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The remarkable woman who founded the Tudor Dynasty


I mentioned Lady Margaret Beaufort the other day because she founded St John's College. At the time, I didn't realize that she had survived family tragedy and the War of the Roses, had become pregnant and a widow when she was just thirteen and was the founder of the Tudor Dynasty. She was the young mother of the future Henry VII. For years afterward, she defended him with the ferocity of a lioness defending her only cub.

Yet when I look at her portrait, I don't think it's my imagination that Lady Margaret Beaufort (she always used her maiden name) had a sense of humour. Perhaps she even looks a bit like Maggie Smith?


Surviving and rebelling

Margaret was the great-granddaughter of the liaison between John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford. Her father was probably a suicide, and as his only heir she inherited great estates. Married very young, she lost her twenty-six-year-old husband Edmund Tudor to the plague.

She spent the next decades protecting her son Henry Tudor from the violent dynastic quarrels erupting between Lancaster and York. This included sending Henry into exile in France and preserving his estates in a trust. When she was thirty she married Lord Stanley, a good friend of Edward IV of the House of York. By then her sense of justice was widely respected and she served on arbitration panels. When Edward IV died, and Richard III seized the throne, arbitration was not possible and she turned to rebellion. The Oxford DNB tells us -

Either realizing or sharing in the depth of public suspicion that surrounded Richard's detention of Edward V and his brother, the duke of York, in the Tower, she may have participated in an unsuccessful plot to rescue them as early as July 1483. By September, when it was widely rumoured that they were dead, Margaret committed herself thoroughly to rebellion and to the return of her son, negotiating with the Woodvilles for his marriage with Elizabeth of York, the sister of the dead Princes.

Defenders of Richard III attribute the murders to Henry VII. The DNB suggests otherwise.

When the rebellion collapsed, Margaret was in serious danger, but her husband protected her.

Margaret was able to communicate afresh with her son on his landing in Wales in August 1485, and at the battle of Bosworth the critical intervention of the Stanley family helped the first Tudor king to the throne.

. . .Henry's victory brought about a complete reversal of his mother's position. So sensitive was Margaret to the turn of fortune's wheel that she wept at the sudden overwhelming success, for fear that it would bring sorrow in its train. This awareness of the fragility of power and prosperity, nourished originally perhaps by tales of her father's disgrace and death, never left her: she would weep once more at the coronation of her grandson. Yet for the present she assisted in the consolidation of her son's power, and never ceased throughout the reign to act as his lieutenant.

She 'wielded a conciliar authority in the east midlands'.

She also installed her own court of equity. . . This arrangement formalized Margaret's authority in the region, and when on one occasion she wrote to the civic authorities of Coventry on behalf of an aggrieved citizen, she did so in the king's name. The scope of her activities was considerable, including investigation of treasonable intent. . .

Lady Margaret Beaufort liked to acquire land and lovely things.

But such actions were balanced by examples of a genuine sense of responsibility to the communities where her lands were concentrated. In the Lincolnshire fens she was notable as an improving landlord: her personal initiative prompted the convening of a royal commission to improve the navigation of the River Witham, and the construction of a great tidal sluice at the port of Boston.

Aggression and compassion

At the peak of her power in her early sixties, she combined two qualities that are rarely seen in one person.

Margaret never relaxed an unceasing vigilance over the conduct of her affairs, whether scrutinizing the receipts of her estate officials or guarding against possible threats to the new Tudor dynasty. Yet this extraordinary pre-eminence allowed Margaret the opportunity, in the last phase of her life, to balance power with spiritual obligation, and aggression with compassion.

Remarkably, she helped the town of Cambridge and the university to resolve their differences, and became 'the leading patron and benefactor of the university'. She had no trouble persuading others to donate to the university. She also purchased estates and turned 'the poverty-stricken God's House' into Christ's College' then founded St John's College with revenue from her paternal estates. She had a genius for reconciling factions - political and academic.

She appeared to be inspired by God and by her love of knowledge. She translated books from French and Latin into English, paid thirty musicians to compose polyphonic music for her chapel and commissioned a romance from William Caxton about a hero who defends his beloved from attack. Perhaps she was thinking of her last husband. I, however, think of her. She died two months after her son.

Without her, Elizabeth I would never have been.

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