Margaret Beaufort: Character & Interests

Chapter 2 : Interests

If we can suppose that once Henry VII was safely on the throne, Margaret was free to indulge her own personal tastes then we can conclude that her overriding concerns were religious, charitable and educational.

In the manner of the late 15th century, personal piety was very much wrapped up in prayers for the dead, rigourous fasting and prayer, veneration of relics, and support for religious foundations. Margaret, clearly of a conventional turn of mind, participated in all of these activities.

One of her earliest actions was the foundation of a chantry at Wimborne Minster with an attached school, in memory of her parents. She also assigned property to Bourne Abbey where her Holland ancestors were buried.

Lady Margaret Beaufort, like her Yorkist counterpart, Cicely Neville, also known as My Lady the King’s Mother, followed a stringent daily routine of prayer and devotion. She would rise at five in the morning to hear four or five masses before breakfast and her day was punctuated by private and public prayer. There were lighter moments. She enjoyed hunting and whilst eating her dinner, she would listen to ‘merry tales’ , including Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Boccaccio’s saucy Decameron but then after some light entertainment she would turn to more devotional literature.

Her accounts show significant charitable expenditure particularly for orphans and children of poor women. According to Fisher in the eulogy preached after her death, which therefore may need to be taken with a slight pinch of salt as he is no doubt emphasising her best characteristics, she had a number of indigent people in her own household whom she would personally visit and treat if they were ill.

As early as 1476 when she was only in her early 30s Margaret had contributed to a crusade against the Turks which was being preached. In 1507, she also gave money to ransom Christians captured in the East.

Margaret appears to have had an extensive interest in literature, and not just in devotional works. In 1483 she commissioned a French romance called ‘Blanchardyn and Englantine’ from the printer, Caxton. The story, which is a romance, hinted at the hoped-for marriage between her son, Henry, and Elizabeth of York. It features a good deal of sighing over damsels in distress and other tropes of chivalric romance.

In 1489, she returned her copy of the book to Caxton and requested him to have it translated and printed. A later work also printed for Lady Margaret, in conjunction with her daughter-in-law Queen Elizabeth, was an edition of the ‘Fifteen Ohs’, which were prayers attributed to St Bridget of Sweden.

Margaret also patronised Wynkyn de Worde who succeeded Caxton in his printing shop. In 1494, de Worde published the devotional work ‘Scala Perfectionis’, referring to Margaret in the dedication. This text was particularly appreciated by the Carthusian and Bridgettine Orders which Margaret supported.

Book purchases were made both at home and abroad. She commissioned Ingelbert de Rouen to purchase books for her in Paris and also to print the Hereford Breviary. He later sold her old Mass books printed on vellum. In order to keep up with all the books she had, she employed a couple of her servants to undertake bookbinding and illumination.

Although we have no knowledge of the details of Margaret’s education, she was sufficiently proficient to translate from French into English. She regretted her lack of facility with Latin but seems to have tried to study it in later years.

Her most complex work of translation was of the fourth book of Thomas a Kempis’ ‘Imitation of Christ’. This book, still widely read today, was one of the most influential works of the late Middle Ages. It concentrates on personal piety and is applicable to lay people as well as clerics. Margaret worked on the fourth book herself having commissioned a Cambridge Fellow to undertake the first three chapters from Latin. The combined translation was published in 1504, and then reissued about 15 years later. This probably makes Margaret the first woman in England to publish her work, pre-dating the work of Margaret Roper and later Margaret’s granddaughter-in-law, Katherine Parr.

This article is part of a Profile on Lady Margaret Beaufort available in paperback and kindle format from Amazon.

Listen to our interview with Renaissance English History Podcast on Lady Margaret Beaufort here.