keep his throne, young Tudor had a reasonably promising career ahead of him. Yet even under the restoration, his position was not very satisfactory, due to the embarrassing – as ever – presence of George, Duke of Clarence. It was George who had received most of the Tudor estates from Edward IV, so Margaret and her husband spent several months besieging Clarence with requests for the return of the land.
Not surprisingly, they had made little headway by the time the news of Edward’s arrival in the north of England reached London. While Margaret was an optimist, she was also a pragmatist and never once underestimated Edward IV’s ability. There was a swift turn around of priorities as she and Stafford ostensibly welcomed Edward to London.
Stafford was wounded fighting for Edward at the Battle of Barnet and died within six months. He had some sort of skin disease called St Anthony’s fire, erysipelas – mild leprosy. We know Margaret did show devotion to St Anthony, patron of lepers.
Strangely, when Sir Henry fell earlier ill, in 1469, it was his mother not Margaret who took charge of his sick room.

Heir to the Beauforts
Margaret, widowed again, in 1471 found herself at a watershed in her life. Not only had her interest and feelings for her son been rekindled by their reunion but the recent deaths of Henry VI, the Prince of Wales and her Beaufort kinsmen, dragged out of sanctuary and executed, had almost overnight made Henry Tudor the main claimant of the throne of the Beaufort descendants of John of Gaunt. In actual fact, it was Margaret herself who was the real heiress. If the situation had arisen some seventy years later, she might have found herself in a similar position to Lady Jane Grey or Elizabeth Tudor, but because she was a woman her male contemporaries regarded her son as the only possible Beaufort heir.
Thirteen-year-old Henry Tudor now acquired greater significance. In 1471 Edward IV had daughters but only a newborn baby son and neither Clarence nor Gloucester had an heir, so the Yorkist dynasty was as yet not assured. Young Buckingham and Henry Tudor were the male successors to the House of Lancaster.
Henry and Jasper were still holding out in Pembroke castle. Did Margaret ever seriously consider keeping Henry in England and accepting Edward offer of a pardon for him? It could have been tempting. After all, Edward had never imprisoned young Buckingham, but nor had he favoured him, and of course Clarence still owned Henry’s lands. According to what she later told one of the Tudor historians, Margaret warned Jasper and Henry to flee.
It is easy to forget the vendetta that existed between York and Lancaster. By 1471 Margaret, who had been brought up to see Henry VI as the rightful king had lost too many relatives as a consequence of the wars caused by the House of York. Her stepfather, two respective fathers-in-law, brother-in-law, uncle, and at least three Beaufort cousins were all slain. The anointed king her brother-in-law was murdered in the Tower and his son slain in battle. Her brother-in-law, Jasper Tudor had been made a landless refugee and so had her only son. How can one forget or forgive all this?

Status Quo
It would be easy now with hindsight to credit Margaret with a vision and astuteness that she probably did not possess. She certainly recognised that there was no imminent opportunity of ever opposing Edward IV. Maybe she actually had respect or fondness for Edward as a person since he was a man of great charm. But anyone who witnessed Edward’s lightning military campaigns could not doubt that no living man could beat him on the field. He had also fulfilled the ideal of Sir John Fortescue, the Lancastrian who had set down the formula for a successful king. No one could outking Edward in terms of popularity, charisma, military skills, fertility and ability to live within his means instead of alienating the royal estate.
Margaret would not be able to risk Henry as a field commander against Edward for at least the next ten years or more, if at all. So maybe she had to work like a female spider slowly creating a wider and wider web of supporters who might follow Jasper and Henry if ever the opportunity arose and maybe it never would.

