Episode: MB 2
It is universally acknowledged that the wars of the Roses is an impassable marsh of poisonous names and titles. The Earl of Somerset, where’s Warwick, is that Beaufort and what side of the bed were they all born on anyway? The Duke of York – who’s that and why is his son called Rutland?
Now I’d like to reassure you that I can sort this all out for you and you’ll never get lost, but frankly I’d be fibbing. If you are under the impression that podcasts are meant to be fun, think again; I expect hard work, sweat, and more than a modicum of blood and tears. Not necessarily in that order. I exaggerate for effect of course, but the thing is that lineage, names, ranks, titles and so on really, really matter. We may be in the NW European marriage pattern and the nuclear family, but don’t let that fool you – the extended family really counts. If you are in need of a leg up to get that appointment or that place at some great family’s court, why not contact your 3rd cousin 52 times removed – there’s a real chance they’ll help. Margaret, for example, will in her life do her very best to help out the St John family, and have close contacts with the Welles; both families were connected to her mother by previous marriages, so in some cases the connection to individuals was quite distant, but the pull of family was still strong.
The point of all this verbiage is that Margaret’s family and connections will be one of the biggest single factors that will affect her life, so I need to spend a bit of time talking about where she came from. And we start with a man called John of Gaunt. He’s a character I have envied for many years, since I have also wanted to be known as gaunt rather than, you know, fatty and that sort of thing. Sadly, Gaunt comes from John’s place of birth – Ghent – rather than from hollow cheeks and the like. Gaunt was a son of the luminous Edward III, and therefore a very grand man indeed, with royal blood running through his veins. Gaunt also had a wandering eye, as was sadly the fashion in days of yore, doesn’t happen now of course, but Gaunt seems to have been a serial monogamist; his long standing mistress was one Kathryn Swinford, and the pair fell in love pretty much in the same year that Gaunt married Constance of Castile. Obviously, Kathryn’s story is a fascinating one, but not for here. The point is that Gaunt and Swynford had a number of children together. I can feel your shoulders shrug – because of course said children would be illegitimate. That didn’t mean of course that they couldn’t have successful lives, a magnate like Gaunt would always mean they had the wherewithal; but in terms of stories about kings – well presumably they’d have to stick with the cabbages, shoes, or with the sealing wax. Well listen on.
Kathryn had 4 children up to 1381, at which point Constance had it out with Gaunt, sick of his openness about his relationship with Katherine, which was something of a scandal. Gaunt was an ambitious man and his wife had a claim to the kingdom of Castile in Spain; so he agreed to drop Katherine. Still, Gaunt was indeed pretty considerate to his offspring. He gave them the name Beaufort, which was the name of some outlying French manor Gaunt still owned – the name was therefore obscure. The idea was very probably that Gaunt wanted these kids to thrive and have successful lives and all – but their main duty was not to embarrass or get in the way of the main event. The Main event was his legitimate son, Henry Bolingbroke.
Well time passed by and Constance moved on to meet her maker, and Gaunt picked up again with the old flame, and to general outrage married Katherine in 1396. They applied to the Pope to ratify the marriage, and the pope kindly obliged; and thereby the position of the Beauforts was transformed, because people forgot the wrong side of the bed and called it the correct side, and the little Beauforts became legitimate. However, Gaunt was aware that England’s common law was already a complicated old thing, and did not really recognise the supremacy of the Pope in matters of succession law and practical, earthly things like that, so Gaunt had an act of parliament passed in 1397, and then persuaded his nephew, King Richard II, to also announce the legitimisation of the Beauforts. Richard was generous, recognising their blood connection to him, and he tried to make all this stick by promoting them to multiple positions and titles; in particular John Beaufort the eldest, born in 1373, was made earl of Somerset, and married Margaret Holland, a very well connected and powerful woman indeed. His younger brother, Henry Beaufort would become Bishop of the richest see in England, Winchester, and a leading light in government and a very powerful man indeed. And their positions seemed more than ever impregnable when their half brother Henry Bolingbroke usurped the throne and in 1399 landed England’s top job as king of England.
There is a but. The illegitimacy thing was a big deal, and had been made worse by the scandalous openness which with it had all happened. Also John Beaufort, the Earl of Somerset was actually a double bastard at his birth; Katherine Swynford has also been married in 1373. Now a man playing the field is obviously naughty, but you know boys will be boys whereas if a woman committed adultery – well, that really is scandalous! I know I know, I share your outrage. So this mark of illegitimacy could not really be washed away fully by act of parliament, or the Pope or, as it was to turn out, time; over 80 years later, Richard III would rudely bring the matter up again in parliament and in a proclamation against Henry Tudor; recognising that the Beaufort descent mattered much more than the Valois and Tudor heritage:
His mother was daughter unto John Duke of Somerset, son unto John Earl of Somerset, son unto Dame Katherine Swynford and of her double advoutrow gotten; whereby it evidently appeareth that no title can or may be in him.
Advoutrow meaning adultery, by the way. During their lifetimes, the little Beauforts acquired the nickname ‘fairborn’, which is you know, irony. So when Henry IV came to the throne, he tried to make everyone feel better about it all by inserting a clause in the patent of legitimisation in 1407, which had the words excepta dignitae regali – which meant that their rights were non royal, no right to the throne that sort of thing.
