Of the clutch of female powerbrokers who emerged during the civil wars of the English 15th century, the diminutive figure of Margaret Beaufort stands out: first, for her spectacular navigation of the repeated regime changes of the Wars of the Roses; and second, for the act of political opportunism which saw her help her son Henry Tudor to the throne, in the process founding a new dynasty. She herself became the epitome of a dynastic matriarch, a pious, self-assertive figure of immense independent wealth and power.
Margaret was born in 1443 into a great Lancastrian family. Like the ruling king Henry VI, the Beauforts could also trace their lineage back to John of Gaunt — but their descent, through Gaunt’s mistress, meant they were bastards, banned from ever claiming the throne in their own right. Margaret was only a few months old when her father John Duke of Somerset died, leaving her an exceptionally rich heiress — and, consequently, highly vulnerable to the vagaries of wardship, the property market in valuable minor heirs.
Henry VI first bestowed her on his household steward the Duke of Suffolk; then, with Suffolk dead, the king handed her to his half-brother Edmund Tudor with the intention of providing Tudor with landed ‘means’. The way for Tudor to lay his eager hands on these means was to get Margaret pregnant, and he duly did so, with a brutal lack of consideration for her young age. Margaret was a small 13-year-old when, at Pembroke Castle in south west Wales, she gave birth to the boy who would become Henry VII. Irreparably damaged by the birth, she had by this time also lost her husband, who had died of plague.
Meanwhile, the country had started to spiral into civil war: in 1461, a new family, the house of York, seized power, in the shape of Edward IV. Margaret’s male Beaufort cousins remained resolutely Lancastrian and ended up dead; but her own political instincts were sharpened by her traumatic formative experiences. Still a teenager, she was determined to survive and thrive, to protect herself, her interests and those of her little son.
In this, she was hardly alone: most political actors of the age balanced loyalty with pragmatism, usually at the expense of the former. After Edward IV finally destroyed the house of Lancaster at Tewkesbury in 1471, the die-hard Lancastrian (and, later, Tudor eminence grise) John Morton shrugged his shoulders and pledged his allegiance to York: ‘I was never so mad,’ he told his protégé Thomas More, ‘that I would strive with a dead man against the quick.’
But for women, such political trimming — reliant as it was on the often dubious protection of marriage — was even more dangerous, the possibility of losing everything a very real prospect. As she played the system — marrying in turn Sir Henry Stafford and, after his death, the man who was her equal in realpolitik Thomas Lord Stanley — Margaret had myriad examples to follow. Prominent among them were the Yorkist matriarch Cecily, who in widowhood transformed herself into a powerful queen mother, and Elizabeth Woodville, Edward IV’s upwardly mobile queen. There were cautionary tales, too, of dowager noble-women who, through no fault of their own, fell victim to a rapacious Yorkist dynasty and lost everything: most resoundingly, Anne, Countess of Warwick, Elizabeth, Countess of Oxford and Margaret’s own aunt, Eleanor, Duchess of Somerset.
Through these decades of conflict, Margaret steered a skilful course. She consolidated her place within the Yorkist regime and gained a remarkable degree of independence within her marriages, always with one end in view: the survival of her line and the restoration to favour and power of her son, who, stripped of his titles and lands at the age of three, had been forced to flee into exile in 1471, aged 14, ahead of the vengeful Yorkist armies. Remarkably, in 1482, she drew up an agreement with Edward IV that the Yorkist king would restore Henry Tudor to favour — provided, of course, that Tudor returned home. There were even whispers of a marriage, between Tudor and the eldest of Edward’s daughters, Elizabeth of York.
Edward’s unexpected death forced Margaret once again to recalibrate. As the house of York tore at itself, she reached out to both sides: to the new king, Richard III, and — secretly — to the disgraced former queen Elizabeth Woodville, mother of the princes in the Tower who were now missing and, by the summer of 1483, widely presumed murdered.
The astonishing events of the next two years, culminating in Henry Tudor’s defining victory at Bosworth and his seizure of the English throne, was in large part down to the compact between these two extraordinary women —and, especially, the one-eyed determination of Margaret, who continued her clandestine manoeuvrings from the house arrest under which she had been placed by an intensely, and rightly, suspicious Richard III.
Her son’s coronation marked a transformation in Margaret’s own status. Now, she was royalty, the king’s mother: or, as she came to sign herself, ‘Margaret R’ — whether the ‘R’ stood for the family title of ‘Richmond’ or ‘regina’, queen, was left deliciously ambiguous.
In her new book, Nicola Tallis aims to tell the whole story of Margaret’s life, from birth to her death in 1509, two months after the death of her own son, and the accession of her grandson Henry VIII. Relishing the ‘tragic lows and unprecedented highs’ of Margaret’s life, Tallis implies that her account will draw on recent, gendered work on the role of noblewomen in late medieval society; another ‘compelling reason’ for writing the book is to dismiss the insinuation — ‘for which’, as she rightly asserts, ‘there is not a shred of contemporary evidence’ — that Margaret was responsible for the deaths of the princes in the Tower.
Such a chronological narrative is a big undertaking, given that it sets Margaret against the often disorientating landscape of the Wars of the Roses, and then, for the last quarter century of her life, the strange, increasingly warped polity of Henry VII’s reign. It’s also an opportunity. The current go-to biography of Margaret — Michael K. Jones’s and Malcolm G. Underwood’s authoritative The King’s Mother — is now almost 30 years old. While it undoubtedly stands the test of time, a new biography of Margaret might draw on recent scholarship to pose new questions about how women wielded power in this disrupted age, about how Margaret was able to become a major landholder in her own right, and head of an exceptionally influential household that supplied her son the king with a steady drip-feed of loyal servants. It might also explore the intensely political role played by female piety — in Margaret’s case, a refuge, a carapace and an underscoring of her extraordinary status as femme sole, even while her last husband was still alive. It’s perhaps unreasonable to expect these questions to break the surface of Tallis’s story — this, after all, is narrative history — but neither do they particularly infuse it. So while Tallis’s is a pacy narrative, written with a clear love for and detailed knowledge of her subject, it perhaps lacks a richer sense of that world of female power and relationships which formed Margaret and out of which she emerged.
Consequently, while Tallis aims to present a ‘rounder, richer’ picture of her subject, the Margaret that emerges resembles the familiar Margaret of Tudor hagiography, rather than that of a human being in all her rich, contradictory complexity. There is little sense, for instance, of the effect of her watchful maternal presence during Henry VII’s reign. With her nose for faction and disloyalty, Margaret could provoke irritation and paranoia in equal measure (that ‘strong whore, the king’s mother’, in the words of one resentful petitioner), while her capacity for repeating the same moralising stories ‘many a time’ was even remarked on by her own saintly confessor John Fisher. She also insisted on the primacy of her relationship with the son she had barely seen for the first 28 years of his life, in the process almost literally treading on the heels of his queen, Elizabeth of York.
Here, though, the image we are left with is the one Margaret herself wanted to leave to posterity. Encapsulated in Meynnart Wewyck’s 16th-century portrait, which still hangs in her foundation of St John’s College, Cambridge, it is that of the Tudor matriarch, assured in the powerful certainty of her pious independence, contemplating God under a rich gold cloth-of-estate: a visual counterpoint to the profound instability and uncertainty of her life.