Beaufort, Margaret (1443–1509)

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Beaufort, Margaret (1443–1509)

Countess of Richmond and Derby who might have tried to claim the throne of England but instead secured that position for her son, Henry VII, and all the Tudor line. Name variations: Lady Margaret; Margaret of Lancaster. Pronunciation: BOE-fort. Born Margaret Beaufort on May 31, 1443 (some sources cite 1441, but 1443 is documented), at Bletso in Bedfordshire; died in Abbot's house at Westminster on June 29, 1509; daughter of John Beaufort (c. 1404–1444), 1st duke of Somerset, and Margaret Beauchamp (d. 1482); betrothed to John de la Pole, 1st duke of Suffolk, 1450 (dissolved, 1453); married Edmund Tudor (d. 1456), earl of Richmond, in 1455; married Henry Stafford (d. 1471), in 1458; married Thomas Stanley (d. 1504), earl of Derby, in 1472; children: (first marriage) Henry (b. January 28, 1457), later Henry VII, king of England (r. 1485–1509).

Involved in political conflicts of Wars of Roses (1459–71 and 1483–87); declared femme sole (1485); took vow of chastity (1499), though last husband was still living; founded divinity professorships at Oxford and Cambridge (1502), Cambridge preachership (1503), Christ's College (1505), and licensed St. John's College (1508) which was founded in her memory (1511); translated De Imitatione Christi from French to English (1504) and Mirror of Gold for the Sinful Soul (1506).

Almost from the day of her birth, Margaret Beaufort was caught in the midst of political struggle. Her grandfather John Beaufort, earl of Somerset, was half-brother to Henry IV, in a direct line from Edward III, and so was vaguely a part of the royal succession. Though John Beaufort was the oldest of several illegitimate children of John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, and Catherine Swynford , the Beaufort family had been legitimated by the pope in 1397. Many in the aristocracy, however, were willing to challenge their status. Margaret's father, also John Beaufort, was an honored duke and military commander, despite his belonging to a "bastard line" up until 1443. In that year, just after his only daughter's birth, he led a major expedition to France. He bungled the mission, lost vital ground in the Hundred Years' War between France and England, and returned in disgrace. Banished from the court, with his property confiscated, John Beaufort died, possibly by his own hand, before Margaret was two years old.

Margaret was left in the care of her twice-widowed mother Margaret Beauchamp . The young Margaret lived at Bletso, where she was born, and was raised with great care in the company of the children of her mother's first marriage. Her childhood, brief as it was, appears to have been a happy one. Later in life, Margaret would use her influence to benefit her half-siblings, the St. Johns. Needlepoint was a favorite pastime throughout her life; some of her work exists to this day, most notably a small tapestry of the St. John coat-of-arms. Margaret learned to read and write in English and in French. Her education, while certainly out of the reach of most women of the era, was not unusual for the heiress of a high noble. Her fondness for devotional literature was evident throughout her life.

Margaret Beaufort was too important an heiress to be left without an official protector for long, and King Henry VI named William de la Pole, earl of Suffolk, as her guardian. This wardship gave Suffolk the control of her estate and the arrangements for her marriage. He betrothed her at age seven to his son, John, no doubt aware of her potential connection to the throne. Henry VI had other plans for the young bride, however, and sought to dissolve her marriage to John de la Pole and transfer her wardship to his own half-brothers, Jasper and Edmund Tudor. To do this, he needed the girl's consent, and she was told to make her decision. According to legend, Margaret, not yet ten years old, prayed to St. Nicolas, "the patron and helper of all true maydens," and had a vision informing her to choose Edmund Tudor, the earl of Richmond.

Margaret married Edmund in 1455, and the couple moved to Pembrokeshire in the south of Wales. Their time together was brief, however, for Edmund was called away before a year was out to defend the house of Lancaster. Two of the family lines descending from Edward III, the Yorks and the Lancasters, were struggling for dominance of the English Crown. This conflict was to eventually be called the "Wars of the Roses" because the red rose was one emblem of the house of Lancaster and the white rose belonged to the house of York. Margaret and Edmund Tudor were both of the Lancaster line, and their marriage was significant. If Henry VI had no surviving children, their offspring stood to inherit the crown. For that reason, the couple consummated the marriage immediately, in spite of Margaret's youth. Edmund was captured in 1456 while on a campaign against the Yorks. Though he was eventually released, he died of plague in that year.

At 13, Margaret was pregnant, widowed, and far from her family. She went to live with her brother-in-law and former guardian, Jasper Tudor, at Pembroke castle. It was there that she gave birth to her only son on January 28, 1457. According to legend, the name "Owen" was suggested to her, but she chose the name "Henry" because it was "the name of kings." Due to her age and some difficulty in delivery, Margaret never conceived again. She had a strong bond with her son, however, and for the rest of her life his safety and success were her main concerns.

