One of the things I suspect people associate with Margaret is a very deep and possibly rather austere piety. There are a couple of things which create this impression both of which we have discussed; there are the portraits of her that survive, and they present Margaret as she wanted to be remembered – dressed in religious clothing in prayer, with her piety therefore full at the forefront – although in the images there are also multiple symbols of her wealth, status and dynasty to remind us who she was and quite how important she was, but it’s the piety that gets lead billing. And then there is John Fisher’s sermon at her funeral which emphasised her piety and the qualities of her mind and character, which pervades most of the stories of the time in which she was involved and has been hugely influential – after all there were no other written narratives to compete with it.
Now John Fisher and Margaret shared a close relationship. They had met at Greenwich in 1494 at court; Fisher was 20 years at least junior to Margaret. The son of a Merchant at Beverly in Yorkshire, and he’d become a priest at Northallerton before coming back south again to his alma mater at Cambridge, where he’d been offered the post of Senior Proctor. So he came to Margaret’s notice, because Fishers intelligence and talents had made a name for him, and when he came to court on the business of his proctorship, Margaret resolved and indeed succeeded in signing him up for her household. Before long he became her chaplain and her confessor; and by the time of Margaret’s death, they had become firm friends. It was a relationship of some depth of feeling. Fisher became Bishop of Rochester, in which post incidentally he was to be executed by Henry VIII, and it was to Fisher that Margaret confirmed her vow of chastity after her husband Thomas Stanley died, with the words:
I avow to you, my lord of Rochester, to whom I am and have been, since the first time I see you admitted, very determined to owe my obedience
Margaret confided in Fisher, and in return Fisher learned from Margaret from someone more experienced than him in the ways of patronage and advancing his career.
It’s important to note that having a role in Margaret’s household did not mean he was taken away from Cambridge; indeed his work and success there also landed him the job of Vice Chancellor of the University which would later become a post for life. In that process though, Margaret’s patronage of Fisher did his career no harm at all, and landed him a couple of posts. The rules governing recruitment procedures were not rigorous in the 15th century.
I mention how close this relationship is because we need to take his testimony with just a pinch of salt; for four reasons really. Firstly, because it will be important later when we get to Margaret’s educational legacy. Secondly, they are mates – he’s going to put the best possible gloss on her life. Thirdly, the sermon was at a funeral, which is traditionally not the occasion for a hatchet job, but fourthly because you know what preachers are like, they have to preach, probably even if they are alone in the forest alongside a fallen tree, and Fisher was using Margaret as an example, or maybe a cattle prod might be a better word, a cattle prod with which to poke his audience through the gate into the field of holiness away from the field of hoolyness. So it is possible he exaggerated, just a wee bit.
He certainly did lay it on with a trowel. According to Fisher, her day started at 5 O’clock with morning prayers and Matins with her household ladies; and then a little more matins in her closet with the chaplain. Then four or five masses during the day all spent on her knees. Fisher went further, emphasising Margaret’s temperance; she never had dinner, still held around 11 in the morning at this time, and she frequently fasted. And then the piece de resistance, she
Had her shirts and girdles of hair, which when she was in health every week she failed not certain days to wear sometime
Well that certainly sounds devout. Her piety was not restricted to her relationship with Fisher; the Chapel played a major role within her household, and included many members of staff. One of them in particular was Henry Hornby who served as Margaret’s secretary, dean of chapel, and after 1504 as her chancellor. A Lincolnshire lad, Hornby also had connections with Cambridge university. He organised the payment for mass books and primers from London printers, and incidentally Margaret was an important patron for printers; even Fisher noted that she had
‘divers books in French wherewith she would occupy herself when she was weary of prayer’
She patronised William Caxton when he opened his shop, so much so that he dedicated two books to her; she also patronised another printer, Wynken de Worde, and five of the books he printed had dedications to Margaret. Many of these books were devotional – such as the Ladder of Perfection, a work of mystic theology that described the soul’s journey of contemplation; and in this Margaret was part of a strong tradition of the time of devotional literature. However it must be said also that Margaret was not averse to raunchy French novels, those French really, and was the inspiration behind Caxton’s translation and printing of the French romance Blanchardyn and Eglantine. I should probably withdraw the word raunchy by the way and substitute popular.
Margaret was also part of the flavour of the day which was setting many devotions around particular cults; Margaret had a particular devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus – in fact she was recognised as the patron of the feast associated with it, and manuscripts associated with the order of service were dedicated to her – she was a very visible patron of the church, in such ways, above and beyond the normal run of the dedications and bequests she made to colleges, chantries, fraternites and so on. She was equally visible in taking part in public ceremonies of ministering to the poor with her own hand, and she had a strong sense of moral responsibility towards her servants, establishing almshouses at all her properties – as well as at Westminster for example, where she set up an Almshouse for 13 women. She visited religious houses, even getting special dispensation to so do for closed orders, she visited almshouses to dispense food and medicine and talk to the inmates.
