Lady Margaret Beaufort is one of history’s most famous mothers, but her life as a wife has been less examined. Even before she married Edmund Tudor and gave birth to a future king at age thirteen, Margaret had already been married. In fact, she spent scarcely a decade of her life unmarried before the death of her fourth and final husband in 1504, only five years before her own demise.
As a child, Margaret was married to the son of William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk. While this may sound like a promising match, by 1450 when the marriage likely took place, Suffolk’s star was descending. He was unpopular with the masses and losing power at court. Unfairly or not, he was largely blamed for Henry VI’s failures in France and the losses of vast territories there. In an attempt to seal his family’s future, Suffolk betrothed his son to the young girl who some claimed was heir to the throne.
Henry VI had no children in 1450. His closest relatives were his Tudor half-brothers, whom no one suggested might take the throne. However, Margaret was the surviving grand-daughter of John of Gaunt’s eldest Beaufort son. Could John de la Pole claim a kingdom through her once they were married? In an interesting twist of fate, John de la Pole’s son of the same name did become heir to the crown decades later when Richard III’s son died, but not because of his relationship to Margaret. De la Pole’s marriage to the Lancastrian heiress had been annulled before the couple ever lived as husband and wife in order for her to marry Edmund Tudor, a match preferred by the king, Margaret’s mother, and Margaret herself.
John de la Pole went on to marry another woman with close royal ties. Elizabeth was a sister of York kings Edward IV and Richard III, placing him firmly on the Yorkist side of the Wars of the Roses. He was not highly involved in the battles between Lancaster and York, though he did fight with Edward at Barnet and Tewkesbury. He never became the dyed-in-the-wool Yorkist that his son would be, making it possible for him to make peace with Henry VII when the Tudor dynasty began, despite the younger John de la Pole’s presence at Bosworth and later rebellion.
In the meantime, Margaret was married to the man she considered her first husband, Edmund Tudor. Being hand-picked to marry the half-brother of the king was a great honor, and Margaret felt that it was God’s plan for her life. How she felt about the marriage being consummated when she was only twelve-years-old, one can only guess, but Margaret became a mother for the first and only time in her life on 28th January 1457, three months after she had been widowed.
It is often assumed that this marriage was little more than an adult man taking advantage of a young girl, but Margaret herself never spoke against Edmund for the remainder of her long life and she loved his son with an undeniable intensity. Most men did wait to consummate marriages with young women of Margaret’s age. However, Edmund was half-brother to the king who had only one infant son to show for his decade long marriage. His brother, Jasper, was also unmarried. Therefore, he may have felt more sharply than most his great need for an heir. Little record of he and Margaret’s personal relationship exists, but Margaret believed that a vision from God told her that she was to marry him.
If a pregnant twelve-year-old is incapable of truly loving her husband, there is sufficient evidence to say that Margaret did love her third husband. With the Wars of the Roses in full swing and Margaret in a precarious position, she and her brother-in-law Jasper decided that it was vital for her to remarry as soon as possible after Henry’s birth. She may have been young, but Margaret was devoted to her son and chose for herself a husband she believed would best serve infant Henry’s interests before another husband was chosen for her. The choice of Henry Stafford may have been political, but it seems to have evolved into much more.
The two travelled and lived together more than Margaret later would with her fourth husband. They hunted together and held an annual feast to celebrate their wedding anniversary with family and friends.
Unlike Margaret’s first two husbands, Henry Stafford was a second son. Margaret’s fortune made up for his lack of one, and they were both descendants of Edward III. Stafford’s father, Humphrey, was the Duke of Buckingham and brother-in-law of the king-challenging Richard of York. Margaret’s life was ever a balance between her Lancastrian blood and the need to appear loyal to kings of the York branch of the Plantagenet family tree. Her marriage to Henry helped in this respect. After fighting for Henry VI at Towton, Henry Stafford received a pardon and stood by Edward IV’s side through the challenges brought by Margaret's Beaufort cousins and the wife and son of the deposed Henry VI. Edward’s favour toward the couple was demonstrated in his gift of their Woking estate, which had formerly been a possession of Henry Beaufort.
Stafford’s loyalty to Edward IV was challenged during the Warwick rebellion of 1469. Margaret saw this as an opportunity to obtain custody of her only son, with whom she had contact, but not custody of, since she had wed Stafford. The couple lobbied the Duke of Clarence, who had rebelled with his cousin of Warwick against his own brother, for the wardship of Henry Tudor. Before an agreement could be reached, Edward was back in power and newly distrustful of the pair.
Stafford was quick to make public displays of loyalty to Edward, until the readeption of Henry VI again brought Edward’s reign into question. Margaret made her support for the Lancastrian king clear, but Stafford was more reserved and refused to join the forces set to challenge Edward when he returned from exile. Instead, Stafford was there to welcome the York king to London when he reclaimed the city on 12th April 1471 and was at his side when he marched out to Barnet a few days later. The wounds Stafford received there caused him to be sent home. He would not fight for Edward again and died on 4th October 1471.
Margaret appears to have truly mourned for Henry Stafford. However, she was also left in a delicate situation again and understood her choice of husband was vital to her future and that of her son. In less than a year, she had selected Thomas Stanley, a man infamous for avoiding fighting for either side throughout the Wars of the Roses.
Lord Stanley was prominent at court with both Neville and Woodville connections. He managed to convince Edward IV of his faithfulness without ever taking the field for him. In other words, he was just the sort of protector that Margaret needed. Their marriage was more of a business agreement than a love match. In fact, following Stanley’s pivotal role in Henry Tudor’s victory over Richard III, a declaration of Parliament declared Margaret a ‘femme sole,’ enabling her to manage her own affairs as would a widow. In 1499, Margaret also took a vow of chastity.
Margaret could not have foreseen all of this when she chose to marry Stanley in 1472. Her hope at that time had been that Stanley would help Henry return from exile to an appropriate position within the court of Edward IV. That goal had almost been reached. When Edward died in April 1483, and unsigned pardon for Henry Tudor was among his papers. Margaret must have been devastated, but she kept up her fight and Henry’s future was brighter than she could have imagined.
The reign of Richard III was turbulent and filled with treachery. Margaret had managed to build some amount of trust with his brother, but Richard was a very different man. It was time to take a bold step, and Margaret embraced it. By secretly scheming with dowager queen Elizabeth Woodville, Margaret secured a betrothal between her son and Edward IV’s eldest daughter. When Stanley handed the victory to Henry at Bosworth by refusing to commit his troops, a royal wife was waiting for the Lancastrian exile made king.
Margaret’s son became Henry VII in 1485, and she focused on her role as the King’s mother. She and her fourth husband had an amicable relationship but no longer lived as husband and wife. Instead, the child she had dedicated her life to while she was still a child herself was her greatest joy, and she helped him build a dynasty.