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

 

XIII

LAST DAYS

1509


AFTER the death of Henry VII his mother's health quickly failed. She was, however, active to the last, and signed warrants as one of his executors, who were directed by the King to see that his funeral was carried out with sufficient dignity, but without 'dampnable pompe and oteragious superfluity'. She also drew up a list of privy councillors for her grandson, and specially commended him to the care of Bishop Fisher.

In June she was overtaken by her last illness, while she was staying in the Abbot's house at Westminster, for the coronation of Henry VIII. [1] In the midst of the rejoicings Lady Margaret (as usual) wept and predicted coming misfortune, but she could have had no suspicion of the black deeds which were to mark the reign of the splendid young king, who was, at eighteen, so much admired and so full of promise, nor of the great changes coming within and without the Church; least of all could she have guessed that her beloved grandson, twenty-six years later, would cruelly send to the block the venerable Bishop of Rochester, who had been her closest friend.

Fisher was present at her death-bed, and he described the scene with great feeling in his 'mourning remembrance' or obituary sermon.

'Those mercyfull and lyberall handes to endure the moost paynful crampes,' he lamented, 'soo greuously vexynge her and compellynge her to crye "O blessyd Jhesu, helpe me, O blessyd Lady, socoure me!" It was a mater of grete pyte, like a spere it perced the hertes of all her true seruauntes that was aboute her and made theym crye alsoe of Jhesu for helpe and socoure with grete haboundaunce of teares.'

Just before the end,

'when the Holy Sacrament was holden before her . . . with all her heart and soul she raised her body to make answer, and confessed assuredly that in the Sacrament was contained Christ Jesu the Son of God that died for wretched sinners upon the Cross, in whom wholly she put her trust and confidence. And so soon after that she was aneled she departed and yielded up her spirit into the hands of our Lord. Who may not now take evident likelihood and con jecture upon this that the soul of this noble woman which so studiously in her life was occupied in good works and with a fast faith in Christ and the Sacraments of his Church, was defended in that hour of departing out from the body and was borne up into the country above with the blessed angels deputed and ordained to that holy mystery!'

Fisher, in his 'lamentable mornynge' for his friend, described the grief expressed for the loss of 'so gentle a mistress, so tender a lady', by 'her ladies and kins women to whom she was full kind, her poor gentle women whom she had loved so tenderly before, her chamberers to whom she was full dear, her chaplains and priests and her other true and faithful servants'. All were in tears and 'all England for her death had cause of weeping'.

'The poor creatures that were wont to receive her alms to whom she was always piteous and merciful; the students of both Universities to whom she was as a mother; all the learned men of England to whom she was a very patroness; all the virtuous and devout persons to whom she was as a loving sister; all the good religious men and women whom she so often was wont to visit and comfort; all good priests and clerks to whom she was a true defendress; all the noble men and women to whom she was a mirror and example of honour; all the common people of this realm for whom she was in their causes a common mediatrix and took right great displeasure for them, and generally the whole realm hath cause to complain and mourn her death, and all we considering her gracious and charitable mind.'

It is a wonderful tribute, and one feels it was both sincere and well founded; no one knew Lady Mar garet better than the Bishop of Rochester; all those who knew her loved her, and had good reason to value the gentle spirit of one who would 'oftentimes so lovingly courage every of them to do well'.

Although 'every age is an age of transition', the reign of Henry VII covered a period of more than usually marked change, and is recognized as the turning-point between the medieval and the modern history of England. Many civilizing influences were working upon the roughness and ignorance of the fifteenth century and among these must be counted the unselfish character of Margaret Beaufort.

The terms of her will [2] showed the same thoughtfulness for others that had made her beloved through life. She directed that her household should be kept together for three months after her death; her servants were to receive half a year's wages and clothes for her funeral; her poor dependants were to be maintained for life and a large sum of money was to be distributed in alms on the day of her death.

Plate, jewels, books, altar-cloths, vestments, &c., were left for the chapels of Christ's College and St. John's College; there were bequests and legacies to Westminster and several other monasteries; to the parish church at Collyweston, and to many relatives and friends.

The will was drawn up before the death of Henry VII, and Henry VIII, as his father's heir, became residuary legatee and took possession of the lands, manors and lordships which the Countess of Richmond had held in twenty-five counties.

Lady Margaret died on the 29th June 1509, having just completed her sixty eighth year. She was buried, according to her wish, in the Chapel of Henry VII in Westminster Abbey church. Her tomb of black marble, surmounted by her effigy in bronze -- 'the most beautiful and venerable figure that the Abbey contains' -- is the work of Pietro Torrigiano. [3]

'The beautiful portrait effigy of Margaret in her old age is Torrigiano's chef d'ceuvre; she wears a widow's dress with a hood and long mantle, her feet rest on a hind couchant, the delicate and most characteristic wrinkled hands are raised in prayer. The effigy and the curious little canopy are of gilt bronze, as are the coats of arms arranged within flowered wreaths.' [4]

The original design was that of William Bolton, Prior of 'Seint Bartilmews', and Torrigiano (described as 'Petir Thoryson of florence, graver') undertook to carry out the work 'wele, clenly, sufficiently and workemanly'. [5]

The inscription upon Lady Margaret's tomb, simply setting forth her principal benefactions to Westminster, Wimborne, Oxford and Cambridge, was composed by Erasmus, no doubt at the request of Bishop Fisher. [6]

The wide charity of Margaret of Richmond was an example and an inspiration to many people in her own time. Her name is still remembered as that of one

'Of those immortal dead who live again
In minds made better by their presence: live
In pulses stirred to generosity,
In deeds of daring rectitude, in scorn
For miserable aims that end with self,
In thoughts sublime that pierce the night like stars,
And with their mild persistence urge man's search
To vaster issues.'