Well here we are then, at the trail not of the lonesome pine, but of a new biography of a character in medieval English history – Margaret Beaufort. By and large, Margaret has played a sort of supplementary role in general history books about English history of the period, which is of course, the lot of most women with only odd exceptions; but she does usually make an appearance. Though I suspect her name and image are quite well known considering she was rarely treated by historians as the headline act in the history of England if I can put it like that. As it happens I did some in depth, statistically verifiable research with the international Research Centre at the Shed, otherwise known as a poll on Facebook, and 56% of respondents knew Margaret from her photo, 15% pretended they did but didn’t really and 28% didn’t have a barney.
Before I go on, I should tell the 44% who do not know Margaret Beaufort – who on earth she was, and why on earth are we making her the object of the shedcast biography? Well Margaret Beaufort was from one of the grandest families of the 15th century, and saw her way all through the Wars of the Roses – I have no intention of re-opening the wound that is the nomenclature of said civil war, by the way. Although she was one of the great and the good, one of the well heeled and well fed, none the less she had an extremely taxing and exciting life; I’m aware that I am spoiling the plot, but she was married when very young, had her first and only child at a brutally young age – 13 would you believe. Her child had that most dangerous component, royal blood; and because of that she had to negotiate a very tricky path through the Wars of the Roses, to its conclusion, until Margaret arrived at the sunny uplands of life, as her son became Henry VII.
Tell me why Margaret again? Well, it’s an extraordinary life that’s first; It’s a life also that negotiates the full extent of the war of the roses, which is always a hoot. And she is rarely, if ever, a powerless pawn – earlier in her life maybe, but for the most part she is a player, and an astute and clever one at that. While she is exceptional, she is also a window into her age – she embodies the aims, ambitions and priorities of her day, and shares them with many other powerful women, Louise of France, Cecily Neville, Margaret of Navarre among others.
Now, I think many of you will know what she looks like, her image is quite well known, and it is very nice to be talking about someone for which we have a reliable likeness. However, there is a danger in it; images can on occasion have a disproportionate impact on the way we think and feel about something; Edward IV, for example, has to work hard to escape the impression from his portrait that he is anything other than a complete muppet and pie eater, Henry VI looks like a total wimp. it is very hard not to judge a book by its cover, and as an ex publisher I am of course very grateful for this, since I have spent many, many hours in cover design meetings, with all of us there desperately hoping that our customers will all judge the book by its cover, and indeed by the sensational cover blurb written by talented marketing folk. Especially if that book is one of the tuppeny bodice rippers I have commissioned such as Passive, Active and Non reciprocal microwave filters for example. Anyway, before this turns into autobiography, I think Margaret has particularly fallen prey to this characteristic. All the portraits of her are in later life, and they share a theme – here is a pious person, but also a very grand person, proud of and conscious of her lineage. To the inexpert modern eye the message that comes across most powerfully, or I think, is the piety one, and it is mixed with a strong admixture of severity and austerity too – she looks a difficult person to like. From the portraits, this is the granny you have to visit every Sunday to improve your manners, and every Sunday is thus filled with an element of dread.
This is a personal view of course. If it rings at all true with you, I might reflect that just like the written word, the aim of painters from so long ago had their own context, and that context is not ours, it needs interpretation – and it needs an eye sympathetic to the context in which it was produced. I am in no way an expert – on anything actually, but particularly not an expert on art. But these portraits are filled with symbols which would have been immediately understood by those at the time. Black tends to suggest severe, austere to use; but black was also the most expensive colour. Sat in the back of the portraits are numerous emblems of dynasty, the rooms she inhabits where we can see them are rich and impressive. A barbe, possibly the most hideous item of clothing ever dreamed of, yells restriction and formality to me, but was fashionable among the greater women at the time. Essentially, the images of her yes, do focus on piety – but also speak of power, wealth and lineage.