Thomas Stanley
Margaret’s more immediate problem was should she marry again? Marriage would leave her more room to manoeuvre that retiring to a convent. So whom could she pick for bridegroom No 4?
There were not many influential eligible men around in 1472 for a woman in her late twenties with a poor fecundity record. Margaret found herself in an England more Yorkist than ever. She needed a husband who had a strong power base, was in favour with Edward IV and who would be willing to grant her a reasonable amount of self-determination. The obvious choice for her was Thomas Stanley. He was on Edward’s inner council as steward of the royal household, had a large army of retainers and he already had heirs, having been married several times.
It was not until 1499 that Margaret took a vow of chastity so the furphy that she did not want to sleep with Stanley is a nonsense but the marriage contract was certainly accompanied by a financial agreement consisting of an exchange of real estate, plus an allowance for Henry Tudor should he ever return, which Edward IV himself witnessed.[iv]  The match also brought Margaret closer to the Woodvilles, since Stanley’s son was married to the Elizabeth Woodville’s niece. Because of Stanley’s office as steward, Margaret was now at court a great deal and present at major events. In 1480, she carried the baby princess Bridget at her christening at Eltham.
Edward must have certainly been wary of Henry as he grew to manhood. In 1476 his agents nearly captured him so Margaret wisely did not summon him back.
1477 saw her receiving a papal indulgence for her contribution to the fund for war against the Turks and she later told her confessor that she would have been happy to take part in the war and go as a nurse for the wounded and dying and wash their clothes.[v]  A similar sentiment was later echoed by Richard III as king.[vi]
Does this imply Margaret was frustrated by the restrictions placed on a fifteenth century noblewoman? Or was she just pious and thirsty to carry out acts that would please God?
In 1482 her mother died, and Margaret acquired much of her land, again with the proviso that if Henry returned he would receive his patrimony, thus implying that Edward IV was still hoping to lure Henry home. There was definitely talk between Edward and Margaret about Henry coming home and the possibility of Henry marrying one of Edward’s daughters.

Edward’s sudden death in April 1483 after a fishing trip on the Thames brought about a confrontation between Richard of Gloucester and the Woodvilles. The events of Richard’s coup are well known. Buckingham held the balance of power and he threw his support behind Richard. The little king was sent to live at the Tower and then deposed.
Margaret sided with Elizabeth Woodville, who had taken refuge in Westminster Sanctuary. She used her physician, Dr Lewis of Caerleon, a scholar trained in Padua, as a go-between. It is also a little known fact that a brother of Jasper and Edmund Tudor had become a monk at Westminster Abbey and might possibly have had easy access to the Sanctuary.[vii]  So he may have been involved as well. There seems to have been a plan to light diversionary fires and mount a rescue of Edward V from the Tower, but it did not succeed.[viii]  Margaret again suggested a marriage between her son and Princess Elizabeth.
Disaster struck when Stanley and a former Lancastrian, Morton, Bishop of Ely, were implicated in Hastings’ conspiracy and imprisoned in the Tower. But fortunately for Stanley, Richard wanted reconciliation. He pardoned Stanley and Margaret Beaufort was given the honour of carrying his queen’s robe at his coronation.

Duping Buckingham
The accession of Richard in such dubious circumstances was the first opportunity Margaret had had to throw her network of agents into full alert. Henry was now 27 years old and there were now a lot of dissatisfied factions who needed a leader. But there were immense obstacles to her dream to see her son become king: Richard and his son, Buckingham and his children and the princes in the Tower all stood in Henry’s way.
When Richard went off on a northern progress after the coronation, and Buckingham went home for the summer holidays to Wales, Richard foolishly sent Morton with him for safekeeping – a huge error. This presented the perfect opportunity to alienate Richard’s greatest supporter. Once more in Brecknock, Buckingham was almost back in his old rut and his wife and many of his Welsh tenants may not have seen him in the same light as the London citizens. Morton who had witnessed him at the height of his power would have been a tempting companion. According to Buck’s account, Morton convinced the Duke that he would be a perfect king and managed to sever him from his attachment to Richard’s party. Buckingham’s refusal to attend Richard’s summons also planted suspicion of his loyalty in the King’s mind.[ix]
The moment Buckingham agreed to be part of a rebellion before Richard returned south, the network of supporters that Margaret had been building over the years came into immediate use. For years she had operated a secret communication with Henry and Jasper so it did not take much to extend it. Reginald Bray, an efficient, blunt-spoken troubleshooter, who had worked for her second husband and was known to Buckingham, carried her messages to Brecknock. Urswick, Margaret’s chaplain, was another negotiator.