In March 1457, Jasper Tudor and Margaret traveled to see the duke of Buckingham to discuss her possible marriage to his second son, Henry Stafford. She was still an important heiress, more so since the birth of her son, but her personal involvement in these marriage arrangements suggest she wanted some control over her future. Permission for this marriage was required from the church because Henry Stafford was Margaret's second cousin; the two were married on January 3, 1458. This match, which was to last 14 years, seems to have been an affectionate and stable union.

Henry Stafford had been initially a supporter of the Lancasters. After Edward IV was crowned in 1461, however, Stafford offered his loyalty to the new, Yorkist, king. This won for him and Margaret a pardon, preserving her estate and title. Still, Margaret had little cause to rejoice. Her son, the young Henry Tudor, was considered a potential threat, and Edward granted wardship of the five-year old boy to a loyal commander named William Herbert. Henry received an appropriate education and much care in this household, but Margaret did not stop working from afar on her son's behalf. She and her husband had already successfully preserved and improved her own estates when she approached several influential nobles to discuss her son's future land and titles. These were dangerous moves in light of the delicate political balance, and her actions may have aroused the suspicions of King Edward.

It was nine years before Margaret Beaufort was reunited with her son. In 1471, a rebellion against Edward IV had returned power temporarily to Henry VI. During this restoration of the Lancasters, Margaret and her husband managed to finally visit young Henry Tudor. Yorkist forces eventually prevailed against the Lancaster rebellion, however, and Edward regained the throne; this time, Henry VI and his son did not survive. With the main line of the Lancasters extinguished, Henry Tudor was the only immediate threat to Edward's claim to the English Crown. For this reason, Margaret's son was in more danger than ever before. Margaret reluctantly agreed with Jasper, her brother-in-law, that Henry would only be safe outside the country; she saw the two of them leave from the port of Tenby for France in September 1471. Her loneliness was magnified when, a few weeks later, Henry Stafford died of illnesses associated with wounds received in the recent rebellion.

With her son safely out of England, Margaret was forced to concentrate on her own well-being. In June 1472, less than a year after Henry Stafford's death, Margaret married Thomas Lord Stanley, the earl of Derby and a trusted minister of Edward IV. Stanley gained the extensive territory of Margaret's vast estates, and she gained protection and influence at the Yorkist court. She was also able to keep up correspondence with her exiled son while maneuvering to restore him to royal favor. Though Margaret wanted to settle portions of her estates and those of her mother on Henry as the earl of Richmond, his status as an exiled Lancaster meant that she needed the king's permission to do so. She had limited success in this endeavor. There was even some talk of marrying Henry Tudor to Elizabeth of York (1466–1503), the oldest daughter of Edward IV. Such a match would have undoubtedly come with conditions, for the reigning king would never have consented to a union that could threaten his power. The potential problems must have occurred to Margaret at the time, for in 1482 she advised her son to be wary of any marriage offers from the royal family.

Beauchamp, Margaret (d. 1482)

Countess of Somerset. Died on August 8, 1482; daughter of John Beauchamp, 3rd baron Beauchamp of Bletso, and Edith Stourton; married Oliver St. John; married John Beaufort, earl of Somerset, in 1439; married Lionel Welles, 6th baron Welles; children: (first marriage) Edith St. John (who married Geoffrey Pole, grandfather of the archbishop of Canterbury); Oliver St. John (Lord St. John); John St. John; (second marriage)Margaret Beaufort (1443–1509); (third marriage) John Welles, 1st viscount Welles (d. 1499).

In 1483, Edward IV died, leaving two young sons under the protection of Richard, duke of Gloucester. Richard proclaimed that the boys were illegitimate, had himself crowned Richard III, king of England, and placed the two boys under arrest in the Tower of London. His actions split the house of York, giving Margaret new hopes for bringing her son home from France. But the new king kept her under close scrutiny, and she had to be extremely careful. In

an effort to gauge the extent of their loyalty, Richard commanded Thomas and Margaret to take part in his coronation ceremony. Margaret Beaufort carried Queen Anne of Warwick 's train in the procession and served afterwards as a hostess at the banquet. In spite of this show of obedience, Margaret was soon ready to challenge Richard's authority by supporting a plot to rescue the sons of Edward from the Tower. However, the attempt to storm the Tower failed, and the young princes were never seen again. Thus, a new strategy to defeat Richard was formulated, this one designed to put Henry Tudor on the throne.

