Lady Margaret

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Lady Margaret Beaufort

The portrait of Lady Margaret in Christ's College, Cambridge, a 16th Century copy of which is in the National Portrait Gallery.

Lady Margaret was herself born of royal lineage being the great, great grand-daughter of Edward III. Her great grandfather was John of Gaunt whose mistress and later third wife was Katherine Swynford. They had a son, John Beaufort, Marquess of Somerset and his son John, Duke of Somerset, was Margaret’s father, her mother being Margaret Beauchamp of Bletso.

The name Beaufort was derived from the Gaunt’s castle and lordship in the Champagne for the benefit of the three boys and a girl born of his adulterous affair with Katherine prior to their marriage in 1396. Later in that year the Pope declared the offspring to be legitimate and in the following year their status was confirmed by Parliament. Notwithstanding these confirmations, the legitimacy of the offspring, and John in particular, was constantly in question up to the end of the 15th century.

Although John Beaufort was one of the poorest of the English earls, his fortunes were transformed when his wife, Margaret Holland, in 1408 became a co-heiress of the earldom of Kent, and it is these properties that descended to Margaret Beaufort that made her such a wealthy woman.

John Beaufort was the half-brother of Henry IV and this, and the king’s preference for Somerset, gave the Beaufort line a strong claim to the throne, which continued through Margaret. However, there was never any real claim to the English crown until Lady Margaret’s only son, Henry Tudor, challenged Richard III’s right to the thrown.

Margaret was born 31 May 1443, just at a time when her father John, Duke of Somerset, was falling out of favour with Henry VI due to his conduct in an abortive attempt to bring to a head the Hundred Years War. John was banished from court and faced treason charges as a result. Shortly after that, on 27 May 1444, John Beaufort died at Wimborne in Dorset, a suspected suicide. On Margaret’s first birthday the king granted William de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, the wardship and marriage of the baby child as reward for services rendered and in the hope of hastening an end to the war.

Suffolk’s objective was to marry his son John to a prominent heiress, and to this end his sights had been set on Anne Beauchamp, sole heir of her father Henry Beauchamp, duke of Warwick. However, in 1450 sentiment strongly turned against Suffolk and he was charged by a hostile Commons with offences ranging from corruption to treason. His first choice match for his son had died in 1449 at the age of five, and so instead, John de la Pole was married to Margaret some time between 28 January and 7 February 1450. She was six year old.

This marriage of convenience was destined not to last and in 1453 it was dissolved and the wardship of the Lady Margaret transferred by the king to his half-brothers, Jasper and Edmund Tudor, their mother being Katherine of Valois, who married Owen Tudor after Henry V’s death in 1422. While Henry VI’s queen, Margaret of Anjou, had produced no offspring and concerned to secure the line of accession, the king married his half-brother Edmund Tudor, to Margaret Beaufort.

Edmund Tudor showed little grace or concern for his young wife and in 1455 they moved to Lamphey, Pembrokeshire, South Wales. At the tender age of twelve, Margaret became pregnant, Edmund’s concerns about succession being more important than Margaret’s safety. Shortly thereafter in August 1456, Edmund was captured and imprisoned in Carmarthen Castle by Sir William Herbert and Sir Walter Devereux, Richard Duke of York’s retainers. Shortly following his release from prison Edmund succumbed to the plague and died on 1 November 1456 leaving the very young Margaret alone and six months pregnant. She took refuge with her brother-in-law, Jasper, at Pembroke castle, where she gave birth to Henry on 28 January 1457.

There is little doubt that the trauma of conception and birth at such an early age made a lasting impression upon Margaret who was to have no more children. The birth was difficult and physical injuries could not be ruled out as a cause of no further issue, despite two later husbands with whom she shared long and caring relationships.

Following Edmund’s death Margaret, despite being not yet fourteen years old, took a strong interest in her future and that of her infant son. She set out to secure the protection of Humphrey, Duke of Buckingham, the only English magnate as powerful as Richard Duke of York. On 6 April 1457 Reginald Boulers of Coventry and Lichfield granted dispensation for Buckingham’s second son, Henry Stafford, and Margaret to marry. The dispensation being required as they were second cousins. They were married within the Coventry and Lichfield diocese on 3 January 1458.

The Duke of Buckingham died at the battle of Northampton in 1460 leaving the couple 400 marks worth of land, but despite this, it was Margaret’s property that afforded them an aristocratic lifestyle.

Sir Henry Stafford fought on the side of the Lancastrians at Towton in March 1461, but after Edward IV’s victory he rapidly made peace with the new administration and secured pardons for himself and Margaret. However, Margaret was separated from her son when William Lord Herbert captured Pembroke Castle on 30 September 1461 and was rewarded with a royal grant of the wardship and marriage of Henry Tudor who spent most of his childhood under the supervision of Herbert’s wife, Anne Devereux.

The reconciliation of the king with the Beaufort family continued following Towton, until in November 1463, Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, Margaret’s cousin, defected from Edward IV to the Lancastrians in Scotland. This culminated in the duke’s summary execution at the battle of Hexham in May 1464, almost certainly as a direct order from the King. Following this, the Beauforts became firmly alienated from the crown with much of their land confiscated by the King, and Margaret became increasingly estranged from her family as her husband and the Stafford kin became more aligned with the Yorkist cause.

Stafford’s position with the King was still somewhat fragile, possibly due to his wife’s family connections, and Margaret was aware of the political risks surrounding her and her son. To protect him, in 1465, Margaret admitted Henry to the confraternity of the Order of the Holy Trinity, near Knaresborough in Yorkshire.

