So, last time we gaily announced to safe arrival in port the Tudor ship of dynasty; I feel it incumbent on me to remind you once more that no one at the time would have realised that some other pretender from the rightful royal house of York would not rise up and throw out the usurping Tudor. That’s just a bit of slightly out of date Roses trash talk. Up York and all that, in a deeply impartial, historically accurate way of course.
We’ve seen how Margaret exercised great influence over her son and played a significant role at court; that she was a conduit to the king for petitioners, though probably without getting in the way of the Queen’s role. And that part of the reason for this was not simply her experience, knowledge and personal bond with her son – but because as a family member without political ambitions she was someone Henry could trust with power without fear; and as you may know if you have followed Henry’s career, in his later years he would grow increasingly suspicious and even despotic. Margaret was very much prepared and willing to meet her son’s expectations; in many of her dealings she saw herself as the King’s Agent.
This becomes even more pronounced in the last decade of Margaret’s life, when she becomes something approaching a regional satrap in the style of a mini version of Richard of Gloucester under his brother Edward IV. Her domain was not to be the north, but the beating heart of England, which is of course as you are no doubt fully aware, the East Midlands. From some point in 1499 Margaret began to spend more and more time at Collyweston in Northamptonshire, from where she established a sort of mini court.
Collyweston, as it happens is not a million miles from where my mother lives, which I appreciate is unlikely to be why Margaret moved there, but has allowed me to go and look for her palace. I think I am correct in saying there’s pretty much nothing left above ground. Which is a shame, and which falls into the sic transit and so on category, because Margaret spent even more on it than Kevin’s sheepskin jacket – she spent an absolute packet. I’d have liked to have seen it; in that part of the world roofs often traditionally used split local stone rather than slate or thatch, and it’s very attractive, and the local stone is astounding, a deep ironstone yellow. Anyway, in the process, Collyweston was transformed from an attractive 15th century manor house into a palace, and a centre of administration and business. By 1506 it contained a chapel of course, with a gallery that connected it to Margaret’s own chambers; there was the business and entertainment end in common with any great magnate and landowner; the great hall and parlour as we discussed in the episode on Woking; but also a presence chamber more in keeping with royalty, and various rooms allocated to her household. It was a place of education also, not just with a library, though there was one of those, but a chamber equipped with desks for the children. There was a section for almsfolk, their own area with a kitchen yard, a common hall, a garden and running water. There were two clockhouses, and rather grimly, a prison block to boot. There was an opportunity for fun in the development too, in the sense that Margaret took personal interest in the laying out and refurbishment of extensive gardens, for pleasure but also of course for produce, herbs, fruit and so on.
Collyweston was a major centre with a great and powerful household; it was a carefully ordered regime projecting pomp, highly visible charity; it was also an engine for fulfilling Margaret’s role as one of the magnates of the land. There is a description of Margaret’s household by one Henry Parker, in which he states that her estate at Collyweston employed 400 people, which is an enormous number; the number may be nearer 230 long term staff, but either way this is an impressive household from which she administered her lands, together with her own working council. Many of these household members would have worn the Beaufort livery of Blue and Silver, with the Beaufort portcullis.
Within this household Margaret fulfilled her obligations – religious, administrative, charitable, but her most constant companions would have been her female attendants; some of their names reach us, such as Perrot the Frenchwoman, Edith Fowler, and Lady Jane Guildford. Margaret’s household, as you might expect, was closely managed her ordinances which were read out to the household four times a year which I can imagine were fun occasions no doubt a time to put your feet up and enjoy a cream bun; Margaret was not one for leaving things to chance or to tolerate inefficiency.
Margaret’s council was staffed by impressive and experienced administrators, and particularly so in legal matters. Now every major landowner had the need for good lawyers, to defend their lands from legal predators and, frankly, to carry out a bit of legalised predation to build their own lands – and Margaret, it has to be said, was now shrinking violet. But also these councillors were part of Margaret’s almost concillar power, devolved from her royal son; remarkably, Margaret established and ran her own equity court; by equity I mean a court like Star Chamber unencumbered with the need to pay attention to common law – judgement by Margaret and her judges was to establish and implement what they considered equitable. This court was not just a baronial court, ruling on matters such as errant sheep, badly maintained fences and unwisely situated manure heaps. The scope of Margaret’s court was really quite broad, almost equivalent to regional councils like those of the North or of Wales; She equipped it with its own council house, and as mentioned with its very own prison. One occasion she wrote to civic authorities as far afield as Coventry on behalf of an aggrieved citizen, and she did so in the king’s name. Her court investigated cases of treasonable intent, and even suits specifically delegated from the royal council. Her power and authority was such that she even intervened in ecclesiastical cases. There’s an intriguing case about a priest, one John Stokesley, who was accused among other things of baptizing a cat. Now even the most trendy, pump wearing guitar toting vicar I think might balk at that these days, even in the increasingly popular animal services I think were going on before the pandemic. On further investigation it seems he was accused thereby of finding treasure by magical means, not quite sure how that works; and it was part of a whole tranche of accusations including witchcraft, heresy, perjury, theft, and adultery. Stokesley was exonerated; very probably he’d simply got involved in a spat about who was to be President of Magdalen College, and the accusations were a cunning ploy to remove a political opponent, something to bear in mind should I apply for some major post such as Parish Councillor or Village Litter Monitor or some such. Not even Jackie Weaver, the now famous leader of handforth Parish Council could cope with Cat Baptism accusations I suspect. Anyway, Stokesley was exonerated and went on to happy career as Bishop of London and persecutor of Protestant heretics under Henry VIII.
