In her novel The Red Queen Philippa Gregory tells the story of a girl sacrificed by her single minded mother to the machinations of a warring royal family. Married at 12 to a man twice her age, she endures permanent damage to her body during childbirth just a year later.
Heiress to the red rose of Lancaster, Margaret Beaufort is a strikingly pious child, the blurb on the book tells us. Saints’ knees her stigmata, she has a fierce and unwavering sense of destiny. If not a nun, then she’ll be Queen of England and sign her name Margaret Regina: Margaret R.
So how does historical fiction stand up to the facts?
Margaret Beaufort was born on May 31, 1443, the daughter of Margaret Beauchamp and her second husband John Beaufort, 1st Duke of Somerset. John Beaufort was at the centre of a complicated royal family. His father, another John Beaufort, was the illegitimate son of John of Gaunt and his mistress Katherine Swynford whom he later married. The children were legitimised, which resulted in an awful lot of contenders for the throne.
John of Gaunt was a younger son of Edward III. His eldest brother and heir to the throne Edward ‘The Black Prince’ predeceased the king their father and was in turn succeeded by his son Richard II. However Richard II was deposed in 1399 by John of Gaunt’s son Henry IV.
Lady Margaret was most probably born at the Beaufort home of Kingston Lacy near Wimborne Minster although she spent her childhood at her mother’s Bletso home with her St John half siblings. Her father died soon after her birth, some sources say by his own hand, and her cousin Henry VI granted her wardship to William de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk and steward of the royal household. Aged just six she was married to the Earl’s seven year old son, although allowed to remain with her mother on the Bletso estate.
Following the death of Henry V in 1422 the tussle for the throne began. Add to this the rise of the Welsh Tudors when Henry V’s widow Catherine married Owen ap Meredith Tudor, throwing two more sons, Edmund and Jasper, into the monarchical mix.
In 1453 Margaret and her mother were summoned to the Court in London where Henry VI revoked the de Pole’s wardship, turning it over to his own half brothers Jasper and Edmund Tudor. With the young girl’s marriage to John de Pole dissolved the scene was set for her to take centre stage.
From 1455 to 1485 the Houses of Lancaster and York slugged it out in the War of the Roses and as the civil war ebbed and flowed it is easy to see how important young Margaret was to prove.
Her reappearance on the marriage market in 1455 saw her quickly snapped up by none other than her guardian, Edmund Tudor, who at 24 was twice her age.
Margaret Beauchamp obviously played a key role in brokering her Beaufort daughter’s second marriage and Ms Gregory paints the picture of a hard, unfeeling mother.
When the 13 year old Margaret suffers agonising child birth she hears her governess speak to the midwives.
‘Your orders are to save the baby if you have to choose. Especially if it is a boy.’ ‘That’s the right thing to do,’ Nan agrees. ‘But seems hard on the little maid’ …’It is her mother’s order,’ my lady governess says, and at once I don’t want to shout at them any more.’
An astute business woman who drove a hard bargain and provided well for her St John off spring, it remains unknown whether Margaret Beauchamp was in fact this cold and callous.
Edmund Tudor died of plague and didn’t live to see his son Henry Tudor born. The teenage widow and her baby son lived with her Tudor relatives in Wales, but the child was soon made the ward of William, Lord Herbert with whom he lived until he was twelve years old. When Edward IV regained the throne in 1471 Henry fled to Brittany where he spent the next 14 years. For more than twenty years Margaret spent little time with the son she adored and whose right to the throne she campaigned for so fervently.
Margaret would marry twice more, not easy for a deeply pious woman, physically damaged by childbirth. Her second husband was Sir Henry Stafford, her third marriage to Thomas, Lord Stanley took place in 1472.
Henry Tudor returned to England in August 1485 where he defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field and was proclaimed King of England by right of conquest. His marriage to Elizabeth of York eldest daughter of Edward IV united the two royal households and secured the Tudor throne for more than one hundred years.
As the King’s Mother, Margaret enjoyed status, influence and independence. Eminent Tudor historian Dr David Starkey describes her as the most powerful woman in England of her day.
A sponsor of printer William Caxton, she translated and published the Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis along with other devotional works. Founder of Christs’s and St John’s Colleges at Cambridge she endowed the Lady Margaret professorships of Divinity at both Oxford and Cambridge University. In 1499 Margaret took a vow of chastity before Archbishop Fisher and lived out the last years of her life as she had always wanted, devoted to pray and study.
Margaret died aged 66 on June 29, 1509, just two months after her son. She is buried in the Henry VII Lady Chapel in Westminster Abbey.
Philippa Gregory ends her novel with Henry’s victory at Bosworth Field.
They bring the news to me where I am praying, on my knees, in my chapel. I hear the bang of the door and the footsteps on the stone floor, but I don’t turn my head. I open my eyes and keep them fixed on the statue of the crucified Christ and I wonder if I am about to enter my own agony. ‘What is the news?’ I ask.
Christ looks down at me, I look up at Him. ‘Give me good news,’ I say as much to Him as to the lady who stands behind me.
‘Your son has won a great battle,’ my lady in waiting says tremulously. ‘He is King of England, acclaimed on the battlefield.’
I gasp for breath. ‘And Richard the usurper?’
I meet the eyes of Christ the Lord and I all but wink at Him. ‘Thanks be to God,’ I say, as if to nod at a fellow plotter. He has done His part. Now I will do mine. I rise to my feet and she holds out a letter to me, a scrap of paper, from Jasper.
‘Our boy has won his throne, we can enter our kingdom. We will come to you at once.’
I read it again. I have the strange sensation that I have won my heart’s desire and that from this date everything will be different. Everything will be commanded by me.