Great Englishwomen - M. B. Synge

The Lady Margaret (1441-1509)

Margaret Beaufort, or the Lady Margaret, was the mother of Henry VII., and an ancestor of Queen Victoria. She was by far the greatest woman of her day. "It would fill a volume to recount her good deeds," says a writer of the times. Full of pity and love for the poor, she devoted herself as well to help on the learning of the richer classes; she was a mother to the young students of the Colleges, always ready to forgive injuries done her, ready to work when there was work to be done, and "All England at her death had cause of weeping," writes a bishop who knew her very well.

She was born on the last day of May, 1441, at a large manor in Bedfordshire. Her father was of royal blood, being grandson to John of Gaunt, a son of Edward III. and Philippa of Hainault, about whom you have heard. The child Margaret was named after her mother. At an early age she learnt to read, and, what was considered a rare accomplishment in those days, to write; she was fond of French, and knew a little Latin, but not much, and she often complained in later life because she had not learnt more. Her needlework was beautiful, and it is said that James I., whenever he passed, stopped to see the work done by the fingers of his great-grandmother.

There is still a carpet to be seen worked entirely by her. When she grew a little older, she learnt about medicine and sickness, and in later life we find her devoting a part of each day to dressing the wounds of poor people and helping to ease their suffering.

When she was only nine, the Duke of Suffolk, a great man in England, wished her to marry his son John, for he knew she would some day be very rich; but the King of England, Henry VI., wanted the little heiress to marry his brother Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond. The little girl did not know what to do. The night before her fate was to be decided, she lay awake, thinking and praying, when suddenly, at about four in the morning, "one appeared unto her arrayed like a bishop, and naming Edmund, told her to marry him," and not the other. The child told her vision to her mother, and soon after she was betrothed to the Earl of Richmond, and when she was fifteen they were married. They went to live in a Welsh castle, but only for a short time. They had not been married two years, when the Earl of Richmond died, leaving Margaret a widow at sixteen. She mourned for him very deeply, but the birth of a little son, the future Henry VII. of England, occupied all her time and thoughts; for he was so delicate and fragile a baby, that it was a question whether he would live or die.

Now the Wars of the Roses were raging in England. Margaret's uncle, the Duke of Somerset, had been killed at the battle of St. Albans, and she thought it safest to stay quietly in Wales, taking no part in the war. Still, it was a trying time for the young mother, closely related to the fighting parties, listening breathlessly from day to day for news of the victories and losses, watching over the interests of her infant son, the young Earl of Richmond. When he was but a few years old, his mother presented him to the king, Henry VI., his great uncle. Henry solemnly blessed the child, and placing his hands on the young earl's head, said: "This pretty boy will wear the garland in peace, for which we so sinfully contend,"—words treasured by the young mother and remembered in after years.

In 1459 the Lady Margaret married the Earl of Stafford, great-great-grandson of Edward III. and Philippa, and she still lived on in Wales.

Margaret taught her son Henry a good deal herself; the boy was growing up sad and serious and thoughtful, fond of his books, fond of rugged Wales, and as was but natural devoted to his young mother.

The battle of Tewkesbury and accession of Edward IV. made it unsafe for him to remain in England; so with his uncle he went to France, where he stayed for some time.

Separation from her son was a great trial to the Lady Margaret, and her thoughts were constantly with her exiled child.

It was her habit to get up at five in the morning, and pass five hours in prayer. Ten o'clock was the dinner hour in those days, and the rest of the day she devoted to helping the poor around her and to translating French into English, so that those who did not know French might be able to read the English translation. Printing was hardly known in England, so she had to copy out all her writings herself.

In 1482 her second husband died, and not long after she married Lord Stanley, a great friend of the king, Edward V., by which means she hoped to forward her son's cause in England. At the coronation of Richard, the Lady Margaret and her husband were present; for we hear that the Lady Margaret was sent "ten yards of scarlet for her livery, a long gown made of crimson velvet with cloth of gold and another of blue velvet;" she walked just behind the queen and held up her train, a fact which showed she was in royal favour then. But not for long. Besides being a usurper and murderer, Richard III. was a bad king, and the people wanted to depose him, and set on the throne Margaret Beaufort's son, Henry Tudor.

It was proposed that he should marry Elizabeth, daughter of the late king; then all the friends of the Red Rose and the White Rose would join together, and overthrow Richard. Richard heard of the plot, the Lady Margaret was accused of high treason, and it was only by reason of her husband's favour with the king that her life was spared. At last, in 1485, Henry came over from France, went to Wales, collected an army, defeated and slew Richard at Bosworth. Now Lord Stanley had come to the battle with Richard, but just as the battle was going to begin, he took all his men, and went over to Henry's side.

