Margaret Beaufort, King's Mother

Life After the Victory of Henry VII

Margaret Beaufort
Margaret Beaufort. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

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Henry VII Becomes King and Margaret Beaufort the King’s Mother

Margaret Beaufort’s long efforts to promote her son’s succession were richly rewarded, emotionally and materially.  Henry VII, having defeated Richard III and become king, had himself crowned on October 30, 1485. His mother, now 42 years old, reportedly wept at the coronation.

  She was, from this point, referred to in court as “My Lady, the King’s Mother.”

Henry Tudor’s marriage to Elizabeth of York would mean that his children’s right to the crown would be more secure, but he wanted to make sure that his own claim was clear.  Since his claim through inheritance was rather thin, and the idea of a queen ruling in her own right might bring images of the civil war of Matilda’s time, Henry claimed the crown by right of battle victory, not his marriage to Elizabeth or his genealogy.  He reinforced this by marrying Elizabeth of York, as he had publicly pledged to do in December of 1483.

Henry Tudor married Elizabeth of York on January 18, 1486.  He also had parliament repeal the act which, under Richard III, had declared Elizabeth illegitimate. (This likely means that he knew that her brothers, the Princes in the Tower, who would have a stronger claim to the crown than Henry, were dead.) Their first son , Arthur, was born almost exactly nine months later, on September 19, 1486.

  Elizabeth was crowned as queen consort the next year.

Independent Woman, Advisor to the King

Henry came to kingship after years of exile outside of England, without much experience in administration of a government. Margaret Beaufort had advised him in exile, and now she was a close advisor to him as king.

  We know from his letters that he consulted with her on court matters and chuch appointments.

The same parliament of 1485 that repealed Elizabeth of York’s illegitimacy also declared Margaret Beaufort a femme sole – in contrast to a femme covert or a wife.  Still married to Stanley, this status gave her an independence few women, and fewer wives, had under the law.  It gave her complete independence and control over her own lands and finances.  Her son also awarded her, over some years, considerably more lands which were under her independent control.  These would, of course, revert to Henry or his heirs on her death, as she had no other children.

Despite the fact that she had never actually been a queen, Margaret Beaufort was treated at court with the status of a queen mother or dowager queen.  After 1499, she adopted the signature “Margaret R” which may signify “queen” (or may signify “Richmond”).  Queen Elizabeth, her daughter-in-law, outranked her, but Margaret walked close behind Elizabeth, and sometimes dressed in similar robes.  Her household was luxurious, and the largest in England after her son’s.  She might be the Countess of Richmond and Derby, but she acted like the equal or near equal of the queen.

Elizabeth Woodville retired from the court in 1487, and it’s believed that Margaret Beaufort may have instigated her departure.  Margaret Beaufort had oversight over the royal nursery and even over the procedures for the queen’s lying-in.  She was given the wardship of the young Duke of Buckingham, Edward Stafford, son of her late ally (and her late husband’s nephew), Henry Stafford, whose title was restored by Henry VII. (Henry Stafford, convicted of treason under Richard III, had had the title taken from him.)

Involvements in Religion, Family, Property

In her later years, Margaret Beaufort was noted for both ruthlessness in defending and extending her land and property, and for responsible oversight of her lands and improving them for her tenants. She gave generously to religious institutions, and particularly to support the education of clergy at Cambridge.

Margaret patronized the publisher William Caxton, and commissioned many books, some to distribute to her household. She bought both romances and religious texts from Caxton.

In 1497, the priest John Fisher became her personal confessor and friend.  He began to rise in prominence and power at Cambridge University with the King’s Mother’s support.

She is supposed to have had the agreement of her husband in 1499 to take a vow of chastity, and she often lived separately from him after that. From 1499 to 1506, Margaret lived at a manor in Collyweston, Northamptonshire, improving it so that it functioned as a palace.

When the marriage of Catherine of Aragon was arranged to Margaret’s eldest grandson, Arthur, Margaret Beaufort was assigned with Elizabeth of York to select the women who would serve Catherine.  Margaret also urged that Catherine learn French before coming to England, so that she could communicate with her new family.

Arthur married Catherine in 1501, and then Arthur died the next year, with his younger brother Henry then becoming heir apparent. Also in 1502, Margaret gave a grant to Cambridge to found the Lady Margaret Professorship of Divinity, and John Fisher became the first to occupy the chair. When Henry VII appointed John Fisher as bishop of Rochester, Margaret Beaufort was instrumental in choosing Erasmus as his successor in the Lady Margaret professorship.

Elizabeth of York died the following year, after giving birth to her last child (who did not survive long), perhaps in a vain attempt to have another male heir.  Though Henry VII talked of finding another wife, he did not act on that, and genuinely grieved the loss of his wife, with whom he’d had a satisfying marriage, though initially making it for political reasons.

Henry VII’s older daughter, Margaret Tudor, was named for her grandmother, and in 1503, Henry brought his daughter to his mother’s manor along with the whole royal court.  He then returned home with most of the court, while Margaret Tudor continued on to Scotland to marry James IV.

In 1504, Margaret’s husband, Lord Stanley, died.  She devoted more of her time to prayer and religious observance.  She belonged to five religious houses, though she continued to reside in her own private residence.

John Fisher became the Chancellor at Cambridge, and Margaret began giving the gifts that would establish the re-founded Christ’s College, under the king’s charter.

Last Years

Before her death, Margaret made possible, through her support, the transformation of a scandal-ridden monastic house into St. John’s College at Cambridge. Her will provided for continuing support for that project.

She began planning around her end of life.  In 1506, she commissioned a tomb for herself, and brought Renaissance sculptor Pietro Torrigiano to England to work on it.  She prepared her final will in January of 1509.

In April of 1509, Henry VII died.  Margaret Beaufort came to London and arranged her son’s funeral, where she was given precedence over all the other royal women.  Her son had named her his chief executor in his will.

Margaret helped arrange and was present for the coronation of her grandson, Henry VIII, and his new bride, Catherine of Aragon, on June 24, 1509.  Margaret’s struggles with her health may have been aggravated by the activity around the funeral and coronation, and she died on June 29, 1509. John Fisher gave the sermon at her requiem mass.

Largely because of Margaret’s efforts, Tudors would rule England until 1603, followed by the Stuarts, descendants of her granddaughter Margaret Tudor.

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