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Lady Margaret by E.M.G. Routh (pub. 1924)

 

I

EARLY YEARS

1441-1450


IT has been said of Lady Margaret Beaufort: 'She was a gentlewoman, a scholar, and a saint, and after having been three times married, she took a vow of celibacy. What more could be expected of any woman ?' [l]

The casual questioner who asks: 'Who was "Lady Margaret" ?' is usually told: 'She was the mother of Henry VII.'

She herself would certainly have been satisfied to be so described, for she was devoted to her only son; Henry owed to her his crown, and she, having set him on the throne, said nothing about her own claim to it, but was content to be known for the rest of her life as 'My Lady, the King's Mother'.

Her painstaking biographer, Mr. Cooper, wrote:

'She presents the brightest example of the strong devotional feeling and active charity of the age in which she lived, and . . . she is entitled to the warmest gratitude of posterity for her generous patronage of the learned and her munificent provision for the advancement of science and literature.'

At the Universities she is remembered chiefly by her endowment of the 'Lady Margaret' Professorships of Divinity, and for her Foundations of Christ's College and St. John's College Cambridge. The founders of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, chose her as the adopted patroness of the Hall because she was ever a friend to 'poor scholars' a pioneer in education, and 'as a mother to the students of both tJniversities'.

Margaret Beaufort, the on]y daughter of John, Earl and afterwards first Duke of Somerset, was born, it seems, on the 31st May 1441, at Bletsoe in Bedfordshire. [2]

Her father was descended from Edward III, being a grandson of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, whose illegitimate children by Catherine Swynford were called 'Beaufort' from the duke's castle in France, in which they were born. The Beauforts, after their parents' marriage, were legitimated by Act of Parliament in 1397 (Richard II) and became one of the richest and most powerful families in England. They considered themselves next in the Royal succession to the three Lancastrian Henries, notwithstanding the clause 'excepta dignitate regali' which was illegally inserted in the Patent of Legitimation by an unknown hand in the reign of Henry IV with the purpose of debarring them from succession to the throne.

Margaret's great-uncle was Henry Beaufort, the great bishop and cardinal, who was a pillar of the House of Lancaster for more than forty years, and one of the chief rulers of England during the long minority of Henry VI. Her aunt, Jane Beaufort, was the heroine of a romantic marriage with King James I of Scotland, and the subject of The Kiugis Quair. Margaret's father, the Earl of Somerset, and his brother Edmund, like every one of note in their time, were engaged in the French wars; Somerset was taken prisoner at Bauge in 1421, and had been for more than fifteen years a prisoner of war when he at last obtained an exchange. [3]

After his return home he married Margaret, daughter of Sir John Beauchamp of Bletsoe, and widow of Sir Oliver St. John, a lady 'right noble as well in manners as in blood'. Before the birth of his daughter he went back to France with reinforce ments, and with his brother distinguished himself by the capture of Harfleur in 1440.

A few statesmen now realized that the weak government of England's 'holy Henry' could not hold all the conquests of his warlike father. The powerful party of the Beauforts, which included the Earl of Suffolk, put forward the idea that peace might be made with France; the rivalry of this party with that of the Dukes of York and Gloucester was the seed from which grew the devastating feuds known as the 'Wars of the Roses'.

At a Council meeting early in 1443 Cardinal Beaufort took the risk of a definite quarrel with York -- who was Commander-in-Chief of the forces in France -- by contriving to get his own nephew John (now created Duke of Somerset) appointed Captain-General of all France and Guienne.

The two Commanders were supposed to divide the field of operations between them, but York rightly considered the appointment a blow at his own power. Somerset accepted the command, but he had never quite recovered from the depressing effects of his long captivity; he started in bad health and spirits, saying gloomily that he 'would do the best he could for a year'. He confided in no one, and kept his plan of campaign a dead secret; he said that he would burn his shirt if he thought it knew his plans, and 'it remained a secret at the end of the campaign whether he himself had found out his own intentions'.

His expedition was a failure, and he came home in the spring of 1444, a disappointed and discredited man, and in May he died; there was an uncertain rumour that, being accused of treason and forbidden to appear in the King's presence, he committed suicide.

Only a few days later, his daughter Margaret, now three years old, was given in wardship to her father's friend, William de la Pole, Earl (and later, Duke) of Suffolk, with the right to dispose of her in marriage.

Henry VI wrote to the Chancellor:

'For asmoche as oure Cousin the Duc of Somerset is nowe late passed to Goddes mercy, the whiche hath a doughter and heir to succede after hym of ful tender age called Margarete, We, considering the notable services that oure Cousin therl of Suffolk hath doon unto us . . . have . . . graunted unto hym to have the warde and marriage of the said Margarete withouten enything therfore unto us or oure heires yelding.' [4]

This was no empty privilege, for the custody of lands of minors was a very profitable business, and Margaret was already a considerable heiress, although some of her father's great estates did not come to her until after the death of her mother and her uncle.

The Earl of Suffolk seems to have left his ward in the care of the Duchess of Somerset, and she was probably brought up in her mother's home in Bedfordshire, at any rate until the duchess married again. Her third husband was Lionel (or Leon), Lord Welles, a Lancastrian partisan, who was killed at the battle of Towton, in 1461.

