Ok, last time we spoke of the political life of Margaret, I believe we celebrated the Betrothal by proxy of Prince Arthur to Katherine of Aragon, a particularly significant marriage; through this, the Tudors reached the port of legitimacy, and strode out onto the sunny uplands of international confidence – a major royal house had decided they could send their daughter to England, that she would not end up having her throat cut by some obscure claimant to the throne from England’s largest county. It must have been like finally being able to join the EU after the humiliation of de Gaulle’s ‘Non!’ in 1963 and 7. Was that a wise analogy I wonder? Answers on a postcard…
Anyway, the triumph was further cemented in November 1501 when Catherine of Aragon’s slippered foot met the uncultured soil of England, and when she was welcomed to a London that had most firmly pushed the boat out to welcome her. On the 14th November they were married, and watching from a discrete location was the terrible Trio – Queen Elizabeth, King Henry – and his Mum. They apparently, and I quote ‘stood secretly in a closet’, and while I realise the word closet has shifted in its meaning, I cannot get the image of King Henry VII, Queen Elizabeth of York and Lady Margaret Beaufort having found themselves lost and squeezing into a broom cupboard and hoping no one had noticed. I apologise, I realise that is unprofessional. Anyway, you’ll be unsurprised to hear that Arthur’s granny turned on the waterworks. She had form, after all.
That night, of course, Arthur and Catherine were put to bed, for one of the most controversial wedding nights ever. We’ll leave that one though, I think it’s been covered. As far as Margaret is concerned, we do not know what she thought of Catherine; but the likelihood has got to be she was delighted and keen to make her welcome like everyone else. Something of a wrinkle is that a number of Margaret’s household members transferred to Catherine’s; the best interpretation is that this is because they were experienced. A more cynical person might say it was because Margaret was as keen to have a hand in Catherine’s affairs as she was in Elizabeth’s. After several days of revelry, including at Margaret’s home at Coldharbour House, by December, Arthur and Catherine had been packed off to Shropshire to start their own household at Ludlow.
In 1502 interestingly, Margaret went into the debt collection business, travelling over to France to try to wring money out of Louis XII. This was not a new debt; In 1424 Jean, count of Angoulême, had been taken hostage by Thomas, duke of Clarence. In 1421 the count’s custody passed to Clarence’s widow and then to the children of her first, Beaufort marriage. Jean was released on parole in 1445, but the house of Orléans still owed money to the Beauforts, the tinkers, and the debt was inherited by Margaret Beaufort in 1482. I mean what does this mean for a reading of Margaret’s mentality I wonder that she still wanted to collect this old, old, debt? You could I guess paint it as a strong belief in right and wrong, in a determination to render unto Margaret that which was Margaret’s, similar to her pursuit of rights in her management of estates in England. Or you might add it to the avaricious pile, or even obsessively focussed on dotting I’s and crossing t’s. Or even all of the above. Louis of course said gosh you are quite right and then did nothing; the matter was unresolved on Margaret’s death.
You might say that at the start of 1502, Margaret’s fortunes had hit a high; her family were legit, heir and a spare in situ, accepted by Spain no less, marriage, next generation presumably on the production line. The next 12 months were to demonstrate that the obsession with the wheel of fortune of the time was sadly well founded. In Ludlow, news arrived of plague; which Catherine caught but recovered, which Arthur caught – and did not recover. By 2nd April 1502, Henry and Elizabeth’s eldest son was dead, and as you can imagine, they were devastated, and although her response is not recorded you can guess Margaret was too. It was not long before Queen Elizabeth was pregnant again; but on 2nd February 1503 after giving birth to a baby girl, Elizabeth sickened and died; and 7 days later her newborn followed her to the grave.
The deaths continued; in August of that year Reginald Bray, Margaret’s right hand man for so many years also died, and was buried in St George’s chapel, which he’d helped build. And then in July 1504, her husband Thomas Stanley died. Margaret was not with him at the time, but at Collyweston; she of course did the right thing as you would expect, and the whole household went into mourning. No doubt Margaret regretted his passing – there certainly appears to have been no animosity in their relationship, but equally it was clearly a marriage of convenience, which had served it’s purpose, and Margaret had new priorities now and had done so for a while. Incidentally, Stanley’s death made her very rich indeed, and to be fair she’d not been short of a bob or two before either; but you might remember that Margaret only received a third to 2/3rds of her marriage portion under the agreement they made, when Margaret was declared a femme sole; now she received both kit and indeed caboodle. As a result her income was boosted by £3,000 which was enough to keep 3 peers of the realm going.
Margaret had a decision to make now then – should she remarry? She was around 60, and I suspect, though don’t know, that this was a decision that took her less than a nanosecond to come to. Instead, she reaffirmed her vows with Bishop Fisher to
Promise from henceforth the chastity of my body, that is never to use my body having actual knowledge of man after the common usage in matrimony.
Common usage in matrimony of course being an engagingly romantic turn of phrase, but of course to Margaret, dedicating her body to God was very much a scared trust and it seems entirely unsurprising that she remade her vows.
