Saturday, 2 December 2017

Margaret Beaufort: the Woman Who Ended the Wars of the Roses

by Libby Young

Between 1455 and 1487, England was torn apart by the violent and turbulent Wars of the Roses as the Houses of York and Lancaster struggled for power. It was from these chaotic times that the most famous royal dynasty in English history, the Tudors, emerged when Henry Tudor defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field. What is particularly fascinating about this period is the determination and strength of the women who worked behind the scenes. One such woman was Henry Tudor’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, whose love and devotion ensured his survival and eventual rise to the throne.

So who was this woman who changed English history? Although the exact date is unknown, Margaret Beaufort was born in either 1441 or 1443 to John Beaufort, the 1st Duke of Somerset, and Margaret Beauchamp of Bletsoe. At this time, the House of Beaufort was one of the wealthiest and most influential families in England, yet despite this, Margaret's life was not an easy one. At the age of 12, she was married to Edmund Tudor, the half-brother of the Lancastrian King Henry VI, and a man twice her age. By the age of 13 (uncommonly young even for her time) she had given birth to her first and only child, her son Henry Tudor, in an ordeal that was said to have nearly claimed her life. On top of this, whilst she was pregnant Margaret’s husband (Edmund Tudor) had died of the plague, leaving her a 13-year-old widow and mother. Margaret’s life would now and always revolve around protecting her Lancastrian son from the House of York as the Wars of the Roses raged around them.

One way in which Margaret protected her son was through her remarkable political canniness. Perhaps this is evident from her early teenage years, when she named her son after his uncle, King Henry VI, an act which undoubtedly brought him some protection by reminding the king of their familial bond. However, the most obvious way in which she gained political power was through her astute choices in marriage. Following the death of her first husband, Margaret married Sir Henry Stafford, an influential and astute noble. Stafford ensured the protection of Margaret and her son by smoothly switching allegiances when Henry VI was overthrown by the Yorkist Edward IV. When Stafford died 13 years later, Margaret chose her third husband: the prominent Yorkist, Lord Stanley. At a time when King Edward IV was becoming increasingly hard on Lancastrian supporters. This marriage protected Margaret, allowing her the chance to work for the return of her son, who she had fearfully sent abroad after Edward had stripped him of his lands. Her wise choice of husband in Lord Stanley would later be confirmed when his influence spared her execution after her involvement in a failed plot to usurp Richard III (who succeeded Edward IV). Most importantly, perhaps, was when Stanley changed allegiances and supported her son at the Battle of Bosworth Field, a pivotal act that ensured Richard III’s defeat and Henry Tudor’s  ascension to the throne.

Yet Margaret was not just a woman who passively relied upon the protection of her husbands, as she used her marriages to Stafford and Stanley to earn King Edward IV’s trust and seized the opportunities provided by her newfound entrance to the Yorkist court. Setting aside all previous Lancastrian loyalties, Margaret gained such trust and respect that she was named godmother to one of the princesses by the Yorkist Queen, Elizabeth Woodville, and came tantalising close to seeing the return of her son’s lands and inheritance before Edward IV died an untimely death. When the infamous Richard III seized the throne, Margaret continued to use her husband’s Yorkist power to work her way into the new King’s court, and even carried the train of Anne Neville, Richard’s Queen, at their coronation. Yet as Richard’s unpopularity rose, Margaret started down a much more radical path to provide for her son Henry Tudor (now a man of 26), and began plotting to make him King of England.

To do this, Margaret combined her political astuteness with her opportunistic nature. First, she created an alliance with Elizabeth Woodville, the late Edward IV’s queen and the mother of the Princes in the Tower whom Richard III had murdered. Together with Elizabeth, Margaret created the iconic marital union of the houses of York and Lancaster when Elizabeth’s daughter, Elizabeth of York, was married to Margaret’s son, Henry Tudor. Having achieved this arrangement, Margaret aimed to overthrow Richard III in a rebellion of 1483. Although this was ultimately unsuccessful it still served to deepen Richard’s unpopularity, and it is estimated that approximately 500 men subsequently left England and joined Henry in France. Despite Richard discovering her involvement and stripping her of lands and communication, effectively placing her under the imprisonment of her husband, Margaret still managed to continue her support of her son, sending both troops and finances to him when he successfully returned again in 1485. Although Margaret was not present at the final Battle of Bosworth Field, her influence was felt through her husband, Stanley, when his decision to support her son saw his 3000 men sway the battle in Henry’s favour. Following Richard III’s death on the battlefield, Margaret's lifelong goal was achieved when her husband placed the crown upon her son's head. Two months later, Margaret’s son was coronated at Westminster Abbey and became King Henry VII.

Margaret would continue to hold great power throughout her son’s reign, and her title of “My Lady the King’s Mother” allowed her legal and social independence unusual for married women of her time. Throughout her life, she would champion both religion and education in England, and founded Christ’s College, Cambridge in 1505. Following her son's death in 1509, Margaret's final task was to arrange the coronation of her grandson, Henry VIII, after which she died 5 days later. By this time, she had fulfilled her life’s goals through her marriage choices, political astuteness and opportunism. Margaret had seen her son rise to the throne of England after one of the most turbulent times in English history, starting the Tudor dynasty that would last for over a hundred years.

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