Margaret Beaufort would have a famously short childhood, but be that as it may this is what we are going to hear about today – only one short episode needed sadly.
As soon as she was born or as soon after as possible, Margaret would have been baptised; Children in those days were baptised as quickly as possible, given the dangers and uncertainty of surviving infancy. But we don’t have a record, and it doesn’t appear we know who her Godparents were; Godparents could be important, providing links and connections as well as support. It was not, at the time, simply a matter of trying not to forget to send a Christmas present.
Margaret would have had no memory of her father John, who died in disgrace in 1444 when Margaret was almost one; and he was buried quietly at Wimbourne in Dorset. Now before he died, John Beaufort had set his affairs in order, and he had agreed with King Henry that Margaret would not be put into wardship, but given to the control of the Duchess, her mother. But it was just a few days after his death that the king changed all that; afterall, John Beaufort had been a failure bordering on treasonous, Henry for once was thoroughly unhappy with the man, dead or not, and felt no inclination to honour the promise. And since Margaret was under the age of 14, she would be put into a wardship, wardships were an important way of rewarding loyal followers with influence, and Margaret Beauchamp ranked low on the influence-ometre. It’s a little while since we’ve been in days medieval so let me just remind you that a wardship gave legal control over the minor, and the income from their estates until they achieved their majority. A responsible Guardian would of course nurture the little rabbit’s estate; the unscrupulous would sweat the asset knowing their time with it was limited, things like cutting down woods and selling them is a good example of nasty practices.
The death of her father made Margaret therefore, a valuable asset, a phrase that does really sum up the nature of it; clearly this is a quality that will apply to her marriage as well, as an heiress. She was an asset for the crown to use and sell as it wished. As to how valuable an asset…well now you’re asking. A peer of the realm really needed an annual income of around £1000 at minimum to maintain themselves in the manner that would not bring them shame. John Beaufort had lands that gave an income of around £600 when an earl, and on being promoted to Duke in 1443, he’d been given extra lands in Kendal to add £400. Even then he was only just holding on by his fingertips.
Margaret’s estate on her father’s death was complicated. All John’s estates in Dorset and Surrey went not to Margaret but to his glittering younger brother Edmund. Kendal reverted to the crown. What remained was divided between the Margarets – since Margaret’s mother needed a jointure to maintain her until she married again, and then the lands would come back to Margaret. In essence it’s complicated; but it looks as though the potential income from Margaret’s lands in the South Midlands, Yorkshire and Wales could come to as much as £1,000 a year, if her mother married – which she did, to Lord Welles, in 1447. So, yes, Margaret Beaufort was quite a catch. It was a truth universally acknowledged that a single girl in possession of a fortune must be in want of a Guardian or a Husband.
Now it just so happened that high in Henry’s favour at this time was one William de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, a hardworking and conscientious but ultimately unlucky soul who was lose his head a few years later in 1450. Pole had estates that gave him an income of about £670 a year – again, really barely enough to maintain him in his dignity as an Earl and the king’s leading minister. It is to William de la Pole that Henry VI gave the wardship of Margaret Beaufort. Pole started work immediately, presenting legal challenges to the lands that had stayed with Margaret’s mother; this is what your 15th century lord did – spent a lot of time in court to improve their income, making knowledge of the law a vital part of a nobleman’s education, and a lucrative route into wealth and ultimately rank for the middling short. William in all probability did not start all that jiggery pokery with asset stripping and all; because he was playing the long game, to assure his son, John, of a wealthier life than he had; he was planning to use his position as Margaret’s ward to marry her to his son.
In a few years’ time, then, it was becoming clear to William de la Pole that his political career was crashing and burning; in fact worse than that, as the bad news kept coming from France, and it was beginning to look clear that England’s days in Normandy were numbered. The political nation was screaming for de la Pole’s head. So he had to act fast just in case. So, sometime around 7th February 1450, two small children, Margaret 7 and John de la Pole an eight year old, were married. Since they were so young, of course the marriage was not to be consummated; and marriage at that age was not the binding thing it was to those who’d reached either 12 years old for a girl, or 14 for a boy. Both children before then had the choice of ratifying the marriage contract, or indeed revoking it at a future date. And before long, the marriage began to look even more precarious, when William, now Duke of Suffolk, was ousted from power. His king tried to save him, allowing him to flee the kingdom, but on his way he was caught and beheaded on a ship with 6 strokes of a rusty sword.
Despite de la Pole’s rights as Guardian, most of Margaret’s early life was spent with her mother Margaret Beauchamp, switching mainly between her two main properties of Bletsoe in Bedfordshire and Maxey castle on the edge of the fens. She already had a family in effect – her mother’s children from her previous marriage, the three girls and two boys of St Johns, and also an illegitimate daughter of John Beaufort, Tacyn, who was soon married. Margaret formed deep loyalties to these people that she shared her childhood with, and later in life would find them positions or take them into her own household; John St John the eldest, would become her Chamberlain for example. Though short, the impression is that her childhood was stable and happy while it lasted; there are regular entries, for example, of connections between the family and local gentry families, they were part of a community.
Margaret’s mother married again; interestingly she was almost married to one John Neville; they needed dispensation from the Pope, and applied for permission on the grounds that they were motivated by ‘the ardour of a singular affection’. It was a love match. But something went wrong; maybe Neville died. In 1447, she did marry again, to Lionel Welles, and at some point their son John was born and joined in the melee.
