Tuesday, 15 March 2016

The life of Margaret Beaufort

Margaret Beaufort in often depicted both in fiction and non-fiction as manipulative, duplicitous, vindictive, sometimes a little mad. In my own book, A Song of Sixpence, she appears in her latter years, an unwelcome mother-in-law in the marriage between Elizabeth of York and Henry VII. Writing from Elizabeth's perspective, Margaret at first appears hardened, unfriendly but as their relationship continues, and Elizabeth produces a string of heirs for the king, Margaret softens, just a little, and their friendship develops. Ultimately, as she has at many deathbeds during her life, Margaret weeps copious tears at her daughter-in-law's demise. 

I could have written her all sweetness and light but I don't believe she was like that. My research shows a woman who lived an incredibly hard life, and difficult lives take their toll. She would have had trust issues, perhaps she learned self-containment was the best policy but Margaret's cool exterior shields a warm and vulnerable heart. Margaret was a good woman; a virtuous, generous soul whose determination to get her son on the throne took guts and strength. 

Women who live such lives often don't have time for niceties, in my experience they can be efficient to the point of rudeness. Margaret would not be one to suffer fools gladly, or tolerate nonsense. Once Henry was on the throne her vast experience and level head enabled her to offer wise and solid advice. She gave freely to charity, endowed universities and hospitals and encouraged theological study. All these characteristics are positives yet she is consistently depicted in the negative, that is, if we believe serious, pious, pro-active, politically motivated women to be negative.

Margaret was no beauty, she was not a simpering, pathetic princess and is therefore difficult to slot into a fictional stereotype. She enters A Song of Sixpence toward the end of her story. She has achieved her ambitions, her goal to put her son, her blood on the throne of England has been realised. Henry has overcome all opposition, the royal nursery is full of children. She is elderly, and as the king's mother afforded the honour of a queen. The key words for the latter part of her life story are : success, triumph, honour. But what about her beginnings?

An excerpt from The Beaufort Bride:

The Lady Margaret

Bletsoe Castle 1449

It is a wild night. Outside, the trees are blackened by rain. They thrash their limbs in a dance of anguish, shedding leaves and twigs across the lawn, but here, at the nursery window, I am safe and dry. I press my hot cheek against cool thick glass and peer into the darkness of the garden.
The shrubs and hedges assume threatening shapes; the yew tree by the gatehouse is a hump of deep black menace. My seven-year-old mind forgets the times my stepsisters and I have happily played there on the green mead in the sunshine; tonight I see only threats, only danger, only demons.
A fistful of raindrops spatters against the window and I draw back with a gasp as a yellow leaf, as large as my face, smacks suddenly onto the glass. I stare at it, stuck there like a hand held up in warning. Do not look, Margaret!
But I do look. I cannot help it. If there is a beast in the garden, I have to see it. I have to witness the moment it leaps from the darkness.
Ever since I can remember the grown-ups have kept secrets from me. I didn’t know my mother had been married before, that my siblings had a different father to mine. It was Oliver who told me, and ever since he has delighted in revealing other, more horrible things. Now, to deny him pleasure, I am determined to learn secrets for myself. Secrets that are sometimes best left undiscovered.

No one tells me when I am made a ward of the Duke of Suffolk, fated to marry whomever he pleases. It is Oliver who breaks the news and, at first, I don’t believe him.
“Don’t be silly,” I scowl. “Stop teasing.”
“Oh, I’m not teasing.”
He slides from his seat and comes skulking toward me, his head thrust forward, a grin of mischief smeared across his dirty face. “You have to do as he says and go happily to your marriage, even if he weds you to a grandfather who will beat you twice daily.”
“He wouldn’t do that.”
I can hear the doubt in my own voice and it spurs him on to greater revelations.
“He can do with you as he wishes and you have to obey him or, if you don’t, you’ll be shut up in the Tower as your father would have been if he hadn’t -”
 A sudden movement and Edith comes to stand beside me. She places her hand on my arm.
“Oliver, be quiet. You are being cruel. Don’t listen to him, Margaret, just ignore him. Why don’t you come and help me sort colours for the tapestry I am planning?”
Edith, my older and favourite sister, grabs my wrist and tries to tug me toward her chair but, drawn to the awfulness of Oliver’s secret, I pull away.
“What do you mean, Oliver? My father in the Tower; what do you mean?”
He stands tall, runs two fingers across his upper lip, presenting a sudden image of how he will look when he is a man with a fine moustache and beard. His head is back and he squints down his long nose with a smirk. He is no longer a companion of the nursery; he is an accuser, a torturer, a devil with wickedness upon his lips.
“Your father was a traitor, waiting to be sent to the Tower. The king was going to chop off his head … but your father sliced his own wrists before he could be taken.”
With a gasp of horror, my stepsisters look up from the hearth where they are sewing. Everyone is looking at me. My cheeks begin to burn. I can feel their eyes boring into me, waiting for my reaction. I cannot move; my ears are ringing. It is as if he has struck me but I manage to raise my chin and clench my lips across my teeth.
Oliver watches my struggle for composure, but his venom is subsiding. He is clearly calculating our mother’s reaction should I run to her with the tale of his sins.
It takes a great deal of effort to shrug my shoulders and turn away as if nothing is amiss. His uncertain laughter follows my stiff-legged journey toward the door. I reach for the latch but before I pass through it, I feel Edith’s hand on my shoulder.
“Margaret, don’t believe him. He heard it from the servants – it is likely just tittle-tattle.”
I look into her kind eyes and read the lie hidden there. She seeks to spare my hurt, but I can tell she believes the story. I try to smile but my mouth goes out of shape, my chin trembling. She places a gentle hand on my coif but I shake it off, cuff away the first tear before it has a chance to drip onto my cheek.