The Buckingham Rebellion
The strategy was that Buckingham would march from Wales and rendezvous with Stanley’s army from Derbyshire and the queen’s Woodville supporters in the south. Henry Tudor’s invasion fleet would land in Dorset.
According to the Croyland Chronicler, the Woodville conspirators were told that Buckingham was going to take the little princes from the Tower and reinstate them, but the real plan seems to have been that the moment the rebellion was at its height, the news would be released that the princes were dead and that Buckingham would then proclaim Henry Tudor as rightful king. I very much doubt Buckingham would have done so. He would more likely have made himself king and merely reinstated Henry Tudor as Earl of Richmond or sent him to the Tower.
Too many people got to know about the big plan. There was a reception committee in Dorset, loyal to Richard, waiting to seize Henry the moment he landed and he was too suspicious to come ashore. Buckingham was stranded in Wales when the River Severn flooded. Yet although the rebellion was an ignominious failure, Richard III was the loser. Buckingham, his chief supporter and rival to Henry Tudor as a Lancastrian claimant to the crown was executed as a traitor. Many Woodville supporters fled to Brittany. Where else was there to go?
The chess board now had Margaret and son versus Richard and son. The man caught in between was Stanley. He had refused to get involved in the Buckingham rebellion, possibly because he did not get on with Buckingham and was a rival with him for control of northern Wales. In punishing Margaret, Richard went as far as he could go without making an enemy of Stanley. He absolutely stripped her of all her assets, dispensed with any provisions for Henry Tudor, and gave her into her husband’s custody with the order that she was to be held in a secret location and allowed no access to her servants. In one sense, Margaret was only deprived of her probable practice of maintaining a completely separate household from Stanley. Most of her lands were granted to Stanley for life [x]  and were then to revert to the crown. In 1484, Stanley became steward of the royal household once more and Constable of England and therefore the Tower of London. Reginald Bray, unbelievably, was pardoned, and Morton and Fox, another of her servants, fled safely across the channel.
It is true that in Yorkist England women and clerics were never executed for high treason. The worst punishment ever inflicted was the cloister for women and that held no fears for Margaret. It is interesting that this chivalrous tolerance of intelligent women had evaporated by the age of Henry VIII who, of course, was never able to resort to this convenient method of depositing unwanted queens in nunneries, since he had committed the folly of demolishing the latter.
Vergil says Margaret was not attainted because ‘the working of a woman’s wit was considered of small account’.[xi]   There was probably too an unwritten understanding that a king could not imprison a married woman, some male code of understanding that it would have alienated and emasculated Stanley as a husband. The Stanley factor would prove Richard’s undoing.
One has to presume that Richard after October 1483 was too naive not to have servants watching Margaret’s every move. If he did, however, his men were hardly alert or particularly loyal, for Margaret continued sending money across to Tudor. Two of her people, Turberville and Colyngbourne were caught and respectively imprisoned and hanged. Richard did attempt to ransom Henry from Brittany and he was desperate enough to offer a pardon to Morton. This was probably both a two-faced offer as well as being typical of his policy of keeping the option of reconciliation always available.

