Dispelling Tudor Myths: Was Margaret Beaufort the Mother-in-Law From Hell?

With a few exceptions, it seems most people have some kind of trouble with their mother-in-law. In Tudor circles, discussions surrounding Margaret Beaufort usually solicit the customary comment that she was the mother-in-law from hell. Another frequent comment revolves around the postulation that Margaret worked her whole life to make her son Henry Tudor King of England. And it is largely believed that Margaret wrote the ordinances for court functions and etiquette. But does the historical record support these assumptions?

Because of the recent popularity and increased interest in the Tudor dynasty, there has been a lot of important historical research and scholarly writing by prominent historians. It is the purpose of this article to look into what some of these historians have to say about Margaret Beaufort and her conduct and actions during her life and the reign of her son. The job of an historian is to read and interpret the sources and give an informed opinion on what actually happened.

What kind of mother-in-law was Margaret Beaufort?

Let’s start with J.L. Laynesmith and her book “The Last Medieval Queens”. Laynesmith’s book was the joint winner of the Longman-History Today Book of the Year Prize in 2005. She gives a quote from C.H. Cooper’s “Memoir of Margaret, Countess of Richmond and Derby” which was published in 1874. Cooper says the diplomat Don Pedro de Ayala wrote a letter to Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain in July 1498 that says this: “The king is much influenced by his mother….The queen, as is generally the case, does not like it.” This quote has dominated the assessment of Elizabeth of York’s relationship with her mother-in-law.

A few days before, Ayala had written another letter to the sub-prior of Santa Cruz stating: ‘the queen is a “very noble woman” and much beloved. She is kept in subjection by the mother of the king’. It is impossible to tell what event, if any, influenced Ayala’s judgement in this case. Another writer, John Hewyk of Nottingham was accused of reporting in 1500 “that he had spoken with the Queen’s Grace, and should have spoken more with her said Grace had not been for that strong whore the King’s mother”.

Laynesmith cites two other historians’ interpretation of Hewyk’s comments. Perhaps Hewyk was seeking a position in the queen’s service and Margaret intervened to rescue Elizabeth. Or, Hewyk was among the crowd that greeted the king and queen in Nottingham when the incident occurred. Laynesmith also attributes the Spaniard’s comments to the strong convention of assumed conflict between wives and their mothers-in-law. There is a deep-seated tradition of jealous royal mothers repressing and destroying their daughters-in-law in folk tales and romances throughout the centuries. (pages 208-9)

Laynesmith brings up the tendency for queens to solicit the aid of her husband’s family in moderating the king’s policies by representing human needs and practicalities, a recognized role for a medieval queen. She cites two examples. Elizabeth and Margaret pleaded with Henry VII not to send Princess Margaret to Scotland for her marriage to James IV too early. They feared James would not wait to consummate the union and injure Margaret and endanger her health. Margaret Beaufort knew all too well the consequences of intercourse and childbirth for a teenage woman. Elizabeth and Margaret also both wrote to the Spanish court asking that Catherine of Aragon learn French so they could communicate with her upon her arrival to marry Prince Arthur.

There is evidence that Elizabeth and Margaret worked together in deciding who should attend the queen and Catherine during the celebrations for Catherine’s arrival and for refurbishing Margaret’s home at Coldharbour in order to entertain Catherine and Arthur for the post-wedding festivities. Two years later, Princess Margaret spent her last night with a member of her family before her departure for Scotland with her grandmother. After Elizabeth’s death, Margaret became the maternal influence in the lives of Prince Henry and Princess Mary. Clearly the two women shared an abiding interest in the children.

Laynesmith mentions Elizabeth and Margaret’s shared devotion in St. Bridget of Sweden, a saint who was popular with both the families of Lancaster and York. The two women jointly commissioned the printer William Caxton for an edition of the book allegedly written by St. Bridget “The Fifteen O’s”. Elizabeth and Margaret jointly presented a copy of Walter Hilton’s “Scale of Perfection”, which had been commissioned by Margaret, to their shared lady-in-waiting Mary Roos. It should also be mentioned that in Margaret’s home at Collyweston, rooms were permanently reserved for the queen. (pages 211-2)

Elizabeth Norton writes about the relationship between Elizabeth and Margaret in her biography “Margaret Beaufort: Mother of the Tudor Dynasty”. She mentions a couple of occasions where the two women wore identical clothing for court celebrations. This may have been an effort on Margaret’s part to emphasize she was of the same (or very close to the same) rank as the Queen. (page 172) Margaret’s position at court was certainly anomalous as recognized by her contemporaries.

