Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Why Margaret Beaufort?

My guest today is a kindred spirit. Judith and I share a love of the Tudor era and the amazing woman who helped to form it. Her latest series features a woman who is more often made the villain in novels, so I asked her about her inspiration for writing from the point of view of the woman famous for being a force behind her son's throne, Margaret Beaufort.

Welcome, Judith! I am happy you are here!
~ Samantha

Guest Post by Judith Arnopp

I am often asked why I chose to write about Margaret Beaufort and, although I hate to answer a question with a question, my usual reply is ‘Why wouldn’t I?’ Poor Margaret has gained quite a negative reputation, especially in fiction and I think it has a lot to do with her portraits. The portraiture of most of the women I’ve written about, Anne Boleyn, Katheryn Parr, Elizabeth of York, depict young, attractive women who’ve the added bonus of a touch of romance in their lives. Unfortunately for Margaret, her surviving portraits were painted late in life; she appears dour faced, pious and elderly. I believe this severe image has tainted the way authors have chosen to depict her.

It is clear Margaret was never a great beauty, and she never enjoyed a great royal romance but her impact upon history is undeniable. Margaret’s political involvement in the wars of the roses helped establish the Tudor dynasty, and her role in Henry’s government stabilised it. When I write I imagine I am the protagonist. In Margaret’s case I wanted to access the girl and the young woman, so I put away the portrait of the old lady and imagined a painfully young child thrust into the adult world.

Putting aside the assumptions that have been made and using only the known facts of her life, I came up with a rather different view of Margaret. Throughout my life I have favoured York over Lancaster but when it comes to writing I have to be objective. I do not demonise for the sake of drama, history is exciting enough without making too much up. Obviously I use my imagination to fill in gaps, add dialogue etc. but I examine the factual evidence and do my best to consider, without bias, the deeper character of the person I am writing about. When writing in the first person I also have to remember that we are all blind to our own negative side, and Margaret would never have seen her own actions as flawed. This helps me to illustrate her possible motivations without evoking the almost pantomime villain she has become.

Margaret is often blamed for the disappearance of the princes from the Tower but I have found nothing in the record to prove it; there are plenty of other candidates who could be held equally as culpable. Unauthorised entry to the Tower was just not possible; whatever the fate of the boys, it was carried out with either the knowledge of the king or the Constable of the Tower.

Margaret’s life, even before her rise to power, was interesting. From infancy she was the sole heiress of the Duke of Somerset, her hand in marriage pursued almost from the cradle. She married four times, her first marriage to John de la Pole took place when she was just six years old but was quickly annulled. Her second marriage, this time to Edmund Tudor at the age of twelve, was also short lived, his death leaving her widowed and pregnant at the age of thirteen. In extremity she turned for support to her brother-in-law, Jasper Tudor and gave birth of her only son at his stronghold in Pembroke. It is believed the birth left Margaret so damaged she could conceive no further children.

Her third marriage to Henry Stafford, second son of the Duke of Buckingham, was of her own choosing, providing her with access to Edward IV’s court. In the years that followed Margaret trod a dangerous path through the complexities of the war between York and Lancaster – her heart lay with her Lancaster kin, but when York finally won the throne she seems to have bowed to the inevitable and accepted Edward IV’s rule.

With the royal nursery quickly filling with York heirs, the idea of Henry Tudor ever attainting the throne at this time would not have occurred to her but she petitioned instead for his pardon and the return of his estates.  

Margaret managed to survive the upheaval of the next few years while power passed to and fro between York and Lancaster. Henry Stafford died of wounds received at Barnet, fighting for York, leaving Margaret widowed again. She remarried swiftly, choosing for her final husband the powerful northern magnate, Thomas Stanley. This union brought Margaret even closer to the royal family where she formed a link with the Queen, Elizabeth Woodville; a relationship which, after King Edward’s sudden death in 1483, was to develop into intrigue.

Initially she seems to have accepted Richard of Gloucester’s claim to the throne, bearing the new Queen, Anne Neville’s train at the coronation. It was not until later that she began to plot actively to place her own son on the throne but there is nothing to suggest she was complicit in any plan to murder the princes. In fact, there is no actual evidence that they were killed at all – they disappeared, there were later murmurings against Gloucester but nothing has ever been satisfactorily proven. It is the mystery surrounding this period in history that makes it so interesting and irresistible to authors. There are as many theories as there are candidates for the crime (if any existed).

After Bosworth, when Henry became king, Margaret was finally in a position of power. She is often portrayed as the ‘mother-in-law from hell’ but, while there may have been initial resentments between Margaret and Henry’s queen, Elizabeth of York, as there often are between in-laws, ultimately relations between the two women were amicable. While the queen confined her interests to the royal nursery and charitable works, playing no part in administration, Margaret took a leading role in Henry’s government. She was one of his chief advisors, taking charge of finances and the running of the royal household, overseeing the upbringing and education of the royal children.

