Lady Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Derby and Richmond, 1443-1509
Born into an illegitimate line of the Plantagenet royal family, she was foremost in promoting the cause of her Welsh-born son, who founded the Tudor Monarchy.
Her grandparents were the third son of Edward III, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and his mistress Katherine Swinford. Their four children bore the name Beaufort and were legitimised when their parents married after the death of Gaunt’s second wife. His legitimate son and heir, Henry IV, declared the Beaufort descendants had no claim to the throne.
Nevertheless, the Beauforts became powerful supporters of their Lancastrian royal cousins during the final years of the Hundred Year War with France. Lady Margaret was but an infant when her father John Beaufort, 1st Duke of Somerset, returned home, having endured humiliating defeat in 1443, and allegedly died a suicide, leaving Margaret, his only child, a rich heiress.
At the tender age of six, she was committed to marriage with the son of William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, who had won high office and strong support from Lady Margaret’s great uncle Cardinal Beaufort, but the duke was dismissed as the king’s chief minister and was murdered as he voyaged into exile in 1450.
Her proposed marriage was ended by her uncle, the new chief minister, Edmund Beaufort, who was her father’s younger brother. He became Duke of Somerset in the second creation but, like his brother, he was despised by a faction led by Richard, Duke of York, who had a strong claim to the throne and also held the Beauforts responsible for the final loss of Normandy in 1450.
King Henry VI ordered that his own half brothers, Jasper Tudor and Edmund Tudor, should be Lady Margaret’s new guardians. They were sons of the king’s mother, Queen Catherine de Valois, widow of King Henry V. Back in 1427, it was rumoured that the young queen mother was involved in an affair with Edmund Beaufort, but she was eventually secretly married to a young Welsh gentleman of inferior birth, Sir Owen Tudor, with whom she had five children, including Jasper and Edmund, before she died in 1437. King Henry VI took her two sons into the royal household and rewarded them respectively with the earldoms of Richmond and Pembroke.
in May 1455, the Duke of York moved to take control of the kingdom. Aided by the Neville family, the earls of Salisbury and Warwick, he attacked the royal retinue at St Albans. Their prime target, Edmund Beaufort, was killed at the Castle Inn and the king was taken into Yorkist ‘care’. This was the opening battle in the Wars of the Roses.
Lady Margaret was married off to her guardian, Edmund Tudor. However, he was captured by Yorkist supporters who imprisoned him in Carmarthen Castle, where he died of plague in November 1456 aged 25, leaving the 13 year old Lady Margaret a widow who was 7 months pregnant with his child.
The difficult birth took place at Jasper Tudor’s Pembroke Castle in January 1457. Lady Margaret had no more children, but the child survived to be named Henry Tudor, second Earl of Richmond and the future Henry VII, King of England. However, at that time, the possibility of Henry having any serious claim to the throne seemed remote.
Less than a year later, the young mother was married off once more to her second cousin Sir Henry Stafford, who was nearly twenty years older than her. Her baby son was left in the care of his uncle, Jasper Tudor.
In 1460, the king was taken into custody once more by Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, and he collapsed into a serious mental breakdown. He was persuaded to recognise the Duke of York as his successor. However, the duke was killed shortly afterwards at Wakefield, in a battle with troops commanded on behalf of the queen, by Edmund Beaufort’s son Henry, third Duke of Somerset.
However, Edward, the eighteen year old successor to the Duchy of York, defeated a force commanded by Lady Margaret’s former father in law, Owen Tudor, at Mortimer’s Cross in the West Country. Tudor, the grandfather of her young son, was executed after the battle.
In March 1461, Edward, Duke of York, was welcomed into London where he was proclaimed King Edward IV. At the end of March, Yorkist and Lancastrian forces met in a snowstorm at Towton Moor, Yorkshire. The Lancastrians were decimated in what has been described as ‘the largest and bloodiest battle on English soil’. Lady Margaret’s husband, Sir Henry Stafford, escaped with his life, but Lord Welles, her mother’s husband, was numbered among the Lancastrian dead.
