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Throwback Episode 42: Lady Margaret Beaufort

Lady Margaret Beaufort was Henry VII’s mother, so in a sense she gave birth to the Tudor Dynasty.  And now that I think about it, the birth of Henry Tudor is famous because it was so difficult for her…she was young (too young to be having children, and in the future when marriage negotiations were being made for her grandchildren, she insisted that her granddaughter’s marriage in Scotland not be consummated until she was older).  It apparently left her infertile as she never had children after Henry, despite years and years of seemingly happy marriages.

The Tudor Dynasty’s birth wasn’t easy either, coming as it did on the battlefield.  So in a sense, the birth of Henry could be seen as a metaphor for the entire Tudor Dynasty.  Difficult.  Requiring patience and grit.

Lady Margaret has a reputation.  She is often seen as this dowdy old lady who worked hard to have her son become King, and then had a hard time taking a back seat to his wife, and others who may have outranked her (Elizabeth Woodville as a former Queen versus Lady Margaret as the Mother of a King, for example.  Or her daughter in law, who was Queen.).

A few weeks ago I spoke with the founder of Tudor Times, a leading repository of Tudor and Stuart information, about Margaret, and the picture that emerges is one of a woman with great wit, charm, grace, and love for family.  It’s not the picture I’ve had of her, and I’m happy to re-share it here, for your listening enjoyment.


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Hello, and welcome to a special show of the Renaissance English History Podcast, part of the Agora Podcast Network. I’m your host Heather Teysko, and today I’m investing Melita Thomas about Margaret Beaufort. Melita is a co-founder and editor of Tudor Times, a website devoted to Tudor and Stuart history in the period from 1485 to 1625. You can find it at tudortimes.co.uk.

Melita, who has always been fascinated by history ever since she saw the 1970 series Elizabeth R with Glenda Jackson, also contributes articles to BBC History Extra and Britain magazine. Melita, thank you so much for being with us today, and for talking to us about Margaret Beaufort.

Tell me, in just a little introduction, what do we need to know about Lady Margaret Beaufort?

Melita Thomas: Margaret was one of the pivotal figures in the last years of the Wars of the Roses. She was a Lancastrian by birth and also in her first marriage, being descended from John of Gaunt, but she was also an important part of the Yorkist court. She had friends and family on both sides, like many of the people then, so her loyalties were often torn. What’s really important about her is the support she gave to her son, Henry Tudor, which enabled him to become king of England.

Heather Teysko: It seems like she was such a strong woman who … She clung so firmly to this belief that her son should be the king. Where do you think she got that from?

Melita Thomas: I’m not sure that Margaret spent her life thinking like that. I think it was more a reaction to the later events that she saw an opportunity to put her son forward and herself, really, because she was the heir in the sense that she had the Lancastrian blood, and Henry got it from her. There was no claim at all to the throne until Henry VI then Edward had died at Tewkesbury. After that, Edward IV seemed so firmly on the throne, it’s hard to imagine that Margaret could really have thought that there was any possibility of her son being king.

It was risky for him to stay in England, of course, because he was a Lancastrian, but if Edward IV hadn’t died young, I think Margaret would just have accepted that the Yorkists had won. I think it was when Richard III undertook his coup and took the throne that Margaret spotted an opportunity, and I think that that was the defining note of her character, actually, that she could spot an opportunity and act on it absolutely decisively. She saw that opening, and she went for it, but I don’t think she spent her whole life obsessing about it.

Heather Teysko: I see, but she was at Richard III’s court. Didn’t she carry Anne Neville’s train when she was crowned queen? What do you think it was like for Lady Margaret Beaufort, living underneath this king at court while she was at the same time trying to support her son and figure out a way for him to claim the throne?

Melita Thomas: I think it must have been really, really scary for her. I think she had obviously spotted the opportunity, and leaving aside the whole question of how Richard got to the throne, because people have different opinions on that, at the time there were a lot of Yorkists who weren’t happy about it, so she knew that there might be support for a change, but to know who might support that change and who might actually betray her if she made any move must have been really difficult.