So I think we have a pretty clear picture of a very devout person indeed, for whom piety formed a framework for her life, her social and moral obligations; her daily routine also speaks of a highly structured life, it fits with the supreme efficiency and professionalism with which she ran her estates, and of an iron will, discipline and self control. This is Margaret for you; a woman who spent hours on her knees in prayer every day, while suffering in later life from very painful arthritis, and for which such activities must have demanded iron determination. As Fisher noted
These merciful and liberal hands to endure the most painful cramps so grievously vexing her and compelling her to cry out
Having said all that, I am going to now leaven the bread just a tiny wee bit if you don’t mind. First of all, we do have information from another source in her household, Henry Parker, about her daily routine. Here is Henry also extolling his mistress
Her grace was every morning in chapel betwixt 6 and 7 of the clock, and daily said matins of the day with one of her chaplains. And that said from seven til it was eleven of the clock as soon as one priest had said mass in her sight another began. One time in a day she was confessed, then going to dinner how honourably she was served I think few kings better, her condition always at the beginning for her dinner being to be joyous and hear those tales which were honest to make her merry. The midst of her dinner either her amner or I read some virtuous tale unto her of the life of Christ, or such like, the latter end of her dinner again she was disposed to talk with the bishop or with her chancellor which sat at her board end of some godly matter
I think in general we can agree that the flavour of this is very much in the Fisher mode. Though also I might point out that when Fisher claimed that Margaret never had dinner, he was clearly exaggerating for effect; and it’s not surprising, dinner was an important occasion for a lord to connect with their household. As you may know if you are a History of England Member and have listened to the biography podcast I did of Fisher, he also was praised for keeping a good table; being pious and generous with the nosh were not mutually exclusive. While I’m on it, although her reputation was for her austerity, she was conscious of the importance of the regular festivities in the round of religious feasts; so in Christmas 1505 for example, Margaret engaged an abbot of misrule to oversee the celebrations, including morris dancers and players; it was also a time for the distribution of alms and goodies for all.
One further point to make is that extreme as all this sounds to the modern ear, and as keen as Fisher was to use Margaret as a model, it’s not actually that unusual for great aristocratic women of the time; in fact Margaret in many ways conformed to a model, albeit in quite an extreme form. I think we have already been through Cecily of York’s day, a matriarch with many similarities to Margaret, and her day equally was filled with masses and devotional literature, and her life marked by public charitable activities. Margaret of York too was known for her good works and also a patron of Caxton. In her wider cultural interests, Margaret also shared those of many of her contemporaries; Juliana Berners, prioress of Sopwell wrote treatises on hawking, hunting, fishing and heraldry; Lady Hungerford used latin sources to increase her own awareness of her own part and participation in worship as did Margaret with her devotional literature. The number of books associated with Margaret is certainly impressive, but even then far fewer that the likes of Louise of Savoy or Margaret of Navarre.
Basically, it’s pretty much without dispute that piety and a sense of moral obligation was central to Margaret’s world view, and she was particularly rigorous in carrying it out; it’s also clear that in this she had many example of contemporaries and peers around her to emulate.
The same applies in a sense to her support for education; it was not new in Margaret’s time – it had become an established tradition. Famously of course Henry VI had been responsible for founding many education institutions – Eton, king’s college Cambridge and All Souls Oxford; Margaret of Anjou had founded Queen’s College in 1448. But while she may not have broken a mould, Margaret was to be exceptional in the level of her support to her most local university town, Cambridge. Though she also retained an interest in Oxford also; her first foray into benefaction was to endow two professorships, the modern Lady Margaret Professorships, one at Oxford and One at Cambridge. But her main interest was probably always going to head towards Cambridge; she was already involved as we heard last time, knocking heads together to get issues resolved between town and gown in her composition of 1503. And it was the university of John Fisher, her confident and confessor, and his guidance and information certainly led her there.
Henry VI had also taken an interest as it happens in a college called God’s House, founded in 1439 by a man called William Bingham; and Fisher brought the rather impoverished college to her attention; by 1505 she had applied for and been granted a licence to expand and rename the college – and so it became called Christ College. Interestingly the devotional trend generally was towards a focus on Christ, and by this time Jesus College was already taken, leaving Christs as the next best option.
Margaret’s finger prints are all over the endowment and development of Christs College Cambridge; this was her project, and she would ensure it was effectively controlled and carried out – she was no arms length philanthropist providing the financing and nothing else. She was allocated a set of rooms for her use at the college, because she now visited the town regularly, and one of her suites of 4 rooms overlooked the chapel so Margaret could pray in private there. Nor was Margaret shy about her patronage – evidence of the Beaufort role is all over the place, including a window in the chapel and the Beaufort arms and motto souvent me souvient, I often Remember, over the Master’s lodge. Her patronage continued, with the bequest of a silver cup, the Beaufort Cup which still survives, she left the college many pieces of plate and books in her will; and she endowed the college with the Abbey of St Mary de Pratis in Norfolk. She purchased other estates for them, including the manors of Malton and Roydon, Cambridgeshire, which transformed the wealth of the previously poverty-stricken God’s House and her accounting was meticulous and thorough; she gave substantial support and involvement on building work between 1505 and 1509, including the princely sum for the time of £1625. Again the involvement and oversight is detailed and practical; the statutes delivered to the Master in 1506 include opening words written in Margaret’s own hand. The things that were most important to Margaret come across such as the declaration that
There are three things that we desire all the Fellows of the College to care for above all things, namely the worship of God, the increase of the faith and probity of morals
There’s a legend that when visiting one day, Margaret saw the dean punishing one of his students, and she leant out of the window and cried ‘Gently, Gently!’ No idea if that’s really true or a bit of a legend, but it’s interesting colour if true, supporting the idea that she was a sympathetic patron. At the same time she did not forget her family; prayers were to be said for the souls of members of her family and colleagues, including Edmund Tudor the father of her son. Again, three aspects of the things that drove Margaret are in evidence; social responsibility, piety, family.
While Christ’s College was the major foundation made within her lifetime, Fisher also bent her ear about making another bequest; to refound the hospital of St John the Evangelist as a college of the University. Margaret and Fisher started work on this in 1508, but it was complicated, and therefore not completed until 1511, after Margaret’s death, pushed through by Fisher. The Colleges of Christ’s and St Johns are lasting legacies of Margaret’s life and priorities.