Margaret Beaufort: Hero or Villain?

by Leanda de Lisle

Margaret Beaufort is the villainess that readers of historical fiction love to hate. Often depicted as a frigid fanatic, she is the ultimate tiger mother. A woman willing even to commit child murder as she plots her son Henry Tudor’s path to the throne. But this is a depiction shaped by centuries of sexual and religious bigotry, and by our still ambivalent attitudes to powerful women.

Female historians and novelists may claim a sisterly empathy for historical women, but all too many of them are willing to plunder misogynistic myths to write their lives. And Margaret Beaufort is not their only victim.

I first noticed how readily writers will-use and re-work old myths when I was researching the life of the so-called ‘Nine Day’s Queen’, Lady Jane Grey, executed aged sixteen in 1553. Eighteenth and nineteenth century stories and images depicting Jane’s mother as a man eating child abuser were being re-hashed. They claimed her ambition led to her daughter’s death, casting her in the role of a wicked Queen to Jane’s Snow White. It is a version of history that sends out a message that good girls are helpless, while bad ones are ambitious.

In the Tudor period, and for centuries afterwards, it was considered wrong and unnatural for women to wield power. It followed that the kind of woman who sought power was also unnatural – so how to depict them? Well, what could be more unnatural, more against a woman’s proper nature, than the abuse of children? It seems no co-incidence that Margaret Beaufort stands accused of planning the deaths of the ‘White Queen’s’ – Elizabeth Woodville’s – young sons, the so-called ‘Princes in the Tower’, to clear the path for Henry Tudor to be King.

The irony is that the real Margaret Beaufort was what we would consider to be an abused child. She was married at twelve and was so small and slight that her son’s birth when she was thirteen nearly killed her. She proved unable to have further children and for the next twenty-five years Margaret was a pawn and a victim of vicious power politics.

It was the beginning of the Wars of the Roses, a struggle between cousins, in which the ‘White Rose’ House of York, fought for supremacy over the ‘Red Rose’ House of Lancaster - the family from which Margaret came. When the white rose triumphed Margaret’s sole hope for Henry was that he have the right to inherit his father’s properties and titles, and live in safety in England. But this was denied her.

Aged fourteen Henry was forced to flee into exile from the Yorkist king Edward IV in fear of his life. Margaret worked hard to get a royal pardon for her son so he could come home. She had not succeeded when in 1483 Edward IV died after catching a cold while out fishing. But everything now changed. Shockingly, Edward IV’s sons, aged twelve and ten, were placed in the Tower by their uncle, who claimed the throne as Richard III.

Richard showed no more inclination than Edward IV to allow Henry Tudor home. But, when the princes vanished that summer and rumours emerged that Richard had ordered their deaths, Margaret saw an opportunity. She suggested to the mother of the princes– the ‘White Queen’, Elizabeth Woodville - that she agree to marry her eldest daughter to Henry Tudor. Edwardian loyalists could then combine with remaining Lancastrians to overthrow Richard and make Henry King.

Less than two years later Richard III was killed in battle at Bosworth, and Henry Tudor was crowned. Margaret – 'the Red Queen' – would gain huge political influence and become one of the richest women in England. Clearly she had benefited from the disappearance of the princes. But it would not be until 110 years after her death that she would be accused of child murder: the accusations first arose only during the reign of the witch-burning misogynist, James I.

This was the era of the Stuarts, the Tudor line was defunct and so it was possible to re-assess Henry Tudor’s enemy, Richard III, in a more positive light. That meant finding someone other that Richard responsible for the disappearance of his nephews. Cases in which children disappear are haunting, as we have seen in such modern mysteries as the vanishing of Maddie McCann – and no one had forgotten the story of the Princes in the Tower.

Margaret was an easy target, in part because of the praise that had been lavished on her by her priestly confessor, John Fisher. England had undergone the Reformation. Stuart England was thoroughly Protestant and Margaret’s Catholic spirituality was now condemned, while her intelligence and toughness of character were regarded with equal suspicion.

In 1646, the con man, George Buck Esquire, who was passing off a history composed in 1619 by a great uncle as his own work, published his uncle’s accusation that Margaret was a ‘subtle and politic lady’ who had sought to kill the princes with poison and sorcery to clear the way for Henry. And, as we saw in the White Queen TV drama, based on Philippa Gregory’s novels, it is as a child murderer that she is being portrayed again today.

Margaret had become immensely powerful after Henry was crowned, and powerful women are still judged unsympathetically. There also remains a visceral anti Catholicism in England that has been re-enforced by modern fears of Islamism. In the White Queen, Margaret is depicted as a fanatic, ever invoking God. Yet the strict religious devotions of Margaret Beaufort’s old age were commonplace amongst noblewomen of her time. They marked an effort to look beyond the ruthless political culture into which they had been born, to understand Christ’s example of love. Portraying Margaret as a nutcase shows an arrogant blindness to the culture of our past. That is worrying in a shrinking world when we need to be able to understand other viewpoints, other beliefs.

We should remember the thirteen-year old Margaret Beaufort who bore Henry Tudor with a little more generosity. Here was a girl who took control of her destiny, who saved her son from exile and danger, and who helped to found the Tudor dynasty. Not a villainess at all, but a survivor and a heroine.