Norton is a little more circumspect in her assessment of the relationship between the two women. She mentions they were constantly in each other’s company, vying for position and status and this could have led to some friction. But Norton says it is clear some affection was outwardly demonstrated. “There are a number of recorded examples of them working together, and they shared some interests”. (page 173)

In December 1487, Elizabeth, Margaret, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Bishop of Exeter and Margaret’s servant Reginald Bray were granted the next presentation to the deanery of the college or free chapel of St. Stephen in the Palace of Westminster. In February of 1486, shortly after Elizabeth’s marriage, a grant was made to Elizabeth and Margaret and several others of a license to found a perpetual chantry in the parish church of Guildford. Clearly both women were active patrons of the Church. (page 173) Norton mentions that as Elizabeth aged, she began to assert herself more in the dominant, if well meaning relationship with Margaret. (page 178) Norton also mentions it is clear Margaret grieved when Elizabeth died.

Amy License, in her book “Elizabeth of York: The Forgotten Tudor Queen”, says Margaret was a constant figure in Elizabeth’s life. Margaret and Elizabeth’s mother  Elizabeth Woodville knew each other and so Elizabeth of York probably was familiar with Margaret from an early age. When Henry Tudor became king, Margaret moved into Coldharbour House and she welcomed Elizabeth as her guest and facilitated her early meetings with Henry.

License says the two women were often in collaboration when it came to domestic and religious projects. (page 157) Margaret organized practical arrangements for courtly life and special occasions such as births and christenings. She also arranged marriages for Elizabeth’s sisters and sheltered Cecily of York when she was in trouble for marrying without royal permission.

License says this about their relationship: “Although the Spanish ambassadors might view this relationship as stifling, with Elizabeth ‘kept in subjection’ by Margaret, whose influence over Henry she apparently ‘did not like’, no contemporary accounts can verify Elizabeth’s displeasure. Tellingly, the ambassador referred to the family dynamic in terms of stereotypes; the queen’s dislike was ‘as is generally the case’. Margaret may well have been the overbearing, controlling figure they suggest but she was also indefatigable, highly organized and competent; quite likely she was a tower of strength”. (pages 157-8)

Alison Weir, in her seminal biography “Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World”, mentions that Margaret Beaufort had been the driving force behind Elizabeth’s marriage to Henry. Elizabeth was probably conscious of this fact and owed a debt of gratitude to Margaret. (page 206) Weir also discusses the Spanish comments made about Elizabeth and Margaret’s relationship. She says there is much evidence “that the relationship between the two women was outwardly one of companionship and cooperation, so if there was any conflict between them, they had concealed it very well for twelve years, and would continue to do so.” (page 207). Weir cites Thomas More as describing them as living “in peaceable accord”.

Regarding the Spanish accounts, Weir says it is significant they were written by Spaniards who were accustomed to observing Queen Isabella who exercised power in her own right. Weir believes there were significant indications the women got along well and too much credence has been given to the Spanish accounts, Hewyk’s comments and the jaded comments of Sir Francis Bacon who wrote about Henry’s reign in the next century.

Eighteenth century depiction of Elizabeth of York

Weir says Elizabeth and Margaret enjoyed a harmonious and affectionate relationship based on the evidence and collaborated on many occasions as noted by the other historians mentioned above. She says while they were frequently together at court, Margaret was not always there. She would sometimes reside at Lathom House or Knowsley Hall, the northern seats of the Stanleys (Margaret’s husband was a Stanley) and when she was in London, she resided at Coldharbour. After Margaret took a vow of chastity with her husband’s permission, she was not at court as often, living in Collyweston, Woking Palace in Surrey or Hunsdon House in Hertfordshire. (page 210)

Retha Warnicke, in her book “Elizabeth of York and Her Six Daughters-in-Law: Fashioning Tudor Queenship, 1485-1547” addresses the issue of Margaret signing certain documents “Margaret R”. Some scholars have suggested this was an attempt to usurp Elizabeth’s social place as consort. Noting that in 1499, Margaret penned her name as “Margaret R” instead of “M. Richmond”, Michael Jones and Malcolm Underwood, scholars on the life of Margaret, questioned whether “R” might have meant “Regina” and whether Elizabeth resented the “aura of regality” surrounding her mother-in-law. (page 20)

Warnicke states it is more likely Margaret adopted this signature to emphasize her higher status at court as the king’s mother over and above her status as a mere countess. Beginning early in Henry VII’s reign, as the mother of the king, Margaret’s name stood first in a list of noble ladies including duchesses. This placement would have been impossible if she solely relied on her title of countess. A precedence for her status as the king’s mother and thus as a princess existed.

