My main historical interest has long been the six wives of Henry VIII, to the exclusion of other excellently interesting women in history. I spent some time looking at the Boleyn descendants, many of whom reflect back the tenacity and charisma of Queen Elizabeth I. But Queen Elizabeth I was part Tudor as well, and rather than yet another examination of her father, I’ve become lately fascinated with the Tudor women who came before her. This has led me back to the Wars of the Roses, a century-long series of battles sometimes referred to as The Cousins War because everybody fighting were all relatives of each other. I had erroneously thought that this war was one of those ones where it was all men scheming and going to battle against one another: not so. In fact, these battles were fought and won in many instances due to the nefarious and brilliant women behind the scenes. And no woman of this era was more ambitious, ruthless, or goddamn amazing than Margaret Beaufort. So let’s take a look at her life, shall we?
OK, we will in a minute. Because to truly understand Margaret, we really have to get a sense of what her family history was like. I’ll try to make this as interesting as possible, I mean it is very interesting, but it’s a lot of names and dates so just trust me that it all pays off in the end. So: there was once an English King called Edward III. One of his sons, John of Gaunt, was the Duke of Lancaster. John had a wife named Blanche, and their children were the Lancasters. John also had a mistress named Katherine Swynford, and their children were illegitimate. When Blanche died, John married Katherine, and the previously illegitimate children were retroactively made legitimate. These children were given the surname Beaufort, named for the castle in which they lived. But a bill was passed stating that the Beauforts could never become heirs to the throne because of their past illegitimacy. Margaret Beaufort was a descendant of these children. So she was a wealthy heiress and known as Lady Margaret, but there was still the shadow of illegitimacy cast over her.
There was another shadow cast over her family too, and it was that of her father, also named John. John Beaufort was a soldier who set off to fight for England in a series of military campaigns when he was 15 years old. When he was about 17, he was captured during a battle in France as a prisoner of war. As a cousin of the English King, he was considered a great prize for the French, who hoped to use him as part of a prisoner exchange. But England never made an offer. He remained in prison for 17 years, finally being freed at age 34. All of this time spent in prison, though he would have been kept relatively comfortable, took a toll on him psychologically. Upon his return to England, he married Lady Margaret Beauchamp of Bletsoe and she was soon pregnant with their first child, Lady Margaret Beaufort.
John set out to lead more military campaigns, but made a series of disastrous decisions. He was dead by suicide shortly before Margaret’s first birthday, and this act would hang heavily over Lady Margaret throughout her life. To a Catholic family in 15th century England, suicide was considered a mortal sin, which meant that John would have been doomed to eternity in Hell. Both Margarets were very devoted Catholics, which meant they would have wholeheartedly believed this to be his fate. Many of Margaret’s later actions show how affected she was by her father’s manner of death.
So, the now widowed Margaret Beauchamp raised her daughter Margaret Beaufort as a single mother. When Margaret was three years old, she was married to the seven-year-old William de la Pole. Marriage between tiny children was entirely a political act, of course, and they would not be expected to actually marry each other and live as man and wife until the bride was at least 12. So this was all a “just on paper” sort of situation. And as it turned out, William’s father (who had the excellent nickname Jackanapes) fell into disgrace later on, and the whole child marriage was annulled on the basis these two literal children were too closely related, anyway. And at around the same time, nine-year-old Margaret was summoned to royal court for the first time.
Some more family history! I’m so sorry, but it’s all really important to understand some things that happen later. BASICALLY, the King at this time was Henry VI. His father, Henry V, had been married to Catherine of Valois. When Henry V died, Catherine of Valois took a second husband whose name was Owen ap Maredudd ap Tudur, or as you may have heard of him, Sir Owen Tudor. Catherine and Owen had two sons, Edmund and Jasper Tudor. Edmund and Jasper were half-cousins of Henry VI so, kind of royal by association. And tiny little nine-year-old Margaret had been brought to court because the King wanted to marry her off to one of these brothers, because of Margaret’s Beaufort genes, because any children Margaret had with one of the Tudor brothers would then be a potential heir to the throne. But Margaret was a tiny little child, and child marriage didn’t turn into real marriage until the bride was 12, right?