If there is a danger that her portraits typecast her, what has history had to say about her? Well, in Tudor times of course, needless to say, Margaret was viewed pretty positively – and for the most part actually the longer term picture is pretty positive, with a few notable exceptions. But of course, if you happened to be writing in Tudor times, then it paid not to diss the boss’ ancestors; but in Margaret’s case, it’s less an issue about dissing more how she was portrayed. Which brings us to the first chronicler, one Bernard Andre, an Augustinian Friar and tutor to Margaret’s grandson Prince Arthur. Bernard was a fan
Steadfast and more stable that the weakness in woman suggests
He wrote of her, giving us all a reminder of what women were up against. Andre painted a picture of a canny mother who protects her son and has the foresight to get him out of the way when required. No one would argue that Margaret’s desire to see her son thrive was always uppermost; what varies a lot, are views of how that played out. To Andre, Margaret was highly vulnerable and isolated, and the strength of her feelings for her son led her to hate the Yorkist court and Edward IV in particular. She a sort of heroine in distress figure. Polydore Vergil, however, gives her a bit more umph, crediting her with instigating Buckingham’s rebellion against Richard III. He also drew a Margaret with continued importance through the reign of her son; as opposed to some later commentators who paint a picture of a Margaret who from 1485 withdraws to a life almost of seclusion, domesticity and piety. Vergil paid her the backhanded compliment of giving her
The spirit of a man and the malice of a woman
Then we have the testimonies of Bishop John Fisher, in his sermon at her funeral, which praised Margaret to the skies. Principally for her piety – Fisher was using Margaret as a shining example for other lay folk to follow. But also for her generosity to the poor, to her household, to her ability to bring people together. It’s worth noting though that Fisher only first met Margaret in 1494 when she was 50, well after her political scheming days were done, and he was also her confessor, so not an unbiased observer. At her funeral he declared that “all England for her death had cause for weeping,” although I guess fair do’s, a eulogy is hardly the place to raise difficult questions like, I don’t know, the dead person’s dubious personal hygiene. Not that I’m saying Margaret Beaufort had dubious personal hygiene you understand, what I am trying to say in my lumbering fashion is that relying on Fisher’s memoirs on their own would be unbalanced. For another contemporary, Henry Parker, Lord Morley, Margaret was the model of the responsible use of power, and Fisher too would never have underestimated or sought to minimise Margaret’s position as part of the richest and grandest of the noble houses. That was all part of her appeal, in no way a negative, and she was for Morley
“a woman most outstanding both in her pious love of God and charity to all men.
George Buck takes us into the 17th century; Buck died in 1622 during the reign of James I, and the work that he’s probably best known for was his unpublished History of Richard III. Buck was capable of taking a contrary view, notably defending Richard III. Buck gives Margaret a more sinister tinge; he admits her political skills, but has her manipulating Buckingham as a cover for her son’s ambition. To the modern mind he probably blots his copybook by accusing Margaret of using witchcraft to kill the princes in the Tower, but the idea that Margaret was their killer survives to this day, in dark corners and terrorist cells. To commentators of the time, there was a very thin line indeed between the ambitious mother and the evil schemer; I mean it was men who were meant to be the politicians, not women. And if women played politics they were likely to be represented as schemes and wiles, rather than the good, solid, bluff honest, slap-me-on-the-back-and-buy me a pint politician shenangigans of the male of the species. And I don’t really exaggerate for effect.
However, we then return to what was the dominant story of Margaret – to the pious and stoical benefactress, the survivor who uses her position to patronise the church and particularly education, with her foundations at Cambridge University. Thomas Baker at the start of the 18th century also emphasised these qualities as part of her personal sanctity – and rather played down her lineage and grandness, suggesting that her priority was God’s kingdom, and that she was rather uninterested in the riches on earth. Edmund Lodge wrote 8 volumes on illustrious personages of English history before 1832, and he, like Morley, emphasised Margaret’s strict piety, and that she used her moral virtue to discipline her power. The tradition was continued by Caroline Halstead in 1839 praising her
Christian character, her moral values, her high integrity
And contrasting it with her male contemporaries who were busy turning their coats and sticking knives between the ribs of their former allies. But her Margaret was no pious, isolated recluse – she was a politician of ‘strong judgement and acute perception’, flexible enough to work with Edward IV after 1471 rather than being blinded by hatred of a competitor for her son’s ambition; she contrasted that with her relationship with Richard III; for Halstead, Richard was Margaret’s villain of piece, a usurper without Edward IV’s claims to legitimacy. She painted a picture, then, of a very active politician, but then conversely once Henry VII came to the throne, she had Margaret withdrawing obediently and submissively to the margins to let her male son carry on with the real work.
