29 November 2019

Lady Margaret Beaufort,
a patron of colleges and theology
and one-time resident of Woking

A portrait of Lady Margaret Beaufort from the Master’s Lodge in Saint John’s College, Cambridge

Patrick Comerford

I spent two working days in Woking this week, taking part in the annual residential meeting of the the trustees of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel). Despite my plans, I never managed to get to see the ruins of Woking Palace, the residence of many royal favourites until it fell into ruins in the mid-17th century. But perhaps its most interesting resident, and the one with any theological interest, was Lady Margaret Beaufort who acquired it with the third of her four husbands, Sir Henry Stafford, by royal grant in 1466.

Lady Margaret Beaufort (1441/1443-1509) was the mother of Henry VII and grandmother of Henry VIII. Although she was never a queen or a princess, the historical novelist Philippa Gregory has labelled her the ‘Red Queen.’ She rose to prominence through astute marriages and careful manoeuvring through courts and politics during the War of the Roses, and could be described as the matriarch of the House of Tudor.

But she also founded many educational and religious institutions. She established the Lady Margaret’s Professorship of Divinity at the University of Cambridge in 1502. That year, she also endowed a lectureship in divinity at the University of Oxford, first held by John Roper. It became the Lady Margaret Professorship of Divinity, held with a canonship at Christ Church, Oxford.

She was also responsible for establishing two Cambridge colleges. In 1505 she refounded and enlarged God’s House as Christ’s College, Cambridge, with a royal charter from the king, and has been honoured ever since as the Foundress of the College. Saint John’s College, Cambridge, was founded by her estate in 1511, either at her direct behest or at the suggestion of her chaplain, John Fisher. Land that she owned around Great Bradley in Suffolk was bequeathed to Saint John’s.

Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, the first Oxford college to admit women, was founded in 1878 and is named after her. There is a statue of her in the college chapel.

The Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology (MBIT) in Cambridge is a Roman Catholic offering transformative experiences for its students. It is based at Lady Margaret Beaufort Convent, Grange Road, Cambridge. Its primary mission is to educate and theologically empower women in the Church. It also provides a space for theological reflection and spiritual formation. It is a member of the Cambridge Theological Federation (CTF).

She founded a school in Wimborne that later to became Queen Elizabeth’s School, Wimborne Minster. Margaret Beaufort Middle School in Riseley, Bedfordshire, near her birthplace, is also named after her.

Lady Margaret Beaufort’s coat of arms on the gatehouse at Christ’s College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Lady Margaret was born at Bletsoe Castle, Bedfordshire, on 31 May in either 1441 or 1443. She was the daughter and sole heiress of John Beaufort, Duke of Somerset (1404-1444), a legitimised grandson of John of Gaunt – 1st Duke of Lancaster and third surviving son of King Edward III – and his mistress Katherine Swynford.

Margaret was married four times. She was first married to John de la Pole in 1444, when she was perhaps a year old but certainly no more than three. But she never recognised this marriage, it was dissolved and King Henry VI granted her wardship to his own half-brothers, Jasper and Edmund Tudor. In her will 1472, she refers to Edmund Tudor as her first husband. Under canon law, Margaret was not bound by the marriage contract as she was entered into the marriage before reaching the age of 12.

Even before the annulment of her first marriage, Henry VI chose Margaret as a bride for his half-brother, Edmund Tudor. Edmund was the eldest son Owen Tudor and the king’s mother, Catherine of Valois.

Margaret was 12 when she married the 24-year-old Edmund Tudor on 1 November 1455. The Wars of the Roses had just broken out and Edmund, a Lancastrian, was taken prisoner by Yorkist forces within a year. He died of the plague in captivity at Carmarthen on 3 November 1456, leaving a 13-year-old widow who was seven months pregnant with their child.

Margaret was taken into the care of her brother-in-law, Jasper Tudor, at Pembroke Castle, and there she gave birth on 28 January 1457 to her only child, Henry Tudor, the future Henry VII. The birth was particularly difficult, because of her age and her size, and she never gave birth to another child.

From the age of two, Henry lived with his father’s family in Wales, and from 14 he lived in exile in France.

