Post-classical history




After 1485 and for the rest of her life, Lady Margaret’s London residence was Coldharbour, that vast stone-built ‘inn’ on the north bank of the Thames which in her youth had belonged to the Duke of Exeter. Here she had a ‘summer parlour’ looking out on to the river, and an arbour where she took her meals in good weather. Everybody travelling along the river could see, from their wherries or their barges, the full Beaufort achievement of arms set prominently in its stained-glass windows. They could also hear impressive music coming from her chapel. She kept an entire schola cantorum with a dozen boys and four gentlemen singers who were directed by a ‘master of the children of the chapel’. While she still stayed at her husband’s houses, she felt increasingly the need for a country home of her own.

Nothing was allowed to fetter that independent spirit, not even marriage. When Parliament had reversed Richard III’s attainder in 1485, it had also declared her a ‘femme sole’, giving her the right to hold property in her name and sue in the courts, regardless of her husband. Obviously this was her own idea. No other married noblewoman had ever done such a thing, nor would any of them have been allowed to do so. Because of her unique legal status, she possessed complete control over her estates, which she ran with ruthless efficiency, choosing able administrators. (John Oldham, receiver for her West Country manors, ended his career as Bishop of Exeter.)

She could even dress differently from other great ladies, if Edward IV’s sumptuary law of 1483 was enforced. It ordered that ‘no manner person of what[ever] estate, degree or condition he be, [to] wear any cloth of gold or silk of purple colour, but only the king, queen, my lady the king’s mother, the king’s childer . . . upon pain to forfeit, for every default, twenty pounds.’

In July 1498 a Spanish envoy reported to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella that among the persons of greatest influence in England the first was the King’s mother. (The second was Dr Morton.) The envoy also wrote that Queen Elizabeth was kept in subjection by the mother of the King. Another Spanish envoy, Pedro de Ayala, corroborates this. ‘The king is much influenced by his mother . . . The queen, as is generally the case, does not like it.’1 But, gentle and sweet-natured, Elizabeth of York gave her mother-in-law little trouble.

Undoubtedly Margaret interfered in the education of her grandchildren. During the negotiations for Margaret Tudor’s marriage to James IV of Scotland, she insisted that it must be postponed until the little girl was much older. She remembered how her own marriage had been consummated too soon.

Her steely quality is evident in a letter of 1497, in which she thanks the Queen’s chamberlain, the Earl of Ormonde, for sending her a pair of gloves from Burgundy. ‘My lord chamberlain, I thank you heartily that ye list so soon remember me with my gloves, the which were right good save that they were much too big for my hand. I think the ladies of those parts be great ladies all, and according to their great estate they have great personages.’

This was a jibe at her family’s ancient enemy, the dowager Duchess of Burgundy – Margaret of York. Reverting to her role of sweet old lady, she continues more amiably:

As for news, I am sure ye shall have more surety than I can send you. Blessed be God, the king, the queen and all our sweet children be in good health. The queen hath be[en] a little crazed but now she is well, God be thanked. Her sickness is [not] so good as I would but, I trust, hastily it shall [be] with God’s grace, whom I pray give you good speed in your great matters and bring you well and soon home.2

Sadly, her optimism about her family’s health was unjustified. No British dynasty has been sicklier than the Tudors. Elizabeth of York bore eight children but only the future Henry VIII and two daughters reached maturity. The death of Arthur, Prince of Wales, in 1501 was a shattering blow for King Henry, who was still more grief-stricken at that of his queen two years later – he ‘privily departed to a solitary place and would no man should resort to him’.3 The loss of his children endangered the succession, encouraging further Yorkist plotting, as Margaret must have been well aware.

