Previously in the neverending anxiety-inducing young adulthood of Margaret BeaufortMargaret was married off at age 12, became a widow while pregnant, nearly died giving birth at age 13, and devoted the rest of her life to ensuring her son Henry Tudor would do well for himself. She remarried twice, bobbed back and forth between both sides of the Wars of the Roses, and found herself friendly with the new King, Richard III, and his wife, Anne Neville. But as she’d come to learn, one could never get too comfortable…

Margaret Beaufort had proven herself resilient, capable of changing allegiances as necessary as the Yorks and Lancasters struggled for power. Her ambitions were not just for herself but for her son, Henry. She knew that she had to keep herself safe in order to protect him and to do that, she had to play a long game. And so it was that the Lancastrian Margaret was invited to take on a position as lady in waiting to the new queen, Anne Neville. That’s good! But Richard was suspicious of her and did his best to reduce her power by stripping her of all her titles and estates, and transferring all of her property to her husband. That’s bad! But the thing is: Margaret Beaufort was not a woman you wanted to cross. She’d been married four times by now, and had lived through a lot of shit. So what did she do? She turned to her frenemy, dowager Queen Elizabeth Woodville.

It was a sort of “the enemy of my enemy is my ally” situation. Elizabeth, in hiding since her son’s claim to the throne was usurped by her brother-in-law Richard, was keen to boot Richard off the throne. Not only had Richard stolen the throne from Elizabeth’s son, but he had also trapped Elizabeth’s two sons in the Tower of London and nobody heard from them again. The “Princes in the Tower” are now thought to have been murdered, perhaps by Richard to eliminate them as a threat to his reign. There is another theory that Margaret Beaufort either killed them herself or arranged for them to be killed, to remove them as an obstacle to her son becoming the new King.

Amanda Hale as Margaret Beaufort in The White Queen (2013)
Amanda Hale as Margaret Beaufort in The White Queen (2013)

Basically, Richard was becoming increasingly unpopular for just the appearance of having killed these boys, which left Margaret and Elizabeth poised to attack. They weren’t trained warriors so they wouldn’t face off with him in battle; this was a battle of wits and public relations. And some battles, but those two wouldn’t be the ones wielding swords. Their ultimate weapons were their children: Elizabeth’s daughter Elizabeth of York was potentially an heir to the throne, and if you cross-referenced the whole messy family tree, so too was Margaret’s son, Henry. So the women arranged to have their children married to each other, strengthening them both as prospective new monarchs. Additionally, the union of the Yorkist Elizabeth with the Lancastrian Henry would effectively end the decades-long Wars of the Roses.

So. One might think it would complicate things that Margaret’s current husband, Stanley, had fought alongside Richard in battle. But these were times demanding of flexibility, and Margaret wasn’t about to let her husband ruin her plans. When Richard summoned Stanley to come fight with him again, Margaret’s husband ghosted him. Basically, he just never said yes or no and avoided the battle altogether. Richard, reading between the lines, took Stanley’s son hostage to force his former colleague to work with him again. But Stanley held firm, still refusing to either fight for or against the King. It was basically a 15th century staring match that came to an end when, without Stanley by his side, Richard was killed in battle. This basically cleared the way for Margaret’s son to take over, with Elizabeth’s daughter as his wife. But Margaret wasn’t going to make it that easy. She was determined that there should be absolutely no misunderstanding that her son was king by divine right.

So, Margaret arranged for Henry to be crowned before he married Elizabeth. This sent out the firm message that Henry, himself, was King. Elizabeth of York may also be royal, but it wasn’t marriage to her that meant Henry could rule. Her son was named Henry VII, and immediately he bestowed upon his mother the title of Countess of Richmond and Derby as well as that of Lady Companion of the Order of the Garter. Lady Margaret Beaufort was now officially known as My Lady The King’s Mother, a role that allowed her more power and independence than any nearly every other woman in the country — apart from Elizabeth Woodville. While both women wore robes of the same quality and commanded similar amounts of respect, Margaret had to always walk a half-pace behind Elizabeth who, as Queen dowager, would always outrank her. This was not an issue for too long, however, as Elizabeth continued to scheme to advance her family’s interests and wound up leaving court in 1487, destined for life in a religious order. It would stand to reason that Margaret may have had something to do with her rival’s departure.

michelle fairlay the white princess
Michelle Fairlay as Margaret Beaufort in The White Princess (2017)

 

With Elizabeth Woodville gone, Margaret Beaufort became the most powerful woman in royal court. She wielded more power and influence than her daughter in law, Elizabeth of York. In fact, Margaret was permitted to live in the palace’s traditional Queen’s rooms, forcing the creation of an entirely new set of apartments for Elizabeth of York to live in. Her daughter in law mostly remained separate from the continued political scheming that was going on, focusing instead on raising her beloved children — Margaret’s grandchildren: Arthur, Henry, Margaret, and Mary. In 1502, Arthur passed away, leaving the younger Henry as the new heir to the throne.

As the years went on, Margaret became increasingly devoted to religious practice. With her husband’s permission (because the law of the time demanded it; but as though he wasn’t about to agree with her), she took a vow of chastity and went off to live in a religious facility. She and Stanley never divorced and were said to continue to maintain a good friendship. He was known to visit with her regularly. Just so everyone knew she was serious, Margaret renewed her vow of chastity again in 1504. But just five years later, her beloved son passed away.

Margaret, the executor of his will, was responsible for arranging his royal funeral at which she was honoured above all other women in the royal family. She also oversaw the coronation of her grandson, who became King Henry VIII at age seventeen on June 24th, 1509. Five days later, Margaret herself passed away. As per her request, she was buried alongside her first husband, Edmund Tudor, in Westminster Abbey. An elaborate tomb comprised of a black marble with a gilded bronze sculpture of Margaret was commissioned from the artist Pietro Torrigiano.

margaret beaufort tomb
The tomb of Margaret Beaufort in Westminster Abbey. Image by own work [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons
The poet Erasmus composed the Latin inscription on the tomb, which in translation reads:

Margaret, Countess of Richmond, mother of Henry VII, grandmother of Henry VIII, who donated funds for three monks of this abbey, a grammar school in Wimborne, a preacher in the whole of England, two lecturers in Scripture, one at Oxford, the other at Cambridge, where she also founded two colleges, one dedicated to Christ, and the other to St John, the Evangelist.

As noted in this tribute, much of Margaret’s legacy was in the patronage she made toward the arts, literacy, and education. Due to her numerous contributions to the University of Cambridge, she was honoured posthumously as the Foundress of the College. Oxford University’s first women’s college, Lady Margaret Hall, was named after her as well. She lived a relatively long life, considering her era, one that bore witness to the end of the Medieval period and the beginnings of the Renaissance; one in which she saw her family’s reputation rise from illegitimacy to the onset of the Tudor dynasty. Her single-minded focus on protecting and elevating her son helped to bring about the end of the Wars of the Roses and, through her grandchildren, Margaret is the direct ancestor of every English monarch through to this day.

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