Books interview with Nicola Tallis: “Margaret Beaufort wielded enormous power. She was a queen in all but name”

Nicola Tallis talks to Ellie Cawthorne about her new biography of matriarch Margaret Beaufort, whose sharp survival instinct during the Wars of the Roses secured her son the throne

Historian Nichola Tallis

Born in 1443, Margaret Beaufort belonged to a Lancastrian noble family with royal ancestry. By age 13, she had been married twice, widowed and given birth to a son, Henry Tudor. Margaret went on to marry two more times and survived several regime changes during the Wars of the Roses, as Lancastrian Henry VI was deposed by Yorkist Edward IV, before Edward’s brother Richard III eventually took the throne. After the battle of Tewkesbury in 1471, her son Henry Tudor went into exile, returning to England in 1485 to defeat Richard at Bosworth and claim the crown as Henry VII. Margaret survived her son’s 23-year reign, dying shortly after her grandson Henry VIII became king in 1509.

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Ellie Cawthorne: What makes Margaret Beaufort such a fascinating subject for a biographer?

Nicola Tallis: Today, Margaret is best remembered as the mother of the Tudor dynasty – her only child, Henry, went on to become King Henry VII. But what makes her most intriguing to me is that she had a life packed with drama and was the most extraordinary character. In an age when women were expected to be obedient, and subservient to their husbands, Margaret broke the rules and wasn’t afraid to make her voice heard in a male-dominated world.

We’re also fortunate to have quite a lot of source material that gives us a glimpse into what Margaret was like as a person, especially in her later years. For example, we’ve got a relatively complete set of her household accounts. We know from them that she was a woman who loved to be entertained – she had two fools, and enjoyed hunting, hawking and gambling. We also see payments in her accounts for white wine, gloves, slippers and jewels, so she was clearly fond of the finer things in life.

Margaret’s early life was dominated by instability. How did that affect her?

The fact that she lived through precarious times affected her life from the beginning. Growing up, her future was subject to the whims of men and power politics.

Margaret certainly had a devastating start in life. Her father died just a couple of days before her first birthday, probably at his own hand. Her first marriage – to John de la Pole, when she was a young child – was dissolved. Later her guardian, the Duke of Suffolk, was murdered, and when Margaret was just 13 her second husband, Edmund Tudor, died of plague. She was also heavily pregnant at the time. Suddenly, all her male protectors were gone, and she was left incredibly vulnerable.

After all of this, I think she realised that relying on the men around her could be a risky business. From that point onwards she really took control of her own destiny, and began to make her own decisions; she was determined to avoid a husband she didn’t want being thrust upon her. Rather extraordinarily, given that she was still a child at the time, she played a substantial role in arranging her own third marriage.

Margaret Beaufort, seen here in a 16th-century portrait
Margaret Beaufort, seen here in a 16th-century portrait, managed to negotiate turbulent times to become the matriarch of the Tudor dynasty. (Image by Alamy)

How did the experience of becoming a mother at such a young age change Margaret’s life?

I think it’s fair to say that Margaret started life by playing by the rules. But when her son was born, her entire outlook changed. Suddenly it was not just herself that she had to consider, she also had this whole other life to protect – one that was infinitely more precious to her.

Protecting Henry was always a real driving force for Margaret. Even much later, when Henry was on the throne, she continued to worry about her son’s welfare. She was an almost constant presence by his side for the first 10 years or so of his reign, and was especially concerned when he was plagued by pretenders.

Margaret’s confessor, John Fisher, described how, even in prosperity, she was always worrying about falling into adversity again. She was constantly wracked with anxiety about keeping Henry and her family safe – I feel like that was her primary motivation in everything she did.

Where did Margaret’s allegiances lie in the Wars of the Roses? Was she motivated by family loyalty or just a canny political operator looking for her next opportunity?

A bit of both. Margaret was very loyal to the House of Lancaster, but she’d also learnt pragmatism from an early age. She was astute enough to know when a battle or a cause was lost, at least for the time being. For example, it was at her urging that her 14-year-old son Henry Tudor fled abroad following the Lancastrian defeat at Tewkesbury in 1471, and didn’t return home again until 1485.

We can also see this pragmatism at play when Edward IV became king in 1461. Then, Margaret realised that she had no choice but to submit to the House of York. She tried her best to ingratiate herself with the Yorkist regime, laying low and trying to keep in Edward’s good books.

This seems to have been a successful strategy, because Margaret played an increasingly prominent role at the Yorkist court as the 1470s drew on. We know that at the christening of Edward and Elizabeth Woodville’s last child in 1480, Margaret carried the baby princess to the font. That indicates to me that Elizabeth Woodville had come to trust Margaret to a certain extent. We also know that she was busy trying to negotiate with the king for the return of her son from exile. Edward IV did actually draw up a draft pardon for Henry, but like an episode from a soap opera, he died before the pardon could be implemented. Soon after, Richard III came to the throne, and suddenly everything was up in the air – especially Henry’s future. At that point, Margaret threw caution to the wind and decided to risk it all.