The idea of marrying Henry to Elizabeth of York was resurrected, and Margaret carried on a secret communication with Elizabeth Woodville (1437–1492), widow of Edward IV. The messenger was Margaret's physician; he could visit both noble ladies without suspicion. When the former queen agreed to the match, the young couple vowed betrothal to each other despite the distance that separated them. As all of this was being arranged, a rebellion against Richard III was led by the duke of Buckingham, who had written to Henry Tudor in late 1483, inviting him to take part. Sadly, on the designated day, Buckingham's rebels were easily defeated, and Henry's small fleet was turned away from the coast of Dorset. Henry returned once more to France, and Buckingham was beheaded. When Margaret's involvement in the plan was discovered, she was charged with conspiracy and treason against the king. Her life was spared only because King Richard hoped to maintain the loyalty of Thomas Stanley, who had not taken part in the conspiracy. Margaret was forced to forfeit her title and lands and remain without household servants or loyal friends in some "secret place," probably one of Stanley's estates. The lands that would have been preserved for Henry Tudor were dispersed among nobles loyal to Richard, while Stanley maintained the rights over his wife's former holdings.

In spite of his apparent obedience to the king, Stanley allowed Margaret to keep up communication with her son. She still believed that a marriage between a York and a Lancaster, specifically Elizabeth and Henry, was the only way to bring stability to the English throne. With a small group of trusted confidants, she planned Henry's victorious return to England. The proposed union bought the support of Yorkists who distrusted Richard. In early August 1485, Henry led an army across the channel and landed in the south of Wales, close to his childhood home. On the battlefield at Bosworth, it was reportedly the last-minute defection of Thomas Stanley from the side of Richard to that of Henry Tudor that guaranteed success. Richard III was killed, and the crown was given to Henry.

Margaret Beaufort enjoyed the company of her son, the new king, for almost a month at her manor before they set out for London to arrange the coronation. It is said to have been an emotional reunion, taking place after almost 15 years of danger and struggle. Margaret's life up to this point had been one of extreme reversals of fortune and uncertainty. It is no wonder the woman was something of a pessimist: sources say she wept at her son's coronation as Henry VII out of joy but also with a sense of foreboding and fear. Involved now in much of court ceremony, Margaret sat at Henry's side during the coronation of his bride Elizabeth and was in charge of their wedding arrangements.

Much has been made of the fact that Margaret never seriously pressed her own claim to the throne, something which is usually attributed to her love for her son. She was a practical and determined woman, though, with a clear understanding of the politics of her time. How else could she have played the game so shrewdly? More recent historians believe that Margaret understood that her own reign would have been controversial and not well supported. As the beloved mother of a king and the agent of a York-ist-Lancaster marriage, however, she enjoyed a great deal more influence and control than she would have as a queen. It is likely that her ambitions never extended to the entire kingdom. Nevertheless, her role during her son's reign was not limited to ceremony, nor did she gracefully retire after the coronation of Henry VII. She regained her title and estates and was granted femme sole status by royal proclamation, allowing her full and independent use of her property. She received temporary custody of the young earl of Warwick, who was a potential threat to the Tudor king. She designated a panel of learned men to oversee justice in her territories, and undertook a number of land-improvement measures. During this period, Margaret made careful plans for all of her land and even pursued the acquisition of some distant ancestral lands in France. She meant to leave a sizable legacy for her descendants.

From the time of the marriage of the new king and queen, Margaret was in charge of the royal household. She composed the Ordinances as to what preparation was to be made against the deliverance of a queen and also for the christening of the child of which she shall be delivered, which spelled out everything from the arrangement of the furniture to how the beds should be made. She saw to the care of her first grandchild, Arthur, born in 1486. Elizabeth had taken ill soon after Arthur's birth, and Margaret's help was sorely needed. Most of the time, Margaret lived at Collyweston, keeping in touch with her son through frequent letters, gifts, and occasional visits. She often accompanied the royal couple in their travels, and it is said that Henry had great respect for his mother's diplomatic skill.

As much as the king relied on his mother's advice in the early years of his reign, he soon began to enjoy the confidence and security of his own rule. Not unlike his mother in character, Henry proved to be a shrewd and distrustful monarch. That he asserted his own authority as a king seems to have been no loss to Margaret, as their letters reveal a constant and mutual respect. Their only well-known disagreement concerned the palace at Woking, one of Margaret's favorite houses. Henry decided in 1503 that he wanted that house for his own use; Margaret fought him and only maintained the right to use the palace occasionally at a fixed rent. She must have had sore feelings over the settlement, because she managed to regain Woking soon after her son's death in 1509.

John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester">

All Englonde for her dethe had cause of wepynge.

John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester

Margaret's influence in her territory was reflected in the work she had done on her residence at Collyweston between 1499 and 1501. After her palace-like manor was enlarged to accommodate the reception of important visitors, she had a series of smaller buildings added to the estate, including a council house with adjoining chambers and a prison. She was approached on a regular basis by "suitors," people from the area who wanted judicial matters settled in her court. Henry, the king, also delegated authority to his mother's council as a way of taking some of the burden from his own council. Margaret's unique position made her a precedent for women holding the office of justice of the peace.