Why was the rebellion of 1485 successful?
Everything was against Margaret’s plans initially. Elizabeth Woodville did a complete about turn and emerged from sanctuary with her daughters. Was the queen sincere? If she wasn’t, why did she advise her son Dorset to return from Brittany?
Henry was running short of time because Richard had promised to marry off Edward’s daughters, so they were not likely to be available to Henry for much longer. But then Fate struck Richard a terrible blow. He lost his only son and heir. And in February 1483, his queen died during a solar eclipse. Both events were devastating and might have had him wondering whether God cared a damn about him any more. The rumours of the princes’ murder were still commonplace. Whispers that he had poisoned his wife and desired marriage with his niece began to emanate from France and were vindictively circulated in London.[xii]   Then there were loans that the King was forced to raise for defence costs. These were not popular with friends or opposition. Psychologically Richard was almost defeated before Bosworth.
The other factors in Margaret’s favour were the morale-boosting escape of the Lancastrian Earl of Oxford from imprisonment at Hammes, the French now willing to finance Henry’s invasion, and Morton in Rome assuring the Pope that a Tudor king would donate more money to the papacy than Richard III ever would. Henry also had half the English treasury, which Edward Woodville had brought him. Assuming that half the English nobility had been loyal to Lancaster and had seen a diminishing of their lands and influence since the 1450s, there was still something to be gained by rebelling. As for the alienated Yorkists, if Henry took the kingdom and married Elizabeth at least Richard’s Yorkists enemies would see one of Edward IV’s children on the throne, and by then those enemies preferred to take the risk than to continue tolerating Richard. Now or never! But even so it was against incredible odds that Margaret managed to fund the invasion of England and curry support for an exile nobody knew much about.

Could the death of Richard’s son have been due to poison?
Could Margaret’s agents have poisoned Richard’s son. It is commonly accepted that Richard’s son was always sickly. On what evidence? Lack of appearance at the coronation? Buckingham’s son was not there either. There is no record of any children being present. Richard’s policy was always to keep his heirs to the throne safe in the north away from London.
It would be easy to administer arsenic in gradual doses as has been suggested with the demise of Napoleon. In fact could the same thing have slowly happened to Edward IV? Was it stomach cancer, peritonitis, pneumonia or something more contrived? As for the Princes in the Tower, Prince Edward was complaining of feeling ill? Was he too poisoned? If so, by whom? Dr Argentine, one of the last to record an audience with the boy, was later doctor to Prince Arthur.[xiii]  Buckingham and Stanley in turn were High Constables of England and would have had access.
Is it possible to marry religious devotion to infanticide? Margaret at forty-two had little to lose in playing for the highest stake of all. The best she could hope for was to become the most powerful woman in England with a son who was eternally grateful. The worst outlook was an enforced cloister and celibacy. Add to all this, however, the possessive devotion of a woman who had only one child. Her resolve echoed Margaret d’Anjou’s tigress ambition. Any motherly possessiveness must have been coupled with a feeling of divine right; God’s hand in hers and a crown for the prize. So like Margaret d’Anjou before her, Margaret at last was prepared to risk her inexperienced son on the battlefield.
It is possible, like any party political campaign, bribes were taken and promises of land and offices were made to anyone prepared to risk changing sides. By 1485 the Stanleys were known to be supporting Tudor. The evidence that quite a few families were absconding from Richard’s army as it marched to Market Bosworth indicates either discontent or the dangling of potential honours.

Henry’s position
Richard’s death in battle was Margaret’s triumph. Not only were the Stanleys able to present Henry with the crown but they also seized the booty from Richard’s tent and the King’s beloved Book of Hours ended up in Margaret’s possession.
With Richard slain, Henry needed to swiftly secure the kingdom and marry Elizabeth of York. But were the Princes still alive? If the Act of Bastardy was reversed to make Elizabeth legitimate heir to York, it also made her brothers the rightful heirs to the throne.
Could the Princes have been murdered when the news of Bosworth reached London just as Henry VI had been murdered after Tewkesbury? If religious faith and poison could co-exist in the Renaissance Italy of Machiavelli, why not in England?
Margaret could have had access to the boys in 1483 through Buckingham as Constable of England. Yet who became Constable of England by 1484? Thomas Stanley! Although I’m doubtful that if he would have gone that far. He had been one of the boy king’s close advisers and had been reluctant to see him deposed.
Could Morton or Margaret could have ordered the Princes’ deaths by using either Buckingham or Stanley’s signets. Had Buckingham promised a signed pass to the Tower to the Woodvilles to show his change of heart and could that have gone astray?
The information we have on Margaret’s character would appear to counteract such a blasphemous approach but the details actually come mainly from her obituary, written by her chaplain and confessor, Fisher (later executed by Henry VIII for his refusal to acknowledge the King as Supreme Head of the Church). Anecdotes and euphoria about his employer flew easily from his pen and, like Sir Thomas More, he belonged to age that could not remember life without the Tudors.

