Post-classical history




In 1466 Edward IV presented Henry Stafford and Margaret Beaufort with a palatial house in Surrey. Just outside the village of Woking and on the banks of the River Wey, this was to become their favourite residence. Once ‘Woking Old Hall’ had belonged to Margaret’s grandmother, though in recent years it had been a manor of the turncoat Duke of Somerset. The King’s generosity was much more than just a mark of favour to Stafford. The gift showed that Edward was prepared to forgive his bad taste in having married a Beaufort. Sir Henry and Lady Margaret moved into the house during the early spring of 1467.

Although so near London, fifteenth-century Surrey was in many ways a surprisingly remote county, much of it dense woodland or heath, while some areas were without roads. A good deal was left untilled because of sandy soil. However, Woking (nowadays known as Old Woking) was only a few hours’ journey from the capital, being close to the Thames, down which the City could be reached by barge. The easiest way to the Thames from Old Woking, and the most comfortable, especially in wet weather when one could travel under an awning, was by boat along the little River Wey which flows into it.

Despite becoming a favourite palace of the Tudors, ‘Woking Old Hall’ was left to fall into decay during the seventeenth century, so that some overgrown rubble enclosed by a moat is all that remains of it today. The parish church, where Henry and Margaret occasionally heard Mass – normally they preferred to hear it in their chapel at the hall – survives. They may well have paid for the church’s rebuilding since much of the fabric dates from their time. In the couple’s day the house was unmistakeably the residence of great nobles. A big castellated manor built around a courtyard, it was entered across a drawbridge over a moat and through a gatehouse. A second, inner gatehouse led from the court into the main range which contained a dining hall, chapel and private chambers. There were orchards, gardens and a deer park, together with a hunting lodge at Brookwood nearby.1

‘Her estate administration must rank as one of the most efficient of the entire middle ages’ is the verdict of Margaret’s recent biographers.2 Clearly she spent much of her day checking accounts and leases – she was far too vigilant for any of them to dare to try cheating her. Religious observance occupied a good deal of her time. Rising at 5 a.m., she heard several Masses before breakfast, besides saying the Office (probably the Little Hours of the Virgin) during the day, as well as meditating and reading – aloud, as was the normal practice. She also looked after the local poor and sick, feeding them and changing their bandages, arranging for the children of needy mothers to be boarded out. She kept singing boys for her chapel and may have had a schola cantorum – she certainly maintained one in her later years. As for relaxation, she is known to have hunted and probably went in for hawking too.

The couple’s life at Woking was conducted like that of a small court, a replica in miniature of the King’s. Their household included a staff of nearly fifty servants, many of them ‘gentlemen born’, such as the receiver-general, Reginald Bray, a man whose family had come with the Normans. As a great noblewoman, Margaret ranked with her peers and was treated with due ceremony. Even when by herself she dined in splendour in her hall, at a high table on a raised dais, presiding over her household and retainers.

They entertained lavishly and kept a good table. Most of the food came from the neighbourhood; luxuries were ordered from London and brought up the Thames, though sometimes they were purchased at Guildford. The county town, Guildford, was very near Woking, and they visited it frequently. On one occasion Henry gave his kinsman Lord Berners lunch there.

The right relatives were a factor of vital importance. This was a very dangerous period indeed in which to be a Beaufort. The King’s attempted reconciliation with the Duke of Somerset in 1462 had embraced the entire Beaufort family; although Margaret was not included in the general hand-out, she may well have received some gesture of esteem. But Somerset’s defection had enraged Edward IV, and all Beauforts were in disgrace. The Duke’s mother had her annuity taken away for a second time and was sent to prison. Margaret was lucky to escape scot free. It must have seemed as though she could scarcely hope for any favours from King Edward.

‘She was no recluse but a veteran of bruising political battles’, Margaret’s biographers observe with some justice. She must have discussed the situation constantly with her husband. Both knew only too well that should he make the wrong decision he could lose his life, while she might forfeit her wealth and her liberty and find herself under house arrest in a convent.

After the King’s marriage in 1464 they were protected to some extent by the Staffords’ links with the Woodville family.3 Lord Berners and his son acquired prominent posts in the Queen’s household, the former becoming her chamberlain. Then in 1466 Henry’s young nephew, the Duke of Buckingham, was married off to the Queen’s sister, Katherine Woodville. Buckingham was the premier duke of England and among the richest landowners in the realm. Naturally his uncle was expected to come to court. This is almost certainly the reason why Edward granted Henry Stafford a residence that was so near to both London and Windsor. (Windsor could also be reached quickly from Woking by boat.)

