Margaret Beaufort: Life Story

Chapter 1: The Heiress

The Beaufort family was descended from John of Gaunt, third son of Edward III, via his third wife Katherine Swynford. John of Gaunt and Katherine’s four children had all been born whilst he was married to his second wife and were thus born illegitimate.

Following their parents’ marriage in 1397, the children were legitimised by Act of Parliament. The Act permitted them all the rights of children born in wedlock, however their half-brother Henry IV, excluded the ability to inherit the throne from their rights by Letters Patent. Letters Patent were not binding on the King’s successors in the way an Act of Parliament was, but gave a strong indication that Henry IV, who had four sons of his own, did not see his half-siblings as potential heirs.

Despite any disappointment the Beauforts may have felt about this exclusion, they remained stalwart supporters of the Lancastrian kings, Henry IV, Henry V and Henry VI.

Lady Margaret Beaufort was the grand-daughter of the oldest Beaufort son, John, 2 nd Earl of Somerset, and his wife, the great heiress, Lady Margaret Holland.

Margaret’s great-uncle, Cardinal Henry Beaufort, was one of Henry VI’s most important councillors during that king’s long minority, and her aunt, Joan Beaufort, was Queen of Scots. The power of Cardinal Beaufort was resented by the young Henry VI’s uncle, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, and factions began to build around them.

In 1419 aged about 16, Lady Margaret’s father, John, 3rd Earl of Somerset, together with his younger brother Thomas, sailed for France as part of a new offensive in the Hundred Years’ War. He was captured at the Battle of Bauge in March 1421 and spent 17 years as a prisoner. Various attempts to ransom him failed and it is perhaps unsurprising that on his release he was keen to make up for lost time in gathering wealth and support. His eventual ransom was huge - £24,000, compared with an annual income from his lands of less than £1,000.

Some four years after his eventual release in 1438, John married Margaret Beauchamp of Bletsoe, the widowed Lady St John, already mother of seven children. Margaret Beauchamp, although not of particularly distinguished birth, was a considerable heiress. However Somerset’s brother Edmund did far better in the marriage stakes when he managed to snag Eleanor, daughter of Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick.

The new Countess of Somerset became pregnant almost immediately and Margaret was born on 31 May 1443.

In the period just before Margaret’s birth the English Crown had lost the vast majority of the French territories that were conquered during the reign of Henry V. The court was torn on the right action to take. The vast majority wanted to continue the wars, because, after all, war was what most of them had been born and trained for. However good leaders were lacking, money was short and the King himself, now of age, was far from being a warlike character.

Not long after Margaret’s arrival, Somerset was appointed to lead a major expedition into France. Why he should have been selected, when his only military experience was the battle in which he had been captured, is a mystery. It was, perhaps, an attempt of the Beaufort faction at court to counter the influence of Richard, Duke of York. York, who was the next heir male after the King’s uncles (none of whom had children), was a supporter of Gloucester against the Cardinal, and was the King’s Lieutenant in Normandy.

Somerset’s brief was designed to give him seniority everywhere in France except those parts where York was in control. Nevertheless, York felt slighted, and, since both men seem to have been touchy, relationships between the factions at court deteriorated. Somerset does not seem to have been eager to set out – understandable, given his previous experiences. He drove a hard bargain with the King’s council. His earldom was promoted to a dukedom, and he acquired new lands in anticipation of success.

Had Somerset been successful in France things might have turned out very differently both for himself and Henry VI, but he failed to achieve any lasting gains and there were concerns about his management of funds. Even Henry VI, that most pacific of Kings, was angry at the waste of money and men.

An investigation was held into Somerset’s handling of the affair and some of his property was confiscated. The disgraced duke died shortly after his return, possibly by suicide, and was speedily buried at Wimborne Minster in Dorset.

The Beaufort inheritance, which had been granted 'in tail male', passed to Margaret’s uncle Edmund, now 2nd Duke of Somerset. However, the lands that her grandmother, Lady Margaret Holland, held, could pass through the female line and therefore they became Margaret’s inheritance. This made Margaret a significant landowner from an early age. The majority of her lands were in the south of England in Somerset Devon and Hampshire.