Mother of a Dynasty, Founder of Universities: Margaret Beaufort

MARCH / APRIL 2017: BY CHARITY BISHOP

One of history’s more misunderstood, under-represented, and thanks to several negative depictions in fictional works, maligned women is Margaret Beaufort, mother of King Henry VII, and founder of the Tudor dynasty. I find this unfortunate because she was a remarkable woman for her time.

Before she turned thirteen, Margaret married Edmund Tudor, who impregnated his child bride within months, then died of plague before she birthed their son—a traumatic experience which almost killed them both, due to her underdeveloped body, and left her unable to bear further children. Modern beliefs would call this child molestation; Margaret never aired her feelings on the matter, but probably took it in stride—as she did everything else. She navigated two more marriages (the first, to Sir Henry Stafford, seemed happy; her third husband, Thomas Stanley, did not raise an objection when she took chastity vows inside their marriage), each intended to bring her closer to power.

History does not know when Margaret promoted her son’s bid for the throne, but her strongest maneuver came during Richard III’s reign. London (and the world) wondered what had come of his nephews, the rightful heirs, now known as the Princes in the Tower. Suspicion arose that Richard had murdered them, to solidify his position as Regent. Amid the upheaval that resulted, Margaret negotiated a marriage between her son and Elizabeth of York, with the dowager queen, Elizabeth Woodville, to unite the two households and end the War of the Roses.

margaret2Her son landed in Wales with a small French army and marched inward; he met Richard’s forces at Bosworth Field, where with the help of a Welsh army led by Lord Rhys, and aided by Margaret’s husband, his forces defeated and killed Richard. Delighted with her son’s success, Margaret accompanied Henry to London, took possession of the royal rooms, and influenced his policies throughout his reign. Though some historians claim she brow-beat the mild-mannered Elizabeth of York, due to records stating that Margaret took care of most of the king’s affairs (organized events, bought furniture, commissioned new furnishings for the palace, etc), there’s no evidence she and Elizabeth were incompatible. Contemporaries call her efficient, organized, and devout, but also good-humored.

While her personal confessor and friend (and later, martyr under her grandson’s reign) John Fisher had much to praise about her at her funeral, I admire several things about Margaret Beaufort: her ability to overcome trauma, her charitable outreaches, and her feminist ideals.

Even if a girl married someone at a young age, society condemned consummation until she reached maturity and could bear children; Margaret’s impregnation shocked and horrified her contemporaries, which suggests the unusual and reprehensible behavior of her first husband. Since we would call this “marital rape,” or “child abuse” in modern terms, I will be forthright: as a rape survivor, Margaret overcame her abuse to establish strong relationships, and to ensure her granddaughters never had similar experiences. In the early 1500s, Henry wanted to establish alliances with Spain and Scotland, to protect his throne from his wife’s cousin, the Duke of Suffolk, Edmund de la Pole, a potential usurper to his throne.

margaret3Suffolk had fled to the Netherlands and since Scotland had sided against Henry in the last Pretender uprising, Henry agreed to a marriage between his eldest daughter, Margaret (future Queen of Scotland), and King James. Eager to have her in his possession for diplomatic and power purposes, James appealed to him numerous times to send her to Scotland, for others to raise her with “Scottish influences.” Perhaps the intelligent, shrewd Henry saw through this, and refused on political grounds (no daughter in Scotland, Scotland has no one to hold hostage)… but it is also likely his mother (and his wife) influenced his opinion, since he “agreed,” when they raised their objections.

Female education was not common in Europe at the time; since educations proved expensive, only wealthy families could afford them, and most considered women a waste of time. They learned to sew or cook, while their brothers learned philosophy, history, Latin, Greek, sums… and how to read. Certain royal households, such as Isabella and Ferdinand in Spain, educated their daughters equal to their sons, but it was not common in noble households—and unheard of among the populace.

A humanist (a term which meant someone who believes in advancement through education), Margaret Beaufort believed education vital to societal improvement, and established and founded many colleges throughout England. She paid for scholarships, to appoint educators, and to even bring street people into her household, where she fed, clothed, and educated them in a profession. She also established England’s first priory school, where boys and girls from lowborn families could attend and learn. So not only did she promote her granddaughters’ advancement, she also cared about lowborn women.

margaret4Margaret was as intelligent as she was courageous; once the first printing press reached England, she seized on the opportunity to print pro-Tudor pamphlets and religious works, and even authored a few herself. She outlived her son, and ruled as regent until her grandson, Henry VIII, assumed the throne. She died the day after his birthday after complaints of eating bad fruit, and her entire household wept at their bereavement.

Alas, the strong, independent rape-survivor, promoter of modern education, and a woman who invited the homeless into her house is now under a veil of suspicion, and many holds her responsible for murdering the Princes in the Tower, thanks to Philippa Gregory’s Tudor novels. In them, she is a psychotic delusional who orders their murder so her son can come to power; and the Starz miniseries The White Princess further slanders her by implicating her in the (fictional) rape of Elizabeth of York and claims she murdered Jasper Tudor.

In reality, Margaret had little influence at court and no way to persuade anyone to murder the princes for her son, since at that point, Henry was a nobody in France without significant allies, much less a strong claim to the English throne. She struggled even to convince her husband to back Henry when he arrived in England; and he only went to Henry’s side when he saw the battle turn in his favor. Henry had been in exile for many years, and no one thought he had a remote chance of victory, much less considered him as a potential future monarch. Her son is also an unlikely suspect, since he had no influence or way to reach them. Though we will never know for certain who ordered the lost princes’ deaths, historians’ most debated suspects are the Duke of Buckingham and Richard III.

I hope you will not allow negative fictional representations of Margaret Beaufort to color your opinion of one of history’s most interesting women.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Charity Bishop devotes her free time to eating chocolate, debating theology with her friends, babysitting her two cats, writing books, blogging, and searching for spiritual truth in all aspects of life.

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5 thoughts on “Mother of a Dynasty, Founder of Universities: Margaret Beaufort

  1. jessica prescott

    Sounds like my kind of girl. Even apart from everything else amazing you’ve listed here, anyone who works to provide the less-advantaged with a good education is someone I respect.

    I think . . . authors just can’t seem to resist the lure of an evil psychotic villain, sometimes. They WANT that kind of horrible monster in their stories, to “spice things up”–but the trouble is, they don’t limit themselves to creating their own psychotic villains. No, they have to go out and grab innocent (or at least semi-decent) historical figures and MAKE them into monsters, just for the drama. Which is wrong.

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    1. Charity Post author

      She was pretty damn cool. She is a perfect example of how women ‘got things done’ in that time period — she worked with men, and behind the scenes, but never overstepped herself and/or challenged any social convention she did not feel she could win. Smart woman.

      If you want a villain, authors, make one up — please do not hijack a historical figure who cannot defend themselves from your false claims. It makes me want to rip out my own eyeballs (or someone else’s!) when I hear now, with a straight face from people, that “Margaret Beaufort likely had the Princes in the Tower killed.” Um, no. She didn’t. She is not even a suspect among credible historians. That just shows the power a NOVELIST can have upon history. 😛

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  2. scarlettgrant

    Do you know if Margaret Beaufort published her works under her own name? As I thought Catherine Parr was the first woman to publish written works in English. Interestingly, they were both pious women! But this is a great article and I think many people forget about Margaret and her incredible intelligence.

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    1. Charity Post author

      Given how traditional Margaret was in some ways, I imagine she co-authored and/or left her name off some of her published translations — because you are indeed correct, Catherine Parr was the first English woman to author books under her own name in English.

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