Post-classical history

23

WHO WILL WIN?, 1471

MARGARET BEAUFORT

For Lady Margaret Beaufort and her husband, Sir Henry Stafford, the Readeption and the months that preceded it were a time of what must have been almost unbearable strain. She had good reason to worry about the future of her son, Henry Tudor, even to fear for his life. Her stepfather and her stepbrother both died on the scaffold. Then, after the flight of Edward IV and throughout the Readeption, Henry Stafford was faced by having to make a nerve-racking and extremely difficult decision. For whom was he going to fight during the inevitable confrontation when Edward returned to England? The wrong choice meant a bloody death and family ruin.

Although Henry Tudor was still only twelve years old, his guardian, William Herbert, took the boy with him on his disastrous campaign against the Earl of Warwick in July 1469. As has been seen, Herbert was defeated at Edgecote and executed. Margaret made anxious enquiries about her son, who might easily have been killed during the battle. Then news came of how one of Herbert’s followers, Sir Richard Corbet, had escaped from Edgecote with the boy and found a refuge in the house of Lord Ferrers of Chartley at Weobley on the Welsh border where Lady Herbert had also sought shelter – Ferrers being her brother.1 Nearly forty years later, in an oration before Henry Tudor and his mother at Cambridge, Dr Fisher reminded them of their alarm when the boy had been in the charge of ‘those caught up in constant warfare’. The Ferrers household at Weobley appears to have been kind to Henry; after his stay, two of the servants received presents of money from Lady Margaret.

During those weeks in the summer of 1469 when King Edward was Warwick’s prisoner and the world seemed upside down, Margaret had attempted to improve the prospects of a son who had been deprived of both title and lands, but she made a bad mistake. In order to plead his case, in August she visited the Duke of Clarence at his mansion in London; he was briefly one of the two most powerful men in England, as well as the holder of the Honour of Richmond which had formerly belonged to Henry. In consequence, when Edward regained his liberty, he was deeply suspicious of Lady Margaret and of her husband, Stafford.

Since Herbert (Lord Pembroke) was dead, besides being grimly determined to recover Henry Tudor’s patrimony for him, Margaret wanted custody of the boy so that he could come and live with her. The invaluable Reginald Bray organized a search of the Exchequer and Chancery records, purchasing a copy of ‘my lord Pembroke’s patent for the ward[ship] and marriage of my lord of Richmond’. He sent a trusted servant down to Pembrokeshire, to see if he could find out anything useful which might serve as evidence. The very best legal advice was taken, Bray consulting a particularly distinguished lawyer, Master Humphrey Starkey, who was Recorder of London. In October 1469 Margaret and her husband, accompanied by ‘their fellowship and learned council’, met Lady Pembroke and her brother, Lord Ferrers of Chartley, who also brought their lawyers, in an attempt to reach a compromise over Henry Tudor’s future. The meeting place was the Bell Inn in Fleet Street, where mutton, bread and cheese and ale were served to the party during the discussions. Although the details have not survived, obviously some sort of agreement was reached since a new patent was obtained from the King shortly afterwards.2

Even if he was angry at Lady Margaret for calling on the Duke of Clarence during his own captivity in Yorkshire, King Edward had good reasons for wishing to remain on friendly terms with Henry Stafford, reasons that no doubt persuaded him to be helpful with the problems of his Tudor stepson. Not only was Sir Henry’s brother, Sir John Stafford, a most valued supporter whom the King created Earl of Wiltshire, but so too was his stepfather, the former royal treasurer, Lord Mountjoy. And we know from Margaret’s household accounts that the Stafford brothers were close; John visited Henry at Woking Old Hall, to hunt or to play cards. Moreover, their three Bourchier uncles were very powerful men indeed – respectively Archbishop of Canterbury, Earl of Essex, and Lord Berners. For all her Lancastrian Beaufort blood, by marriage Margaret had some undeniably influential Yorkist relations.

Henry Stafford was present at Stamford in March 1470 when Margaret’s stepbrother, Lord Welles, was executed, and fought against Sir Robert at Losecote Field. Since Stafford visited Maxey shortly after, he must have brought Margaret’s mother, Lady Welles, the news of their executions. He had been summoned by the King and despite ill health had joined him hastily to prove his loyalty. Edward was a dangerous man to provoke. Sir Henry rode with the King in April when he tried to catch Warwick and Clarence as they fled to France.

In October 1470, immediately after King Edward’s own flight, Sir Richard Corbet brought Henry Tudor to Hereford, handing the boy over to his uncle Jasper who had just arrived from France. Uncle and nephew travelled to London, to be met by Margaret and her husband. Apparently the family stayed in the City, since on 27 October all four – Margaret, Stafford, Henry and Jasper – went up the Thames to Westminster, where they were received by King Henry and dined at the palace.

Now that the House of Lancaster had returned, Lady Margaret Beaufort was once more part of the royal family. So too was her teenage son. The visit to Westminster was a moment of great dramatic significance in the life of the little family, and especially in that of Henry Tudor, who would eventually emerge as the ultimate winner in the entire bloodstained saga.