I find Mother just returned from chapel. She halts when she sees me and hands her prayer book to one of her women.
“Margaret? What is the matter? Are you ill?”
I shake my head and perform a wobbly curtsey.
“No Mother, I am well.”
She sits down and beckons me closer, places a hand beneath my chin. She feels my brow for signs of fever, pulls down my lower eye lid and bids me stick out my tongue. I obey, passively waiting while she examines my teeth and looks in my ears.
“You are very pale, and you are trembling. What has happened? Have you been fighting again?”
“No, Mother.” Although I threaten to, I never bear tales of Oliver’s taunting. I search around in my head for a small lie that will explain how I have heard the rumour of my father’s disgrace. “I heard someone talking.”
She sits back, links her fingers and rests her hands on her stomach.
“You should never heed gossip, Margaret.”
“No, I don’t but … they said bad things about my father.”
I watch her face blanch and know without her confirmation that Oliver’s tale is true. Her face squirms unattractively as she tries to school her features into obedience.
“Who have you been listening to?”
“Oh … I – I don’t know. We were playing hide-come-seek and I was hiding in a cupboard when some servants were passing … I couldn’t see who it was.”
I will have to make confession and do penance for such a lie, but I refuse to bear tales. It will only make Oliver resent me more.
“Is it true, Mother?” I step closer. “Was my father a bad man? Did he ... did he …?”
I cannot form the last words and as my fear spills from my eyes, her own composure dissolves. She fumbles for a kerchief, blows her nose.
“Oh, Margaret.” She screws the square of linen into a ball and looks at the ceiling. “Your father was a good man, an honest man but … well, he was not always wise. He made mistakes in France and angered the king. When King Henry refused him an audience, your father fell into despair. I … we are not sure what happened … it was a long time ago, six years.”
I listen to the horrid truth, counting back the years on my fingers. 1443, the year I was born.
“So, if my father was a traitor, are we all disgraced? Am I a disgrace? Am I, Mother?”
She sighs, casts about for her kerchief again and dabs her nose.
“No. Your great uncle, the Cardinal, and your uncle Edmund will ensure we remain in the king’s good graces. You must learn that everything is not black and white, or good and evil. There are many different shades. Your father was neither; he was just a man, and all men make mistakes … even kings.”
The end of her sentence is barely audible. I jerk my head and stare into her eyes, trying to fathom what she means. I have been taught an anointed king is sacrosanct. It has never occurred to me that kings can err.
“So the king was wrong?”
“Mistaken, perhaps, is a better word; an error of judgement.”
“What about us? Is Oliv - are the servants right when they say that I must marry whomever the Duke says?”
She looks around the room, her lashes fluttering like damp butterflies that cannot decide upon which blossom to settle.
“We must all marry where we can, Margaret. A woman is seldom given choice.”
“But what if he picks an old man who will beat me twice a day?”
The words are out before I can stop them, Oliver’s laughter echoing again in my ears. She pauses with the kerchief just below her nose.
“No! Where do you get such ideas, child? Come here.”
I long to slide onto the chair beside her and inhale her sweet herby scent that speaks of security. I wish I could snuggle to her bosom. If she was not big with child I could crawl into her lap as if I were a baby. She places her hand upon her swollen belly. “I suppose it is time I told you of your future. You are an important asset to the Duke but he has chosen very carefully for you.”
“Who will want to marry me when my father was so bad?”
She laughs musically, tilting her head back. “Oh my dear child, do you not realise how rich you are? You are an heiress and will be an asset to any husband. Men have already been seeking the honour of your hand.”
I digest this news slowly. So, Oliver was right. I am to be sold.
“You said ‘chosen’ so the Duke has already decided?”
Her hand, that has been gently rubbing the place where her unborn child is curled, stops suddenly. She smiles and looks down at it. She has felt the child kick – another half-sibling. I will no longer be the smallest. I will no longer be the baby of the family. I pray this child will be kinder than Oliver.
“The Duke fancies you for his son, John, who is destined to be a great man.”
I have seen the Duke of Suffolk many times, the great William de la Pole who has fought so long for the king in France. Oliver says that he has almost single-handedly kept our territories in English hands. He is a favourite of the king, but the populace dislike him and have christened him ‘Jackanapes.’
The duke is a big man, large and rough. I remember when I was little, hiding behind my mother’s chair when he came into her parlour. His giant frame blocked the sun from the window and his laugh made the wine cups rattle on their tray. I am filled with dread that his son will be the same.
“Suppose I do not like him?” I whisper with sickness washing in my belly. Mother smiles and closes one eye before answering conspiratorially.
“Then you will make the best of him, as do all women in our position.”


I am happy to announce that Book One of The Beaufort Chronicles: The Beaufort Bride tracks Margaret's life from her beginnings at her mother's house, Bletsoe Castle, through her life in Wales and the trials of her marriage to Edmund Tudor, her widowhood, the birth of Henry and her betrothal to Henry Stafford.

Book Two: The Beaufort Woman illustrates Margaret's development from a child into a young woman. It traces her journey through the wars of the roses, her second widowhood, her marriage to Stanley, and her political manoeuvres through the complexities of the conflict between York and Lancaster. She does not rest until the attainment of her dreams at Bosworth field.

Coming soon in 2016

Book Three details the reign of Henry VII and her role as The King's Mother in establishing, once and for all, the Tudor dynasty.

Book One: The Beaufort Bride . Click here to purchase your copy.

Judith Arnopp is the author of eight historical novels of the Tudor and Medieval period. She also blogs and offers talks on Tudor history. You can visit her webpage for more articles and information

Photographs from Wikimediacommons or author's property.