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Margaret Beaufort, a woman with nerves (and cojones) of steel

So I want to talk to you today about Margaret Beaufort.  This woman is insanely gutsy.  If you don’t know of her yet, please read this post.  She’s awesome.   She was Henry VII’s mother.  Henry VII was the founder of the Tudor dynasty, so in a way, she gave birth to the Tudors.  And how boring would life be without the Tudors, right?  

Margaret Beaufort was probably born in 1443, and was the great granddaughter of John of Gaunt, the third son of Edward III.  Even though he was her great great grandfather, Edward III hangs over the Tudors, as he was living proof that you can, in fact, have too much of a good thing – he had five sons who survived to adulthood, and set the stage for the Wars of the Roses, which was appropriately known as the Cousin’s War at the time, because all of his decendents were fighting each other for the throne.

It’s interesting that Henry VII’s claim to the throne on both his mother and father’s sides are traced back to illegitimate relationships, though ultimately his greatest claim to the throne would be that he defeated the reigning king, Richard III at Bosworth Field.  Margaret Beaufort, Henry’s mother, was descended from Edward III through his third son, John of Gaunt.  But it was from John’s third marriage to his long time mistress Katherine Swynford.  All of the Beaufort’s were barred from the throne because they were declared illegitimate, but people seem to be declared illegitimate and then legitimized all the time in medieval England, so it wasn’t going to stop anyone.  

Margaret was an only child as her father died when she was still quite young, and since she was his only child, she was an heiress to his substantial fortune and land holdings.  She was fortunate to have spent her early childhood living at home with her mother, but she was still knocked around like a ping pong ball back and forth, officially married before she was a year old to the son of the Duke of Suffolk who had inherited her wardship – wardship was important because whoever had it had the right to get income from her lands.  

The Duke of Suffolk was having a rough time as he was being blamed for some military disasters in France (another side thread to this all was that the Hundred Years’ War was in full force here, and not going very well for England at the moment), and when he was arrested, he quickly moved to have Margaret marry his son, in order to protect the status and wealth of his family.  This was actually not the calculated move that he thought it would be, as the House of Commons would bring charges against Suffolk saying that he had purposefully had his son marry Margaret because he presumed her to be next in line to the throne.  Eventually the marriage would be dissolved, and the little girl’s wardship would be given to Edmund and Jasper Tudor.

The Tudor side of the family tree is also a bit scandalous.  After her husband Henry V died (and her son became King Henry VI as a young boy), Queen Catherine was still only 21 and decided to do something radical: marry her Welsh steward, Owen Tudor, and have six children with him.  Their children would have been half-siblings to the king, Henry VI, who, while still young, decided he wanted peace within his family, and gave most of his half-brothers earldoms.  He also gave little Margaret Beaufort’s wardship to Edmund and Jasper, and eventually married Edmund Tudor to her.  It’s interesting that Margaret would later say that she chose Edmund to be her husband, or rather, God and the saints told her to marry him.  The truth was she would have had no choice in the matter – women, even – and especially –  noble women couldn’t choose their husbands.  They were pawns in a game their fathers and uncles and brothers were playing, and they would not have had the opportunity to make their wishes known, or respected.

The marriage would have taken place when she was twelve – the age of consent.  She gave birth to her son Henry Tudor a year later when she was only 13, and the birth nearly killed her.  She was left in such a bad state that she never had another child after Henry.  Edmund Tudor wound up dying in 1456, before his son, Henry Tudor (the future King Henry VII) was born, and Margaret was back on her own again.

Margaret married again when she was 14, to a Sir Henry Stafford, who was close to 20 years her senior.  He was a Lancastrian supporter in the early stages of the Wars of the Roses, but switched sides midway through, and died fighting for the York cause.  Her marriage to Stafford was a happy one, and later when she was the mother of a King, she spent time and money restoring his house in his memory.

After he died, Margaret was again on her own, this time in her late 20’s, and with the Yorkists in power again, her loyalties to them would be suspect.  She never stopped believing that her son Henry Tudor would become King of England, but with the Yorks ruling, she couldn’t afford to make that sentiment well known.  She married a man of property, Thomas, Lord Stanley.  Stanley’s main accomplishment during this time was that he had been able to navigate through all the changing monarchs without ever declaring his support for any of them.  He was a widower, and had children from his previous marriage, so he was ok with the fact that he probably wouldn’t have any with Margaret.  The marriage was a business partnership – she increases his status, and he gave her protection with the Yorkists.  Together they worked behind the scenes to plot and plan for an opportunity for Margaret’s son Henry Tudor to come back to England and make his claim to the throne.  

Margaret was able to go back to court and serve Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, and she would also serve Anne Neville, Richard III’s wife, after he seized the throne when his older brother died.  Secretly, though, she was working with Edward’s widow, Elizabeth Woodville, to plot a return for her son, and to get Richard III out of the way.  Elizabeth Woodville certainly wasn’t a fan of her brother in law Richard III, particularly after he most likely murdered her two sons to clear the way for him to take the throne.  While working for Richard’s Queen Anne, she hatched a plan with Elizabeth Woodville, the previous Queen, that her son Henry Tudor would marry Elizabeth Woodville’s daughter Elizabeth of York.  Presumably this would unite the houses of York and Lancaster, and give both sides, who were getting fed up with Richard, something to support.  The children of the marriage would have legitimacy from both parents, and since their parents had united the two warring factions, they presumably wouldn’t face the same challenges to their inheritances (it also helped that much of the nobility was dead by this point).

When Henry Tudor had raised his army and faced Richard III on Bosworth Field, his stepfather Lord Stanley kept true to his non-committing word, and stayed out of the battle, even though he had a son who was effectively being held hostage by Richard III.  Some say that he finally joined in at the very end, and that was enough to tip the forces towards Henry Tudor.  Stanley was the one who placed the crown on Henry VII’s head after the battle.

Margaret stayed married to Lord Stanley, though later on she preferred to live alone.  Not surprising, once she was secure as the King’s Mother, after everything she’d been through.  She took a vow of chastity in 1499, even though she was still married, and she lived alone, though her husband did visit her often, demonstrating what a good friendship and partnership they had developed.  Henry VII’s first Parliament recognized her right to hold property in her own right, and she enjoyed independence that wasn’t afforded most women in her time.  There have always been rumors that she may have been the Mother in Law from Hell.  Elizabeth Woodville left court in 1487, and Margaret hadn’t liked accepting a lower rank than Elizabeth, despite the fact that Elizabeth had been a Queen, whereas Margaret was simply the mother of a King.  There is very little actual fact about the relationships between the women at court during this time.  What we do know was that Henry VII was devoted to his mother, and he also had a fairly happy and successful marriage to Elizabeth Woodville’s daughter, Elizabeth of York.

Margaret outlived her son, but only by two months.  She did live long enough to see her grandson, Henry VIII become king, and one can only imagine how proud she must have been to see the dynasty that she fought so hard for carry on successfully.  Henry VIII’s was the first transfer of power in England in 80 years that was accomplished without bloodshed.  How amazing was she to stay patient and fight for what mattered to her so tirelessly for so long.  

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