The latest study of Margaret Beaufort argues convincingly that her marriage to Henry was a happy, harmonious one. Husband and wife had many interests in common, sharing their duties and their amusements. From their accounts it is clear that the couple worked together on the administration of their estates and on running their household. They also hunted regularly together, their quarry being generally fallow-buck, and they made sporting tours into Hampshire, where there were some famous deer parks. It is significant that they invariably celebrated their wedding anniversary, 3 January. A London poulterer supplied curlew, plover and larks for the anniversary of 1471.

Margaret’s biographers emphasize her constant activity, whether in going to court or in touring her estates, and her skill at managing her property. She and Henry frequently visited the estates, as in 1467 when they toured her West Country manors from August to October, escorted by a small ‘riding household’ of forty retainers. The couple stayed at Curry Rivel and at Langport in Somerset, and then at Sampford Peverell in Devon, which was to become one of Margaret’s favourite houses. The tour was a businesslike inspection of farms to check that they were being properly managed. Jones and Underwood (from whom these details are taken) point out that during the fifteenth century, even in the most harmonious marriages, ‘it was unusual for the wife to travel so much with her husband rather than supervise affairs at home.’

Sir Henry and Lady Margaret also visited London and Windsor, no doubt very much aware that they had been given their fine house at Woking so that they would be able to come to court. In May 1468 the couple travelled down to the City by boat, staying at the Mitre Inn in Cheapside. Apparently this was because they wanted to be in London when King Edward made a public announcement of his intention to invade France – an invasion which, however, would be postponed for the time being. On at least one occasion (in May 1467) Sir Henry was summoned to a meeting of the royal council at Mortlake Palace. Yet, apart from the undeniably generous grant of Woking Old Hall, the King showed him comparatively little favour. It may well be that Edward felt he could never quite trust Henry Stafford because of that Beaufort wife with her Lancastrian cousins. There was still a Lancastrian party, even though its leaders might have fled abroad.

The couple’s activities were to some extent limited by Henry’s poor health. He was frequently unwell. It has been conjectured that his malady was ‘St Anthony’s Fire’, erysipelas, which was then thought to be a form of leprosy. Revealingly, he joined the confraternity of the leper hospital at Burton Lazars in Leicestershire, while Margaret was noted for her devotion to St Anthony Abbot – the patron saint of those who were afflicted by skin diseases.

Margaret’s son Henry Tudor remained in the household of his father’s old enemy, William Herbert. As a zealous Yorkist, and Edward IV’s most important and most trusted supporter in Wales, the latter had been created Lord Herbert – the first Welshman to become a peer. His own son had recently married one of the Queen’s sisters, which therefore linked him to the Staffords through the Woodvilles. The connection ensured that Herbert was well disposed towards Sir Henry and his wife. During their West Country tour in 1467 they found time to visit young Henry Tudor, they and their household taking the ferry over the River Severn from Bristol to Chepstow in October. They spent a week at Lord Herberts’ great castle of Raglan. This was Margaret’s first meeting with the boy for several years, although it was not as if he were a prisoner; the children of magnates were often separated from the parents in this way since it was common practice to board them out in some noble household as part of their education. Moreover, despite his being landless and no longer an earl, because of his mother’s wealth ‘the lord Henry of Richmond’ had been betrothed to Herbert’s daughter Mary.

During the following year Margaret’s former brother-in-law Jasper Tudor landed in North Wales and tried to relieve Harlech Castle, which had held out against the Yorkists for seven years. The last Lancastrian stronghold, its garrison’s defiance was the inspiration for that magnificent Welsh song ‘The March of the Men of Harlech’. But Jasper’s little army was soon routed and on 14 August Dafydd ap Evan ap Einion, captain of Harlech, finally surrendered to Lord Herbert. It has been suggested that the eleven-year-old Henry Tudor accompanied his guardian on the campaign, witnessing the surrender, as there is evidence that his mother was worried about his safety.

A few months later Edward IV paid Sir Henry and Lady Margaret the ultimate compliment of a visit. On 20 December Stafford met the King and his retinue at Guildford, taking them to Woking for a hunt. What they hunted is unknown; while it is most likely to have been a fallow-buck, it could have been a stag, since some red deer were kept in the park, or even a wild boar – the latter were occasionally recorded in Surrey during the fifteenth century. The hunt would have been a far more stately business than in modern times, with much blowing of horns and ritual, the King being invited to dispatch the quarry with a sword.

Afterwards King Edward dined with his hosts in the hunting lodge at Brookwood. They ate in a tent of purple sarsenet, serenaded by the royal minstrels. Among the fish served on a new pewter dinner service (specially bought in London for the occasion) were conger eel, lampreys and 700 oysters. Margaret wore velvet, holland and brabant cloth.4 Probably the couple tried to secure their guest’s help in resisting a claim to their Westmorland estates, which had been made by Nevill supporters with the backing of the Earl of Warwick.

Although this was the first time Margaret Beaufort had met Edward IV, nothing could have demonstrated more clearly that she was still numbered among the great of the land than her hunting party at Woking.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!