Friday, March 11, 2011

Book Review: Margaret Beaufort: Mother of the Tudor Dynasty by Elizabeth Norton

The Thespian is yet again reviewing another new book by Elizabeth Norton.   I am amazed at the output of  Tudor biography in the past three years by Ms. Norton.   Yet, I can say that as she continues with her writing the quality of her books continues to improve.

Her latest subject is Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of King Henry VII.   Margaret Beaufort is one of the most fascinating women of the late 15th and early 16th centuries.    She survived three or four marriages (depends on the historian) and lived under constant suspicion of traitorous behavior during the reigns of King Edward IV and King Richard III.    She was pious and interested in university education.   And once her son was on the throne she set the standards for Royal etiquette involving births and christening ceremonies for royal children through overseeing the creation of the Royal Book.    Most remarkably for a woman of her era she lived well into her 70's and survived long enough to see her grandson, King Henry VIII be crowned.

Ms. Norton supplies a great deal of research into the life of Margaret Beaufort.    She frames the early years of Margaret's life with excerpts from the funeral eulogy given by John Fisher.  This is suitable as it helps to understand the trials and tribulations that Margaret faced during her long life and when she became mother of the King of England the kinds of patronage she favored.   And a remarkable life Margaret Beaufort did lead.

Margaret Beaufort was the only surviving child of John Beaufort, the 1st Duke of Somerset.  As such she is the senior heiress of the "Beaufort" heirs of King Edward III's son, John of Gaunt.   The Beaufort children were the illegitimate children of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford, whom John of Gaunt later married as his third wife.   The children were then legitimized, but were barred from succeeding to the throne of England by King Henry IV.    As such Margaret was a cousin to Henry IV,  Henry V and Henry VI who descended from John of Gaunt's marriage to his first wife, Blanche of Lancaster.    Confused yet?   Welcome to the intricacies of the Wars of the Roses.

Margaret's father,  John, Duke of Somerset died when Margaret was a baby.  Her wardship was granted to William de la Pole, then Earl of Suffolk. later Duke of same, who betrothed Margaret to his eldest son, John. What can be frustrating when reading this biography is that when Ms. Norton makes an assertion that not all historians agree with she doesn't provide the chapter notes to back up her claims.    The Thespian is referring to her statement that Margaret was fully married to her first "husband", John de la Pole.   Most historians treat this early marriage contract as a betrothal.   It was entered into when Margaret was six years old  and John was eight, and repudiated when Margaret came of age.   While there is no question that Margaret Beaufort and John de la Pole were betrothed and a dispensation was issued by the Pope due to their close blood relation, Ms. Norton claims that they were married between January 28 and February 7 1450.   In any case, the marriage, if it happened, was never consummated.  The legal age of consent at the time was twelve for girls and fourteen for boys.    So, when the Duke of Suffolk fell out of favor and died and Margaret was presented with another marriage possibility to the much older Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond, it is not surprising that Margaret chose to marry the later.

Edmund Tudor had the advantage of being the half brother of King Henry VI.   He was descended from King Henry V's widow, Queen Katherine of Valois who married a member of her household Owen Tudor.    Following the downfall of the Suffolk, he and his younger brother Jasper were granted the wardship of Margaret Beaufort.   It is from John Fisher that the story of Margaret praying to St. Nicholas to help her decide whom to marry and her choice being Edmund Tudor comes from.    Margaret married Edmund in 1455 after reaching the age of consent.    She was twelve, Edmund was twenty-two.   The marriage was immediately consummated and within a year, Margaret became pregnant.   Unfortunately it was during the years around his marriage that King Henry VI first fell ill and the battle for control over him, led by the Richard, Duke of York started.    In other words the beginnings of what became the Wars of the Roses.    Edmund Tudor was captured in Wales at Camarthen Castle by Sir William Herbert an ally of the Duke of York.   He subsequently died of the plague leaving Margaret seven months pregnant at the age of thirteen.    That child would be born on January 28, 1457 at Pembroke Castle in Wales.   That child, the only child of Margaret Beaufort, would improbably become King Henry VII.