The King didn’t just say to her, “You have to marry one of these brothers, so pick one.” But instead, he told her that she needed to marry someone and it could either be her former baby husband, William de la Pole, or it could be Edmund Tudor. And the King would prefer her to choose Edmund, but really it was up to her. Let me repeat: The King Let Margaret Choose. Whether he was humouring her or not by acting like she had a choice, Margaret took it all very seriously and said she’d need a night to think about it. Now, other girls or women may have then gone to talk to a priest or a trusted family member for advice. But Margaret, who was super Catholic and religious, took it all the way to the top, or at least close to the top, by appealing directly to St. Nicholas. She prayed asking him for guidance, and was rewarded with a vision of the Saint advising her to choose Edmund. And so, she did.
And, when she was 12 years old, she was married to the 24-year-old Edmund Tudor. Now, usually in Medieval times like these, even though 12-year-old girls could legally get married, husbands usually waited until their wives were at least 14 before consummating things. This was partly just to be the least gross as possible, and also to allow the girls time to grow into stronger and heartier people who may be able to carry a baby to term. Edmund, much to his personal terribleness, was too eager to have an heir and so the marriage was consummated right away. Margaret was 12 years old and also very small for her age, so the pregnancy was treacherous and even Medieval-era people were like, “This is just so wrong.” And then, just when things couldn’t get any weirder or more terrible, Edmund died of plague while off fighting in a battle. Margaret was left a widowed, pregnant, twice married 13-year-old tiny little child. What to do?
Margaret went to the best place she could think of, to live with her brother-in-law Jasper Tudor at his estate in Wales. It was there that she went into labour, which was extremely terrible and dangerous and everyone thought she was going to die because she was a tiny 13-year-old and it was the 15th century and everything about this was so, so, so horrible. However, she miraculously survived childbirth and so did her son. Jasper decided that the baby should be named Owen, after his and Edmund’s dead father, and headed over to the church to have the baby baptized. Margaret, thirteen years old, only barely back from the brink of death, dragged herself to the baptism and in the middle was like, “I’m so sorry, but actually his name is going to be Henry,” and everyone was so impressed with her that they agreed, and so the baby was christened Henry Tudor.
The usual convention at this time was for people to take about two years to mourn before marrying again but our Margaret had no patience for that. Now that she was a Teen Mom, her life’s purpose had become to ensure her son had the best possible opportunities. And for this to happen, she needed to get married again, and quickly, to someone rich and powerful who could protect them both. Oh, because also at around this same time there were nefarious schemers literally everywhere who wanted to kill the King and take over. And Margaret’s Beaufort genes made both her and her baby son targets.
As you may be familiar with from costume dramas or from the first part of Margaret’s weird story of child marriage, it was usually parents who decided who was going to marry who. But Margaret had no time for that sort of thing, and set her sights on a man who had enough wealth and influence to provide security for her and her son: Sir Henry Stafford. Margaret headed down to speak with Sir Henry’s father and I’d like to remind you of everyone’s respective ages here. Margaret: 13. Sir Henry: 29. Sir Henry’s father: presumably like 55 or so. And this little tiny girl-woman barged in and negotiated this match all for herself, and Sir Henry’s father was so impressed by her that he agreed, and so Margaret married pretty much right away again to her third husband.
I will tell you right now that these two people were married for fifteen years and had exactly zero children together. There are a few reasons I can think of for this including; 1) Sir Henry was impotent OR 2) Margaret’s horrifying childbirth experience had somehow affected her reproductive system such that she could no longer conceive a child AND/OR 3) Margaret’s horrifying child rape followed by a near-death childbirth experience had caused her to avoid having sex ever again her whole life. Honestly, who could blame her at this point?
Now, the Wars of the Roses were happening all over the place, still, and not to get into that or anything but it was basically a battle between Henry VI and the Lancasters versus another branch of the family called the Yorks. Again, it all traces back to Edward III and which of his children could be his heirs or not. Margaret was, at this time, on #TeamLancaster because they were her cousins. Sir Henry, luckily, was also on #TeamLancaster, and had fought battles supporting that side. Unluckily for both of them, in 1461, the Yorks won a major victory and Henry VI was booted off the throne and replaced by the York’s champion, King Edward IV (who you may remember as the husband of a certain dragon-eyed beauty known as Elizabeth Woodville).
