Margaret Beaufort (1443-1509), Countess of Richmond and Derby and mother of Henry VII. Having spent her early years as a political pawn, Lady Margaret eventually became the most powerful woman in England as well as a respected patron of education.
Early Tudor writers focussed on Margaret’s significance to her son’s career whereas later writers were more interested in her university foundations and literary patronage. Richard III’s early defender, George Buck, claimed that she and Cardinal Morton had attempted to kill the Princes in the Tower but no one has since been able to find any evidence for this. Nineteenth-century historians assumed that Margaret was always passionately opposed to the House of York whereas her modern biographers argue that she was more pragmatic and it was only in 1483 that she began to consider that her son could be king. Her critics have often been motivated by Protestant suspicion of her Catholic devotion or by a perception that she was more politically engaged than was appropriate for a woman.
Margaret Beaufort was born 31 May 1443, the only child of John Beaufort Duke of Somerset from his marriage to Margaret Beauchamp (widow of Oliver St John). Somerset died in disgrace when Margaret was only a year old (possibly of suicide) and she was made a ward of William de la Pole, Marquis of Suffolk. Suffolk married her to his only son, John. At the time of Suffolk’s impeachment the commons claimed that Suffolk hoped to use her royal lineage to make him king. She was still too young for the marriage contract to be binding and in 1453 Henry VI dissolved the contract when he granted her wardship to his Tudor half-brothers (Edmund and Jasper). Two years later, 25-year-old Edmund Tudor married her and they moved to Pembrokeshire but he died, probably of plague, in November 1456. Margaret gave birth to her only child, Henry Tudor, on 28 January 1457. Just two months later, her brother-in-law, Jasper, helped arrange her marriage to Henry Stafford, second son of the Duke of Buckingham. Margaret’s son’s inheritance was put in the care of Jasper Tudor and the Earl of Shrewsbury.
On 12 February 1462 Edward IV gave Henry Tudor’s wardship (and custody of his estates) to William Lord Herbert. Margaret seems to have seen little of her son thereafter, other than a brief reunion when they visited Henry VI at his readeption. Her husband, Henry Stafford, supported Edward IV on his return to England and was wounded fighting for the Yorkists at the Battle of Barnet. That autumn Margaret advised her son to leave the country and on 4 October 1471 Henry Stafford died. The following summer Margaret married a prominent Yorkist, the steward of Edward IV’s household, Thomas, Lord Stanley. After this she was regularly present at court occasions, such as the reburial of Richard Duke of York. Shortly after her mother’s death, in the summer of 1482, she made arrangements with her husband and Edward IV for her son to claim his estates and to be reconciled with Edward. However, Henry Tudor had not returned to England by the time of Edward IV’s death the following spring.
Margaret bore Anne Neville’s train at her coronation and initially continued to work with Richard III for her son’s return. However, in July 1483 she seems to have been involved in a plot to free Edward V and his brother from the Tower. That autumn she joined the uprising known as Buckingham’s Rebellion – her exact role in this has been much debated. As punishment for her involvement, Richard III abolished all her rights to property (her husband was allowed to retain a life interest in her estates), cancelled the provisions for Henry Tudor’s inheritance, and required her husband to remove all her servants and prevent her from corresponding with her son or friends.
Henry VII’s first parliament not only returned her estates to her but also declared her femme sole, so that she could administer these directly as a widow would. She continued to build up her landed estates thereafter, although the value of her properties never quite reached that of the queen’s grandmother, Cecily Duchess of York, who seems to have been something of a role model for Margaret. Margaret was a significant influence on Henry VII throughout his life and her council was the key instrument of royal authority in the Midlands. Her council also intervened in matters usually reserved for church jurisdiction. She died on 29 June 1509, just five days after witnessing the coronation of Henry VIII, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
Find out more about her principal residence, Collyweston Palace.
See her tomb and a page from her prayerbook at Westminster Abbey.