Where this biography is strongest is in the discussion of Margaret Beaufort's life before her son became King.     In particular how this teenager manages to survive the political upheavals of the next several years.   As a very young widow with a child to support she only had her brother-in-law, Jasper Tudor to rely on.    Margaret married again in 1458 to Henry Stafford the second son of Humphrey Stafford, Duke of Buckingham.    Margaret was fifteen, Henry in his thirties.  It was another marriage that required a Papal dispensation.    Norton uses family documents including wills to show that this marriage, although arranged for Margaret's protection and as a source of income for the Duke's younger son, was probably a happy one.   There are references to Margaret by name in the Duke and Duchess' wills.   Margaret's interest in education comes through as the Duchess of Buckingham lent her daughter-in-law books.    There is documentation of Margaret and Henry traveling between their manors and sources show that during the years they were wed they were frequently in each other's company.

Margaret Beaufort did not partake in the upbringing of her son, Henry Tudor.    Following the usurpation of King Edward IV, his wardship was granted to Sir William Herbert.    As the heir to Margaret Beaufort's estates he was a valuable commodity and in Herbert's will of 1468 Norton shows that he planned to marry Henry Tudor to his daughter, Maud.    Unfortunately Herbert ended up dying at the Battle of Edgecote and the very young Henry Tudor was present at the battle.     Following Herbert's death there were negotiations over who would get the wardship of Henry Tudor involving Edward IV's brother, George, Duke of Clarence who had been granted Henry Tudor's lands.    Negotiating with the rebellious Duke of Clarence did not help Margaret's political situation.   However the famous Earl of Warwick, the "King maker"chose around this time to plot to place Henry VI back on the throne.    And part of these negotiations included the use of King Edward IV's eldest daughter, Elizabeth of York, Henry Tudor's future queen, as a political pawn.

Norton includes a contemporary account of the negotiations between Queen Margaret of Anjou and the Earl of Warwick for the restoration of King Henry VI.     Warwick offers his daughter Anne Neville to be married to Queen Margaret's son, Prince Edward of Lancaster.   The contemporary document shows that King Edward IV had offered his daughter Elizabeth of York to be married to Prince Edward as well.   Over the next ten years King Edward IV would offer Elizabeth of York as a bride to Henry Tudor as a pretext for getting him to return from exile in Brittany.     How did Henry Tudor end up spending fourteen years on the continent?   He basically backed the wrong horse in the crown race.

In September 1470 Warwick led an invasion fleet of sixty ships and one of the members of the invasion force was Henry Tudor's uncle, Jasper Tudor, who had been living in exile since his half-brother was deposed in 1461.    Edward IV fled to Flanders.    Queen Elizabeth Wydeville took sanctuary in Westminster Abbey with her daughters and gave birth to the future King Edward V.   With Jasper Tudor back in Wales, Henry Tudor was brought by Sir Richard Corbet to his uncle.   Jasper brought his nephew to London where he was reunited with his mother.     According to Polydore Vergil it is here that Henry Tudor met King Henry VI who allegedly prophesied that Henry Tudor would become King.

In the spring of 1471  King Edward IV invaded from Flanders.  In two decisive battles at Barnet and Tewkesbury he retook his throne.    The Earl of Warwick was killed.  Prince Edward of Lancaster was killed in battle or executed in the aftermath.   Queen Margaret of Anjou was taken prisoner.   King Henry VI was placed in the Tower of London and murdered.    Jasper Tudor who was in the south of Wales fled to Brittany with his nephew Henry Tudor.   In October, Margaret Beaufort's husband, Henry Stafford died, possibly of complications from wounds he received in battle during the spring campaign.
Eight months later Margaret Beaufort married again.