Margaret, like some of the best players on TV’s Survivor, had a very canny ability to ingratiate herself to whoever happened to have more power at any given moment. So although she was genetically related to the Lancasters, and although her husband had actively fought against Edward IV, the couple managed to smooth things over and make peace with the new King. But Edward was no fool and, realizing that baby Henry Tudor could be a potential threat to the throne, had the boy sent off to live with Yorkists far away. Margaret was inconsolable at the loss of her son, and the many, many, many letters they wrote back and forth are still around to be read. She truly loved her son, and he was devoted to her, and if one good thing came out of this separation it’s all these very loving letters.
When Sir Henry’s brother married Elizabeth Woodville’s sister, he and Margaret became even more welcome in the royal household. In 1467, Edward IV came to the Staffords’ estate for dinner and a hunt. Margaret Beaufort must have been so excited to be hosting the King in her own home, sitting next to him at the dining table. Finally, her luck had turned and everything was going well. Sir Henry joined Edward IV in battle, fighting side by side and really solidifying his loyalty to him and, by extension, to the Yorkist cause. Everything was going amazing! Until it wasn’t.
In 1470, the Lancaster forces attacked again and Edward IV was forced off the throne and into hiding. King Henry VI was re-instated as King and somehow, miraculously, Margaret charmed her way back into his good graces and made him forget how just a few years before, she’d been dining with his arch-nemesis. This is the thing with Margaret Beaufort: she was a pragmatist. She had family loyalty of course, but she also wanted to survive — not just for herself, but to ensure a good future for her son. She was smart and skilled enough to not only switch allegiances as necessary, but also to gain the trust of those in power to the point that she was invited to dinner with them. And one night while dining with the King and her son, Henry VI the shared his premonition that Henry Tudor would be the one to end the Wars of the Roses by uniting the country. This only confirmed Margaret’s ruthless ambition.
Then came yet another reversal of fortune. After a year away, Edward IV returned in 1471 to take back the throne. Sir Henry and Margaret were approached by one of Edward’s generals, who requested that Sir Henry join in this battle on the York side. And, perhaps with Margaret’s superpower to sense exactly which way the tide was turing, Sir Henry agreed to switch sides again, and to help Edward IV win back the throne for the Yorkist side. And I just want to mention here that, just before he set out for battle, Sir Henry wrote a will that referred to Margaret as “my most entire belovyd wyff” which is the sweetest thing I’ve ever read in Old English script. These two seemed like really a pretty great match.
And, wouldn’t you know it? Margaret was right to side with Edward IV, because he totally won this battle and became King again. However, Sir Henry was wounded in battle and died of his wounds. Margaret was again a widow, now aged 28. And again, she was not going to sit around unprotected — not for herself, and especially not for her son’s sake. Again, she looked around to find exactly which husband would provide her with the security and protection she desired, and it wouldn’t hurt if he was helpful to her politically. This time she chose Lord Thomas Stanley, who happened to be very high-ranking courtier in Edward IV’s court. What a coincidence! So now she had great reasons to head over to court and to ingratiate herself further with the King.
Margaret became close with both King Edward IV as well as with his wife, Elizabeth Woodville. She was such a treasured friend that she was named godmother to one of the royal Princesses. She’d acquired perhaps the most power and influence she’d had yet, and everything was going so well… and then Edward suddenly died of pneumonia. And then Edward’s horrible brother, Richard III, seized the throne. And Elizabeth Woodville had to go into hiding. And Margaret? LITERALLY managed to become friends with Richard and his new Queen, Anne Neville. Who was there at their coronation, carrying Anne’s veil? Our gal Margaret!
But her survivor’s instincts were telling her that Richard wasn’t the real deal. And her instincts had never proven her wrong yet, so she decided to really lean into all of this and conspire to get rid of Richard. Why did she turn on him? And how far would she go to ensure her son became the new King? Find out next time!
TO BE CONTINUED…
Ann Foster is a writer and historian with a research interest in the intersection of women, history, and pop culture, especially the lives and stories of figures both well-known and half-forgotten. patreon.com/annfosterwriter