The duchess brought up her daughter well and carefully, and gave her a good education. Like other girls of the period, she was taught to be a good house keeper, as she proved in later life, and a skilful needle woman; a carpet worked with the arms of the St. John family was shown at Bletsoe as her work, as late as the reign of James I. There was already a tradition of the 'higher education of women' among the Beauforts, for Margaret's great-aunts are believed to have been the first ladies in England who learned to write. She herself has been considered one of the best letter-writers of her time; she had a very good knowledge of French, and a 'lytell perceyvynge' of Latin; above all she was taught to be a good Christian and a devoted daughter of the Church.

After the death of Margaret's father, the Beaufort party was led by her uncle Edmund (created Duke of Somerset in 1448) and by her guardian the Duke of Suffolk. They supported the plan of the marriage of Henry VI with Margaret of Anjou, and proposed to sacrifice the King's claim to the Crown of France, in order to secure Normandy for England.

Their policy was unpopular with the war-party, and when, after a series of disasters in the field, Somerset lost Normandy, he and Suffolk were suspected of having played into the hands of the French. The promise to surrender Maine, made by Suffolk when he was negotiating for the King's marriage, was fatal to his reputation; he was accused of treason, and in February 1450 he was formally indicted in the House of Commons.

It was alleged that he had planned a French invasion of England, in order to depose Henry VI, and that he had schemed to make his own son John, king of England, by marrying him to Lady Margaret of Somerset 'presuming and pretending her to be next inheritable to the Crown, for lack of issue of the King'. [5]

There is no question that Suffolk tried to arrange a marriage between Margaret Beaufort and his son; she was an undoubted 'catch' for any one, and he probably had the match in mind as soon as he became her guardian, but there is no reason in this to suspect his loyalty to the King.

The poor child was hardly nine years old when she received a proposal of marriage on behalf of little John de la Pole, who was more than a year younger than herself, but very early marriages were then quite common; many children in Royal and noble families were 'contracted' as soon as they could walk, and they were considered grown-up and fully marriageable by the time they were fourteen. It was only with the growth of a complex system of education that the 'school-room age' became gradually extended.

On the other hand, there were cases in which wealthy widows seventy and eighty years old were obliged to marry again, for matrimony was very much a matter of business, and the only way to escape it was to obtain the protection of the Church by taking a vow of celibacy.

Margaret was a precocious child, even for the time in which she lived. Bishop Fisher, in later life her confessor and great friend, said:

'In her tender age she being endued with so great towardness of nature, and likelihood of inheritance, many sued to have had her to marriage. The Duke of Suthfolke, which was then a man of great experience, most diligently procured to have had her for his son and heir.'

The chief rival in the field was Edmund Tudor, whose father was Owen Tudor, that 'goodly gentilman and beautyful person, garnished with many godly gifts both of nature and of grace', [6] who had won the heart of Catherine the Fair, widow of King Henry V.

Edmund was the eldest of their sons, and his suit was favoured by his half-brother the King. Perhaps this was the reason why Margaret was allowed to express her own choice instead of being made to obey her guardian's orders.

Of course no girl old enough to feel a spark of romance could have hesitated for long between the rival claimants. Little John must have seemed to her a mere baby, whom she had probably patronized in the nursery in an elder-sisterly way, while Edmund was a soldierly young fellow of nineteen or twenty, closely related to the King himself, and son of a valiant mountain chieftain and a beautiful queen.

Margaret took the matter seriously, being very anxious to do what was right; having the question greatly on her mind, she dreamed one night that Edmund was introduced to her by a bishop, so (being a well-brought-up child) she felt convinced that he must be the right man, and gave her decision in his favour.

This is how Fisher told the tale sixty years later:

'She which as then was not fully nine years old, doubtful in her mind what she were best to do, asked counsel of an old gentlewoman whom she most loved and trusted, which did advise her to commend herself to Saint Nicolas, the patron and helper of all true maidens, and to beseech him to put in her mind what she were best to do. This counsel she followed and made her prayer so full often, but specially that night when she should the morrow after make answer of her mind determinately. A marvellous thing! That same night, as I have heard her tell many a time, as she lay in prayer calling upon Saint Nicolas, whether sleeping or waking she could not assure, but about four of the clock in the morning one appeared unto her arrayed like a Bishop, and naming unto her Edmund bade take him unto her husband. And so by this mean did she incline her mind unto Edmund the King's brother and Earl of Richmond.'

It is possible that, in spite of this intervention of Saint Nicolas, Suffolk might have had his way, but before he could do so his enemies achieved his down fall, though he denied all the charges brought against him.

The gentle, incompetent King, anxious but power less to defend his unpopular minister, tried to save his life by banishing him from the country, but in crossing the Channel Suffolk was captured by an armed squadron, put into an open boat, and brutally beheaded with a rusty sword in sight of his own ship; his body was found on the sands of Dover with the head on a pole beside it. The story of the tragedy was related in a contemporary letter, the writer of which was so moved with grief and horror that he added: 'I have soo wesshe this litel bille with sorw fulle terys, that onethes (uneasy) ye shalle reede it.' [7] This horrible deed remained unpunished, though suspicion of course fell on the partisans of York.

There was no further question of Margaret's marriage with Suffolk's son; if the contract had indeed been made it was not considered valid. John de la Pole afterwards married Elizabeth, sister of Edward IV and Richard III; their sons, the eldest of whom was recognized as heir to the throne by Richard III, gave a good deal of trouble to Margaret's son when he became Henry VII.