By 1505, Margaret was spending more time close to London than at Collyweston, to be near to court. In 1506 this was fortunate and allowed her to play a role in an unexpected party, the visit of Philip and Juana of Castile. It’s a curious little incident; the pair, King and Queen of Castile, were actually forced to land in Dorset by bad weather, and Henry immediately seized on it, in the milk of human kindness, as a business opportunity and had them brought toute suite to London. While he had the lad at his mercy he persuaded Philip to extradite one of the de la Pole’s to England – which he duly did as it happens. Now Queen Juana was the monarch here in her own right, not Philip her husband; but the pair of them were badly estranged. Juana would in fact be described as mad, and Philip would confine her; and during this visit he did his best to keep her away from proceedings, and spent a deal of effort telling everyone just how crazy she was. The English people she met seemed to think she was perfectly fine as it happens.
However, Juana was also Catherine of Aragon’s sister, as luck would have it. And Henry was not keen for them to meet – because quite frankly poor Catherine had been very shabbily treated by Henry after Arthur’s death, one of Henry’s less attractive episodes. However it was hardly possible to keep them apart when Philip and Juana visited Richmond Palace, an event at which Margaret played centre role. The arrangements included a meeting with Catherine in front of the whole court – but for literally minutes, before Juana was whipped away and before Catherine could complain of her treatment. If Margaret objected to the charade, we hear nothing of it; the abiding impression of Margaret was that she had no compunction about doing that which needed to be done.
From 1507, Margaret became aware that her son’s health was also failing; she was of course desperately keen to be near him, so much so that makeshift lodgings were constructed for her servants at Richmond Palace. By 1509 he was clearly on his last legs, and on 21st April he heard his last mass. In his final will dictated as he lay dying, he specified he should be buried in his dramatic new chapel at Westminster Abbey; I understand he also allocated money to enable 10,000 prayers to be said for his soul, which suggests there were one or two things in his life he was worried about. At the top of the Executors of his will was of course his most trusted and thoroughly efficient right hand man – Margaret.
By this time, Margaret herself was not well either, but the Council appointed by Henry to manage the kingdom until the coronation of the new king, Henry VII, also had at the top of it ‘the moder of the late said king’; Henry also had a few months to go before his 18th birthday, so for a short while Margaret was effectively the unofficial regent of England.
For the short period of her control she spent most of it designing the council to serve Henry with her favourites such as, you may not be shocked to hear, John Fisher. But another was to order the arrest of Henry VII’s trusted servants Empson and Dudley; and her grandson would have them executed. I have always thought this an act of political ingratitude – both had merely been following their bosses orders in exacting finance from his over mighty subjects. They would pay the price for Henry VII’s good name and a positive start to the new king’s reign. Again, Margaret had little compunction in doing the necessary, and her Grandson of course would make something of a habit of executing loyal and efficient servants.
Margaret was herself now on her last legs, but had time to see Henry marry Catherine and for the pair of them to marry in all joyfulness and hope of a new fresh reign. By May she was seriously ill; Henry Parker suggested she was brought to the final crisis by eating a dodgy cygnet which made her very sick. Whatever the cause, on 29th June 1509 Margaret breathed her last at the Deanery of the Abbey of Westminster, apparently at the exact same time as the host was being raised by the bishop; she would be buried near her beloved son. Where else? You would have to say.
Well that’s it then, we have arrived at the end of Margaret’s story – what do we think? Well, it’s interesting, I can understand why there is a surprisingly strong tendency for people to tek agin her; because I suppose that’s what it’s like with powerful people; they are a bit in yer face by and large and therefore likely to rub people up the wrong way. If I was to pick a single word, I think I would choose formidable, this is someone with a pretty clear view of what she wanted and expected and with a set, traditional and quite inflexible world view. And there were undeniably negatives to that. She was pretty merciless in pursuit of her objectives when she had gained control of her life; she pursued her rights hard, she extracted every penny she could from her estates, she had a clear view of what was hers. She was deeply determined and tenacious – how else could she have survived the vicissitudes of the first 50 years of her life, which is a really extraordinary story; her singleness of purpose was pretty scary, and in her relationship with her son maybe worryingly extreme.
But surely she is worthy of respect and awe more than anything, and not just in overcoming the obstacles that she faced, including becoming a mother at the age of 13 and in a pretty hostile world. She was driven by thoroughly 15th century aristocratic virtues it seems to me; a complete belief in what her status entitled her to, but equally a full acceptance of the responsibilities that also gave her; the responsibility to look after the interests of her extended family which she did constantly; to use her status and resources to support the communities of which she was part, to give generously to the poor, and to leave a long standing legacy to future generations. Above all she was frighteningly practical and driven. It’s interesting to reflect I think that her right to the throne was stronger than her son’s; I think she was conscious of that, and it’s very revealing that in her will she consistently referred to herself as princess. It’s entirely typical of her commitment to her son that she did not advance her claim; and yet if she had done so, I can’t doubt she’d had all the qualities, attractive and unattractive, to have made her as impressive a monarch as England had ever had.