She probably felt concern about Elizabeth Woodville, who she’d been quite close to, but then how quickly she came up with her plans to try to unseat Richard, it was probably pretty quickly. Whether it was as early as the actual coronation, and whether she walked down behind Anne Neville thinking, “This should be me,” is I guess a real question. You can imagine it, can’t you? There she’s carrying this huge ermine tray, walking along the blue cloth into Westminster Abbey, hearing all of the crowds shouting, and thinking, “This could be me. This should be me. This should be my Henry,” but at the same time thinking if she put a foot wrong, it would end very, very badly for them both, so scared, I think.

Heather Teysko: What was Lady Margaret Beaufort’s early life like? This wasn’t something that included in the questions, but I’m just curious. She had the early marriage, and then I’m interested in how her relationship was with both Tudor brothers, and just a little bit about her childhood leading up to her marriage.

Melita Thomas: Her father died in disgrace, which must have been a bit of a burden in those days, because it was thought that he’d committed suicide, which was terribly shocking, because he’d had such an unsuccessful campaign in France. She was only a year old at the time, so she wouldn’t have known him personally.

Her mother was an heiress, and she already had several older half-brothers and sisters. Her mother then married again and she had several younger brothers and half-sisters. She was very close to them all throughout her life, so she had quite a happy childhood, I think.

She was married it one of those child marriages that they went in for to John de la Pole, who was the son of Henry VI’s chief minister, but it was annulled when Suffolk was in disgrace. Sorry, he was the Duke of Suffolk. He was disgraced for possibly embezzling funds, so the marriage was annulled. Henry VI used the opportunity to provide for his half-brothers, Edmund and Jasper Tudor. He gave Margaret’s wardship to them, and marriage.

What that meant was that they had the right to the income from her property, which she’d inherited on her father’s death, which was very valuable. Margaret had royal blood. She was descended from Edward III, and she had lots of money, so she was an absolutely ideal wife for the king’s half-brothers, who had no money of their own.

Lady Margaret was married to Edmund when she was about 12, which seems desperately young nowadays, and even then it was considered a bit young. She, throughout her life, always mentioned her husband Edmund in her charitable foundations and her colleges, to have his soul prayed for, so perhaps there was an element of hero worship as well. Edmund was about 25 when she was a teenager.

After Edmund died, she and Jasper seem to have had a very close working relationship. He protected her son. She was still his ward, but he arranged for another marriage for her rather than keeping her income for himself. When the marriage was arranged, she was present, so we can perhaps infer that Jasper actually asked her opinion. They seemed to have had a good brother-sister relationship, which is nice to think about, because she was so young and unprotected with a child. In later life as well, she seems to have spent time and effort keeping the relationship alive.

Heather Teysko: What were Lady Margaret Beaufort’s other marriages like, then, after Edmund died?

Melita Thomas: The second marriage was to a chap called Henry Stafford, who was about the same amount older than her as Edmund had been, so there was still a big age gap. Margaret was about 14 and he was probably about 28 at the time. He was a Lancastrian, too. His father was the Duke of Buckingham. He was also the nephew of Ceciy, Duchess of York, which just shows how they were all interconnected.

They were together about 16 years, and they seem to have lived quite comfortably. Of course, romantic love was not a notion they really had as being related to marriage. It was everybody’s duty to love and care for their spouse, but not until after they were married. There’s no reason to think that Henry and Margaret weren’t happy together. She seems to have been unable to have children after Henry. She was too young when she had him. They lived mostly on her lands, because she was an heiress and Henry was a second son and didn’t have anything. So far as we can tell from the records, they had a quite comfortable noble marriage.

Then her third husband was Thomas Stanley, and I’m really interested as to why she picked him, because she married him very quickly, within a year after Henry Stafford’s death. He was a very wealthy and powerful noble himself, and probably the closest to her in age. He was about six or seven years older than her.

I think he must have been very fond of her, because when she was plotting against Richard III, he obviously knew. Lady Margaret Beaufort was supposed to be under house arrest in his care, but she was clearly busy communicating with Henry, so he must have turned a blind eye to it and let her get on with it. She was sending Henry money, which had he been fulfilling the terms of her house arrest, she shouldn’t have had access to her. Either she’d twisted him into thinking it was a very good idea, or perhaps he just loved her and wanted to help her.

They seemed to grow apart a bit after Henry became king, but she again had prayers said for his soul, and the anniversary dates of the requiem masses at the schools she founded, and also St. John’s College, are the date of his death, which suggests she wanted to remember him.

