Post-classical history




The great question of the early 1450s was who should succeed to the throne. King Henry was still without children when he reached the age of thirty in 1452, despite having been married for seven years; he was far from robust, and England remembered that his father had died at thirty-four. He dared not acknowledge the claims of his cousin, the Duke of York – to do so would bring into question his own right to the crown.

The problem was made worse by the power vacuum resulting from Henry’s inadequacy. Everyone in the country was aware of it, even the humblest. In July 1450 two obscure Sussex farmers were in trouble with the local justices for saying openly at Brightling market that ‘the king was a natural fool and would often hold a staff in his hands with a bird on the end, playing therwith as a fool, and that another king must be ordained to rule the land . . .’ People must have sighed for a Henry V who could win back Normandy and Gascony.

Inevitably, the Duke of York and the Duke of Somerset clashed. Quite apart from blaming Somerset – who more or less controlled King Henry – for the Crown’s refusal to pay its debts to him, York thought he was responsible for losing France. So did many others, with some justice. York could be blamed in no way for the disasters across the Channel, since he had been in Ireland. What he wanted to see in England would certainly have satisfied the more respectable of Cade’s petitioners – a return to the government by council which had proved so effective during the 1420s and 1430s.

In 1451 Mr Thomas Yonge, MP, a Bristol lawyer employed by York, moved in Parliament that because Henry VI had no offspring, it was necessary for the safety of the kingdom that it should be known openly who was heir apparent. Yonge then named the Duke, whereupon he was sent to the Tower. Privately, many (like the late Jack Cade) agreed with Mr Yonge, and wished that York governed the country instead of the Duke of Somerset and his rapacious friends. Early in 1452 York launched a coup d’état, not to seize the throne but to wrest power from Somerset. He issued manifestoes in which he claimed that Somerset was responsible for recent defeats in France, that he ‘laboureth continually about the King’s Highness for my undoing’, and that ‘the said duke ever prevaileth and ruleth about the king’s person, that by this means the land is likely to be destroyed’. Raising troops, York marched to London, swearing ‘he would have the duke of Somerset or die’, according to a London chronicler. But only one other peer supported him. He was forced to submit, swearing an oath of allegiance to the King in a humiliating ceremony at St Paul’s. Should York misbehave again, he would face the death penalty.

The court party tried desperately to find an alternative heir apparent to the throne. There were two candidates. One was the Duke of Exeter, descended from a daughter of John of Gaunt, but he was unstable and savage-tempered, a young man who made enemies rather than friends. The other was the wrong sex.

Although Somerset was the best-known Beaufort, strictly speaking the head of the family was a young girl, Lady Margaret Beaufort.1 Born on St Petronilla’s Day (31 May) 1443, she was the only child of his elder brother, the first Duke of Somerset. Her grandfather had been Henry IV’s bastard half-brother, John of Gaunt’s son by Catherine Swynford. Richard II had legitimized the Beauforts (named after the castle where they were born) after Gaunt married Catherine. Henry IV had confirmed their legitimacy by letters patent though he had added the words ‘excepting the royal dignity’ to exclude them from succeeding to the throne. However, because the clause had not received the authority of Parliament, it was deemed invalid by the present king. Since there were no other direct heirs of the House of Lancaster, Margaret’s claims as a possible successor were therefore taken very seriously so long as Henry VI remained childless.

Her uncle, the Duke of Somerset, dared not aim at the throne himself. To have done so would have meant civil war. York was perfectly sincere when he accused Somerset of losing France. Not only did he blame him for the Crown’s failure to reimburse his expenses as lord-lieutenant in both France and Ireland, but he genuinely believed that he was plotting his ruin. Although a Beaufort, Lady Margaret was not such a threat.

There was no precedent for a female monarch in England, and very few elsewhere in fifteenth-century Europe. The most recent had been Joanna II of Naples, whose reign had ended in anarchy in 1435; the Queen’s father, Réné of Anjou, had tried and had failed to succeed her. Yet with a suitable consort the Lady Margaret might nonetheless wear the crown of England. No one had understood this better than the late Duke of Suffolk, who before she was seven married her to his son John, only a year older. (Either partner could dissolve such a marriage on reaching puberty, if he or she did not wish to consummate it.) Impeaching Suffolk, the House of Commons alleged that he had been plotting to make his son king, ‘presuming and pretending her to be the next inheritable to the Crown’. Clearly, in 1450 most MPs were well aware of Margaret Beaufort’s claim to the throne.

