Post-classical history

38

‘MOTHER TO THE KING’S
GREAT REBEL AND TRAITOR’, 1484

MARGARET BEAUFORT

As Polydore Vergil makes plain, Margaret Beaufort was generally thought to have been the brains behind the Duke of Buckingham’s revolt.1 In his flowery way, Kendall calls her ‘the Athena of the rebellion’, Athena being the Greek goddess of war. Richard recognized her as a most dangerous enemy.

When Parliament assembled in January 1484, there followed a savage proscription of every identifiable opponent of any importance, over a hundred bills of attainder being passed to confirm forfeiture of life and land. The King gave the confiscated estates almost indiscriminately to men who had served him in the north; borrowing More’s words, ‘with large gifts he gat him unsteadfast friendship’. There was a special Act of attainder for John, Bishop of Ely, together with two other prelates who had played a prominent role in the rising – Lionel Woodville of Salisbury and Piers Courtenay of Exeter. As clerics, they lost their possessions but not their lives.

There was also a special attainder against Lady Margaret Beaufort, which indicates the very wide extent of her involvement.

For as much as Margaret, countess of Richmond, mother to the king’s great rebel and traitor Henry, earl of Richmond, hath of late conspired, confeder[at]ed and committed high treason against our sovereign Lord King Richard III . . . in sending messages, writings and tokens to the said Henry, desiring, procuring and stirring him by the same to come into this realm and make war against our sovereign lord . . . Also the said countess made chevisance of great sums, as well within the City of London, as in other places in this realm.2

Making ‘chevisances’ was raising loans. Clearly, Margaret had played a major part in financing the rebellion.

However, in view of the many excellent services performed by her husband Thomas, Lord Stanley, the King ‘will forbear the great punishment of attainder of the said countess’ for his sake. Nevertheless, all her estates and income were confiscated; they were given to Stanley, though only for his lifetime, after which they must pass to the Crown. In addition, Margaret’s husband was ordered to keep her isolated, in some secret place without servants or company, so that she would be unable to communicate with Henry Tudor or his friends.

Polydore Vergil comments patronizingly that she escaped much worse punishment because ‘the working of a woman’s wit was thought of small account’. She was fortunate in that, unlike the Tudors, Yorkist kings did not send women to the headsman’s block. Even so, a future member of her household, Henry Parker, Lord Morley, observed revealingly that ‘in King Richard’s days she was oft in jeopardy of her life, yet she bore patiently all trouble in such wise that it is wonder to think of it’.3

Meanwhile, although the Duke of Buckingham’s rebellion had ended in abject failure, it had nonetheless proved to be a huge step forward for the cause of Henry Tudor. Even the elimination of the arrogant, ambitious Harry Buckingham from the political scene was a blessing. Henry had become generally accepted as the only hope for those who opposed King Richard. From being a solitary, isolated fugitive, friendless save for his uncle and his far-away mother, he now possessed his own court in exile. Most of the defeated rebels who escaped from Richard fled across the sea to join him in Brittany, while others who were disaffected would continue to do so. They included some genuinely distinguished figures: the Marquess of Dorset and the Bishops of Salisbury and Exeter, together with a large group of influential landowners; the latter, determined to regain their estates, had friends and relations who were secret supporters.

The exiles would have been greeted by a tall, slender and impressive young man in his mid-twenties, with small blue eyes and noticeably bad teeth in a long, sallow face beneath very fair hair. Amiable and high-spirited, Henry Tudor was friendly if dignified in manner, while it was clear to everyone that he was extremely intelligent. His definitive biographer, Professor Chrimes, credits him – even before he had become King – with possessing ‘a high degree of personal magnetism, ability to inspire confidence, and a growing reputation for shrewd decisiveness’.4 On the debit side, he may have looked a little delicate – he had poor health – while despite his obvious ability, so far he had had no experience of warfare and as yet there was no military leader of repute among hisfollowers. Nevertheless, it is obvious that he had no trouble in presenting himself as a serious rival to King Richard.

In any case, the rebellion of October 1483 had transformed Henry’s position. The hitherto almost unknown ‘imp’ had by now become the acknowledged Lancastrian pretender who, it was widely known, had pledged himself to marry the heiress of York and was therefore an acceptable pretender to disaffected Yorkists as well. On Christmas Day 1483, in the cathedral at Rennes, the exiles knelt at Henry Tudor’s feet and swore homage to him as though he were already King of England.

Needless to say, Margaret did not stop corresponding with her son. Lord Stanley appears to have turned a blind eye, though he took care to keep on good terms with Richard. There was no reason to prevent so pious a lady from being visited by her confessor. This was Dr Christopher Urswick, rector of Puttenham in Hertfordshire and a chaplain of the collegiate church at Manchester, whom she may have met in the north while staying on her husband’s estates. He had entered her service in 1482. A lawyer like Morton, he was a man of great subtlety and courage who would one day become a distinguished diplomat. During 1484 he made more than one secret journey to Brittany.

Margaret Beaufort had shown that it was possible for a woman to play a key role in fifteenth-century politics. ‘If Margaret’s efforts on her son’s behalf had an heroic quality, they were not forged out of a blind adherence to a dynastic loyalty but the ruthless practice of realpolitik’ is the verdict of her most recent biographers. ‘Her calculating temperament and natural astuteness allowed the organisation of an alliance with the Woodvilles in the autumn of 1483.’ The part she played immeasurably strengthened her links with her beloved son. She was in truth ‘Mother to the king’s great rebel and traitor’.

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