Uncrowned Queen: The Life of Margaret Beaufort, Mother of the Tudors
By Nicola Tallis.
Basic Books, 2020.
Hardcover, 416 pages, $32.
Reviewed by Garrett Robinson
The Tudors, unfortunately famous now primarily through film and pulp-histories, have a name for themselves as England’s Renaissance dynasty. One nearly imagines that, when Richard III was slain on Bosworth field Catholicism was moribund and the Tudor dynasty immediately replaced the Plantagenet in the minds of all the kingdom’s subjects. As Johan Huizinga noted, however, “The Renaissance cannot be considered as a pure contrast to medieval culture, nor even as a frontier territory between medieval and modern times”; similarly, “Anyone seeking in [the Renaissance] a total unity of spirit capable of being stated in a simple formula will never be able to understand it in all its expressions.” Nicola Tallis’s engaging new history of Margaret Beaufort, “mother of the Tudors,” as the subtitle proclaims, introduces a woman who illustrates the difficulty in applying such a “simple formula” despite her bringing into the world the dynasty synonymous with the Renaissance in England.
Margaret was descended through John of Gaunt, one of the sons of Edward III and the progenitor of the Lancastrian line of the Plantagenet dynasty, through a line that was illegitimate at first, though later legitimized on the condition that the Beauforts never be considered eligible for the crown. As a distant member of the royal family under Henry VI, then, Margaret was “[a] little girl who had no voice and no say in her own future: a pawn in a much bigger game whose fate—at this time, at least—seemed set to be decided by others.”
Margaret’s fortunes begin to change at age ten when Henry VI offered her a marriage to Edmund Tudor, his half brother. A distinctly medieval scene follows: Margaret had in fact been wed as an infant, and spent a night petitioning St. Nicholas whether she should accept Henry’s offer instead. The saint appeared, as St. John Fisher, Margaret’s confessor, would later recount, “arrayed like a bishop, and naming unto her Edmund” to take as her husband. She complied with the advice of her heavenly intercessor and agreed to the engagement. Though their union was short, it produced a Lancastrian heir who, after triumphing over the Yorkists, would found a new dynasty. Before her son’s triumph, though, her marriage to Edmund marked the beginning of a period of many years during which Margaret would practice perhaps her greatest virtue: patience.
Soon after her marriage to Edmund and aged about thirteen, Margaret gave birth to their son, Henry. He would remain the only child she would bear throughout the rest of her long life. At the same time, the House of York began their violent project to usurp the throne, and a force of Yorkists captured Edmund, who was naturally an ally of Henry VI; he soon thereafter escaped, but died quickly from the plague. The leadership of the Lancastrian faction, meanwhile, sought refuge from the king of France. (One here sees a vision of the backwater England of the seventeenth century, whose kings alternate between being financed by and seeking shelter at the French court.)
Very soon after Edmund’s death, Margaret chose to marry Henry Stafford. Stafford was a supporter of the Lancastrians, but, when Henry VI and what remained of his court fled to Scotland, he became a reluctant supporter of the Yorkist cause. Though Margaret was a member of a Lancastrian branch, it was a far junior branch prohibited from inheriting the throne. According to Tallis, this allowed her to become a “pragmatist” that could look after the survival of her own Lancastrian family by pledging fealty to Edward IV, the new Yorkist king. For a while Stafford, Margaret, and Henry were able to live out their lives in relative peace far from the royal court.
However, Edward IV’s secret marriage to Elizabeth Woodville created a problem not just for the chief politicians of the time, but for Margaret and her son Henry as well. The Earl of Warwick, offended by Edward’s choice of a spouse, not only freed Henry VI from his captivity in the Tower of London, but also lead a rebellion against Edward IV that eventually forced Edward to flee to Burgundy in disgrace. Margaret gladly supported the return to power of her distant relative, and she and her husband were welcomed back to the restored Lancastrian court.
Celebrations did not last long, though, as Edward IV raised an army with Burgundian aid and overthrew the saintly, if occasionally witless, Henry VI, who was murdered not long after. Worse yet, Edward triumphed over the forces of Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI’s wife, and Edward, Henry VI’s son and heir, who was killed in the battle. This battle, a triumph for Edward IV, was a great tragedy for Margaret that nonetheless left a sliver of hope for her own line: the male Lancastrian line was extinguished at Tewkesbury, leaving only the female line, of which Margaret was the most senior.
Margaret and her brother-in-law, Jasper, recognized the dangers Henry faced as the most viable Lancastrian claimant to the throne. Now having the potential to be the chief rivals of Edward IV, Margaret encouraged Jasper to flee with Henry to France:
And unless my imagination or maternal instinct deceives me, the great distance of the sea will help us avoid all perils. I know that the hazards of the sea will be great; yet his life will be safer on the ocean’s waves than in this tempest on the land. But if it turns out otherwise, heaven protects him who has no burial urn. I would prefer that God keep him from harm rather than see him killed by the bloody sword of a tyrant.
Jasper and his nephew Henry fled to Brittany, where they became guests of Francis II, the Duke of Brittany, who gladly welcomed them at the time, but who could easily give them up to their enemies at any moment.