Margaret's last husband was Thomas, Lord Stanley.    He was a Yorkist who had supported Henry VI during the restoration but did not favor either side in the battles of 1471.  His position at Edward IV's court helped Margaret politically.    As he had children, Margaret brought Stanley the prestige of her title and royal blood.     It is very likely that being married to a person who served whomever was on the throne loyally helped keep Margaret Beaufort as the mother of the only potential Lancastrian threat safe. For the next decade the throne was stable.   King Edward IV had two sons and five daughters, and despite having his brother George, Duke of Clarence executed for treason there were few threats to the Yorkist throne.    There were attempts to get the Duke of Brittany to expel Jasper and Henry Tudor, but they stayed on the continent.   Then Edward IV unexpectedly died in 1483 at the relatively young age of forty-two.

Most are familiar with the usurpation of King Richard III and the subsequent disappearance of King Edward V and his brother, Richard, Duke of York.    During the two year reign of Richard III there were two attempts by Henry Tudor to invade England.   The first failed.   The second, leading to the Battle of Bosworth field succeeded because his stepfather Thomas, Lord Stanley held out supporting either side in the battle, despite his eldest son being held hostage by King Richard, and Lord Stanley's brother Sir William Stanley decided at a crucial point in the battle to support Henry Tudor.

Once Henry Tudor becomes King Henry VII documentation on Margaret Beaufort appears to become more scarce.     She is definitely a force at court and Norton finds evidence of her matching her clothing to that of her daughter-in-law at some court functions.     While never a Queen herself she begins to style herself in her letters as Margaret R.    It is interesting that despite all of her marriages she always styled herself the Countess of Richmond.   Although it should be noted that a woman was entitled to be known by her highest title regardless of subsequent marriages (see Mary Tudor Brandon, Duchess of Suffolk forever referred to as the Queen of France).  

Margaret Beaufort and Thomas, Lord Stanley took the unusual decision to take vows of chastity.  While this was common among widows it was unusual for a married couple to do so.   Margaret's paintings and statues usually depict her wearing religious-styled garb.    Margaret devoted herself to royal protocol setting up the procedures for a Queen taking her chamber before birth, the christening of royal children and the churching ceremony that followed birth.    She became a patron of university learning.

Margaret Beaufort took an interest in both Oxford and Cambridge Universities.   In Oxford she founded a lectureship in theology.   Yet, probably through the influence of John Fisher, whom she met in the mid-1490's she gave the lion's share of her patronage to Cambridge.    Norton reproduces excerpts of correspondence from the universities in particularly showing that Oxford was concerned that they were losing her influence.  It was probably due to Margaret Beaufort's patronage that John Fisher became vice-chancellor and then chancellor of Cambridge.    Margaret began to support Queen's College, Cambridge following the death of Elizabeth of York.   She was heavily involved with God's House college, which expanded from four scholars to sixty and changed its name to Christ College.   She laid the foundations for the college of St. John's which were completed following her death in 1509.

In addition to this books printed by William Caxton were dedicated to her and she had the publisher Wynkyn de Worde publish the sermons of John Fisher.

Margaret Beaufort did not long survive her only son.   She lived long enough to see her grandson's coronation and took ill following the coronation banquet.    She has a beautiful tomb in Westminster Abbey.

Elizabeth Norton has written a thorough biography of this important figure in Tudor History.    The only faults that The Thespian has with this work are minor.   It would be nice to see more extensive chapter notes.   Ms. Norton provides texts of Margaret's extant letters, but only includes excerpts of John Fisher's eulogy to illustrate moments of Margaret's life.     And, once again, she reprints contemporary documents without modernizing the spelling.   The Thespian has been lenient about this practice until now.   What is absurd is that if the document has already been modernized, Ms. Norton prints it with the modernized spelling.   If it has not she uses the archaic spelling which can be difficult to read with ease.    It is time for the editors at Amberley books to insist on modernizing the spelling of contemporary documents for the ease of the readers in future books that they choose to publish.

No comments:

Post a Comment