Margaret then occupied an exceptional place as a woman in regional politics as she did at court; for all the world like a male powerful magnate with semi-regal powers. In other ways she fulfilled more traditional roles in local politics and communities, as a powerful landowner, in both positive and more negative ways. She was a voracious pursuer of her rights for example, and while that might seem particularly associated with male landowners, women often got very much involved in the daily cut a thrust of local decision making and estate management, and fighting off legal challenges – or indeed pursing legal challenges on other landowners; certainly we’ve seen Margaret Paston very much in that role through the Paston letters.
As I say this has negative as well as positive aspects; for example, Margaret vigorously pursued the exploitation of her estates, and while I think it’s fair to say that Margaret had a very strong sense of obligation to her tenants, when she felt it necessary she could be harsh. One example is her removal of a walk mill at one of her estates in Cumbria, for fear of damage to the fish stocks; she was firm in encouraging her bailiffs to impose fines from the manorial courts, leading to violent riot on at least one occasion; the construction of a new brick prison in Kendal confirmed that however generous Margaret might be on occasions, she was not to be crossed.
She was pretty ruthless as a landowner and estate manager; she employed one of her husband Thomas Stanley’s estate mangers in Kendal as it happens, William Wall; Wall appears to have been either a forgiving or inefficient manager, with some annuities and obligations left uncollected; so in 1501, Margaret fired him; in order to do so, interestingly, without offending Stanley, she engaged in a subterfuge with her son, you know, king of England and Lion of Justice, and got him to order that she could give a job only those employed in the name of Henry Duke of York; this, she wrote
Shall be a good excuse for me to my lord and husband
i.e. an excuse for firing William Wall, sorry hub, wasn’t my fault, the king wills it. Nothing like working your contacts I guess. In her mission to maximise her revenue she searched her feudal rights one of which was in wardship; so many wards did she have at one stage that it was rumoured that she had a special building constructed in which to house them all. She exploited the opportunities to make justice pay, by holding special courts such as in Boston in 1507, and her agents were in constant attendance at county sessions. Her administration was highly centralised and efficient; so while being concentrated around her council in Collyweston, she showed excellent local knowledge. For example in 1495 she brought an action at common law against a tenant who had tried to get away not paying a feudal due on his initial occupation and inheritance of the land. Her eyes were hawklike, they made Sauron’s eye look dim, distant and slightly damp. She was usually successful in her aim of maximising revenue; her Lincolnshire estates, for example, yielded £266 in 1493; by 1502 she’d increased that to £350, and by 1505 to £399. It’s a pretty relentless and significant rise. None of this made her or her agents popular as you can imagine; her records complain of threats and assaults on her agents sometimes reaching levels ‘so that business remained undone’.
On the other side of the story, Margaret very much believed in her responsibilities towards the communities of which she was part, in a practical sense of improving their economic life as well as the more traditional responsibilities of charity. A good example was in her connections with Cambridge; as you may know, town and gown relationships were not always very harmonious in days medieval, no more in Oxford than in Cambridge. Margaret was determined to use her authority and influence to bring the parties together and get the issues resolved. She brought both of them to Collyweston to thrash things out, the result being a detailed composition in 1503 laying out the issues and their agreed resolution.
An even better example would be Boston in Lincolnshire. Boston had fallen on hard times, largely because the harbour there was steadily silting up; merchants were leaving the town, tenements falling into decay. Margaret had many contacts in the town, many connections and responsibilities; she felt a debt of honour towards the town joining their religious guilds. So she invested in the town, repairing tenements, building water defences; in 1500 she supported a project to improve the condition of the harbour. Now it’s worth noting that Margaret would benefit from increased rents if Boston bloomed so maybe it’s not entirely altruistic – it’s more like Tom Lehrer’s old Dope Pedlar, doing well by doing good. But equally a quick look down the list of Margaret’s activities should convince you that this is someone who took her social and religious responsibilities seriously.
Another example was in the college at the Lincolnshire village of Tattershall, where Margaret had family links through the Welles family. Margaret rather took the college in hand, creating new statutes, reforming the structure and appointing a new post of Warden, becoming its patron and fighting its corner. It’s an example which combines the things that really made Margaret tick; her commitment and loyalty to her widely extended family; for piety and religion, and for education.