The fiercely maternal and profoundly strong-willed Margaret Beaufort died peacefully in her bed on 29 June 1509. Founder of the Tudor Dynasty, she was buried in Westminster Abbey with every honor and an Italian sculptor was commissioned to create the effigy on her tomb.
The famous humanist scholar Erasmus honored her by composing her epitaph, which reads in English:
“Margaret, Countess of Richmond, mother of Henry VII, grandmother of Henry VIII, who donated funds for three monks of this abbey, a grammar school in Wimborne, a preacher in the whole of England, two lecturers in Scripture, one at Oxford, the other at Cambridge, where she also founded two colleges, one dedicated to Christ, and the other to St John, the Evangelist.”
King Henry VIII was still celebrating his coronation when news of his grandmother’s death reached him, putting an end to the jousting and feasts while the kingdom officially mourned her passing. The new king ordered the church bells to ring for six days to commemorate her. Margaret was thinking of her grandson up until the last, and there is some indication she feared he was too frivolous and playful to be the king his father had been since she died urging him to please listen to Bishop John Fisher, whom Henry would later behead in 1535. Bishop Fisher preached Margaret’s funeral sermon and praised her lavishly, but he was clearly unsuccessful in fulfilling her dying wish that he keep her redheaded heir on the straight and narrow.
Although Margaret is often criticized for her coldness toward anyone who was not her son, she had many friends and was well-respected – even beloved. She was also very smart, running her estates and managing the royal household with a capability for which is often accused of being her “iron fist”. I think that her masculine abilities would be less snarked upon if she had been masculine herself. Women, it seems, were not supposed to be so commanding.
They are also supposed to be tender-hearted, and while Margaret’s heart overflowed with tenderness for her son and those she truly cared for, anyone who was not in that blessed circle could get a cold shoulder. This is particularly true if they were in any way an impediment to her son’s ambitions or hopes. Margaret was on Team Henry Tudor, no ifs, ands, or buts. It is possibly for his sake that she remained devoted to the memory of her husband, Edmund Tudor, 1st Earl of Richmond. As the mother of an 11 year old daughter, I think it is beyond vile that the 24 year old Edmund consummated his marriage to the 12 year old Margaret, who gave birth to Henry Tudor as a 13 year old widow, but Margaret herself bore her late husband no ill-will and seems to have membered him lovingly. I think much more highly of Edmund’s brother Jasper, who did not wed his pretty little sister-in-law (in spite of her obscene wealth) and was unceasingly protective and loyal to his little nephew.
Margaret was married off to Sir Henry Stafford, son of Humphrey Stafford, 1st Duke of Buckingham less than two years later January 1458, and the 14-year-old girl had (for the interests of her family) to go to the English court and leave her toddler under the care of her brother-in-law Jasper. Her trust in Jasper was well-founded, because he loved Henry as much as any man would love his own son.
Other than her undoubted yearning to see her baby boy, Margaret flourished in the court of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. She seems to have loved and esteemed her new husband (technically her third) but she would never bear another child. Her husband was not the only one at court to care deeply for Margaret Beaufort; the Queen became so fond of Lady Stafford that she made the young woman a godmother to one of the younger royal daughters.
Henry Stafford died in service to Edward VI, and the wealthy widow was once again too much of a prize to be left alone. Her royal blood and riches demanded a suitable husband, and it was arranged that she be wed to Thomas Stanley, 1st Earl of Derby, who was the King of Mann and the son and heir of Thomas Stanley, 1st Baron Stanley. The Earl of Derby was also blue-blooded, being descendant of King Edward I and King Henry III through his mother’s family. Margaret appears to have never fallen in love with her new husband, but they got on well enough.
Stanley was a canny man, so when Edward VI died and Richard III rose to power Stanley promised Richard to keep Margaret – whose son had been taken to France by Jasper for safe-keeping – on a tight leash. Richard took away all of Margaret’s lands and titles and gave them to Stanley, who gave every appearance of being Richard’s loyal steward. Richard was suspicious of both Stanley and Margaret (for good reason) and kept Stanely’s son from an earlier marriage, George, Lord Strange, in court as a de facto hostage.
