On 18th January 1486, the equation of dynasty was completed – Lancaster + York = Tudor. Elizabeth of York and Henry Tudor were joined in holy matrimony, and therefore brought to a close the antagonism, and everyone lived happily ever after. Well, not exactly, but it was a start. Henry had really fallen on his feet in his bride. I mean it’s always difficult to be sure at such a distance, and the sources aren’t exactly as you’d like; no one found Elizabeth’s dear diary entries for 1486 for example. But by your actions ye shall be known, or whatever it is, and Elizabeth showed herself generous to her sisters for example, fulfilled all the roles with grace; she was traditionally and more than adequately pious; and although the evidence of a political role is limited there are examples. It was Elizabeth to whom a Welsh tenant appealed over an injustice involving Jasper Tudor, and Elizabeth responded with a firm letter to Jasper, which given the regard in which he must have been held by Henry, shows confidence in her position. Henry’s accounts show frequent gifts to his wife, there’s no suggestion of any mistresses on Henry’s part which wouldn’t have been unusual at all for royalty of the time. Overall, it seems from all we can see as though the relationship between Elizabeth and Henry was one of genuine affection.
I say all of this as precursor to the critical debate which must follow of course – was Margaret Beaufort the mother in law from hell, or was she not? That is the question we must answer.
What is very clear is that Margaret was very active indeed at court from the very start, and just to re-emphasise the point, she had a super close relationship with her son; and would retain influence consistently throughout their lives. Let me quote you a few lines from Henry from a rare surviving letter; though you need to bear in mind that flowery was definitely the default mode.
I shall be as glad to please you as your heart can desire it, and I know full well that I am as much bounden to do so as any creature living for the great and singular motherly love and affection that it hath pleased you at all times to bear towards me
Lord knows what my mother’s reaction would be to such a letter from me. So, Henry felt an obligation towards Margaret; he trusted her advice, and respected her judgement. Contemporaries noted that the sense of obligation was a lever that the quick witted could lean on; so more than one request for favours to Henry included a reference to previous aid given to his mother, knowing that Henry saw this as an obligation to be honoured; John Hussey for example related that
I came first to my lady your mother’s service which was in the second yeare of your most noble reign
There’s a practical side to this too; knowing the quality of his mother’s household, previous service there was a strong recommendation and Henry was not averse to a bit of head hunting; such as William Bolton, employed by Henry VII to create the rather lovely oriel window in St Barts in London, had previously worked for Henry’s mother on her house at Coldharbour.
Henry showered goodies on his mother – as we’ve seen, in the form of grants of land and wardships, and favours such as making her a femme sole, no doubt at her request. He would constantly emphasise her status; this might be obliquely and favour his position too – such as the active rehabilitation of the Beaufort name, emphasising their legitimacy, adopting their portcullis symbol among other things. In 1488, she was invested with the livery of the order of the Garter; this was unusual though not extraordinarily so; but Henry discontinued the practice, emphasising the status conferred on his mother; and the practice was not revived for women until 1901.
Margaret kept Henry close, and unusually so; contemporaries remarked on the frequency with which Margaret accompanied the King and Queen on their royal progresses for example. In 1492 the royal party with Margaret went to view the work on St George’s Chapel in Windsor; four years later the royal party toured Margaret’s estates in the south west. In 1498 the itineraries of both Margaret and her son survive and good golly, they were together a lot; in July they were together at London, Westminster, Sheen and Windsor; in August they went for a tour of the eastern counties; ended up in September at Margaret’s palace at Collyweston in the midlands. And indeed when later after 1499 Margaret withdrew to Collyweston to operate what was effectively her own court, she made sure that not only were a suite of rooms maintained for the queen, but that the deer park was maintained so that her son could come and enjoy the hunting as he pleased. She informed her keeper of the park that
The saide deer and game to be reserved and kept for the king’s pleasure and ours against such season as we shall repaire unto these parts
Her house was always to be immediately available for the son’s pleasure. The favour was lovingly returned; a suite of rooms was maintained for Margaret’s use in all the royal palaces. And not just any old rooms close to the loos sort of thing – they were rooms close to the king so that his ear was always available and, it must be said, her advice was always available, again advice that he knew would be designed to further his best interests. So at Woodstock the king and mother’s chambers were linked by a withdrawing chamber ‘that belongs to the king’s chamber and my and his mother’s’:
So on the mother in law question – one thing is clear – Elizabeth would certainly have seen plenty of her mother in law.
Nor was Margaret in anyway a cipher at court, ornamental, the old trout parked in the corner and kept quiet; she was instead at the centre of both court life, and cultivated a semi regal aura and a precedence in procedures and ceremonies to match. Elizabeth was finally crowned in 1487 – Henry had been careful to leave her coronation to be after and separate to his, just so that everyone knew that his legitimacy did not rest on his marriage. Margaret was a very visible, regal presence
The queen kept her estate in the parliament chamber and my lady the king’s mother sat on her right hand side
The daughter born to the royal couple in 1489 was named after Margaret; at the Christmas court of 1487 she was observed wearing
Like mantel and surcott as the queen with a rich corrownall on her head
Now I suppose this could have been done in agreement, but it looks rather as though Margaret was making a point about her status and it is quite clear that Margaret was in no way shy about how high that status was. In 1498, for example Margaret changed her signature to Margaret R from Margaret of Richmond. Did she mean Margaret Regina, Queen Margaret? It would seem she was not prepared to go quite that far – but it seems very likely indeed that Margaret was perfectly happy for people to take the hint.