At this point Margaret, as well as Jasper and Henry, began their great wait. Stafford, Margaret’s husband, had been seriously wounded at the Battle of Barnet while fighting for the Yorkists. To ensure her own protection and her own independence, she desired to marry again, this time to Thomas Stanley. (Margaret considered this her third marriage, not counting the one into which she was entered as an infant.) The Stanleys had maintained their wealth and power under both Yorkists and Lancastrians so, per Tallis, their marriage was one of “mutual convenience.”
The demise of Edward IV, and the usurpation of the throne of Edward’s son by Richard III, his uncle, brought Margaret the closest to danger. Margaret joined a doomed conspiracy to overthrow Richard. While most of the others suffered grim fates, Margaret was spared due to her royal blood. Nonetheless, distressed by her participation in the rebellion, Richard III decreed the following:
The said countess henceforth shall be legally unable to have, inherit, or enjoy any manors, lands, or tenements, or other hereditaments or possessions whatsover, and also henceforth shall be unable to bear or have any name of estate or dignity; and that the said countess shall forfeit to our said sovereign lord the king and his heirs all the castles, manors, lordships, lands, tenements, rents, services, reversions, and other hereditaments and possessions, whosoever they may be, of which the said countess, or anyone else to her use, is now seized or possessed of estate of fee-simple, fee-tail, term of life, in dower or otherwise.
Richard III not only deprived Margaret of all of her estates, though he also decreed her husband would control them until his own death, but he also decreed that Margaret be deprived of all her servants and that he “keep her so straight with himself that she should not be able from thenceforth to send any messenger neither to her son, nor friends, nor practice any thing at all against the king.”
Though Richard relied on Margaret’s husband, Stanley, to keep an eye on her, some of her letters made their way to her boy in Brittany. Richard acknowledged the danger that Henry posed while he remained alive and abroad, but could do little more than wait for the inevitable invasion. (An attempt to hand over Henry and his uncle Jasper to Richard for a reward failed.) Henry did, of course, invade, making landfall 7 August 1485, and Margaret could do little but wait for news of her son and her husband, who had gone ostensibly to support Richard. Richard had taken Stanley’s son in custody to ensure his loyalty, but Stanley refused to take part on either side until his brother, another theoretically neutral party, joined the battle to fight for Henry.
The Battle of Bosworth makes a convenient ending point to the Middle Ages: it ostensibly marks the end of the Plantagenet dynasty and the beginning of Tudor projects to centralize the monarchy. Members of that dynasty shatter Christendom in declaring themselves head of the national church. Reading Margaret’s life reveals the holes in such easy periodization. Henry Tudor, now Henry VII, was himself the Lancastrian heir, and he married Edward IV’s daughter to heal the rift between the warring Plantagenet branches. His project, and the project of his mother, was the restoration of Lancastrian rule, not the foundation of a new dynasty. Nor was there any sign of a change in religious character: Margaret continued to mark dates or particular note in her well-worn Book of Hours, and, after Bosworth, Margaret took Richard’s own Book of Hours, scratched out his name, and gave it to her son as a pious gift. Henry VII’s own devotional habits lie beyond the scope of his narrative, but Margaret, grandmother to the English reformer, remained attached to the faith of her fathers throughout her life. This supposed turning point in English history seemed less, at the time, the arrival of a new age and more the triumph of the Lancastrian line: an England still Catholic and still ruled by Plantagenets.
In fact, Margaret, now transformed from house prisoner to mother of the king, continued to practice the same devout Catholic life she did as a child when begging for the intercession of St. Nicholas. With her lands now restored, and while still married, she made the remarkable choice to take a vow of celibacy. Tallis portrays this decision as related to Margaret’s sole and rather difficult pregnancy, and the vow certainly could reflect this part of her personal history. However, she had already managed to marry two men after Edmund Tudor and avoided having children by them without the vow; the vow is significant precisely for its Catholic context.
Margaret spent the rest of her life performing those acts of charity suitable to a woman of her station and wealth. She founded two colleges at Cambridge and gave significant amounts of money to various churches. She spent a great deal of time at the royal court, but did not intrude into matters that did not belong to her. Tallis notes Margaret’s absence at many of the coronation ceremonies of Elizabeth, Henry’s spouse and Edward IV’s daughter, and opines that such planned absences would give the newly crowned queen her own moments of glory.
This book ends decades before the controversy that ended in the Henrician schism, and thus well before the events that one typically associates with the Tudors. Margaret knew her grandson Henry well and placed the hopes of her continued line in him after his elder brother Arthur passed away. Margaret’s story, however, does not read as the story of the beginning of the Tudors, but rather as the last of the Plantagenets. Indeed, lives like Margaret’s remind readers of the futility of seeking a “simple formula” to describe the Tudors and their time, and that the Renaissance the Tudors inaugurated was not a “frontier territory” between the Middle Ages and modernity. Over many years of patient waiting, Margaret did bring her son to power and inaugurate the line we call the Tudors, but she did so while inhabiting a world that looked rather medieval indeed.
Garrett Robinson is an attorney living in Michigan.