What, then of Margaret’s education? Well know very little of it, but it’s worth noting that Medieval folks thought about life in 3 stages, and ‘fostering’ or education in the wider sense needed to be designed to meet the needs of each stage. Infancy was dominated by feeding; as far as I am concerned, pretty much all of life is dominated by feeding, but that’s a personal problem it’s maybe best not to go into; childhood was dominated by play. But both stages needed to prepare children for the third, adulthood; and that demanded not just learning, but self-discipline. So the tendency of children to do nothing but play was to be countered with good religious habits like prayer, temperance and obedience; and countered with good social skills like being well mannered and articulate. As a child grew older, a noble child be given a personal tutor, and that tutor would be chosen by the father. Scholars such as Thomas Aquinas, Albertus Magnus and John Buridanus stressed that a mother’s love was more compassionate and given to a sacrifice than a father’s, that it was stronger and more constant than the father’s. From this they drew the conclusion that since a father loved less, his love was intrinsically more virtuous, disinterested. The slightly confusing conclusion also was that since a mother’s love was more physical, carnal, more to do with nurturing, it was the father who should define and direct the children’s education. A mother should be involved in their child’s moral and religious education – but only if she could keep that love under control. Her role was also to protect her daughters, make sure they were safe. Very often both girls and boys were sent away to another household to learn and make contacts, but his was more frequent for boys than girls, and it doesn’t look as though Margaret had time for this.
The kind of education girls would receive differed to that of boys, with the difference becoming greater as they grew older. Some topics were common; most were taught to read; the practicalities of estate management were a central part of that education and later life, as of course was religious education. But thereafter education diverged – boys might go away to a grammar school or have a tutor, learn Greek and Latin, many of them learned to write as well, possibly go on to university though the last probably only if they were destined for the church. We are on the cusp here, but probably just before the cusp, of the implementation of Humanist learning into curricula. Girls then would learn skills such as needlework, embroidery, music, dancing, skills that would be important in their future adult lives.
We get the odd insight into Margaret’s education, mainly confirming that while yes, she was given an education and developed an interest in reading and books, that education was pretty traditional. She was never taught Latin, and told John Fisher in later life how much she regretted that. But she was taught or maybe learned later the skills of estate management, ruling with an eagle eye her estates and taking person control of projects such as the foundation and building of Cambridge colleges when she became the queen mother. There’s a sign that music and minstrels were around – but she doesn’t appear to have played herself.
In February 1453 this life of rural domesticity was interrupted by a summons from the king; Henry commanded Margaret Beauchamp to bring her daughter to the court at London, to introduce herself to the king, and the king generously allocated his young cousin 100 marks so that she could kit herself out so that she could cut the correct level of dash at the court. For Margaret this visit to the big smoke must have been something of a wonder, very different to her experience in her 9 years of life. She was particularly impressed by the grandeur and slightly scary magnificence of the Queen, Margaret who at 23 was in her prime, in control of court, and a living example of the power a group of women exercised in the Wars of the Roses.
Now, this wasn’t just a nicety – there was an ulterior motive, and it is now my duty to introduce the Tudors to you, Edmund and Jasper. Both were the sons of Owen Tudor, a man about whom there are more stories that you can shake a stick at, but was from a well to do and powerful Welsh family, that traced their immediate descent to one Marredudd ap Tudor, who was a royal official who none the less took part in the early part of the revolt of Owen Glyn Dwr, though dying in 1404. Somehow the family maintained their influence despite that – probably because earlier generations had managed to successfully both support the Princes of Gwynedd, but then make their peace with the English regime that replaced them. Owen Tudor met Catherine Valois, widow of Henry V, and the pair were secretly married, despite the fact that there was a law saying that the king must agree to any marriage before Catherine was married. They had two children – Edmund born in 1430 and Jasper born in 1431. After Catherine’s death, the men in grey suits came for him, and Owen was locked up until kindly Henry rehabilitated him.
In 1452, possibly needing to build his stock of loyal followers after the destruction of William de la Pole, Henry VI turned on the tap of royal approval on the heads of the Tudor boys, with a stream of landed endowments that turned them into major magnates, above and beyond the title Edmund already held as Earl of Richmond. An act of parliament was passed, officially declaring them both Henry’s fully legitimate half brothers. It is possible that, given that Henry’s wife Margaret of Anjou had not yet conceived, Henry was even grooming Edmund to be his heir. So, the Tudors – in high favour.
In fact then, Margaret was being brought to London so that she could find out some changes the king had in store for her. Little Margaret was in fact rather impressed with Henry, remembering a kindly man. But during that visit, she would learn that as part of his promotion of the Tudors, her Wardship had been given to them, and her property divided between them until she married or gained her majority. In addition, her marriage to John de la Pole was to be dissolved, and she could expect to marry this boy, Edmund, who was the Earl of Richmond, and now 14 years old.
The way this took place was recorded in a round about way by John Fisher from his later conversations with Margaret in a slightly garbled, but very 15th century way. As I mentioned, the children of a marriage at a very young age are able to revoke their marriage at a later date. The way this meeting with Henry came across to Margaret was that she was being given a choice between John and Edmund – although probably she didn’t really still have a choice for John. Unable to decide she was advised to pray to St Nicholas for guidance, as ‘the patron and helper of all true maidens’. So she did, and in the early hours St Nicholas appeared to her, and suggested that Edmund would be the right choice – and her mind was made up. There are a few ways of looking at this story; given Margaret’s later reputation for piety, and indeed the traditions of piety of the age, it is possible that St Nicholas did visit Margaret, or that she believed that he did so. Or it could be a later story, made up by Margaret to hide the fact that powerful as she became, at that time she was a helpless pawn. Or maybe it’s a piece of Tudor propaganda, and we know they are good at that, emphasising divine intervention in the birth of the Tudor dynasty. You pays your money and takes your choice.
 Vecchio, S The Good Wife in Kalpisch, C A History of Women: Silences of the Middle Ages pp123-125