That sounds as though Henry IV had a downer on Somerset, but in fact this was about legitimacy and clarity about rights to the throne, very important if you happen to be a usurper of course. In fact, Somerset and Henry had a very close relationship, Somerset was quickly Henry’s right hand man and would remain so; he is also the man whose badge was the Portcullis, later to be adopted by Margaret, Henry VII and eventually by parliament, officially in 1967. Anyway, in return for Henry’s generosity, Somerset was passionate in his loyalty for the Lancastrian house, which was to be a theme with the Beauforts. Part of that was down to this vague remaining sense of illegitimacy; it made sense to successive Beauforts – staying close to the throne expressed their sense of what they owed to the dynasty; and protected them from slurs. And they were rewarded for their service. John Beaufort’s son, cunningly named John, was made Duke of Somerset in 1443 by Henry VI. But the obsession with legitimacy and lineage was bred into Margaret from the very start, it was in her blood, if you’ll pardon the word play.
With John Beaufort II we have reached the rather disappointing life of Margaret’s father. In 1419 as a young man of 17 he started his military service in France. You may remember that we are in the period when Henry V has carved out an empire of a large part of northern France. However at 1421, at the battle of Bauge which the English managed to lose for once, he was captured. No worries of course, he’d be ransomed. Except it took 17 years for the terms of the ransom to be agreed and accepted, and the amount agreed at £24,000 was utterly crippling. Despite being an Earl at the time and soon to become a Duke, he was no longer a good marriage prospect with massive debts on his shoulder; all the heavier because of the chip that sat right next to it, put there by watching his younger brother, Edmund Beaufort, enjoy a career much more glittering. Having a super talented younger brother can be difficult – find out more from my brother. Edmund Beaufort was also married to Eleanor, the daughter of Richard, the Earl of Warwick. John was nowhere as good a catch, but none the less he married in 1442, Margaret Beauchamps of Bletsoe, Bletsoe being not a million miles from Northampton. Margaret Beauchamp was our hero’s mother. Margaret was 32 when she married John, and would be something of a connector for her daughter. She was a widow after the death of her first husband, Oliver St John, with whom she had 7 sprogs; after John Beaufort’s death, she would marry again, to Lord Welles, and therefore bring Margaret more half relations, including one half brother, John Welles, who would later marry Cecily of York, daughter of Edward IV. Anyway that’s for later – just trying to drill some names into you.
John Beaufort was pretty ill by 1443, but with the help of his uncle, Cardinal Henry Beaufort, he was given another chance – a fully funded expedition to France over the outraged head of the military leader in France, Richard Duke of York. The campaign was a disgrace, and frankly a disgrace in a way quite typical of the Beaufort clan, i.e. putting the beau back into the bank account. The aim of course was to secure the increasingly wobbly English regime in France; but John filed those orders under B1N, and instead set out to get his ransom debts paid, raising an illegal tax in English Normandy, carrying out a chevaucee of rapine and pillage, and then capturing and holding to ransom a town in Neutral Brittany, thereby almost causing a war between Brittany and England. When he returned, he came with a bill of £26,000 for the English exchequer. He was not well received and was barred from court by the usually mild Henry VI. John retired to Corfe in Dorset where he died in 1444. He was very ill by this stage, and the rumour circulated that he committed suicide. The suggestion came in the Crowland Chronicle, and given Margaret’s later connection with the Abbey if she wasn’t told about the suspicion of suicide when she was a nipper, it must be sure she would one day have got to hear. This is what the Chronicle said of his death, as John smarted under the disgrace of his French campaign:
The noble heart of such a man of such high rank …was moved to extreme indignation; and being unable to bear the stain of so great a disgrace, he accelerated his death by putting an end to his existence, it is generally said; preferring thus to cut short his sorrow, rather than pass a life of misery…
An awful thing of course, but in those days also a shameful and unchristian thing that further heaped disgrace on the Beaufort name. The glittering younger brother was to further besmirch the name by his own military incompetence, in which his own wealth and interests were clearly well above those of his country, and really the only battle of any glory Edmund was involved in was whether the right word for his desertion of Rouen and other Norman towns should be described as cowardice or as treason. Richard of York was livid. He would get his revenge in the fullness.
Also, just to briefly digress, there’s another scurrilous rumour about the grubby Edmund Beaufort. As you may remember from your Shakespeare, Henry V married Catherine De Valois, the princess of France whose son was to be Henry VI. After Henry V died in 1422, there is a suspicion that she may have had a fling with the young Edmund Beaufort. Soon after in 1427 or 8, Catherine married Owen Tudor, and had a child, one Edmund Tudor – the same Tudor that will marry Margaret Beaufort. Now the dates of Catherine and Owen’s marriage, and the date of Edmund Tudor’s birth are obscure; so the possibility exists that Edmund Beaufort, Margaret’s uncle, was the father of her future husband, and father of her child. Just a little wrinkle for you.
Anyway, before John Beaufort died in 1444, there had been a happier event, for Margaret Beauchamp had given birth on 31st May 1443. Our hero has entered the stage, stage left, and as you can see, the tiny thing already had a deal of baggage with which she’d have to deal and that would shape her life. And we’ll hear about her first steps in life next time.
 Tallis, N Uncrowned Queen p10
 Richmind, C Edmund Beaufort in ODNB quoting G L Harriss