Margaret Beaufort: The King’s Mother
Henry Tudor was born on January 28, 1457 to Margaret Beaufort, the only legitimate child of the Duke of Somerset, John Beaufort. The Beauforts could trace their lineage to King Edward III through his third son, John of Gaunt, although they were technically illegitimate since they were born through his mistress, Catherine Swynford. The Beauforts had no claim to the throne because of their illegitimacy but that didn’t stop them from holding great wealth and power.
Margaret’s Beaufort ancestors had long served the House of Lancaster loyally. Margaret’s great-uncle, Cardinal Henry Beaufort, was one of the chief rulers during Henry VI’s minority. Her aunt, Joan Beaufort, was the Queen of Scotland through her marriage to King James I. Her father John was a trusted soldier of Henry V (his cousin) and was later raised to the Duke of Somerset by Henry VI.
Margaret’s father John had a disastrous military career. His first military engagement came at the young age of sixteen. He sailed to France to fight for England in the Hundred Years War but ended up being captured in the Battle of Baugé in March 1421 and held prisoner by France for 17 years. The enormous ransom cost him the majority of his inheritance and land holdings in Holland (from his mother’s side) and nearly ruined him. At this point he was desperate to improve his situation. Upon his return to England he arranged a marriage with the Beauchamp family in 1442 and conceived Margaret shortly thereafter. Margaret’s mother was Margaret Beauchamp, who was also her family’s sole heiress and as such inherited Bletsoe Castle in Bedfordshire, among others manors in Wiltshire and Dorset, giving John Beaufort land holdings that he so desperately needed.
John Beaufort knew he had to redeem himself on the military field to regain the respect of his fellow nobles (and recoup his losses from the ransom he paid for his freedom) so he accepted the leading role in a new expedition to France. This expedition was even more disastrous than the first. He overstepped his bounds by levying illegal taxes on all the lands for his own personal gain and accomplished nothing for England. Upon his return the King was so angry he stripped him of his property and banished him from court. He died shortly after either from prolonged illness or even suicide.
Margaret’s wardship after her father’s death changed hands several times. Her first ward was her uncle Edmund Beaufort which was according to her father’s will. The King, wanting to further punish John Beaufort even after death, granted Margaret’s wardship to the Earl of Suffolk, William de la Pole. Margaret was the richest heiress in England and a highly prized marriage prospect. William arranged for Margaret to marry his own son, John de la Pole, when Margaret was only five years old. That contract was declared null and void soon thereafter by papal dispensation on the basis that they were too closely related. Her second marriage contract, arranged by Henry VI himself, would come to fruition. She was to become the ward of Jasper and Edmund Tudor, the King’s half-brothers, and marry Edmund, the newly appointed Earl of Richmond.
The marriage took place on November 1, 1455 at Bletsoe Castle in northern England. Margaret was only 12 years old at the time, which was young even by medieval standards. However, in times of war, usual rules of protocol could be broken and the new couple consummated their marriage. Soon after, Edmund departed England for Wales on a dangerous royal mission and he left satisfied that he had at least had a chance to secure his claim with an heir.
Unfortunately, their marriage was short lived. Edmund was captured by Yorkists in Wales and imprisoned at Carmarthen Castle where he succumbed to the plague on November 1, 1456 – their first wedding anniversary. Margaret was about 6 months pregnant at the time. Her brother-in-law Jasper Tudor took on her wardship and she lived at Pembroke Castle under his protection. She gave birth to Henry when she was 13 years old. It was a particularly difficult labor for the small-framed Margaret and she was permanently damaged, never to bear another child.
Although she was a young, widowed mother, her wealth and line of descent still made her a valuable marriage alliance. Soon after Henry was born, her second marriage was arranged to Sir Henry Stafford, son of the Duke of Buckingham. They were married on January 3, 1458, shortly before Henry’s first birthday, and lived at their many family estates, including Pembroke Castle, Midlands, and Bourne Castle in Lincolnshire. Henry’s upbringing in the early years with his mother and stepfather was quite normal for a child of nobility. As a noble, he was taught to read and write at an early age and had many young playmates. Margaret’s wealth allowed them to live magnificently and entertain lavishly. Stafford was an attentive, devoted husband to his young wife and they enjoyed 13 years of marriage together until his death in 1471.
When Henry was 4 years old, misfortune fell upon the House of Lancaster, and therefore the Beauforts and Tudors, when Yorkist Edward IV defeated Henry VI and the bloody Battle of Towton on March 29, 1461. Henry VI fled for safety in Scotland while the new Yorkist king set his sights on putting down any other claimants to the throne, especially Margaret Beaufort and her Lancastrian relatives. Margaret realized the danger and fled with her husband, son, and brother-in-law Jasper Tudor to the protection of Pembroke Castle.
It wasn’t long before they were found. King Edward had sent Lord William Herbert to Pembroke with a large force to besiege Pembroke
castle and its inhabitants. There was no battle; the Lancastrian stronghold surrendered peacefully. Although there were no lives lost that day, Margaret and Henry were to be separated permanently. Upon surrender of Pembroke Castle, Lord William Herbert informed Margaret that it was the wish of the king that young Henry Tudor be taken in as his ward and groomed for a place in Edward’s Yorkist court and his title of Earl of Richmond was forfeited. Margaret had no choice but to go along with King Edward’s wishes. Certainly Edward’s ulterior motive was to separate mother and son so that the intelligent and ambitious Margaret could not plot to put her son on the throne.
