Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Margaret Beaufort - The King's Mother

Judith Arnopp
Henry Tudor Tower Pembroke Castle

During a recent visit to Pembroke castle I was struck by the warren of rooms where, so history tells us, the birth of Henry Tudor took place. A long, low dimly lit corridor leads to a circular chamber with a great fireplace and thick stone walls. The room was cold even in September and, even with the benefit of a large fire, tapestries and cushions to exclude drafts, I could imagine the unenviable discomfort of a child confronted with the terror of giving birth there on the bleakest of mid-winter nights.

28 January 1457 – Pembroke Castle

 A maid hurries along a dark passageway, the chilblains on her fingers smarting from the cold jug she carries. When she opens the door to the chamber, the draught hurtles along the frigid corridor behind her, lifts her petticoats and hastens her entry into the room. The door slams behind her, the torches flicker, plunging the company into gloom.
The ill-lit chamber stinks of sweat and wood smoke, lightened only by the fragrance of tangy aromatic herbs said to aid a birthing. As the maid approaches the bed and places the jug on a table, the girl on the mattress flings out a hand and grabs at the midwife’s arm.
The light from the fire accentuates her shadowed eyes, the drained white face. There is blood on her chin where she has bitten through her lip in her efforts to stem her screams.
“She is too young,” the maid whispers to the midwife. “She cannot survive.”
As the older woman stands up to press a hand to her aching back she casts a warning glare in the maid’s direction.
“Rubbish,” she says loudly for the benefit of the girl on the bed. “She is young and strong; I’ve seen weaker women than this survive it.”
Her words are for the benefit of the patient. The maid has assisted in many births and knows that this one has little chance of success. Lady Margaret is only just turned thirteen, she has the build of a child; her great pregnant belly is obscene against her stick thin limbs and undeveloped chest. If the mother survives the child won’t; and if the child does manage to breathe at all, it will undoubtedly be motherless.
The maid turns away and pours a cup of wine, leans over the bed to try to coax the girl to drink.
“Try just a sip, my lady. It will fortify you.”
The cup moves closer to Lady Margaret’s mouth but, before she can drink, another
Pembroke Castle photo- Judith Arnopp
spasm takes her. She grabs the maid’s wrist, making her drop the cup, slopping wine that soaks and spreads as fast as a plague across her shift.
Bulging eyes fix upon the maid, sweat emerges on the noble brow as her childish mouth opens in a grimace of furious pain. The maid tries not to mind the nails that bite like tiny knives into her skin.
“It’s all right, my lady. You are doing fine; women are built for childbirth.”
A turn of her head reveals the midwife burrowing beneath the girl’s shift, her deft hands palpating her great distended belly. At another assault Lady Margaret jerks up her knees and, with a twist of pity, the maid notices they are knobbly as a child’s and patterned with small blue bruises.
“That’s it, my lady, you can push now.” She speaks loudly, fighting to sound authoritative.
Margaret ducks her chin into her chest, the veins on her forehead standing out like blue rope as she grits her teeth and growls like a wild animal. The maid’s eyes sweep across the scene. Blood is smeared upon her ladyship’s thigh and there is more on the sheets, a steady flow puddling on to the floor.
From her seat between Lady Margaret’s knees the midwife runs her forearm across her brow, leaving a crimson streak. Her eyes meet the maid’s and with a brief shake of her head she admits the cause is lost.
The maid swallows, sends up a prayer before bending over her mistress again.
“Come on, my lady, you are a fighter. Fight now for your son.” She shifts on the mattress, looking up into Margaret’s face, forcing her to maintain eye contact. “I will tell you when; I will push with you.”
For another hour they battle on, only strength of will keeping Margaret from giving up, from letting go. Each time she begins to drift away she is dragged relentlessly back to the nightmare that her life has become. Pain washes in, receding too briefly before it floods back in again but then, just when she feels she can push no more, something shifts, and a light appears in her darkness.
“Get on the floor and squat.” At a signal from the midwife the maid thrusts her hands beneath Margaret’s armpits, supports her as she slides from the mattress to squat on the floor. When the next pain comes, oblivious of the blood and the birth fluid that soaks the rushes around her, Margaret bears down with what strength she has left.
This time something happens and with each effort her son makes progress, thrusting and slashing his way into the world.
Pembroke Castle - photo-Judith Arnopp


Rowland Lockey [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Margaret Beaufort was just thirteen when she gave birth to her only child, Henry, later to become the father of the Royal Tudor dynasty. Margaret, a wealthy heiress and valuable asset to the Lancastrian cause, was married as an infant to John de la Pole. That marriage was dissolved and later, aged just twelve, she became the wife of the twenty two year old Edmund Tudor. When he succumbed to plague and died in Carmarthen just six months later, Margaret was already heavily pregnant.
In the middle ages it was normal for marriage to take place at a very young age but consummation did not usually take place until the wife was physically fully developed. Margaret’s body was underdeveloped even for a twelve year old and the immediate consummation caused some indignation among their contemporaries. Edmund’s eagerness to bed his wife was due, not to passion, but rather to his impatience to get his hands on her vast estates which would only be his on the birth of their first child.

Henry Tudor Michael Sittow (circa 1469-1525) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In her widowhood Margaret turned for support to Edmund’s brother, Jasper, and took up residence at Pembroke Castle where she gave birth to Henry. The physical damage caused by his birth made it impossible for Margaret to bear any further children but that did not stop her from marrying again. Margaret, despite setbacks, ultimately triumphed. Married four times for political gain she proved herself to be a wise and politically astute woman. She is often labelled as being overly pious and domineering but her devotion to her son is unquestioned.
Raglan Castle -photo Judith Arnopp
While York was in power Margaret and Henry were separated. While she, with little hope, doggedly and quietly worked on his behalf he spent his early years in the custody of Yorkist adherents, the Herberts at Raglan Castle.
Henry’s youth was spent in exile in the courts of Europe. But Margaret never lost hope and worked untiringly for her son’s cause; her determined and single mined battle for what she saw as Henry’s birth right can only be admired.


I am the author of seven historical novels, the three most recent being set in the Tudor period. Although the Tudor family have been written of time and time again I find them endlessly fascinating. I like to burrow beneath their ostentatious clothes and jewels to try to access the minds beneath – How did it feel? How did it smell? What did they think?

The Kiss of the Concubine US Link UK Link
 Intractable Heart US Link.
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 The Winchester Goose US Link UK Link

 The Forest Dwellers US Link UK Link

 The Song of Heledd US Link UK Link

 Peaceweaver US Link UK Link

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  1. Lovely post as usual Judith, you made this appalling birth come alive, thank God we did not live then! Maragaret Beaufort was certainly a most devoted mother, but her later life has been the subject of many theories and rumours. I know you are working on a book about her..I can't wait!

  2. Hopping over from my FB post on the historical fic group!

    This was an amazing read. The scene you brought to life, of Margaret was cinematic. It did disturb me that she was so young, and I was even more disturbed as I read on to learn that the marriage wasn't supposed to be consummated until she was fully developed.

    Thanks for sharing! I highly enjoyed this post.