Jasper Tudor, fled to Scotland along with Queen Margaret and the young Prince Edward. His lands and title were awarded to Sir William Herbert, who took over as guardian of the child, Henry Tudor. Young Henry was also disinherited and his lands passed into the hands of the king’s brother, George, Duke of Clarence. Lady Margaret was, however, apparently allowed some contact with her young son, and her husband received a pardon for his involvement with the Lancastrians. In 1466, he was granted the manor known as Woking Palace, where they entertained Edward IV on at least one occasion.
The king also restored the Welles barony and lands to Richard, the step son of Lady Margaret’s mother, the dowager Lady Welles. However, Richard became involved in a rebellion fomented in Lincolnshire by the Earl of Warwick and the Duke of Clarence.
Warwick, known as the kingmaker, had turned against King Edward in 1464 when he married Elizabeth Woodville, who soon proved eager to improve the social position of her large family at the expense of people related to Warwick and other magnates. King Edward’s disloyal and ambitious brother, the Duke of Clarence, formed an alliance with Warwick. In 1470, Sir Robert Welles son of Lord Welles, was prominently involved in the Lincolnshire revolt. His father was held in custody by the king and, when Sir Robert refused to lay down his arms, the king had Lord Welles executed at Queen’s Cross in Stamford on 12th March 1470. Lady Margaret’s husband, Sir Henry Stafford, was given the melancholy task of riding to give her mother news of her stepson’s death. Sir Robert Welles was defeated days later and was executed in Doncaster.
Warwick and Clarence fled to France, where Queen Margaret and her son, Prince Edward, were in exile The two long-time enemies were reconciled and the prince married Warwick’s younger daughter Ann. Warwick invaded England in 1470 and freed his daughter’s new father in law, the feeble King Henry, once more. On 27 October, Sir Henry Stafford, his wife Lady Margaret with her son Henry Tudor and his uncle, Jasper Tudor attended the redemption of Henry VII at Westminster and dined at the palace. Lady Margaret suddenly found herself regarded as part of the royal family.
King Edward soon rectified the situation when he returned and defeated Warwick at the Battle of Barnet in 1471. Warwick was slain and poor King Henry was once more returned to the Tower. Lady Margaret’s husband, Sir Henry Stafford was also involved in the confused battle. Although his help in the coming battle was solicited by the Lancastrian leader, Lady Margaret’s cousin, the fourth Duke of Somerset – another, younger Edmund Beaufort, Stafford had become a firm supporter of King Edward. He suffered grievous wounds at Barnet, but died at home in his bed 14th Oct 1471.
Queen Margaret and Prince Edward headed for Wales, where they planned to join forces with Lancastrian supporters led by Jasper Tudor. They were intercepted and routed by King Edward at Tewkesbury. Prince Edward was executed and Queen Margaret was taken into custody. Her husband, King Henry VI, was put to death in the Tower a few days later on 21/2nd of May 1471.
The main Lancastrian royal line was now extinct and the Beaufort line, represented by Lady Margaret’s fourteen year old son Henry Tudor represented the last Lancastrian claim to the throne. He fled to France with his uncle Jasper Tudor, where they spent most of the next 14 years under the Duke of Brittany’s protection.
Lady Margaret remained in England. In 1472, she married Thomas, Lord Stanley, a powerful magnate in North West England with firm allegiance to the House of York. He served as Lord Steward of the royal household. He and Lady Margaret became established figures at court and she was godmother to a daughter of the king and queen.
However, her Lancastrian lineage was not forgotten. There is no doubt that Lady Margaret remained in touch with Jasper Tudor and her maturing son during those years.
King Edward IV had two sons and several daughters with his queen Elizabeth Woodville. The intermittent treachery of the king’s brother, George, Duke of Clarence, was ended with his execution in 1478, and their hold on the crown seemed secure until Edward’s sudden death in 1483.
