Margaret Beaufort (1443-1509) survived the violent conflicts of the Wars of the Roses and went on to become the matriarch of one of England's most prominent royal dynasties. Her son, Henry VII, took the throne in 1485, becoming the first of the Tudor monarchs who would rule England until 1603.
Beaufort lived during one of the most turbulent periods in English history: the age of the Wars of the Roses. Two powerful families, the Yorks (symbolized by a white rose) and the Lancasters (symbolized by a red rose), were immersed in schemes, murders, and battles as they fought for the throne of England. As the great-granddaughter of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, Beaufort was part of this great struggle.
Born in 1443, the only surviving child of John Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, Margaret became a rich heiress at the age of eight, upon her father's death. The Lancastrian king, Henry VI, bestowed wardship of the girl on his half-brother Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond; his brother Jasper, Earl of Pembroke; and a Welsh clerk of the wardrobe, Owen Tudor. The new arrangements changed the course of Margaret's future. As a small child, she had been engaged to John de la Pole, son of the Duke of Suffolk, but when informed of the change in custody arrangements, eight-year-old Margaret sought the advice of a trusted older woman who suggested she pray to St. Nicholas for guidance. Margaret stayed awake praying that very night, until "about four o'clock in the morning one appeared to her arrayed like a bishop, and naming unto her Edmund Tudor, bade her take him as her husband."
Ready to obey her heavenly visitor, Beaufort agreed to the match, but the wedding was postponed until 1455, when she reached the more mature age of 12. Edmund Tudor, 13 years her senior, died in November of the following year, leaving his 13-year-old wife seven months pregnant. Beaufort moved to Pembroke Castle, home of her brother-in-law Jasper, where on January 28, 1457, she gave birth to a son, Henry Tudor.
A small and sickly infant, in an age when over half of all children died before the age of five, Henry was given little hope for survival. But the young Countess of Richmond showed her son untiring care, and young Henry survived-only to face even greater danger with the changing fortunes of the Lancastrian clan in the Wars of the Roses. In 1461, Yorkist king Edward IV successfully took the throne, after having the Lancastrian Henry VI imprisoned as a lunatic. Pembroke castle was confiscated and given to a Yorkist sympathizer, and Henry's wardship sold to another Yorkist, Lord Herbert of Raglan. Although it was doubtless very painful for Beaufort to be separated from her five-year-old son, at least Henry's welfare was assured. Intending for Henry to marry his daughter Maud, Lord Herbert took great care to ensure his safety and education.
In 1461, Beaufort married another distant cousin of royal ancestry named Henry Stafford. Whether or not she held feelings of affection for her new husband remains unknown, but as a propertied young widow, with Jasper Tudor no longer in favor, she needed a male protector. This marriage lasted until Stafford's death ten years later, but Beaufort never conceived again. Henry Tudor would be her only child, and she poured out all her love, attention, and ambition on him—obsessed with securing his "glory and well-doing."
Though Henry VI briefly regained the throne in 1470, the Yorks again seized the reigns of government after the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471, forcing the hand of disaster upon the Lancastrian line. At 15, Henry Tudor suddenly became the only surviving male of the House of Lancaster, "the only imp now left of Henry VI's blood." Consequently, Henry's life was in great danger from Yorkist plots, so his enterprising uncle Jasper spirited him out of England in June of 1471 and settled the boy in Brittany.
For the next 12 years, though Beaufort did not see her beloved son, she never tired in her efforts to secure his return. At first, her attempts centered on convincing the House of York that Henry represented no real threat to their interest. But Edward IV died suddenly in 1483, before she could gain his goodwill. Edward left two young sons behind, the eldest of which was crowned Edward V. Their uncle, Edward IV's brother Richard, was not content with his position in 13-year-old Edward V's regency, however, and seized power. He imprisoned his two nephews in the Tower while declaring them illegitimate. Eventually, the two Yorkist heirs were quietly murdered, and Richard was crowned Richard III. After the coup, Henry Tudor became the only living rival to the English throne.
Following Richard III's usurpation, Margaret began plotting in earnest to secure the overthrow of the Yorks and the return of her son, this time to claim his right to the English Crown. She married again, this time to Thomas, Lord Stanley, head of a powerful Yorkist family. The first obstacle Beaufort faced was to convince her husband and his family to support her son in a coup against Richard—a delicate task that took her two years to accomplish. In the meantime, she set out to make an agreement with Edward IV's widow Elizabeth Woodville. After Edward's death, Woodville had been treated unmercifully by Richard. Along with the murder of her two sons, Richard had declared Woodville's marriage invalid and stripped her of her dower rights. Woodville and her five daughters had fled into hiding at Westminster, when Beaufort approached her with an interesting offer. Through a trusted messenger, Beaufort proposed to marry her son Henry to Woodville's eldest daughter, Elizabeth of York, in return for the queen's promise of the support from the Woodville clan in Henry's bid for power. This union of the Lancastrian heir with the Yorkist heiress would bring with it a promise for the end of the destructive family quarrel that had cost so many royal lives. Woodville quickly pledged her support—not only would the plan provide her an opportunity to regain her rights as Edward IV's widow, but it also promised revenge against her unscrupulous brother-in-law Richard III.