Heather Teysko: I’m interested in this. Again, I’m going off the list of questions. I’m interested in how she brought Henry to the throne. You mentioned the house arrest. Tell me a little bit about how she staged this event. It seems like such a massive undertaking, and I’m curious as to how it happened.

Melita Thomas: Yeah, it’s quite difficult to believe that she managed such a feat. Although she had money, she didn’t have huge resources, and she didn’t have the ability to lead troops or anything that a man would have had, so it is pretty impressive. It was I guess a two-stage campaign, in that the summer of 1483, after Richard took the throne, there was an initial rebellion led by the Duke of Buckingham, who actually was her nephew by marriage. He had become a Yorkist and was a very close friend of Richard III, and had supported him, but at some point, and for some completely unknown reason, Buckingham decided to rebel against Richard, strongly encouraged by Margaret, who had a friend who was under arrest in Buckingham’s castle and persuaded Buckingham, presumably under instruction from Margaret, that he ought to lead a rebellion.

It’s not clear whether Margaret told Buckingham that she thought he was a more appropriate king, and that therefore she would support him, or whether Buckingham really knew that Margaret had it in mind for her son to become king. It seems difficult to believe that Buckingham would have risked so much for Margaret’s son, because what would he have gained by it, so they were probably trying to double-cross each other, I think.

As it turned out, Buckingham didn’t have very much support, and the rebellion failed, but Margaret’s part in it was known to Richard, who had her put under house arrest. He had her lands forfeited by Parliament in an act of attainder, but they were re-granted to her husband, which sounds a bit lenient, but Richard couldn’t afford to alienate Stanley, who had a lot of power.

It’s quite amazing to think about it. How did she talk Buckingham into getting involved? How did she persuade him that it would be in his interest while not actually being caught? It does beggar belief, really. She was silver-tongued, I think.

Heather Teysko: Yeah. Then tell me a little bit about how she brought Henry over and how that worked.

Melita Thomas: In the first part of the rebellion, the Buckingham affair, Henry arrived. She’d sent him money, and he had been able to raise troops in Brittany, where he’d been in exile, partly helped by the Duke of Brittany but also a number of Yorkists had taken refuge in Brittany who had been unhappy with Richard’s coups. There was quite an alternative court going on in Brittany, and one member of it, for example, was Elizabeth Woodville’s brother and her son by her first marriage. There was a little clique of Yorkists there who were supporting Henry.

He borrowed money, and was given money by the Duke of Brittany, brought a small fleet across, landed but became very suspicious when he saw people waiting on the shore saying that Buckingham had been successful. For whatever reason, he didn’t believe it, so he sailed off again. Then, in 1485, in August, he was lent money by the king of France, and Margaret smuggled money to him. Again, Stanley must have been turning a blind eye to this or perhaps funding it himself. He was able to hire enough ships and men to make a landing in Wales.

All through his period as he marched through Wales, he was in communication with the Stanleys, and with his mother presumably, who no doubt had told him that there would be a lot of support when he arrived. There certainly was a reasonable amount of support, but I think by that stage, most people had got tired of the Wars of the Roses, and neither army at Bosworth was particularly large by the standards of the previous battles.

Heather Teysko: I’m interested in Lady Margaret Beaufort’s relationship with Elizabeth Woodville and their deal to have their children get married. He married her in a ceremony before he’d even met her, didn’t he? Can you tell me a little bit about that?

Melita Thomas: I think that Margaret and Elizabeth Woodville were probably friends. I know it sounds quite an anachronistic way of putting it, but Elizabeth Woodville was not enormously popular with her husband’s relatives, to put it no higher than that, so she was probably glad to have at her court people who perhaps were more flexible in their views of who was a suitable queen. I think maybe they just got on well.

Lady Margaret Beaufort was godmother to one of Elizabeth’s children.

When Edward IV died and Elizabeth took sanctuary in Westminster Abbey, the two women shared a doctor, which is how they passed messages between each other. The very fact that they were sharing a doctor previously does suggest a certain close person relationship, and I think it probably suggests that they knew each other well enough to know exactly what risks the other would take.