Queen Mother at last
Margaret’s golden age was finally here and she had until June 1509 to enjoy it. One of her last acts was to stand with her grandchild Mary, future Queen of France, and watched the wedding procession of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon go through Cheapside.
Back in 1483, it must have seemed almost unreal to witness her son’s coronation in Westminster Abbey and see her fantasy come true. We are told ‘she wept marvellously’ at the moment the crown was set upon her son’s brow.
Margaret became the most powerful subject in England and was accepted in her own right not as an instrument of her husband ‘as anie other sole person not covert of anie husband’.[xiv]  She had outdone the Kingmaker in her success in achieving a crown for her child within her lifetime and she reaped the huge benefits that ensued. Whereas Cecily Neville had kept away from her royal son’s court and followed a contemplative life, Margaret’s will and details of her household demonstrate that she lived and ruled like a princess despite her strict religious regime.
She had a close relationship with her son and was a formidable presence in the royal household. Her itinerary for June-July 1498 shows her mostly at Westminster, with a visit to the Tower and then a few months outside London. Strangely, one of her destinations at this time was a visit – accompanied by the King – to Sir James Tyrell at Herongate in Essex.
While she may have later lived a regime that was nun-like in practice, she always enjoyed luxury. Numerous gowns, fine furnishings and gold plate were among her many possessions.[xv]  Henry gave her the great mansion of Coldharbour in London. She ran a separate household to her husband, entertained lavishly and patronised musicians and players.
Her power was great. She possessed over 120 manors when she died, her son allowed her to hold numerous retainers and administer justice. As a mature woman, she could busy herself with such things while her daughter-in-law the Queen carried out the duty of providing babies. Because of Margaret’s superior knowledge of church affairs and the personnel involved, both the Holy See and Henry VII entrusted her with many of the decisions normally taken by the sovereign. The recognition by her peers of what would have been considered a masculine grasp of estate administration is shown by the wardships given to her.  Henry placed the young sons of Buckingham in her care (despite Jasper Tudor becoming the children’s stepfather), knowing she would never use them against him and that if he died without heirs, they would become possible claimants to the throne. Interestingly, Buckingham’s uncle by marriage and close adviser, Sir William Knyvett, was steward of her household by the year she died.

How pious was she?
Against the suggestion that Margaret could have sanctioned the death of the Princes, we have the overwhelming evidence of her religious devotion and charitable acts. Let us examine this objectively. It was the role of the great lady to be charitable. Margaret no longer was siphoning money out of the housekeeping to pay French mercenaries and therefore that money could be now used for educational endowments and books of religious piety. On her death, she possessed many items of religious piety but this has to be seen also as a fashion since it was common among her wealthy contemporaries to wear highly jewelled reliquaries and suchlike.
There is no doubt that Margaret’s charitable works were many and quite admirable but this role was expected of her and was easy to carry out. Henry gave her huge grants of land and assets like wardships knowing full well that as her only heir, he would get it all back again when she died. She could not donate any of these lands for charitable purposes because that would alienate the Tudor assets so instead she used the profits from administration of estates to buy land for college foundations etc.
The second aspect of her charity can also be demonstrated to be supportive to the Tudor monarchy. It was realized throughout Europe that education was important and the swing away from using noblemen and bishops as councillors and administrators towards the employment of educated commoners had begun. Bishops, of course, still played a role because of their education but unlike commoners they were caught between serving their king and their pope until Henry VIII solved the dilemma. At any rate it had become the vogue to donate huge sums to universities and this naturally was seen by the population as a sign of good and Christian behaviour. The fact that there were few noblemen left in England to become benefactors, let alone their ability to afford to do so, left Margaret’s celibate star shining unparalleled in the eyes of the laity, the colleges and the church. It was not necessarily an altruistic occupation on her part.