Things went south fast when Edward IV’s sons ‘disappeared’, a move which destroyed Richard’s erstwhile solid popularity. Margaret, who was still close to Elizabeth Woodville, colluded in secret with the dethroned dowager queen. At first, it was an attempt to recover Edward V and lead a rebellion to put him back on the throne. When the boys were given up for dead (Margret’s husband had become in charge of the Tower after the Duke of Buckingham’s rebellion against Richard and was in a position to know if the boys were alive in captivity or not), the women intrigued to make Henry Tudor king and have him marry the eldest princess, Elizabeth of York.
Lord Stanley helped his wife plot on Henry Tudor’s behalf, and was critical to his stepson’s successful attempt on the throne:
The Stanleys had been communicating with the exiled Henry Tudor for some time and Tudor’s strategy of landing in Wales and heading east into central England depended on the acquiescence of Sir William Stanley [Thomas Stanely’s younger brother], as Chamberlain of Chester and north Wales, and by extension on that of Lord Stanley himself. On hearing of the invasion, Richard ordered the two Stanleys to raise the men of the region in readiness to oppose the invader. However, once it was clear that Tudor was marching unopposed through Wales, Richard ordered Lord Stanley to join him without delay. According to the Croyland Chronicle, although Lord Stanley excused himself on the grounds of illness, the ‘sweating sickness’, by now Richard had firm evidence of the Stanleys’ complicity … Richard proclaimed him as traitor, and let it be known that Strange’s life was hostage for his father’s loyalty in the coming conflict … Lord Stanley’s response to Richard’s threat was reportedly laconic: “Sire, I have other sons” … [This is very doubtful, since when Lord Stanley’s forces] arrived south of the village of Market Bosworth on 22 August they took up a position independent of both the royal forces and the rebel army … Lord Stanley kept his powder dry, taking no direct part in the action but stood unmoving between the two armies and it was Sir William’s decisive intervention that gave Henry the victory. After the despatch of Richard, who had gone into battle crowned, Polydore Vergil records that the fallen coronet was retrieved and placed by Lord Stanley on his stepson’s head before his cheering troops, thereby emphasising the critical role the Stanleys had played in bringing Henry Tudor to the throne … Henry demonstrated his gratitude to his “right dearly beloved father” by creating him Earl of Derby on 27 October 1485, and the following year confirmed him in office as Lord High Constable of England and High Steward of the Duchy of Lancaster, besides granting him other estates and offices. In 1486 Stanley also stood as godfather to Henry’s eldest son, Arthur, Prince of Wales.
Lady Margaret Beaufort son had done what would have seemed impossible a few years before, and become King Henry VII of England.
Much has been made of supposed ‘contention’ between the new king’s mother and the new queen’s mother as to who was more influential at court, but the truth is that Margaret was willing to walk a half-step behind Elizabeth Woodville while that former queen was at court, and that is a huge concession to Elizabeth’s rank. Margaret did get the same high quality clothes, and she was given great power over the court by her son, but there is no real evidence this caused undue friction among the royal women. Henry’s bride, Queen Elizabeth, would have known Margaret since her youth and the women shared a mutual devotion to the king and the children Elizabeth bore him.
After Lord Stanley’s death in 1504, Margaret was finally allowed to remain a widow. She remained active in her patronage and official duties until her death, and the court seems to have genuinely mourned her loss. Bishop Fisher said of her:
“Of marvayllous gentyleness she was unto all folks, but specially unto her owne, whom she trustede, and loved ryghte tenderly. Unkynde she woulde not be unto no creature, ne forgetful of ony kyndeness or servyce done to her before, which is no lytel part of veray nobleness. She was not vengeable ne cruell, but redy anone to forgete and to forgyve injuryes done unto her, at the least desyre or mocyon made unto her for the same.”
She should be remembered for her devotion to her son and her friends, for her endowments to universities, and for her loyalty to Elizabeth Woodville, rather than subtly sneered at as a scheming and power-hungry Mama who took advantage of her son’s rise for her own aggrandizement.