However modest they may have been, Henry VI had not lost all his wits, if one may believe a legend about his meeting with young Henry Tudor. According to Bernard André, writing thirty years later, he washed the boy’s hands in a semi-liturgical gesture, prophesying that one day he would wear the crown. The scene is described in King Henry the Sixth, Part III:

Come hither, England’s hope: If secret powers
Suggest but truth to my divining thoughts,
This pretty lad will prove our country’s bliss.
His looks are full of peaceful majesty;
His head by nature fram’d to wear a crown,
His hand to wear a sceptre; and himself
Likely, in time, to bless a regal throne.
Make much of him, my lords; for this is he,
Must help you more than you are hurt by me.

Henry Tudor then accompanied his mother to Woking Old Hall, but they were able to spend only a few days there together. On 11 November the boy left to go back to Wales with Jasper. Margaret would not see her son again for nearly fifteen years.

Part of the reason for Margaret Beaufort’s visit to the King must have been to obtain the return of Henry Tudor’s earldom, with the lands that Edward IV had granted to the Duke of Clarence. Between early October and early December Stafford saw the Duke half a dozen times, almost certainly trying to persuade him to give back at least some of them. But despite having been forced to disgorge the exiled queen’s estates, Clarence was still in a position to refuse. Even so, Stafford never accepted the loss of his stepson’s patrimony, referring to him pointedly in household accounts as ‘Lord Richmond’.

As Margaret Beaufort’s husband, Sir Henry Stafford could in theory become the first man in England. Should Prince Edward of Lancaster die, and he was far from healthy, Stafford might find himself lieutenant of the realm for the rest of Henry VI’s lifetime, and then king consort. Clarence had been recognized as heir to the throne after Prince Edward, but too many Lancastrians held him in ‘great suspicion, despite, disdain and hatred’.

The acknowledged leader of the Lancastrians was Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, who returned to England from Burgundy in February 1471. A dashing figure, thirty-one years old, like his elder brother Henry the Duke seems to have possessed charm and magnetism in abundance. No doubt too, like all exiles, he was intrigued by relatives who had stayed at home and prospered. The Duke called on his Beaufort first cousin, Margaret, at Woking early in March, to be entertained with a fine meal of fresh salmon, eel and tench, which had been specially purchased from a London fishmonger – such dishes made a pleasant contrast to salt-herrings, the staple diet during a fifteenth-century Lent.

On his way down to the West Country to meet Queen Margaret and raise troops for her, the Duke of Somerset again visited Woking Old Hall, where he spent four days, leaving on 28 March. He had an escort of forty men and tried to persuade Henry Stafford to ride with him, without success.

Nearly all historians of the Wars of the Roses emphasize Somerset’s military experience. They cite how as a friend and favourite of Duke Charles he had accompanied the Burgundian army on campaign in 1465 and again in 1467. Yet there is no evidence that Somerset had ever held any sort of military command, while both of his Burgundian campaigns had been desultory and inconclusive affairs; reading the eyewitness account of them by Philippe de Commynes, one has the impression that they were unusually muddled and confused. Judging from his own tragically inept performance in the days that lay ahead, it seems very unlikely that the Duke of Somerset had learnt anything useful from them.

Sir Henry Stafford prevaricated, sending trusted retainers to Somerset’s headquarters in Salisbury, with instructions to discuss matters for as long as possible and buy time. Edward IV’s little invasion force had by now grown into a formidable army which was growing bigger every day, while its leader had a reputation for never having lost a battle. In an ideal world Stafford would have stayed at home; to fight on the losing side could mean death on the battlefield or on the scaffold, together with poverty for his wife. On the other hand, the victors might be infuriated by his failure to support them. What may appear to later generations as unprincipled self-seeking did not appear in such a light to contemporaries. There was no such thing as party in the fifteenth century, even though there might be faction. During the Wars of the Roses no one saw anything at all dishonourable in switching allegiance to whoever seemed to be the most likely winner.

Sir Henry found himself in London when King Edward and the increasingly impressive Yorkist army rode in on 12 April. He decided to join them, accompanied by the steward of his household, John Gilpyn, and other retainers. He was so unprepared that his ‘harness’ was incomplete; he had to send for the chain-mail gussets that reinforced his suit of plate. Something of his state of mind can be guessed from his making his will, evidently in haste. He appointed Margaret to be his principal executor, describing her as ‘my most entirely beloved wife’, and then instructed a reliable servant to take it home to her.

Stafford knew only too well that he might easily be killed in the fighting. He could remember countless friends and relations being slaughtered on that terrible day at Towton. Revealingly, he asked in his will to be buried ‘where it shall best please God that I die’. No doubt King Edward was a gifted general but Warwick had an equally fearsome reputation. In case he should have to make his escape – as he had had to do after Towton – Sir Henry ordered ten of his men to wait for him at Kingston-upon-Thames; it was quite possible that he might find himself too hotly pursued to linger in London for a barge to take him back to Woking, and he wanted to make sure of being able to cross Kingston Bridge in safety.3 One does not need much imagination to suspect that Margaret was a very worried woman indeed.

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