I think there can be no doubt that the two women were highly ambitious, both quite willing to take a risk if they thought it could end well, but both quite canny in the way they planned and plotted things. It seemed like an obvious solution to the overall problem of the wars, and let’s not forget that they both lost close members of their family. Elizabeth Woodville lost her first husband, her father, her brother, her son in the wars. Margaret both lost her husband, her cousin. There was an awful lot of loss and pain in all of the families, and a really good solution was clearly to bring the two together through the marriage.

What happened is that the two women agreed in principle, and Henry VII, he swore an oath in the cathedral at Vannes in Brittany that if he were to become king, he would marry Elizabeth of York, Elizabeth Woodville’s daughter, or if she were unavailable, she’d marry one of the sisters.

Heather Teysko: How did her relationship with Elizabeth change after Henry became king? That also leads me to my question about whether or not she was really the mother-in-law from hell and her signing her name Margaret R. I’m just curious about how, in popular culture and in popular fiction and stuff, she’s often portrayed as someone who really wanted that crown for herself, and then when her son got it, not yielding precedence to Elizabeth Woodville, and walking beside her rather than behind her, and all these things you hear. I just wonder what truth there is to that, and also how that might have changed her relationships, and if you can just talk a little bit about that.

Melita Thomas: I think it’s true that Lady Margaret Beaufort liked to put herself forward. I don’t think there can be any doubt that she grabbed every opportunity to be in the forefront of the court. However, she was also a stickler for etiquette, partly because the Tudors, they were a new dynasty, so they couldn’t be seen to be behaving in any way less than the most proper and sophisticated way.

Margaret did spend quite a lot of time drawing up rules of etiquette. She would have been very careful to follow the rules of precedence, and Elizabeth Woodville was a dowager queen, so she did come first. I think it’s possible that once there was a bit of rivalry between them as to who was, the king’s mother or the queen’s mother, going to be the most important. Elizabeth Woodville retired quite soon after Henry VII came to the throne, to a convent. There’s been some discussion as to whether she was forced into it. She might have been. Henry VII was quite keen to maximize his income, so paying pensions to dowager queens wasn’t high on his list of priorities, but it’s also possible that Margaret was perhaps jostling for position a bit, or it might be that Elizabeth genuinely wanted to enter a convent. A lot of women did in those days. I think it’s possible that their friendship, having achieved what was intended, it worked better for Margaret maybe than it did for Elizabeth.

I think as far as the mother-in-law from hell is concerned, that’s probably a bit harsh.

Heather Teysko: Yeah, that’s true.

Melita Thomas: I think Cecily Neville was probably the mother-in-law from hell, Elizabeth Woodville’s mother-in-law, because she openly disliked her daughter-in-law and undermined her, whereas I think Margaret was actually very fond of Elizabeth of York. Margaret was a woman with a lot of family feeling. As I mentioned before, she had quite a few half-brothers and sisters, and she looked after them and protected them and made good marriages for them. Her sister-in-law Cecily, who was Elizabeth of York’s sister, she was also very close to and even protected from Henry VII’s wrath when Cecily made a bad second marriage.

I think she had a lot of family feeling, and I think she was quite fond of Elizabeth of York, and certainly of her grandchildren. There’s the odd comment that Elizabeth got a bit cheesed off at Margaret taking quite such an active role, but I think that was probably more in the way of it getting on her nerves rather than it was an unhappy situation for Elizabeth, because after all, without Margaret, Elizabeth wouldn’t have been queen. She’d have been married off to some small chap or sent to a convent, probably.

Heather Teysko: Why did you choose Lady Margaret Beaufort as the person of the month?

Melita Thomas: This is part of our wider remit at Tudor Times. We’re trying to look at lots of different aspects of history and not just talk about the same people, so we’d like to choose a mixture of men and women, and of English and Scottish people. Margaret was somebody who I became interested in, having seen quite a lot of fiction about her recently. I wanted to investigate how close that seemed to be to real life. Obviously fiction and nonfiction are different, but I actually wanted to find out what might be closer to the truth.

The Wars of the Roses are a popular period, and I think one of the really interesting things about the Wars of the Roses that I’ve slightly touched on is how did they deal with these family relationships. They were all relatives and close to each other, and they lost husbands and brothers and sons. How did that affect them all and their attitude to life? I can admire some of the things that Margaret did later. She gave huge amounts of money to educational projects. Margaret was a clever woman. She wrote translations of religious works from French into English, and played quite a large part in the cultural life of the time as well.