New Learning
By her huge donations to Christs and St John’s colleges, Cambridge, Margaret was ensuring that the new generation of learned would be nurtured by the Tudor system and taught from the start that their colleges might not exist if it were not for her munificence. Continued influence within these colleges was ensured by appointing members of her household to key posts in the colleges. As for the students that were being trained; these future state servants would have an already instilled loyalty towards the Tudor dynasty. Before these babies of the ‘new learning’ grew up, Margaret, through her knowledge of the English church personnel, was the ideal person to supervise appointments to sees and benefices. She thus ensured that all promotions were educated men loyal to the new regime.
Likewise, her patronage of printing also pointed to a grasp and understanding of the power of learning above the average intellect. The printed works of Tudor historians have been important in the writing of the history of the advent and achievements of the Tudors. The first book she commissioned from Caxton was a romance called Blanchardin and Eglantine (a touch of propaganda perhaps as it was rather like Henry VII’s life story), and the printing of Fisher’s funeral sermon for Henry VII was at her request.
Finally, there may have been a third more personal motive for her charity: If it was understood to be feasible to buy indulgences for sins, and to knock a few years off Purgatory by huge deeds of alms etc, then it would be possible to Margaret’s way of thinking to pay off responsibility for murder. Anyone who is familiar with the career of Martin Luther will be aware that the practice of selling pardons to the laity was rife at the time of Margaret’s death and she certainly was given indulgences. Good works might buy a place in the celestial real estate.
We are left with the choice of deciding whether Margaret Beaufort’s fits of tears in confession were due to the natural emotional outburst of a devout woman who could not do enough to please God or a woman fearful of the ghosts of 1485 and frightened of damnation. If it was possible for propagandists of the Tudors to do an efficient job blackening Richard III’s reputation, it was equally possible for them to whitewash Margaret’s.


NB: Since this paper was first presented, historians Michael Jones and Malcolm Underwood have published The King’s Mother (Cambridge University Press, 1992), an excellent biography of Margaret Beaufort. The notes following predate that biography.

i  ‘For asmoche as oure Cousin the Duc of Somerset is nowe late passed to Goddes mercy, the whiche hath a doughter and heir to succede after hym of ful tender age called Margarete, We [Henry VI] considering the notable services that oure Cousin therl of Suffolk hath doon unto us… have… graunted unto hym to have warde and marriage of the said Margarete’, Excerpta Historica, p 4.

ii  ‘The English Works of John Fisher’,  ed. J.Mayor, EETS, XXVII (1876).

iii  Williams, D., ‘The family of Henry VII’, History Today, Feb.1954.

iv  St John’s College Cambridge Archives D56/195.

v  Jones, M. , ‘Richard III and Lady Margaret Beaufort: a re-assessment’.

vi  Kendall, P.M., Richard III, (Sphere Books, 1955) p 322.

vii  Griffiths, R.A. and Thomas, R.S.,  The Making of the Tudor Dynasty (Alan Sutton, 1985), pp, 33, 191. Owen Tudor the younger died in 1502.

viii  Horrox, R., ‘Richard III and London’,  Ricardian, vol vi, no. 85, June 1984.

ix  More, Sir Thomas, The History of King Richard III.

x  Jones, ‘Margaret Beaufort….a reassessment’.

xi  St Aubyn, G., The Year of the Three Kings (William Collins, 1983), p 193.

xii  Kendall, pp 327-328 —  King Richard’s outpouring of the situation in a letter to supporters in York.

xiii  Harper-Bill, C., ‘The Familia, Administrators  & Patronage of Archbishop John Morton’, Journal of Religious History, Vol.10, 1978-79.

xiv  Jones, M. & Underwood, M., ‘Lady Margaret Beaufort’, History Today, 1985, vol.35, p 26.

xv  Ibid, p 24.