Henry would not see his mother for another six years. Luckily for Margaret, she found herself in King Edward’s favor when he married a relative of Margaret’s – Elizabeth Woodville. After the marriage, Edward allowed Margaret to visit her son in 1467 (then aged 10) at Raglan Castle for a full week. She was happy and satisfied to see Henry growing up healthy and strong. Most of all, she was happy to see he was safe.
In 1471, disaster fell upon the House of Lancaster when King Edward IV won the decisive battle of Tewkesbury on May 4, 1471. The Lancastrian forces, reduced greatly by the loss at Barnet, were no match for Edward IV’s army. Edward not only won the battle but also managed to kill Henry VI’s son and sole heir, Prince Edward of Lancaster. Henry VI was imprisoned in the Tower of London but not for long. Two weeks later, Edward IV ordered Henry’s death, which occurred on May 21, 1471. The very next day Edward IV was coronated as King of England. Edward had successfully regained the throne and extinguished all the Lancastrian rivals – except for young Henry Tudor.
Jasper Tudor had been on his way to face Edward IV at the Battle of Tewkesbury when he received word that it was already over and the Lancastrians had lost. Jasper understood the clear and present danger that put him in but even more so his 14-year-old nephew Henry Tudor. If Edward’s men were to catch either one of them it would mean certain death. He immediately abandoned the path towards Tewkesbury and raced back to Pembroke Castle where he took custody of his fourteen-year-old nephew and they fled to France, landing in the duchy of Brittany.
For the next 14 years, Jasper and Henry Tudor were kept in Brittany by Duke Francis as virtual prisoners, albeit with honorable status. They lived in constant fear as the duke, the king of France, and the kings of England (first Edward IV, then Richard III) negotiated with Francis to turn over custody of the Tudors. Meanwhile, Margaret Beaufort was biding her time in England. With the help of her husband she worked her way into the Yorkist court of Edward IV and gained their trust. She negotiated with both Edward IV, his brother Clarence, and Richard III to bring her son home to England and to restore his earldom of Richmond. She almost finalized an agreement with Edward in the spring of 1483 but he unexpectedly died before the contract was finalized.
With the death of King Edward IV came the rise of Richard III and the deaths of Edward’s two male heirs, commonly referred to as the Princes in the Tower. In the Fall of 1483, rumors began spreading that Richard killed the princes and citizens began turning their backs to the king. Simmering anger amongst the nobles was bubbling up and Margaret knew it. Not only was she smart and ambitious but she intentionally kept herself in the political fold for years, waiting for her chance to make a power play for her son. If ever there was an opportunity, now was the time. Margaret saw a chance to get her son Henry home, but this time she aimed to depose Richard and make Henry the new king of England. She sent messages and money to Henry in Brittany with detailed instructions a full-fledged invasion of England. She also conspired with the Dowager Queen Elizabeth Woodville in agreeing to a marriage between Princes Elizabeth of York and Henry Tudor, a match that they hoped would unite the houses of Lancaster and York once and for all. Meanwhile at the court of Brittany, a remarkable thing was happening. Disenchanted Yorkist supporters and exiles were fleeing England for Brittany, specifically for Henry Tudor, who they believed was their last hope against the brutality of Richard III.
In August 1485, Margaret’s plans came to fruition when Henry sailed from France to England with an invasion force, landing in the south of Wales and marching his men through the heart of England. King Richard III met Henry’s forces at Bosworth Field on August 22, 1485 and suffered a decisive loss, making Henry Tudor the new king of England. At Henry’s coronation at Westminster Abbey on October 30, 1485, Margaret wept marvelously, partly for her achievement and partly out of fear because she knew the dangers her son would face as king.
After Henry’s coronation, he took an unprecedented step at the first meeting of Parliament. He declared his mother “femme sole” which meant she would own her vast land holdings unto herself, not by her 4th husband Thomas Stanley. This was very uncommon, other for queens, and this move elevated her position so much that she was considered almost as high as Henry’s queen, Elizabeth of York. In fact, through Henry’s reign Margaret would often appear together with the king and queen, although she took care to walk slightly behind them to preserve their royal status. She was very involved with the royal children even going so far as to writing ordinances (instructions, basically) for the queen’s lying in, the birth, and the raising of the children. She and Henry were very close, and Henry relied on her help and advice constantly, even keeping a room for her right next to his chamber so they would have constant, and privy, access to each other.
When Henry fell ill in the springs of 1507, 1508, and 1509, it was his mother Margaret that rushed to his bedside and nursed him back to health. When he finally succumbed to his illness on April 21, 1509, she was crushed yet determined to make sure his son, Henry VIII, had a smooth succession. Her grandson, Henry VIII, was coronated with his bride, Katherine of Aragon, on June 24, 1509, four days before his all-important 18th birthday, which made him a minority at the time he took the throne. His 18th birthday was June 28…Margaret Beaufort had completed her goals and departed the day following, on June 29, 1509, finally able to rest easy that her offspring had successfully gained and held the throne for the new Tudor dynasty.