‘Her father was John, Duke of Somerset, her mother was called Margaret, right noble in manners as in blood’, we are told by Cardinal Fisher, who knew both ladies. The duke, captain-general in Aquitaine and Normandy, had died in 1444, before Margaret was two years old; there were rumours that he had died by his own hand, from shame at mismanaging a campaign in France.2 Her mother, daughter and heiress of Sir John Beauchamp of Bletsoe in Bedfordshire, had previously been married to Sir Oliver St John, so that Margaret regarded her St John half-brothers and half-sisters as her closest kindred after spending her childhood with them, either at Bletsoe or at Maxey Castle in Northamptonshire. No trace survives of either house. Bletsoe is known to have been moated and crenellated; it vanished long ago, but Margaret would still feel at home in Bletsoe church. The Tudor antiquary John Leland visited Maxey, near Market Deeping and on the edge of the Fen country, where he saw ‘a pretty turret called the Tower of the Moor. And thereby be made a fair great pond or lake bricked about.’

In 1447 the little girl acquired a stepfather when the Duchess took a third husband, Lionel, Lord Welles, who was a veteran of the French wars and an influential member of the court party.

In February 1453 Margaret’s mother was commanded to bring her daughter to court. On St George’s Day, 23 April, they attended the Order of the Garter’s annual ceremonies at Windsor. No new knights were installed that year, but Vespers and Mass were celebrated with the customary splendour. No one present can have guessed just how prophetic were some words in the Gospel for the feast: ‘I came not to send peace but the sword . . . and a man’s enemies shall be they of his own household.’ The Garter Knights’ blue robes were a shade paler than those worn today while the red mantles of the canons and Poor Knights clashed with the blood-red gowns worn by the Queen and the great ladies of the court. Such a display of chivalric ritual cannot have failed to impress the little girl, a dazzling glimpse of a magic world of heroism and idealism.

Young though she was, Margaret Beaufort soon realized that there was a very high place indeed for her in the hierarchy of England. On 12 May King Henry ordered that ‘our right dear and right well beloved cousin Margaret’ be paid a hundred marks (over £66) for raiment, a dress allowance that was four times the income of a well-to-do squire. The King had given her as a ward to his half-brother Edmund Tudor, telling him to marry her.

Edmund Tudor’s father Owen Tudor had begun life as a humble Welsh gentleman called Owain ap Maredudd Tudur, who had made his fortune by secretly marrying Henry V’s widow, Catherine of France. In 1452 their two sons, Edmund and Jasper – hitherto lowly, poverty-stricken hangers-on – had been transformed into great Lancastrian noblemen, being created earls with precedence over all other earls. It seems that Henry VI suddenly elevated his half-brothers in this way because he contemplated making Edmund his heir, basing his claim on Margaret’s descent from John of Gaunt. (Presumably, had they succeeded to the throne, the couple would have reigned as joint king and queen like Philip and Mary in the next century.) Significantly, with Henry’s approval, Edmund abandoned his Tudor coat of arms and adopted a version of the royal arms of England.


Margaret Beaufort’s parents, John, Duke of Somerset and his duchess, Margaret Beauchamp. From a seventeenth-century sketch of their tomb at Wimborne Minster, Dorset.

Many years later Margaret told her confessor, John Fisher, how she had worried desperately over whether to take Edmund or Suffolk – to whom she had been married at the age of seven.

She, which as then was not fully nine years old, doubtful in her mind what she were best to do, asked counsel of an old gentlewoman whom she much loved and trusted, which did advise her to commend herself to St Nicholas the patron and helper of all true maidens . . . [and] as she lay in prayer calling upon St Nicholas, whether sleeping or waking she could not assure, but about four of the clock in the morning one appeared to her arrayed like a bishop and, naming unto her Edmund, bade [her] take him unto her husband.3

Her marriage to the boy Duke of Suffolk was dissolved. However, the wedding with Edmund was not to take place until 1455.

Any claim to the throne which Margaret and Edmund may have had was soon forgotten when the Queen bore King Henry a son in October 1453. Even so, it is clear from later events that Margaret always remained very conscious of the Beaufort claim. So would her son, who one day used it to overthrow the house of York.

