Margaret Beaufort was born in 1443 at Bletsoe Castle in Bedfordshire. Her father was John, Duke of Somerset, the grandson of John of Gaunt (a younger son of Edward III). Her mother was Margaret Beauchamp, a cousin of Henry VI, who was then King of England.
The death of her father when she was only one year old resulted in Margaret becoming the richest heiress in England and this, along with her royal lineage, made her an attractive bride. Her first ‘marriage’ to John de la Pole occurred in 1450 when she was six and he was seven years old, but this union was dissolved a few years later.
Margaret spent much of her childhood with her mother at Bletsoe Castle and Maxey Castle in Northamptonshire along with her step-siblings (the issue from her mother’s previous marriage) and later her mother’s third husband, Viscount Welles.
In 1452, when she was nine-years old, Margaret was summoned to court, where Henry VI announced her betrothal to his half-brother, Edmund Tudor, the Earl of Richmond, then aged twenty-two. This would help the King to secure his dynasty, since he had only one son, Edward, the Prince of Wales, with his wife Margaret of Anjou.
It was not until three years later that Margaret left her mother to accompany her husband to Wales, and just before her thirteenth birthday she became pregnant. Six months later, in November 1456, Edmund died of the plague. His widow fled to the safety of Pembroke Castle, home to her brother-in-law, Jasper Tudor. There, in a tower chamber, her son Henry Tudor was born in January 1457.
By this time, the Wars of the Roses had broken out, with her Lancastrian kinsman, Henry VI, becoming mentally unstable, allowing for the rise of his Yorkist rivals, and, in 1461, Edward IV became King.
In 1462, Margaret married Henry Stafford. It would seem that, unlike her previous two marriages as little more than a child, Margaret enjoyed a close relationship with her new husband. Despite having been a supporter of the usurped king, Stafford reconciled with the Yorks, hunting with Edward IV and entertaining him at their home, Woking Palace.
The Lancastrians were briefly in the ascendancy again when Henry VI was restored in 1470. However, Margaret was quick to welcome Edward IV back from exile in 1471, a year which had great significance for her and her son, for Edward, Prince of Wales, was killed at the Battle of Tewkesbury and Henry VI was murdered in the Tower of London.
Young Henry Tudor was suddenly promoted to being the main Lancastrian claimant to the throne. Recognising the dangers this presented now that the Yorks were once again in power, Margaret put her fourteen-year-old son aboard a ship at Tenby, where he sailed to the safety of Brittany along with his uncle, Jasper Tudor. She would not see him for nearly fifteen years.
Additionally, her husband Henry Stafford died, and the following year she married her fourth – and final – husband, Lord Thomas Stanley, who was trusted by Edward IV and therefore provided her the opportunity to further her political interests (and those of her son). During the 1470s she largely resided at Lathom, though she was also at court in 1480 when she was entrusted by the Queen, Elizabeth Woodville, to carry the Princess Bridget at the celebrations of her birth.
In 1483, Edward IV died and he was succeeded by his eldest son, Edward V. However, the young king and his brother were taken to the Tower of London, declared illegitimate and replaced by their regent and uncle, Richard III.
This led Margaret to join forces with Elizabeth Woodville in a ‘ladies’ plot’ against the new king. It aimed to replace Richard with Henry Tudor, who would marry the Dowager Queen’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth of York. But news of the plot was leaked to Richard, who acted swiftly and decisively against its supporters. Additionally, Henry’s ships were scattered and instead of landing in the West Country as planned, he was forced to sail to Normandy. Many of the nobles who had supported the plot also fled.
Henry’s second attempt at invasion would be successful, as this time he had military and financial support from Charles VIII of France, as well as the Duke of Brittany. In August 1485, then aged thirty, Henry landed at Milford Haven in Pembrokeshire, and marched rapidly into England. Richard, then at Nottingham, quickly moved towards Leicester. The two armies met a couple of miles south of Market Bosworth, and there engaged in battle on 22 August. Henry’s step-father, Lord Stanley, was initially neutral, but intervened at a key moment, and the tide of the battle soon turned against Richard, who was killed. Henry was now King of England, as Henry VII, and a new dynasty was born – the Tudors.
In 1486, Henry VII married Elizabeth of York and the following year Margaret’s first grandchild was born, a boy named Arthur. His godmother was Elizabeth Woodville.
Although Margaret had been given the title of ‘My Lady the King’s Mother’ and signed herself ‘Margaret R’, she had never been crowned, and, as such, had to defer to her daughter-in-law and the Dowager Queen, a situation that may not have suited Margaret. This may explain why Elizabeth Woodville mysteriously left court to live in seclusion a few years later.
During the reign of her son, Margaret largely resided at the Palace of Collyweston, though she was frequently at court, particularly for key events, such as the wedding of Prince Arthur and Catherine of Aragon at St Paul’s Cathedral on 14 November 1501.
Her son and granddaughter, the Princess Margaret, visited her at Collyweston in 1503, when the latter was escorted to Scotland as the bride of James IV of Scotland (it was from this marriage that Mary Queen of Scots descended).
By this time, Margaret Beaufort was sixty years old, and began to witness the deaths of those close to her. Firstly, Prince Arthur died in 1502, promoting his younger brother, Henry, to the position of heir and leaving Catherine of Aragon a widow. Her daughter-in-law, Queen Elizabeth, died in 1503, and her husband Thomas Stanley in 1504.
In April 1509, her son Henry VII died, and was buried next to his wife in the Lady Chapel in Westminster Abbey. He was soon followed there by Margaret herself, who died in June 1509, having lived to see her grandson, Henry VIII, accede to the throne and marry his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon. One of her last public appearances was to watch from a house in Cheapside the coronation procession of Henry and Catherine from the Tower of London to Westminster Abbey.
Having lived through the turbulent Wars of the Roses, it must have been with some relief that Margaret witnessed this smooth transition of the throne and the continuation of the Tudor dynasty, which had truly united the Houses of Lancaster and York at last.
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I was unable to access the main biography of Margaret Beaufort by Michael Jones (with the exception of sample pages available on Google Books), so my sources are many: John Guy’s ‘Tudor England’, David Starkey’s ‘Monarchy: From the Middle Ages to Modernity’, Anthony Goodman’s ‘The Wars of the Roses’, Alison Weir’s ‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’, and also Michael Jones’s article ‘Lady Margaret Beaufort’ from History Today (available here)
All the pictures are from Wikipedia and are in the public domain