Heather Teysko: How do you think Lady Margaret Beaufort’s portrayal in fiction is different than how she was in real life?

Melita Thomas: I don’t think you can deny that she had an eye for an opportunity, and would take a risk, and would not lightly give up what she thought to be hers, but I can’t see her as somebody who was … I can’t see her as the very single-minded person that she’s sometimes portrayed as. She was more pragmatic than that. I think that she would have looked for other options for bringing Henry VII back into favor rather than just thinking that the only way was for him to be king. Yes, I think she was more pragmatic than is sometimes shown, and I can’t get a handle on her as a murder, either. I think that that’s, in practical terms, extremely unlikely to have been possible.

Heather Teysko: You’re referring there to the princes of the tower and the idea that perhaps she was behind their murder, which has been pointed out in some recent fiction books.

Melita Thomas: It has, yes. To be fair, it was an idea that was first mooted in the 17th century, but she was accused of having done it by witchcraft, which even if she tried it, was hardly likely to have been successful. She wouldn’t have had the access to do it, just leaving aside whether to actually deliberately murder anybody is quite a leap for most people, and particularly most women, and most religiously minded women.

Heather Teysko: Sure. What, as you were researching Lady Margaret Beaufort, surprised you the most about her? What did you find that really blew you away about her?

Melita Thomas: I think what came to me is the point I made earlier, that she actually must have had charm. That’s certainly not the impression you get. One sees the pictures of her in old age with her wimple and her prayer book, and looking rather severe, but to be on good terms with so many people does suggest that she had charm, that she was likable. How sincere that charm was, that’s always a question, isn’t it, but she got on well with Elizabeth Woodville, Richard III. We assume he wasn’t making a point, making a Lancastrian carry Anne Neville’s train, but why choose her? It was quite an honor. Stanley was obviously fond enough of her to turn a blind eye to her plotting. Her other husband, Henry Stafford, seems to have been fond of her. Jasper Tudor supported her as much as he could. I think she was probably much more charming and nice to be with than we perhaps picture.

I was also very, very impressed with the educational establishments. She founded two great Cambridge colleges which are still important today, and have played a huge amount in the intellectual life of England and later Britain. I think there’s a bit of an irony in that St. John’s College, which was one of her foundations, became a hotbed of Protestant learning in the 1520s and 30s. It might have made her hair stand on head, but perhaps not. She was a more all-around personality than just the tiger mother.

Heather Teysko: That’s cool. That’s neat to know about her. Okay. I think I’ve gone through all my questions. Is there anything that you’d like to add that I haven’t asked you about her?

Melita Thomas: If you’d like to know about Margaret, one book that I can highly recommend is called The King’s Mother. It’s by Jones and Underwood. That’s a really good academic picture of absolutely everything about her life. For a slightly more generalist but very interesting read, there’s Elizabeth Norton’s Margaret Beaufort, Mother of the Tudor Dynasty. There’s Sarah Gristwood’s Blood Sisters as well, which talks about Margaret’s relationships with the other women involved in the Wars of the Roses. To really see what she was all about, John’s College at Cambridge, the gatehouse there is absolutely sprinkled and littered with her badges, the Beaufort portcullis, the red rose of Lancaster, the symbols of her dynasty, which was obviously close to her heart.

Heather Teysko: That is about it. I’m just so grateful to you for taking the time out today, I know you’re on holiday, and for sharing information with us about Lady Margaret Beaufort.

Melita Thomas: Thank you very much for inviting me. She is a fascinating character, and I feel there’s still more to learn.

Heather Teysko: Thank you again so much to Melita for sharing her research and her information and knowledge with us. You can learn more about Lady Margaret Beaufort, af course, by going to the Tudor Times website, or you can also go to englandcast.com, where I will put together the show notes for this episode with links to everything you need to know. Not everything. That would be really deep. I’ll put together show notes with links of all of the resources here.

Thank you again for listening, and I will talk to you soon. Again, show notes at englandcast, all one word, englandcast.com. Thanks again.

Remember, if you like this show, there are two main ways you can support it. First (and free!) you can leave a review on iTunes. It really helps new people discover the show. Second, you can support the show financially by becoming a patron on Patreon for as little as $1 episode. Also, you can buy one of my journals, planners, or virtual tours!