In my novels that form The Beaufort Chronicles, writing from Margaret’s perspective, I try to illustrate her motives, show the events and the people of the fifteenth century through her eyes. I have to ‘know’ only what she may have known. I give voice to her inner self, her passions, even the negative thoughts we all have but never speak aloud. Novels are, of course, only fiction but after the treatment she has received in both fiction and non-fiction, I think she is deserving of a voice.

People love to have someone to blame, and Margaret being plain, pious and forthright provides the perfect scapegoat. She was clearly no beauty but her portraits were taken in later life; the purpose was not to display her good looks but rather her piety, her charity and her intelligence which were, in those days, virtues to be proud of. It seems strange that today these characteristics have come to be regarded in the negative.

Piety in the middle ages was the norm; it would have been far more remarkable if she’d been atheist or lax at prayer. In the twenty-first century we have become uneasy around intense devotion to God, and because of this, in trying to make sense of emotions that are foreign to us, authors have resorted to portraying her as a religious fanatic. But perhaps, if we had to endure the unsanitary conditions of the fifteen century; the child mortality, the frequent bouts of pestilence and famine, and the ever-present threat of death we too might turn to the protection of a greater supernatural power.

I won’t deny that Margaret was a forthright woman but determination gets things done and Margaret is one of the few medieval women to have set out, virtually unaided, to achieve her goals. Initially, she seems to have accepted York’s rule, she was compliant under Edward IV and in the early part of Richard III’s reign but at some point, her agenda altered and she began to work toward what she saw as the rights of her son.

Margaret played a huge part in providing Henry with the means to invade England and take possession of the throne. After Bosworth and the reward of seeing her only child crowned King of England she could have sat back and enjoyed her dotage. Instead, she continued to work diligently for the Tudor cause. She assisted in the establishment of the dynasty and was a key figure at Henry’s court, building the public Tudor image, attending to the administration of the court, and overseeing the raising of the Tudor heirs.

Tudors are not everyone’s favourite royal dynasty and there are those who will never see virtue in Margaret Beaufort’s role in the wars of the roses but, dynastic preferences aside, she was a strong determined person, a religious person who did not rely on beauty to buy her way into power. She relied solely upon her remarkably agile mind. If she were a man she’d be hailed as a political genius.

Connect with Judith

Judith’s historical novels offer a view of the Tudor court from the perspective of the women close to the throne.

Her work includes:
The Beaufort Bride: Book One of The Beaufort Chronicles
The Beaufort Woman: Book Two of The Beaufort Chronicles
The King’s Mother: Book Three of The Beaufort Chronicles – coming soon

A Song of Sixpence: the story of Elizabeth of York and Perkin Warbeck
Intractable Heart: the story of Katheryn Parr
The Winchester Goose: at the court of Henry VIII
The Kiss of the Concubine: a story of Anne Boleyn

Medieval Novels
The Song of Heledd
The Forest Dwellers


  1. Excellent Judith! I so agree. She managed to survive.

  2. Love this...I also like Philippa Gregory's take - looking at young Margaret who did really want romance and love too and weaving in this tale that she crushed on her brother in law Jasper (I know this is fictional but I like the thought of it and fits with this article). Whatever your view on York vs Lancaster she was an incredibly strong woman and pivotal in changing history (imho).She was always terribly pious and it could be she liked her portraits done that way.

  3. Her son was in the custody of the Duke of Brittany. An agreement had been made between the Duke and Edward IV that his heiress would marry the Prince of Wales. This would create an Anglo-Breton alliance against the French take over of Brittany.

    Edward IV was about to authorise Henry's peaceful return as his part of the Breton alliance when he died.

    So the wellbeing of her son depended on one of the Princes surviving to complete the deal. What turned Margaret into the plotter against Richard was the news - whether true or not - that they were dead. This meant that Henry's peaceful return was no longer an option.

    This timeline also is confirmed in Virgil and explains Breton support for the late 1483 attempted invasion.

  4. I had no idea she was a genius but I still feel she could have paid someone to make sure the princes disappeared there was a guy who was in prison in England who was murdered he was sent food which was poisoned just because your imprisoned it doesant mean your safe if some wants to get you they will and also there were two coffins found in the vault of a Woodville relative no one knows who they were might have been the two princes

  5. Wonderful post and a fascinating look at her life.

  6. Wonderful post, Judith. After suffering through The White Queen on TV--a bit of odd self-punishment, since the series was abysmal on many levels--I really liked and admired Margaret Beaufort, in contrast to all the other charaacters. She is someone worth reading about, so I'll have a look.

  7. Thank you for the lovely replies. Like many people I had always thought of Margaret in a negative light until I began to research her and discovered a very fascinating woman. She is certainly tiring to write about though, I will glad once I have Book Three complete and can take a long holiday.

  8. A big thanks to Judith and everyone else who stopped by! This post has had a lot of traffic, so I'm glad everyone has enjoyed it. :-D

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