While Margaret’s portraits emphasise austerity and piety, without doubt they would have been just one part of the story. In this Margaret is judged rather oddly in the same fashion as her son – who still has a reputation as a rather mean miserly man. He was nothing of the sort – he loved finery and jewels and he understood very clearly the value of display, magnificence and entertainment; many pageants and processions were given in his reign around public and dynastic occasions. Well, his mother was absolutely of the same mind; this is one of the highest status people within England, and she would have been failing in her responsibilities if she did not look the part, both in her clothing, in her jewellery and her estate. So the magnificence of her dress in the ceremonies in 1487 would not necessarily have been unusual; her accounts bear witness to the size of her expenditure on clothes, as they do on her jewels; many might have a religious theme in line with her piety, such as a piece of the cross – which was set in gold with pearls and precious stones, so doing two jobs then, piety and magnificence! When she died the plate and jewels in her possession were all totted up and amounted to over £4,000 worth, or close to £3m in today’s money.
Finally, Margaret was a stickler for court ceremony and protocol, and with energy and efficiency she got properly stuck in and involved, she did not, repeat not hang back and hide her light under a bushell. The ordinances of the royal Household were revised in 1493, and it used to be thought that this was Margaret’s work; the point’s been made that there’s no contemporary evidence for this, but given Margaret’s activity elsewhere it seems likely she had some involvement; in 1503 after the death of Prince Arthur, the heir to the throne, it was Margaret who drew up detailed protocols for the funeral; the same applied to the journey of Princess Margaret to her bridegroom, James IV of Scotland. On occasion you have to think that the presence of fingers in pies must have been a bit irritating; in 1501 in preparing for the marriage festivities of Arthur and Catherine of Aragon, Margaret prepared a list of Elizabeth’s household officers; some of the names against jobs are left blank, ready to be filled in once Margaret had discussed them with her daughter in law; I think Elizabeth might have felt either that she was perfectly capable of choosing her own officers – or maybe she welcomed the advice. When Catherine of Aragon’s household was put together, it contained several example of overlap – where officers were working for both Catherine and Margaret. I mean you know – helpful; or possibly creepily controlling.
So where have we got to? Margaret was trusted and involved by her son, in matters of policy and practicalities at court. Margaret was fully aware of her own status and her own worth, and was at pains to make sure that everyone else knew it too; she was energetic and well organised, she knew she could make a practical difference and so she did; almost everything she did though, was oriented to making her family and son succeed. So, if you were Elizabeth, Queen, leading woman of the realm, you could very well find this irritating and intrusive. How did Elizabeth feel about it?
Well, firstly the evidence for the prosecution. In 1498, the Spanish Ambassador wrote a report back home about Henry’s reign and security; this was a matter of major concern, because they were considering whether or not to send their precious daughter Catherine of Aragon to England and really didn’t want to land her in a fresh round of the Wars of the Roses. In the report back home, Ayala the Ambassador had this to say about Elizabeth and her mother in law:
He is much influenced by his mother and his followers in affairs of personal interest and in others. The queen, as is generally the case, does not like it.
In another report he was even blunter, remarking that Elizabeth
She is kept in subjection by the mother of the king’
The other little snippet we have is from one John Hewyk, who wrote
that he had spoken with the Queen’s Grace, and should have spoken more with her said Grace had it not been for that strong whore the King’s mother
Which kind of suggests that, whether helpfully or not is a bit irrelevant, that Margaret was getting involved in Elizabeth’s business and up her nose.
Now there are other interpretations possible; one is that Ambassadors are often far from perfect commentators being somewhat outsiders at court. We don’t know what John Hewyk was after, or his provenance – maybe Margaret shared some crucial information to protect her daughter in law.
Elsewhere, there are signs that although Margaret was fully aware of her own status, she was not ignorant or careless of the proprieties; one famous example of this is that it was observed at one public ceremony that Margaret was once again with the king and queen; but that she took care to walk a step behind them – she was aware of protocol and observed it.
Other evidence points to collaboration between both women. They both pleaded with Henry VII not to send Princess Margaret to Scotland for her marriage to James IV too early, fearing James would consummate while the Princess was too young – Margaret would know all about the dangers of that. They also both wrote to the Spanish court asking that Catherine of Aragon learn French so they could talk with her when she arrived. They jointly commissioned a book from printer William Caxton. It’s been noted that Margaret was the originator of the very idea that Henry marry Elizabeth; though I don’t take that as proof positive, since the reasons were no doubt practical and dynastic, not because Margaret had conceived a great passion to rescue Elizabeth – she was a tool of policy in those discussions.
Finally – the evidence of friction is limited to those two examples. To the outside world, it appears that they were perfectly companionable; Thomas More wrote that they lived “in peaceable accord”. You would think surely that something else would have slipped out if they were in furious discontent.
Well maybe. But again, maybe not; the early Tudor chroniclers were notorious toadies, it did not pay to diss your employers, and in that respect Ayala had far less incentive to lie. It would seem to me that it would be entirely possible to be either driven up the wall by the oh so frequent and active presence of the mother-in-law; and equally if you shared said mother in laws’ values and outlook to be quite delighted at the extremely efficient, reliable and capable additional pair of hands. The general impression of Elizabeth is one concerned with piety, with the health of the household, there remains a strong impression of gentleness; she held her own court of course as queen, but it tended to be less politically oriented that Margaret’s, although as we’ve seen she was perfectly capable of intervening when it suited her.
Historians generally appear to be very keen to clear Margaret of the mother in law from hell tag. I have to say I am pretty sure she’d have rattled my cage, but I am not 15th century royalty and so am a poor judge. The evidence is very solid that Margaret was valued, trusted, active and capable. There’s equally no evidence that Elizabeth of York was undervalued or prevented from carrying out her traditional role as queen. And the evidence that Margaret prevented Elizabeth from happily fulfilling her role is much thinner that for their collaboration, and so maybe that’s where we should leave it.
Right, next week then, how does Margaret’s new ruling dynasty cope with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.