The late king’s erstwhile loyal brother, Richard Duke of Gloucester, put the royal princes in the Tower. He claimed their parents’ marriage was illegal because Edward was already legally committed to another woman. The children of the deceased George Clarence were presumably excluded from the inheritance issue due to his conviction for treason. The princes in the Tower disappeared, and Richard was crowned as King Richard III.
Lady Margaret’s husband was father in law to one of Queen Elizabeth Woodville’s sisters and an executor of Edward IV’s will. He was briefly imprisoned, but was allowed to continue as steward of the royal household. He bore the great mace at Richard’s coronation, whilst his wife carried the train of the new queen, Ann Neville (who had previously been married to the executed Lancastrian Prince Edward).
Lady Margaret was soon conspiring to overthrow the king with the dowager queen, Elizabeth Woodville, (then known as Dame Elizabeth Grey), and Henry Stafford, 2nd Duke of Buckingham. His mother was Lady Margaret’s cousin and his wife was another Woodville, sister of the dowager queen. They planned to place Henry Tudor on the throne and unite Yorkist and Lancastrian factions by his marriage to Elizabeth, daughter of the late Edward IV and Queen Elizabeth Woodville. However, the carefully planned uprising went off at half-cock. Tudor’s ships were dispersed by storms, the various rebellious sections failed to make contact and were easily picked off by Richard’s supporters. Buckingham was caught and executed.
King Richard was well-aware of the part played by the two women in the so-called Buckingham rebellion but, so as not to alienate Stanley, he was appointed to Buckingham’s role as Lord High Constable. In return, Lord Stanley promised that he would keep his wife in custody, put an end her intrigues and prevent her communicating with her son.
But Richard could never again feel secure. He suffered the loss of his wife and their eleven-year-old son in the next few months, and the whole future of the Yorkist dynasty was put in doubt.
In August 1485, Henry Tudor landed at Milford Haven in South Wales, accompanied by his uncle Jasper, a few Lancastrian lords and about 2,000 French mercenaries. They gathered forces as they moved east and faced Richard III at Bosworth Field on 22nd August. Lord Stanley and his brother Sir William, with their considerable retinues, stood by to witness the outcome of the bloody struggle between his sovereign and his step son. Sir William Stanley committed his force on the Tudor side at a critical stage of the battle, and Lord Stanley placed the crown on the head of Henry Tudor, who by winning that battle had become King Henry VII, the first king of the new Tudor dynasty.
The new king’s mother, Lady Margaret, now reaped the full reward for her lifelong efforts to preserve the Beaufort heritage. She was granted independence to administer her own affairs, which was denied to other women, and was invested a Lady of the Order of the Garter in 1488. Although Henry’s marriage to Elizabeth daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville was important to the national and international acceptance of the new dynasty, Lady Margaret was always regarded as practically the queen consort’s equal at court. The dowager queen Elizabeth Woodville, departed the court in 1487 and lived out her life quietly in Bermondsey Abbey.
Lady Margaret, or ‘My Lady the King’s Mother’ as she was known at court, helped supervise the raising of Henry’s children. She became the leading lady at court when Queen Elizabeth died in 1503.
Her son, Henry VII died in 1509. He appointed his mother to administer his will. She organised her son’s funeral and the coronation of his son and heir Henry VIII. With her life’s work of securing the Tudor dynasty complete, Lady Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and of Derby, died a day after Henry VIII’s eighteenth birthday and only two months after the death of her son.
Besides family and court matters, she was well known for her piety and involvement in benevolent works. She translated numerous devotional books and became a patron of the first English printer, William Caxton. In 1502 she founded the Lady Margaret professorships of divinity at Oxford and Cambridge. Her friend and confessor, John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, encouraged her to found or endow not one but two colleges – St John’s (1511) and Christ’s (1505) – at Cambridge. Their close relationship did not save him when he was executed in 1535 for refusing to recognise her grandson, Henry VIII, as head of the Church in England.
Lady Margaret Beaufort must be numbered among the most important women in British history, to be doubly remembered for her contributions to the political and intellectual history of England.