Contributing a large portion of her personal fortune to the scheme, Beaufort sent messengers to canvass disaffected aristocratic families for further support; she also personally convinced the Duke of Buckingham, formerly a staunch Yorkist, to back the scheme. All went well until September 1483 when Richard uncovered the plot and executed Buckingham for treason. Surprisingly, Richard dealt more leniently with Beaufort; unwilling to antagonize her husband's powerful family, Richard confiscated Beaufort's personal property and transferred it to her husband, warning him to keep his wife under strict observation to prevent her further plotting against the king. Less surprisingly, Lord Stanley did a rather ineffective job of keeping Beaufort under control. Forced to work more discreetly, she nevertheless continued her efforts on her son's behalf.
Finally, by the summer of 1485, all was ready for Henry Tudor's return. In August, he landed in South Wales, defeating Richard's army at the Battle of Bosworth. Richard himself did not survive the battle, and Henry emerged as undisputed heir to the throne. As he was crowned Henry VII, it is recorded that his mother wept continually, overjoyed to see her son "the king crowned in all that great triumph and glory," but fearful that "in that prosperity … the greater it was, the more she dreaded adversity." Fortunately, her fears proved to be unfounded; three months later, Henry married Elizabeth of York, thus uniting two royal houses locked so long in a blood feud.
Beaufort profited materially from her son's rise in fortune. Henry VII's first Parliament conferred upon her the rights and privileges of a "sole person, not wife nor covert of any husband," allowing her personal control over her extensive properties "in as large a form as any woman now may do within the realm." As "my Lady the King's mother," she had the right to sign herself "Margaret R." and in court held the place of honorary Queen Dowager. Henry also gave his mother the wardship of Edward Stafford, son of her late ally, the Duke of Buckingham, whose welfare she guarded as carefully as if he were her own son. The support of the Stanleys at Bosworth having been a deciding factor in the outcome of the battle, Lord Stanley was also rewarded with the Earldom of Derby.
With her son's fortune secure, Beaufort, now Countess of Richmond and Derby, retired from her active role in politics and turned her talents to overseeing the royal household. She devised a series of ordinances related to the lying-in of the queen—a crucial element in the continuation of England's peace and prosperity—and supervised the running of the royal nursery. When not making her somewhat imposing presence known at court, she occupied herself with the administration of her vast estates and the education of the young Duke of Buckingham. She became renowned as a patroness of the University of Cambridge and as a great benefactor to the poor.
Next to Henry, the most important thing in Beaufort's life was her faith. Her interests in charity and education sprang from deep religious convictions. A devout woman, she spent several hours a day in prayer and meditation, hearing at least four Masses a day on her knees. "My Lady the King's mother" was also known to observe fast days meticulously and even to wear a hair shirt to mortify the flesh, on occasion. To ensure that the Church had a well-trained clergy, she spent lavishly on colleges and universities.
Beaufort lived to see her granddaughter and namesake become queen of Scotland when the 12-year-old Margaret married the king of Scotland, James IV, in 1502. She also lived long enough to see her only surviving grandson become king of England. His father Henry VII, exhausted by the arduous supervision of every detail of government, began complaining of poor health by his mid-40s. Two great personal tragedies—the loss of his eldest son in 1502 and of his beloved wife in 1503—hastened his decline. He died six years later, in 1509, "of a consuming sickness," at the age of 52. He left a stable and solvent throne to his 18-year-old son Henry VIII.
Beaufort, who had remained healthy and active for 66 years, did not long survive her beloved son. Traveling to London in 1509 to see her grandson crowned, she died there in July. Her lifelong friend, John Fisher, bishop of Rochester, preached the funeral service at her Requiem Mass. He spoke movingly of her great contribution to all of England, especially to: "the poor creatures that were wont to receive her alms …the students of both the Universities, to whom she was as a mother; all the learned men of England, to whom she was a very patroness; all the virtuous and devout persons, to whom she was as a loving sister; … all the good priests and clerics, to whom she was a true defendress; all the noble men and women, to whom she was a mirror, an example of honour; all the common people of this realm, for whom she was in their causes a common mediatrix, and took right great pleasure for them."
In an age when women were excluded from virtually all roles of responsibility and leadership, Beaufort stands out as a bold and courageous personality, who used the limited means at her disposal to leave her mark on the world and to give birth to a dynasty.
Levine, Mortimer. Tudor Dynastic Problems: 1460-1571. Allen and Unwin, 1973.
Mackie, J. D. The Earlier Tudors: 1485-1558. Clarendon Press, 1966.
Plowden, Alison. Tudor Women: Queens and Commoners. Atheneum, 1979.
St. Aubyn, Giles. The Year of Three Kings: 1483. Atheneum, 1983.