Margaret Beaufort: Character & Interests

Chapter 1: Character

After an interval of 500 years it is not easy to gauge anyone’s character. Lady Margaret Beaufort, however, left more records than most people of her time and it is possible to glean an understanding of her life and outlook.

There have always been two schools of thought about Margaret - one has seen her as the great example of pious and devoted late mediaeval noblesse oblige, and the other as the scheming and ruthless power behind Henry VII’s throne.

It is possible to see that elements of both of these characterisations may be true. Margaret was brought up in a hard school – the Wars of the Roses became increasingly violent, vengeful and bloodthirsty over time, with both sides indulging in acts of murderous retribution as sons sought to avenge fathers and brothers. It can hardly be surprising if Margaret used whatever power she had to protect her son and herself.

We cannot know whether Margaret’s negotiations with Edward IV to bring about a reconciliation with her son in 1482 were genuinely prompted by a desire for peace and perhaps acceptance of the Yorkists were victors in the Civil Wars – at that time Edward IV had two living sons and numerous daughters. Margaret is unlikely to have thought that Henry would be considered a sufficiently strong candidate to displace him.

With the usurpation of Richard III in 1483, however, Margaret shows herself as a student and quick thinking strategist. According to Polydore Vergil, ‘being a wise woman’ she quickly grasped that Richard’s deposition of his nephew, Edward V, and the disappearance of the twelve-year old King and his brother had alienated a huge swathe of York’s support. She acted to capitalise on that as quickly as she could, working with the Dowager Queen, Elizabeth Woodville, to arrange a marriage between Henry and Elizabeth of York, and also conspiring with the Duke of Buckingham.

One of the accusations against Margaret is that she led Henry, 2 nd Duke of Buckingham (1455 – 1483) into rebellion against Richard III. Margaret knew Buckingham well. He was the nephew of her second husband, Henry Stafford. Orphaned after Towton, he became a ward of Edward IV. Edward, in his desire for reconciliation with Lancastrians, married the boy to his sister-in-law, Katherine Woodville. Despite having lost his father and grandfather in the Lancastrian cause, Buckingham grew up to support first Edward, then Richard III. During his adolescence, Buckingham visited Margaret and Stafford, even spending Christmas with them at Woking in 1469, suggesting a good family relationship.

Buckingham was, initially, Richard’s chief supporter. He was rewarded with vast lands (the return of part of the de Bohun inheritance that he claimed had been illegally incorporated into the Crown by Edward IV, rather than devolved to him in line with common law on the death of Henry VI) and an extension of his authority in Wales. Suddenly, in the late summer of 1483, he rebelled.

The question has always been, why? Buckingham had a very respectable claim of his own to the throne, but why press it then? It has been suggested that he was horrified by the murder of Edward V and Richard, Duke of York. Whilst there is controversy over whether Richard III was responsible for their deaths, by the summer of 1483, concerns about the fate of the children had been raised, and they were not produced to refute rumours. On the other hand, Buckingham itself has been fingered as a possible culprit, either advising Richard to dispatch them or undertaking it himself, although most historians agree that he is unlikely to have been able to affect the murder of the boys without Richard’s knowledge.

The theory is that Margaret, via Dr John Morton, Bishop of Ely, encouraged Buckingham into raising an army, perhaps tempting him with the idea that he should be King himself, rather than that he should raise an army for her son. It certainly beggars belief that Buckingham would rebel on behalf of Henry Tudor – an unknown exile. He is far more likely to have been trying to persuade Margaret to support his own cause and ended up being double-crossed.

Morton, who had objected to Richard III’s usurpation, was imprisoned in Brecknock Castle, Buckingham’s stronghold in South Wales, and it was apparently whilst there that he suborned Buckingham. Messages passed between the anti-Richard Yorkists, and the Lancastrians, including Margaret, culminating in the failed rebellion of 1483, which resulted in Buckingham’s execution. If Margaret encouraged Buckingham into rebellion, he has to take ultimate responsibility for his own actions – had he been successful, it is unlikely he would have been keen to share power with Margaret or her son.

Buckingham’s son, Edward, 3rd Duke, became Margaret’s ward, but he, too lost his head in 1521, accused of plotting against Margaret’s grand-son, Henry VIII.

The far more serious charge, that Margaret was involved in the death of Edward V and his brother, was first mooted in the early seventeenth century by Sir George Buck, who may lay claim to being the first Ricardian. He accused her of attempting to murder the boys by sorcery or poison. His source for this (an ‘ancient manuscript’) has not yet been found. Leaving aside sorcery (which even if it were practised, seems unlikely to be efficacious), the problem of access to the children by anyone other than people approved by Richard, suggests that poisoning would be impossible to achieve.

One of the reasons that Richard lost support was that the Yorkists believed he had murdered his nephews. Even in a bloodthirsty age, the secret murder of children was considered to be a step too far. Nothing in Margaret’s life suggests that she would have committed an act so unchristian.

A remarkably religious woman even in a religious age, she did not show any obvious signs of guilt through the usual means of explicating sin in the 15 th century – masses for the dead, pilgrimages, or requests to the Pope for indulgences. Although this is negative evidence, it certainly would support the view that Margaret’s conscience was clear.

Nevertheless that is not to say that Margaret couldn’t scheme, plan and, perhaps, deceive Buckingham. Her tenacity, determination, ability to wait patiently, and to seize an opportunity cannot be doubted – it is undoubtedly to these characteristics that Henry VII and his throne.

Once she had achieved her objective of seeing her son crowned, Margaret seems, like Henry, to have eschewed violence as much as possible. There were genuine attempts by the Tudors to reconcile Lancaster and York. Although in a rather slippery fashion, Henry VII dated his reign to the day before Bosworth so that men who fought with Richard III could be branded as traitors, he never actually took advantage of this and made considerable efforts as Edward IV had done initially, to work with both parties. Given the influence that Margaret had over him, we can conclude that, if she did not instigate this policy she certainly agreed with it. She also took some of Richard’s former servants into her own household.

The story was told by Bishop Fisher, her confessor and executor that one of these former adherents of Richard, Sir Ralph Bigod, was held up to his fellow servants by her as an example of loyalty when he had objected to some of his colleagues denigrating his former master.

The exact level of influence that Margaret had over Henry has been debated. During her lifetime one of the Spanish ambassadors, Dr Pedro de Ayala, wrote home that the people with the most influence at Henry VII’s court were first, Margaret, the mother of the King, then the Lord Chancellor, John Morton, followed by Reginald Bray. Bray was originally a servant of Margaret’s second husband, Sir Henry Stafford, and had been a member of Margaret’s entourage for many years. This would certainly support the contention that Margaret was extremely influential.

Polydor Virgil, the official historian of Henry VII’s reign, writing after the King’s death, claimed that Henry ‘allotted a share (to Margaret) in most of his public and private resources.’ He also describes her as ‘a wise woman’.

Bernard Andre, who was tutor to Arthur, Prince of Wales, described Margaret as ‘steadfast and more stable than the weakness in women suggests.’