Margaret helped instigate a plot to overthrow Richard III. What did the scheme involve?

By October 1483, just a few months after Richard’s usurpation, Margaret had already become involved in plans for a rebellion against him. Led by her kinsman, the Duke of Buckingham, the plot intended to overthrow Richard and replace him with Margaret’s son, Henry, who was exiled in Brittany at the time. We know that she was busy working on her son’s behalf, sending messengers abroad to keep Henry informed of what was going on in England. At the same time, Margaret had also been plotting with Elizabeth Woodville (who was then living in penury in Westminster Abbey) to unite the houses of Lancaster and York by marrying Henry to Elizabeth’s daughter, Elizabeth of York.

But the Buckingham plot was a dismal failure. The Duke of Buckingham himself was executed. Henry, who’d sailed to England, swiftly turned around and headed back to Brittany. Margaret could quite easily have met a traitor’s death herself – the only reason she kept her head was because Richard III needed the support of her fourth husband, Lord Stanley. It was a lucky escape, but she was placed under house arrest with her husband as her custodian, forbidden to have any contact with her son and stripped of all her lands. That must have been a bitter pill to swallow.

Some people have theorised that Margaret had a hand in the disappearance of the princes in the Tower. What do you make of that claim?

To be honest, I don’t think there’s a case to answer – it’s just absurd. I think that the princes’ fate is one of those mysteries that has captured popular imagination, and Margaret has been one of the proposed suspects for their murder. But it’s really important to recognise that not one single contemporary source links Margaret with their disappearance. To me, that is the most convincing argument that she wasn’t involved.

In 1485, Margaret’s fortunes were reversed when her son Henry returned to England, defeated Richard and took the throne. How much influence did she hold as mother of the king?

As soon as Henry became king, Margaret’s position was completely transformed. By this time, she had achieved an extraordinary level of wealth. In a completely unprecedented move, an act was passed through parliament that gave her financial independence from her husband, Thomas Stanley. All of her lands were now entirely her own. Although Margaret and Stanley remained on good terms, she also separated from him and, with his approval, took a vow of chastity. It’s almost like she waited for the moment when her son became king to suddenly turn around and say: “I don’t need a husband. Now I can do my own thing, I’m my own woman and no one is going to stop me.”

Margaret helped plot a rebellion against Richard III. The plan was to overthrow the king and replace him with her son, Henry

And it wasn’t just financial independence Margaret gained as mother of the king – she was also able to wield political power on an unprecedented scale. At the beginning of the Tudor dynasty, she was undoubtedly the most powerful woman in the realm – certainly a lot more powerful than Henry’s wife, Elizabeth of York. From 1499 onwards, she even became Henry’s unofficial lieutenant in the Midlands, passing judgments and delivering justice in his name. The fact that Henry allowed his mother to wield so much power is a real testament to the strength of their relationship, which is quite remarkable considering that they hadn’t actually spent that much time together. When her son died in 1509, Margaret also acted as unofficial regent for a few weeks until her grandson Henry VIII reached his 18th birthday, overseeing the funeral and coronation arrangements.

Her position gave her the opportunity to legitimately voice her opinions and she was able to carve out a completely new role for herself within the Tudor regime. Everyone referred to her as ‘My Lady, the King’s Mother’, and after 1499 she began signing herself ‘Margaret R’. There’s been lots of debate over whether this R was for Richmond [from her second husband’s title] or Regina. Personally, I think it was for Regina. I feel like that says it all: Margaret was basically a queen in all but name. That is really where the title of my book, Uncrowned Queen, comes from.

What kind of woman emerges from your biography?

Margaret has been given a bad reputation in some quarters, but I came away from writing the book feeling like a lot of the criticism is unjustified. I actually found her to be a woman for whom I have a great deal of admiration and empathy. There’s no doubt that she could be grasping on occasion, and politically ruthless. But she could also be warm, and extremely generous.

Ultimately, I feel like this was a woman who was driven by love for her son. Everything that she did, from an early age right until the very end of her life, was motivated by devotion to her family.

The 15th century was a really extraordinary period for women – all the turbulent ups and downs offered the opportunity to play a role in politics in a way that had never existed before. Margaret grabbed that opportunity with both hands – she wasn’t afraid to make her voice heard and pursue something that she saw as her right.

Nicola Tallis is an author, historian and researcher. Her two previous books are Crown of Blood: The Deadly Inheritance of Lady Jane Grey (2016) and Elizabeth’s Rival: The Tumultuous Tale of Lettice Knollys, Countess of Leicester (2017). Uncrowned Queen: The Fateful Life of Margaret Beaufort, Tudor Matriarch (Michael O’ Mara) is published in November 2019.

MORE FROM US: Listen to an extended version of this interview with Nicola Tallis on the HistoryExtra podcast soon

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This article was first published in the December 2019 issue of BBC History Magazine