In August 1453 Henry VI had gone mad from ‘a sudden fright’, losing all power of speech and unable to stand – a condition that may have been catatonic schizophrenia. He showed no reaction whatever to the good news that at last he had a son, Edward, Prince of Wales – generally known to history as ‘Edward of Lancaster’. (Characteristically, when the King recovered he attributed the boy’s paternity to the Holy Ghost.) Faced with Henry’s total incapacity, the Lords appointed the Duke of York to be Lord Protector of England in March 1454. No one wanted to be ruled by the French Queen. Even so, the Duke enjoyed only limited authority, being ‘chief of the king’s council’ instead of a full-blown regent. He governed responsibly, consulting the broadly based council, but, inevitably, he ousted enemies and rewarded supporters. The Duke of Somerset had already been sent to the Tower by the council, largely for his own protection, and York took his post of Captain of Calais. He also appointed Somerset’s enemy Richard Nevill, Earl of Salisbury, as Chancellor of England.

It is important to understand why the Nevills were to be such loyal Yorkists. In the first place, as Salisbury’s brother-in-law, York was their best hope of triumphing over the Percies in the north, where a pitched battle had recently taken place between the two families. When they defeated the Percies in another battle in the autumn of 1454, York arranged for two of the latter’s leaders – Lord Egremont and his brother Richard Percy – to be sent to Newgate gaol. There was also a quarrel between Salisbury’s son, the Earl of Warwick, and the Duke of Somerset, the Earl being determined to occupy the rich lordship of Glamorgan although King Henry had granted it to Somerset.

It was a disaster for England when the King regained his senses on Christmas Day 1454. The Duke of York’s protectorate came to an end in February 1455. He had tried to rule as fairly as he could in the circumstances. But Somerset was released from prison the same month and once again the country found itself governed by a selfish clique. Moreover, the Queen had developed an obsessive hatred for York.

Meanwhile, in the spring following King Henry’s return to sanity, Margaret Beaufort had finally married Edmund Tudor, who was fourteen years older than she. He took her to live at Lamphey Court in Pembrokeshire, the westernmost corner of South Wales. The house was a former palace of the bishops of St David’s. (Although in ruins, the chapel and much of the wings remain standing.) Margaret must have found the landscape windswept and treeless, with scattered white farmsteads amid strange black cattle. The Welsh must have seemed foreign too, speaking an alien tongue. Fifty years before, most of them had joined Owain Glyn Dŵr’s national revolt and to some extent they were still a conquered race, resentful of the English, who distrusted them. The Marches of Wales did not become part of the kingdom of England until the next century and the King’s writ did not run here, so that the region was in constant turmoil, local gentry feuding and stealing each other’s cattle.

Shortly after their marriage, the quarrel between York and Somerset erupted into armed conflict at St Albans in May 1455. Although a very minor affair (see Chapter 5), it ensured a gradual descent into civil war in which the Tudors quickly found themselves involved. In August Margaret’s husband Edmund, King Henry’s lieutenant in South Wales, was captured by Yorkists in an obscure skirmish. Their leader, William Herbert, imprisoned him briefly at Caermarthen. Plague broke out in the town, and Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond, died of it two months later.

Although only thirteen and very small for her age – she would grow up to be a tiny little woman – Margaret was pregnant. Regardless of her childishness and pitiful size, Edmund had insisted on consummating the marriage, probably from avarice rather than brutality; if he could father a child on her, then by law he would be guaranteed a life interest in her estates. Her brother-in-law Jasper took the girl widow to Pembroke Castle for her confinement. The castle still stands, a massive fortress beside the Atlantic, on an arm of Milford Haven; from a rock a Norman keep ringed by high thirteenth-century curtain walls guards the little town lying beneath. It is hard to think of a harsher place in which to be pregnant during winter gales.

Long afterwards, she confided to John Fisher that she had been terrified that the child in her womb might be stricken by plague, but on 28 January 1457 she gave birth to a healthy son, Henry Tudor. The birth ‘spoilt’ her gynaecologically so that she could never again bear a child – indeed, given the period’s obstetrics, she was lucky to survive. Understandably, she always remembered the day, St Agnes’s Day, on which, as she wrote years afterwards, ‘I did bring into this world my good and gracious prince, king and only son.’

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