At the same time as Halstead was writing, an antiquarian called John Britton was forcing some grit into the oyster of history, and viewing some of the sources with some scepticism. Fisher, he noted had started a eulogistic tradition to link piety with sanctity and morality. Britton the good protestant instead characterised her piety with an excessive personal pride in the scope of her influence and virtue; he very much corrected the image of the recluse later in her career, pointing out that she was very familiar with the ritual and display of court life. In Margaret’s pursuit of a marriage between Elizabeth of York and Henry, he saw her motivation as mainly personal – the best way for Margaret to gain a high and powerful role. In this and other incidents, he saw not shrewdness, but manipulation and trickery for her own ends. It was the antithesis of Halstead’s open, honest and ultimately self-effacing Margaret; for a long time, Margaret’s image had been a combo of majesty and saintliness – here at last was the Grorniad of English history, prepared to advance a challenging view of accepted tropes. One of the recurring questions about Margaret was why, after Bosworth, the next monarch of England was Henry VII, and not, as it should maybe have been, Queen Margaret I. I suppose it would only be Queen Margaret, but at the last moment I decided that there was a second queen Margaret in England, if only an honorary award to the Australian Queen of Wimbledon, Margaret Court. Anyway Halstead and Britton take a different view about the event, Henry VII’s coronation rather than Margaret Court of course; for Halstead it was a self-abnegating act of humility and love for her son. For Britton, it was a cold act of realpolitique, based on her calculation that her claim would be discounted as a woman, and the best way for her to achieve wealth and power was through her son. Discuss.
Into the 20th Century, and the Victorian romantic view continued with E M G Routh’s presentation of Margaret, in the words of Jones and Underwood, as a ‘contented middle class nanny’, settling down to the contented life of a Grandmother.
Probably what I have not brought out well enough in this is the consistent recognition of Margaret’s patronage of literature and education. The most definitive of the biographies had been Charles Cooper’s in 1840, which was apparently short on opinion but encyclopaedic in terms of research. But then in 1992 Michael Jones and Malcolm Underwood published the ‘The King’s Mother’, on which this series is heavily based. Jones and Underwood reject the idea that Margaret Beaufort was some sort of reclusive saint, and make the point as above that Bishop Fisher, saintly man though he also was, would never have sought to downplay her lineage; Margaret was a player, and saw magnificence and political influence as part of her role as a noblewoman of ancient lineage, and part of her responsibilities. In this way, they put Margaret back into context and also emphasised that Margaret was part of a tradition of devout and learned noblewomen, with wide interests and influence. They tend to downplay the extent of her learning; Margaret to her regret had no Latin, but did translate a book from French. And they are not afraid again to challenge the more hard -edged side – that Margaret actively plotted against Richard in particular, and her pursuit of her rights and dues could slip over the line into avarice. And then most recently, we have Uncrowned Queen by Nichola Tallis, and another book on which I heavily rely. Dr Tallis puts Margaret’s love and ambition for her son at the centre of her history, but also emphasises the importance of wealth and display in her attitudes. Generally, Tallis takes Bishop Fisher’s laudatory line, and even ends her book with a quote from Fisher’s sermon. She also picks up on Fisher’s point about Margaret’s mental state, which was to rather worry about the future and the dangers it might hold, and given the uncertainty through which she lived most of her life, a lack of security must have deeply coloured her attitudes – both in adversity, and once she’d made it to safety.
So, I have set a poor precedent in this new biography series, of overrunning my word budget of 2,000 words. But look I surely get a free pass for the first episode. I have popped a post onto the website, with a few book recommendations and the odd link a doodle, along with Margaret’s portraits. And next time we shall start with the most important single thing maybe in Margaret’s life – her lineage.