She was remarkably close to her son, despite having seen so little of him before 1485. ‘There was an heroic quality to the relationship, rightly perceived by the Tudor poet Bernard André’, Jones and Underwood observe. André was a blind old Frenchman, an Augustinian friar, with whom they both seem to have discussed their past perils during the Wars of the Roses – judging from some highly dramatic incidents which he recounts in his Latin life of King Henry. He describes Margaret begging her brother-in-law Jasper Tudor to take Henry with him into exile in 1471, though at the time she was in Surrey and Jasper was in Wales. (André also includes a speech supposedly made by Lord Oxford on his knees to Henry before they sailed from France in 1485, which contains a most unlikely reference to Julius Caesar at the Battle of Pharsalia.) However much the garrulous old friar may have exaggerated or invented, he genuinely admired Margaret whose courage he rightly calls ‘firmus et constans’.

Mother and son were frequently in each other’s company. She rode with King Henry on those formal progresses that were really tours of inspection. And she was constantly at court, whether at Westminster, Greenwich, Sheen or Windsor.

The King knew how to make use of his mother’s avarice and litigiousness. He entrusted her with extracting the ransom of the Duke of Orleans, captured at Agincourt in 1422, of which the balance had been owing since 1440, and offered her a share of the proceeds. Anyone else would have written the ransom off as a bad debt. ‘It will be right hard to recover it without it be driven by compulsion and force’, Henry wrote to her in 1504, admitting that while England was at peace with France there was little to bargain with. Yet it was worth persevering. ‘For such a chance may fall that this your grant might stand in great stead for the recovery of our right . . .’ Margaret bombarded the French with demands for payment, drafted by the King’s French secretary and delivered by his heralds. Her grandson finally secured the money in 1514.

Sometimes she disagreed with the son whom she addressed in her letters as ‘My King’ or ‘My good King’. When in 1502 the widowed Cecily of York, Henry’s sister-in-law, married a humble squire, Thomas Kyme, without asking for the royal permission, Cecily was banished from court and her estates were confiscated, reducing her to beggary. Her first husband had been Margaret’s half-brother, Lord Welles, and Margaret defended her, inviting Cecily and Mr Kyme to stay at Collyweston while she negotiated on their behalf. After nearly a year, Henry agreed to the marriage and returned most of Cecily’s property.

The manor of Collyweston in Northamptonshire became her real home, where she led a life that in many respects was that of a nun. In 1499, with her husband’s agreement, she took a vow of chastity. Her spiritual adviser, the future Cardinal Fisher, tells us that she confessed not less than twice a week and damaged her back badly from kneeling in prayer.4 She fasted rigorously, taking only one meal a day in Lent, and wore a hair shirt. There were always twelve paupers in the almshouse at Collyweston, whom she insisted on nursing personally when they were ill or dying.

Lady Margaret first met Dr Fisher at Greenwich Palace in 1494 or 1495, when he was Master of Michael House (now Trinity College), Cambridge. He became her chaplain in 1502 and, despite being made Bishop of Rochester two years later, continued to be her confessor and remained the closest friend of her old age. An awesomely austere figure who had a skull placed on the altar whenever he said Mass and on the dining table during meals, he was the greatest preacher in England, renowned for his majestic sermons on the seven penitential psalms. Nevertheless, Fisher wrote long afterwards that he had learnt more from her spiritually than anything he could teach. He was also full of praise for her hospitality:

For the strangers, O marvellous God, what pain, what labour, she of her very gentleness would take with them to bear them manner and company, and entreat every person and entertain them . . . that nothing should lack that might be convenient for them, wherein she had a wonderfully ready remembrance and perfect knowledge.5

Fisher persuaded her to found and endow professorships at both Oxford and Cambridge in 1496–97, the Lady Margaret professorships which still exist. Her monuments at Cambridge are the beautiful gatehouses of two of the colleges: Christchurch, which she refounded in 1505, and St John’s, which she founded in 1509. Both are adorned by her arms with the Beaufort supporters, two ‘yales’ – mythical beasts with multicoloured spots and revolving horns. St John’s owns a sixteenth-century copy of a lost portrait of her, a nun-like figure in a white coif who kneels in prayer.

