Margaret Beaufort is without doubt one of the most influential women of the fifteenth century. She is also, at least in my opinion, one of history’s most fascinating characters. She may not have been the first woman to claim the title “my lady the king’s mother,” but as the person most responsible for the rise of her son Henry Tudor to the throne, she is possibly the most memorable one.
Margaret had an illustrious but checkered family history. Born in 1443, she was descended from John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and his mistress Katherine Swynford. Thus, she shared the same flawed lineage as her first-cousin-once-removed Cecily Neville. The Beauforts, John of Gaunt’s children through Katherine, were born bastards, though they were made legitimate as adults after their parents married. Later, their half-brother King Henry IV stipulated that they could not inherit the throne, but if you disregard that “small” technicality, Margaret’s claim was as strong as any in the Lancastrian line. Her grandfather was the eldest of the Beaufort siblings and through him Margaret could claim descent in the direct male line from Edward III. She never forgot this.
Margaret’s father, John Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, died just before her first birthday, possibly of suicide. At 12, she was married to Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond, a half-brother to King Henry VI. Edmund wasted no time in getting his young bride pregnant, almost as if he knew he had not much time left. In fact, he died several months before his son, Henry Tudor, was born. Because Margaret was only thirteen and not yet physically developed, she endured a very difficult childbirth and would never bear another child. From that day on, all her hopes and ambitions would be centered on the small personage of her only begotten son, and she would work tirelessly to assure his place in the line of succession.
The turbulent years in which Henry grew up meant she was often separated from him for months and even years at a time, frequently for his safety, but he seems never to have been far from her thoughts. She first remarried Sir Henry Stafford, a younger son of the Duke of Buckingham, and they apparently had a stable, comfortable relationship until he died of injuries sustained in the battle of Barnet. (His nephew, another Henry Stafford, would become the Duke of Buckingham who plays a major role in The Protector.) Her next marriage, to Thomas, Lord Stanley, seems to have been a political calculation. He was one of the most powerful magnates in England, and undoubtedly, she hoped his influence would somehow further the cause of her beloved son.
Margaret enters The Protector just as Richard of Gloucester has decided to declare his nephews illegitimate and take the throne for himself. Realizing both her intelligence and her potential to stir up trouble, Richard tries to placate her by giving her the high honor of carrying Queen Anne’s train in the coronation procession. But instead of feeling gratitude, Margaret sees an opportunity for her son in this breach in the York line of succession. She colludes with Bishop Morton to further Buckingham’s rebellion with the goal of putting Henry Tudor on the throne. In The Protector, I have Margaret obtain the poison that will be used to murder Edward IV’s two sons. This is my own invention, but I think it is not beyond the realm of possibility. Since Henry is planning to marry their sister Elizabeth of York and restore her legitimacy, the one-time princes present a far greater threat to him than they do to Richard.
Buckingham’s rebellion fizzles. Margaret’s role is discovered and she is placed under house arrest. However, her punishment is relatively mild as she and her lands and estates are given to the custody of her husband. Again, Richard appears to be trying to appease the powerful Stanleys or at least refrain from provoking them.
In the end, none of it works. Beyond the time horizon of The Protector, Margaret’s son overthrows Richard III at the battle of Bosworth Field and becomes Henry VII. While her husband Stanley does not actively participate in the battle, his neutrality enables Henry’s forces to prevail and kill Richard. Margaret is well rewarded for all her efforts by her grateful son. Her title of “my lady the king’s mother,” and her position at court make her almost a second queen besides Henry’s wife Elizabeth. (We can only guess at the relationship between these two ladies!) She is also given a remarkable degree of autonomy for a woman of the time: control over her own finances and the ability to live independently from her husband.
In later years, like Cecily Neville, she becomes increasingly pious, even taking a vow of celibacy though she is still married to Stanley. Unlike Cecily, she continues to play an active role in court life. She dies at the age of 66, two months after Henry VII’s passing and five days after the coronation of her grandson as Henry VIII. The matriarch of the Tudor dynasty was one of the most respected women of her time, but she will always be a somewhat controversial figure for the role she played in her son’s improbable rise to power.