The Latin word “Regina” can also mean princess, a title given to some noblewomen such as Anne Seymour, Duchess of Somerset during the reign of Henry VIII. When Caxton printed books at the commandment of Elizabeth and Margaret, he referred to them as “Elizabeth…Queen of England” and “most noble princess Margaret Mother unto our…King”. And finally, Margaret began her will “We Margaret, Countess of Richmond and Derby” but also says several times in the document “we the said Princess”. (page 50, note 13)

Did Margaret Beaufort originate the “Articles Ordained by King Henry VII for the Regulation of His Household”?

Warnicke has some interesting insight into whether Margaret created new ordinances for Tudor court functions. She states that in 1790, the Society of Antiquaries published the “Articles Ordained by King Henry VII for the Regulation of His Household” in a book with other ordinances for the English court. Tradition has credited Margaret with creating these “Articles” and Henry VII purportedly approving them in 1494. (page 174)

Warnicke says Kay Staniland closely studied this publication and determined that Henry ordained the “Articles” in 1493 and that Margaret did not write them. It appears Henry and his officials simply repeated earlier royal ordinances. These “Articles” do not refer to a queen dowager and they provide rituals for a queen consort with the qualifier “if there is one”. The “Articles” mention the king’s mother and his brothers.

Consequently, it seems obvious these articles did not originate in the reign of Henry VII. He had no brothers and Henry married early in this reign, therefore having a queen consort. The most likely explanation is these ordinances originated during the reign of Elizabeth’s father Edward IV. Edward’s brothers had not yet married and his mother Cecily was not a queen dowager but a dowager duchess who often attended court. (page 174) Arlene Okerlund, in her biography of Elizabeth of York argues the “Articles” could therefore not represent Margaret’s dominant role at court and her “obsessive, manipulative personality”. (Okerlund, page 90)

Did Margaret Beaufort work diligently for her whole life to place her son on the throne?

Now we will look at the allegation that Margaret worked her entire life to make her son king. The evidence suggests otherwise. Margaret did have royal blood, being a descendant of King Edward III of England through his third son John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. John of Gaunt had various children with three women. His first wife was Blanche of Lancaster and their son Henry IV usurped the throne from his cousin King Richard II, which ushered in the Lancastrian line of kings.

Gaunt’s second wife was Constance of Castile by which he had one surviving daughter. But throughout both of these marriages he carried on an affair with Katherine Swynford. Katherine would bear four children with Gaunt, and their eldest, John Beaufort, was Margaret’s grandfather. When Constance of Castile died, Gaunt married Katherine Swynford and Richard II legitimized their children. During the reign of Gaunt’s son Henry IV, an addendum was added to the documents legitimizing these Beaufort children stipulating they could not inherit the throne of England. However, the legality of this addendum has been disputed from the very beginning. For more on this, here is an article written by Nathen Amin.

Be that as it may, all of the legitimate Lancastrian family either passed away or had no surviving children leaving the Beaufort descendants. The Beauforts were always fervent supporters of the Lancastrian kings throughout the Wars of the Roses. By 1471, Margaret was the last living male-line survivor, a status of which she was exceedingly proud. Norton says her claim to the throne was well known at the time and her contemporaries clearly recognized this.

As early as 1450, William de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk considered Margaret’s royal blood and inheritance important enough to broker a marriage with his son. When Suffolk fell out of favor with Henry VI’s government, his enemies had him arrested and imprisoned. The first charge against him was conspiring to marry his son to Margaret on the assumption that she was in line to inherit the throne if Henry VI had no children.