In the summer of 1468, on 14 August, Henry Tudor was to witness the defeat of his uncle, Jasper Tudor at TwT Hill near Caernarfon. Jasper, still loyal to the Lancastrian cause, raided north Wales and the King ordered Lord Herbert to raise an army to answer the threat. Henry accompanied the Herbert forces.

Stafford, Margaret and Henry were to survive the following turbulent times, including the brief restoration of the Lancastrian King Henry VI. In October 1470 Henry was reunited with his Uncle Jasper and taken for an audience with the King. This meeting was significant in progressing the young Henry Tudor’s claim to the throne as Henry VI had been instrumental in the arrangement of the marriage of his parents. At the end of November, Henry rejoined his uncle and departed to South Wales.

On 14 March 1471, after a period of exile in Holland, Edward IV landed in Yorkshire with a small army. Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, Margaret’s cousin, was in London deciding whether to attempt to hold the city or to raise further support in the West Country awaiting the arrival of Margaret of Anjou. He took the latter course and attempted to elicit from Stafford support for the Lancastrian cause in defence of the King. Somerset wished to avoid the conflict if possible, but in due course his hand was forced when Edward marched past Coventry to gain entry to the capital. On 12 April, Somerset decided to join the Yorkist army having sent a servant to deliver his will to his wife at Woking, and once again, Margaret and her Beaufort kinsmen were on opposing sides.

Edward faced his principal resistance from Warwick at Barnet. Meanwhile Somerset attempted to raise forces at Salisbury, but on hearing of Edward’s victory at Barnet, these forces were instead sent in support of the Yorkist cause. Despite the victory at Barnet, Stafford was badly injured and played no further part in the campaign. For the Beaufort family the defeat was truly calamitous.

Despite the defeats, Somerset proceeded to raise further support throughout the West Country, until on 4 May 1471 the Lancastrian and Yorkist armies faced each other at Tewkesbury. Division amidst the Lancastrian commanders led to a disastrous engagement in which the forces of Lord Wenlock were withdrawn after fierce fighting and a rout ensued in which Somerset᾿s brother John, Marquess of Dorset and the Lancastrian Prince of Wales, Edward were slain.

Somerset sought sanctuary in Tewkesbury Abbey. Edward granted a pardon to those on consecrated ground, but unsurprisingly failed to keep his word and Somerset was executed on 6 May. Henry VI died in the tower on 21 May, almost certainly murdered on Edward’s command.

Margaret was able to maintain favour with the new king as a result of her husband’s support for the Yorkist cause at Barnet. However, things were not so straightforward for her son Henry who was holding out at Pembroke Castle with his uncle Jasper. Unwilling to risk a ‘pardon’ from the king they set sail from Tenby for Brittany, thus commencing a long period of exile for Henry.

Stafford died on 4 October 1471 following ill-health and the after effects of wounds suffered at the battle of Barnet. Margaret again survived a very difficult time, and following the minimum customary one year’s mourning for her husband she married for the fourth time, this time to Thomas, Lord Stanley.

Margaret secured her position of favour with the new king through Stanley who had been a long and loyal servant. Stanley also benefited through securing an interest in the many properties and estates that Lady Margaret owned at the time. Following this, Margaret worked hard to bring to an end her son’s exile and to have him return to England.

The pious Lady Margaret

However, fate overtook her eventually, when on 9 April 1483 Edward IV died. His brother Richard became Protector of his young son, Edward V, but this was short lived when Richard declared all Edward’s children illegitimate and subsequently proclaimed himself king on 26 June, to be crowned 6 July. Both Stanley and Margaret attended the coronation of Richard III.

Margaret sought alliance with Richard in an attempt to safeguard the arrangements made in 1482 for the return to England of her son. However, after sensing the extent of the current opposition to the new King, Margaret suddenly threw in her lot with the plotters.

A plot was formed with the Woodville family to claim the thrown for Henry Tudor through a marriage alliance with Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. An abortive attempt to rescue the young sons of Edward IV from the tower followed resulting in their deaths and those of many of the conspirators.

Margaret then encouraged rebellion by the Duke of Buckingham, who knew that making Henry king would not serve his purposes well as Woodville’s pre-eminence would be restored in Wales at his expense. It is possible that Margaret duped Buckingham into believing the rebellion was to make him king. However, the attempt on 24 September 1483 failed, the Kentish rebellion was suppressed by the duke of Norfolk.

By the time Henry landed on the Dorset coast, Buckingham was already defeated and he promptly retreated. Margaret survived solely due to her husband’s continued loyalty to the King. However she forfeited her titles and estates, the properties re-granted to Stanley. However, Stanley’s support of the king was more to do with his resentment of Buckingham, and throughout he allowed his wife to continue to communicate with her son in France.  When Henry landed in Wales in 1485 the support of the Stanley family was a significant enabling factor in him gaining the throne following defeat of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field, 22 August 1485.

It is significant that Margaret Beaufort’s role in the War of the Roses, her ability to maintain a balance between the two factions, to protect her own properties and land and ultimately to manage the accession of her son, Henry Tudor, to the thrown of England, was an act of magnificent political astuteness and true courage.  She was a remarkable lady and her subsequent patronage of academia has left a lasting legacy in Cambridge, and indeed England.

In 1505 she founded Christ’s College in Cambridge, leaving a substantial legacy in her will when she died in June 1509, the same year as her son.  Part of that legacy was used to create, from the properties at Malton, a refuge from the plague for the masters, students and staff at the college.  Periodically, throughout the 16th Century, the entire college decamped to Malton while Cambridge suffered the ravages of the plague.

She also founded St John’s College in Cambridge in 1511.

Lady Margaret is buried in Westminster Abbey.

Lady Margaret's tomb in Westminster Cathedral

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