Margaret Beaufort: Patron of Learning

Chapter 1: Supporter of Universities

Lady Margaret’s longest lasting achievement is probably her establishment of two Cambridge colleges. University colleges were foundations that brought together both monks and secular priests to study, debate and, most importantly, pray for the souls of their benefactors.

Margaret was not the first royal patron of colleges at Oxford or Cambridge or even the first woman to support the universities. Previous noble women had been closely involved with both universities – Lady Elizabeth de Clare in the foundation of Clare College Cambridge and Marie de Vallance, Countess of Pembroke in that of the eponymous College at Oxford. More recently the Lancastrian and Yorkist Queens, Marguerite of Anjou, Elizabeth Woodville and Anne Neville had contributed to Queens’ College, Cambridge.

Her association with the universities which were largely devoted to the training of theologians, the vast majority of whom took holy orders, seems to have begun in the mid-1490s. In 1494 she requested Oxford to release one of its fellows, Maurice Westbury, to enter her household to teach the young men in her wardship – these pupils may have included Sir Nicholas Vaux and his stepson, and later brother-in-law, Sir Thomas Parr.

In 1494 there are also records of her lending money to scholars and maintaining at least two.

Initially Margaret showed an interest in both Oxford and Cambridge. She endowed a professional Lectureship of Divinity at both universities, both of which continue to this day, under the name the Lady Margaret Professorship.

Originally the lectureships were to be maintained out of the lands granted by Margaret and Henry VII’s to their planned chantry at St George’s Windsor, however their interest in St George’s declined as plans for a Royal mausoleum were transferred to Westminster Abbey. The grants given to Westminster were earmarked to provide funds for the professorships.

In a break with tradition however the University lectureships were given their own legal personae. The result of this was that the Universities would be able to sue the Westminster foundation should it fail to provide the agreed emoluments. Until these arrangements were finalised, Margaret supported the lectureships from her own pocket.

In 1498 the lecturers were Dr Smyth at Cambridge and Dr Wills at Oxford. Following the formal inauguration of the positions the first Lady Margaret Professor at Cambridge was her confessor and close associate, John Fisher. Fisher influenced Margaret from the moment they met and he worked closely with her in her schemes for Cambridge. He was appointed Bishop of Rochester in 1504 with Henry VII asking his mother’s confirmation that she was happy for him to be offered the appointment. The Oxford Lecturer was Dr John Roper. Each of these lecturers was to give an hour’s lecture on every day when lectures customarily took place during the University terms.

In addition to the lectureships, Margaret also founded a University Preachership at Cambridge. The preacher, who should preferably be a Doctor of Theology, was to be chosen every three years by the Chancellor of the University. Ideally he was also to be a Fellow of one of the colleges. His job was to preach six sermons a year, including an annual one at St Paul’s Cross. Of course there are no free lunches or lectures and the quid pro quo was that the souls of Margaret, her husbands, ancestors and descendants were all to be prayed for.

By the end of the century, her main focus was on Cambridge. This is probably because her new confessor John Fisher, was a Cambridge man.