Later, when Henry VI and Parliament recognized his Tudor half-brothers Edmund and Jasper as his legitimate siblings by the same mother, he ennobled them and awarded the guardianship and marriage of Margaret to them. Henry may have considered naming Edmund his heir at this point and was motivated by Margaret’s royal blood and lucrative inheritance to make a match between them. Margaret did marry Edmund and together they had a son Henry, who was born after his father died.

Presentation page from the Vaux Passional, Peniarth MS 482D, f. 9r. The illuminated miniature depicts Henry VII enthroned; and in the background on the left Margaret Tudor, Mary Tudor, and the future Henry VIII beside an empty bed in the aftermath of the death of Elizabeth of York.

Eventually, due to the vagaries of the Wars of the Roses and rise of the house of York, Henry Tudor was forced to flee into exile and spent fourteen years in France and Brittany. Elizabeth Norton says in her biography that Margaret “worked tirelessly to secure his rehabilitation in England”. (page 106) Margaret worked her way into the favor of the Yorkist King Edward IV. She attended Queen Elizabeth Woodville and her daughters at the reburial of the Edward’s father and brother in the church of Fotheringhay. In 1482, Margaret held the infant Bridget, Elizabeth of York’s sister at her christening. She also entertained King Edward IV at her home during his reign.

All along the way, Margaret tried to persuade Edward there were advantages to her son returning to England.  Her objectives were to obtain a pardon for Henry, to have his father’s patrimony and title of Earl of Richmond restored to him and to arrange for him to have some of her own mother Margaret Beauchamp’s land and income bestowed to him. In June of 1482, Edward agreed Henry could receive a share of Margaret’s lands on the condition he return to England.

In addition, Edward and Margaret discussed Henry marrying one of Edward’s daughters, including Elizabeth of York. Edward and many others were tired of the civil strife and finally recognized the benefit of bringing Henry Tudor into the Yorkist camp. There exists a draft pardon of Henry along with the terms of his return but it was never ratified due to the unexpected death of Edward IV in April of 1483. (Norton, page 107)

This demonstrates that Margaret was merely asking for Henry’s rehabilitation up until 1483. Edward IV’s brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester had himself proclaimed king using methods which were not approved of by many of the nobility.  Richard’s nephews, Edward V and Richard Duke of York were imprisoned in the Tower of London and disappeared.

Many were dissatisfied with this state of affairs and some left England to join Henry in France.  Henry was being encouraged by these men and in December 1483, he swore an oath to marry Elizabeth of York in the cathedral of Vannes in Brittany.  After this, according to Polydore Virgil, an oath was sworn by the exiles to recognize Henry as king.  Ralph A. Griffiths and Roger S. Thomas in “The Making of the Tudor Dynasty” states it is unclear when Margaret turned from seeking the restoration of Henry to his English inheritance to plotting for accession. “But the disappearance of the princes was probably a crucial factor in making up her mind.” (page 91)

So, to summarize, was Margaret overbearing and dominant? Yes, probably. But Elizabeth appears to have learned to defer to her mother-in-law’s wisdom and pronouncements and wisely felt it was better not to compete with her. She may have appreciated the support and cooperation she received from Margaret. And later in the reign, when Margaret did not frequent court as much, Elizabeth was able to exercise her warranted power and influence as queen.

The evidence regarding the “Articles” appears to indicate they were not written by Margaret but came into existence during the reign of King Edward IV. It is clear from the record that contemporaries of Margaret and Henry recognized their royal blood. While Henry Tudor was in exile, Edward IV and Richard III were determined to extradite him, demonstrating they recognized him as a threat. But Margaret, along with many others, most likely did not consider the possibility of Henry being king until the events of the summer of 1483 when the sons of Edward IV disappeared.

Further reading: “The Last Medieval Queens” by J.L. Laynesmith, “Margaret Beaufort: Mother of the Tudor Dynasty” by Elizabeth Norton, “Elizabeth of York: The Forgotten Tudor Queen” by Amy License, “Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and her World” by Alison Weir, “Elizabeth of York and Her Six Daughters-in-Law: Fashioning Tudor Queenship, 1485-1547” by Retha M. Warnicke, “The Making of the Tudor Dynasty” by Ralph A. Griffiths and Roger S. Thomas, “The House of Beaufort: The Bastard Line That Captured the Crown” by Nathen Amin, “Lancastrians, Yorkists and Henry VII” by S.B. Chrimes, “Anglica Historia” by Polydore Vergil