She was the patron of the pioneer printer, William Caxton. In 1488 he flattered her pride of birth by addressing her incorrectly as ‘My Lady Margaret, Duchess of Somerset’, in the dedication to Blanchardin and Eglantine, which he had translated at her request. He says in the Fifteen Oes, a prayerbook he produced in 1491, that it has been printed by command of the Queen and the Queen Mother, implying subtly that she told her daughter-in-law what to do. Wynkyn de Worde, who took over Caxton’s business, printed several devotional works for her, including one she herself translated from the French, The Mirroure of Golde for the sinful soule. In 1509 Wynkyn proudly styled himself ‘Printer unto the most excellent Princess My Lady the King’s Mother’.


Bishop John Fisher preaching a sermon in memory of Margaret Beaufort in July 1509, a month after her death. Printed by Wynkyn de Worde during the same year.

Her affection for her ‘good and precious prince, king and only son’ was obsessive, even neurotic. One letter from her to him begins, ‘My own sweet and most dear king and all my worldly joy’, while another starts, ‘My dearest and only desired joy in this world’.6To some extent her affection was returned. In a long letter of July 1503, written in his own hand to ‘Madam my most entirely well beloved lady and mother’, Henry acknowledges ‘the great and singular motherly love and affection that it hath pleased you at all times to bear me’. He apologizes for writing so seldom, explaining that it is due to his poor eyesight, because of which it has taken him three days to write the letter. (Her own eyes had grown weak – we know that she wore gold-rimmed spectacles.)

She was unlucky enough to outlive him. King Henry VII died at Richmond Palace on 21 April 1509, and during his last illness she visited him every day, rowed up the Thames from Coldharbour. Fisher tells us that ‘by the space of twenty-seven hours together, so long I understand, he lay continually abiding the sharp assaults of death’. His mother asked Fisher to preach a funeral sermon at St Paul’s, which pleased her so much that afterwards it was printed at her request by Wynkyn de Worde. The chief executor of the King’s will was ‘his dearest and most entirely beloved mother, Margaret, countess of Richmond’.

King Henry’s obsequies were suitably magnificent. Ten thousand tapers lit Westminster Abbey where his effigy lay in state, wearing the crown of St Edward, with an armed knight guarding each corner of his catafalque. Three great requiems were sung in the Abbey, the last by the Archbishop of Canterbury. There is a late legend – probably fanciful, though one would like to believe it – that Jane Shore came and strewed flowers around the catafalque, the tribute due to a victor.

‘My lady the king’s grandam’ – as she was now officially known – told her grandson, the eighteen-year-old Henry VIII, whom to choose for his council. She also gave instructions for his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and for his coronation. Too frail to attend either ceremony, she watched the coronation procession go by from the window of a house in Cheapside. Though she rejoiced that her grandchild was going to be crowned King of England, ‘yet she let not to say that some adversity would follow’, Cardinal Fisher remembered. She had never lost that sense of deep foreboding from which, understandably, she seems to have suffered throughout her eventful life.

Her last weeks were spent in a house within the precincts of Westminster Abbey where she died on 29 June 1509. One report says that her final illness was brought on by eating a cygnet. In the sermon he gave a month after her death, Fisher says that she had a difficult passing, crying out at the pain. He adds that her entire household was grief-stricken:

When they saw the death so haste upon her, and that she must needs depart from them and they should forgo so gentle a mistress, so tender a lady, then wept they marvellously, wept her ladies and kinswomen to whom she was full kind, wept her poor gentlewomen whom she loved tenderly before, wept her chamberers to whom she was full dear, wept her chaplains and priests, wept her other true and faithful servants.7

She left the staggering sum of £15,000, together with a hoard of jewels, most of which was bequeathed to her grandson, though there were substantial legacies to members of her household.

Margaret was buried in the awe-inspiring chapel which her son had been building at Westminster Abbey for many years, and which would not be completed for many more. The bronze effigy that Pietro Torrigiano cast in about 1514 may still be seen on her tomb. The austere face, handsome and commanding – modelled from a death-mask – is truly regal and worthy of a woman who founded one of the greatest dynasties in English history.


Margaret Beaufort’s tomb at Westminster Abbey. From a seventeenth-century sketch.

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