The battle began. Richard fought like a lion, determined to conquer; he knew that Richmond was but a youth, who had never fought before, not even "trained up in arms." To kill the young Henry was his own aim and object.

"I think there be six Richmonds in the field;

Five have I slain to-day instead of him!"

are the words which Shakspere puts into his mouth, as the king is again unhorsed. But his enemies were too strong for him. When the battle was over, Richard III. was found dead upon the field of Bosworth, and Lord Stanley, taking the crown which the king had worn in battle, placed it upon the head of Henry, now King of England.

Then came the meeting with his mother. "Tell me," he had said before the battle, when Lord Stanley had come to fight for him and was wishing him victory and fortune, "tell me, how fares our loving mother?" and Stanley had answered, "I bless thee from thy mother, who prays continually for Richmond's good." Now mother and son met again; they had not seen one another for fourteen long years, years of the deepest anxiety to both. Margaret had parted from him as a serious and thoughtful boy—"a little peevish boy," Shakspere calls him; she met him again as a hero, the King of England. One of Henry's first acts as king was to restore to his mother the lands and titles which Richard had taken away from her.

Then Henry married the rightful heiress of the throne—Elizabeth, daughter of Edward IV., and England was once more at peace. A grand coronation took place, and this is what we hear of Margaret. "When the king her son was crowned, in all that great triumph and glory she wept marvellously."

The Lady Margaret loved her daughter-in-law very tenderly, and Elizabeth the queen was always pleased to have her at court. But she did not give herself up to the pleasures and comforts of court life; her work lay in another direction. At one of her large country houses she made a plan to keep twelve poor people, giving them lodging, meat, drink, and clothing, visiting them when she could, and waiting on them herself.

She was the highest lady in England after the queen, but she never thought any service too menial for her, any duty too humble for her to perform. One of her manor-houses she had already given up to a poor clergyman in Devonshire, who had many weary miles to walk from his own house to his church, and was thankful to have a home nearer to his work.

Now while the Wars of the Roses had been going on, William Caxton, having learnt the art of printing, had set up a press in London. Margaret Beaufort was one of his first zealous supporters, and to her he dedicated one of his first printed books. But the name of the Lady Margaret is perhaps best known at Cambridge; for it was there, in 1505, that she founded two colleges, which still exist. One, under the name of "God's house," had been founded by Henry VI., but it never flourished, and when the Lady Margaret heard what a state it was in, she refounded it with the title of "Christ's College." The college was to hold a master, twelve fellows, and forty-seven scholars, and the countess framed all the rules for them herself. The scholars were to have a certain small sum of money a year for their clothes, which were to be bought at a neighbouring fair; they were not to keep any dogs or birds, and were only to be allowed cards at Christmas time. The Lady Margaret took great interest in the college; one day, when it was but partly built, she went to see it. Looking out of a window, she saw the dean punishing a "faulty scholar." Her heart was moved to pity, and she cried out, "gently, gently," thinking it better rather to lessen his punishment than to ask pardon for him altogether.

In 1506, the king and his mother both visited Cambridge to see the beautiful chapel of King's College, which was nearly finished.

She did not live to see St. John's Hospital completely founded (though she obtained consent to have it made into a college), or King's College finished, but her arms are over the gates of the college, her crest and coronet in the window of the hall; still her name is mentioned every year with the other founders of colleges, and her name is given to buildings and societies and clubs.

In 1509, Henry VII. died, leaving Margaret, "our dearest and most entirely beloved mother," as he calls her, to choose councillors for her grandson Henry, a boy of eighteen.

At last her strong health began to fail; she had survived parents, husbands, and her only son, but when those around her saw she could not live "it pierced their hearts like a spear."

"And specially when they saw she must needs depart from them, and they should forgo so gentle a mistress, so tender a lady, then wept they all marvellously, wept her ladies and kinswomen, to whom she was full kind, wept her poor gentlewomen whom she had loved so tenderly before, wept her chaplains and priests, wept her other true and faithful servants."

She died on June 29th, 1509.

She was buried in Westminster Abbey, in a part called Henry VII.'s Chapel, and a tomb of black marble was erected to her memory. On the top lies a figure of the Lady Margaret in her coronet and robes of state; her head rests on cushions, her feet are supported by a fawn. It is one of the most beautiful monuments in the Abbey, and if you ever go there, look at it and remember the Lady Margaret's life and work.