Margaret Beaufort's lasting impact on the country is most evident in the work she did with universities and charities. Her intimate friendship with her confessor, John Fisher, was likely to have made her sympathetic to the needs of Cambridge and other institutions of learning. Be that as it may, Margaret's personal affinity for religious knowledge and guidance were well known. It is said she rose at five o'clock every morning to begin her prayers. She spent a good deal of her time in prayer, alone or with her companions, and she frequently wore hair shirts to ensure her own humility. Margaret is often portrayed in a nun's habit, reflecting her piety and simple life. She met Fisher in 1494 and five years later took a vow of chastity with the permission of her husband. She and Sir Stanley were maintaining separate households by this time and each concentrated on their own concerns. Stanley died in 1504.

Margaret had already long been active in acts of charity: one of her houses was inhabited by 12 poor men and women. She cared for the sick with her own hands and saw to the decent burial of those in her lands that could not afford it. She meant to financially support a number of monastic houses, but Fisher convinced her that active learning was more important than seclusion. Her first contribution towards the great universities was the foundation, in 1502, of an endowed lectureship in theology at both Cambridge and Oxford. Two years later, she founded a preachership at Cambridge. Like the previous lectureships, the purpose of this position was to allow learned men to go out and reach as many people as possible.

In 1505, Margaret went on to found a new college at Cambridge, Christ's College, where she had private rooms reserved for her own use above the master's lodge. It was while working in these rooms that Lady Margaret, according to legend, leaned out of a window to remind an instructor to be gentle with a student he was correcting. Traces of Margaret's authority exist elsewhere in the statutes of the college. She appointed Fisher to the position of Visitor for his lifetime and bequeathed to him the use of her rooms. She reserved for herself the right to appoint the master and fellows. She also saw to the details of the health and cleanliness of the students there, assigning a nurse and providing laundry facilities.

While involved with the continued improvement of Christ's College, Margaret spent time translating devotional literature from French into English. In 1504, she completed translation of the fourth book of De Imitatione Christi. She regretted that she had never learned Latin, for without it she could not read the original first three books of this work, or many other great religious manuals. Two years later, she translated Mirror of gold for the sinful soul. Margaret also acted as patron of William Caxton and of Wynkyn de Worde, both of whom composed, translated, and printed many books at her special request. Caxton dedicated his Blanchardine and Eglantine to her, and de Worde referred to her as "the most excellent princess my lady the king's grandame" in his dedications.

By 1508, Margaret Beaufort had already shown a great deal of interest in the dilapidated hospital of St. John. She wanted to transform it into another college, and made provisions for it in her will. It was to be her last great endowment. At age 65, suffering greatly from arthritis, she set about getting her affairs in order. Sadly, she did not expect to outlive her son. Henry VII fell ill early in 1509 and died in April. Margaret's grief was intense, and she went into isolation to pray. By this time, she had outlived three husbands and her only child. The young Henry VIII, Margaret's sole surviving grandson, was never as dear to her as her son had been. Lady Margaret appeared at her son's funeral and at her grandson's coronation, but after that took to bed at the abbot's lodge at Westminster. She died on June 29, 1509, and was buried at Westminster Abbey in the same chapel as her son Henry VII and his Queen Elizabeth, who had died in 1503.

John Fisher, Margaret's longtime friend and confidant, immortalized her in more ways than one. He wrote a eulogy, The mornynge remembraunce had at the month mynde of the noble prynces margarete countesse of Rychemonde and Darby, in which he praised her life of caring and constant activity. He recounted stories to illustrate Margaret's dignity and piety, claiming, "she was bounteous and lyberall to every persone of her knowledge or aquayntance." He also worked hard to see her plans for St. John's College realized, as the young king Henry VIII was trying to seize her estates for his own use. Backed with papal authority, however, Fisher saw St. John's College founded and made the school a memorial to the life of Lady Margaret. It is a fitting tribute for Margaret Beaufort, one of the noblest figures of the era.


Fisher, John. "Mornynge remembraunce," in The English Works of John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester. John E.B. Mayor, ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1876 (reprinted, 1935).

Jones, Michael, and Malcolm G. Underwood. The King's Mother: Lady Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and Derby. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Routh, E.M.G. Lady Margaret: A Memoir. London: Oxford University Press, 1924.

Simon, Linda. Of Virtue Rare: Margaret Beaufort, Matriarch of the House of Tudor. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1982.

suggested reading:

Cooper, C.H. Memoir of Margaret, Countess of Richmond and Derby. 1874.

Pollard, A.J. The Wars of the Roses. London: Macmillan Education, 1988.

Tytler, Sarah. Tudor Queens and Princesses. London: James Nisbet, 1896.

Nancy L. Locklin , Ph.D. candidate, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia

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Beaufort, Margaret (1443–1509)

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Beaufort, Margaret (1443–1509)