Margaret Beaufort: Patron of Learning

Chapter 2 : Cambridge Colleges

Margaret began her patronage of Cambridge with Jesus College. Along with a number of other nobles and courtiers she gave it financial support and it was also with one of its fellows, Dr William Atkinson, that she undertook her translation of the ‘Imitation of Christ’.

Margaret also showed an interest in Queens’ College and requested that it appoint John Fisher as its President. She helped with its funding by encouraging her former ward, Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham to endow it with land. It was to Queens’ that the humanist, Desidirius Erasmus, first went when he lived in England between 1511 and 1514.

Margaret’s major contribution, though was Christ’s College, Cambridge. It had already been founded in 1439 under the name of 'God’s House'. Its first founder was a London rector named William Bingham who wished to create a college to train masters to teach in the grammar schools.

As part of Henry VI's organisation of the King’s College buildings, God’s House was given a new site but it did not have a sufficient endowment to fulfil its mission effectively. Nevertheless this association with the Lancastrian monarchy was a good opportunity for Margaret to take over the project.

With the possible exception of Lady Elizabeth de Clare, Margaret took the most personal interest in her colleges of all of the royal founders and was closely involved in instituting the rules and regulations by which they were to be managed.

In 1504 plans began to be put together for organising the financial affairs of the new college. On 1st May 1505 Henry VII granted Letters Patent for Margaret to ‘augment, establish and finish the college’ of God’s House. Margaret received a Papal Bull in August 1505 confirming that she had established and augmented the college for the study of theology and the liberal sciences.

The current incumbents were permitted to transfer to the new college, which was intended to house a maximum of 60 scholars. The original purpose of the college, training of masters in grammar teaching, was to remain. In recognition of its status as the college founded by a member of the royal family, it had the privilege of being exempt from visitation by the local Bishop.

Margaret took a personal interest in the arrangements. She purchased a vicarage for the college’s vicar and arranged for it to be extended with extra rooms, new chimneys, windows and doors.

The college statutes were finalised in 1506 and she personally began one copy by writing in her own hand at the top of the page ‘Nos Margarita’ (We, Margaret).

Margaret anticipated visiting her college frequently and rooms were set aside for her, although how often she stayed there is not recorded. It is probable that she was there in late 1506 for the opening of the college and in the following year a local woman was given a tip for bringing her a cake. There is an account of her, whilst visiting the college, calling out of the window to one of the masters who was beating a student (a regular occurrence). Margaret exhorted him to do it ‘lente, lente’ (gently).

As well as cash from endowments granted by Margaret, some of the building materials for the college came directly from Margaret’s lands. Eighty-six loads of timber came from Bourne and significant amounts from Collyweston, both of which properties were within 50 miles of Cambridge. She also paid for books for the college and gave it ceremonial plate. Some 39 books are listed in the inventory of 1639 as having been donated by her, however there is no contemporary evidence as to exactly which they were.

The curriculum was to include logic and philosophy to be studied by 12 Fellows and 47 Scholars. Throughout her life Margaret was to remain responsible for appointing the Master and the Fellows, half of whom would be chosen from the northern counties of England. Concerned about the health of her students, she arranged for the Manor at Malton to be available in times of plague – a frequent occurrence in the wet and boggy fens of Cambridgeshire.

As noted before, however, the inmates of the college were expected to provide something in return. They were to pray for Margaret herself, her husband Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond, her parents and other ancestors, such as the late Queen Elizabeth of York, for the original founder of God’s House, William Bingham, and for Henry VI.

Margaret visited Cambridge in June 1505 and is recorded as having been rowed down the River Cam to listen to disputations at the Schools. In 1507 she was there with Henry VII and her grandson Arthur, Prince of Wales, at the University Commencement in the Greyfriars church.

To give an indication of the cost of all of these foundations, Henry VII, in total, contributed £6, 850 to Cambridge, which was about twice the value of Margaret’s estates.

Once Christ’s College was well in hand and the souls of the dead were being busily prayed for, John Fisher suggested a new project to Margaret: the re-foundation of the Hospital of St John the Evangelist. By 1505 this hospital had decayed to the extent that there were only three brothers left. Margaret began to consider this and how best to finance it.

As Margaret’s health begun to fail from 1505, she was occupied with changing and updating her will regularly. It was customary in the period for nobles to regularly review their wills, so her annual updates were not particularly morbid. She had been putting aside money since 1472 into a trust to fulfil her testamentary requirements. In February 1509 a new schedule was drawn up which outlined the bequests to Christ’s College and her other charitable works, with the exception of St John’s.

St John’s was dealt with in a separate document in the following month. It was initially unclear whether the monies she had set aside in her trust to deal with her testamentary requirements could be used for St John’s College and by the time of her death in 1509 no definite arrangements had been made.In November 1512, a month after her will was proved, it was decided that the trust monies could be so used until the college should be completed, after which her estate was to pass to her heir, her grandson Henry VIII.

Perhaps not surprisingly the college’s view of when it would be completed turned out to be rather different from that of the King and there were and there were a number of financial disputes between Margaret’s executors, of whom Bishop Fisher was chief, and Henry VIII.

Fisher’s determination to create St John’s in accordance with his vision and that of Margaret, caused a number of disputes with Henry VIII – it is perhaps in the knowledge of this that we can see the seeds of dislike and perhaps resentment that would finally come to fruition in the execution of Fisher in 1535 for defying the King in the matter of the Royal supremacy. There is a note from Fisher that disputes over the will had made Henry ‘a very heavy Lord against me’.

Another obstacle was the Bishop of Ely (Margaret’s stepson) who, chagrined at being removed from his visitation rights at Christ’s College, was insisting that, before he would give consent for St John’s Hospital to be translated into the new college he must be given rights of nomination of the Fellows.

The college was finally opened on 29 July 1516 with the full complement of 31 Fellows by 1524 in which year the target of £300 income per annum had finally been achieved. The scholars were to pray for Margaret and her parents, Henry VII, Henry VIII as well as her Lancastrian cousin, Henry VI, his wife Marguerite of Anjou and their son, Edward of Lancaster, Prince of Wales.

The great gateway of St John’s College reflects its debt to Margaret. Her arms are everywhere: the crowned Rose, the Beaufort portcullis and daisy flowers in a nod to her name, are scattered into the stonework. Margaret is remembered every day in the grace recited after dinner in Hall.

St John’s Cambridge was to become one of the colleges at the forefront of the New Learning revolution of the 1520s and 1530s. Many of the alumni of the college were leaders of the Protestant Reformation in England – Roger Ascham, William Cecil, John Cheke. It seems unlikely that Margaret would have approved of the evangelical movement, however, in her way she did attempt to reform some of the problems of the mediaeval church by improving standards of training and education.


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.