On 3 January 1458, still a teenager, the widowed Margaret married her third husband, Sir Henry Stafford (1425-1471), son of Humphrey Stafford, 1st Duke of Buckingham. They were second cousins, and they moved into Woking Palace which she restored.

Stafford died in 1471 of wounds at the Battle of Barnet, fighting for the Yorkists. At 28, Margaret was a widow once again.

The gatehouse at Saint John’s College is similar in many ways to its counterpart at Christ’s College (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Her fourth marriage was with Thomas Stanley, the Lord High Constable and King of Mann in 1472. At first, this was a marriage of convenience, and Margaret may have never seen herself as a member of the Stanley family. But this marriage allowed her to return to the court of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, and she was chosen by Queen Elizabeth as the godmother to one of her daughters.

With Edward IV’s death and the seizure of the throne by Richard III, Margaret was soon back at court, working with the new queen, Anne Neville. But Richard III then stripped her of all her titles and estates, stopping short of a full attainder by transferring her property to her husband.

Meanwhile, Margaret was secretly plotting with the dowager queen, Elizabeth Woodville, and was probably involved in Buckingham’s rebellion. It was presumed that Queen Elizabeth’s sons, the Princes in the Tower, had been murdered, it was agreed that Margaret’s son, Henry, would be betrothed to Elizabeth of York, the eldest daughter of Elizabeth and Edward IV. This created a marriage alliance with potential to attract support from both Yorkists and Lancastrians.

Margaret’s husband Thomas Stanley had fought for Richard III in the Buckingham rebellion. But he did not respond to the call to fight at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 and remained aloof from the battle, even though his eldest son, George Stanley, was held hostage by Richard III.

After Bosworth, Stanley placed the crown on the head of his stepson, Henry VII, who later made him Earl of Derby. Margaret was then styled Countess of Richmond and Derby and assumed the title of the King’s Mother.

Lady Margaret Beaufort’s statue on the gatehouse at Christ’s College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Later in her marriage, Margaret preferred living alone, and she took a vow of chastity in 1499 in the presence of Richard FitzJames, Bishop of London. She moved away from her husband and lived alone at Collyweston, Northamptonshire, near Stamford. She renewed those vows in 1504.

Margaret translated and published one of the most widely read devotional texts of all time, the Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. She was a sponsor of the printer Caxton and was, therefore, a major supporter of the new media of her day.

She died in the Deanery at Westminster Abbey on 29 June 1509. This was the day after her grandson’s 18th birthday, and just over two months after the death of her son. John Fisher preached the sermon at her funeral. She is buried in the Henry VII Chapel in Westminster Abbey. Her tomb is now located between the later graves of William III and Mary II and the tomb of Mary Queen of Scots.

Erasmus wrote the Latin inscription on her tomb: ‘Margaret, Countess of Richmond, mother of Henry VII, grandmother of Henry VIII, who donated funds for three monks of this abbey, a grammar school in Wimborne, a preacher in the whole of England, two lecturers in Scripture, one at Oxford, the other at Cambridge, where she also founded two colleges, one dedicated to Christ, and the other to St John, the Evangelist.’

Lady Margaret Beuafort’s coat of arms at the gatehouse at Saint John’s College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The Chapel of Christ’s College was consecrated on or around 1 June 1510 by the then Bishop of Ely, James Stanley, a stepson of Lady Margaret Beaufort. A pious woman, it is said that even before the chapel was consecrated she heard Mass from a gallery now represented by a window in the south wall of the chapel, although the chapel was not formally consecrated until a year after her death.

Her portraits hang in the Great Halls and other college rooms at both Christ’s College and Saint John’s College, Cambridge. Both colleges use her heraldic arms and motto as their own. The Lady Margaret Society and the Beaufort Club at Christ’s, and the Lady Margaret Boat Club at Saint John’s are named after her.

According to Cambridge myth, the name Lady Margaret was adopted after the Saint John’s Boat Club was banned from using that name. However, the club was probably named after its boat, as was custom in the formative years of college rowing. The alumni race as Lady Somerset Boat Club.

Her son was Henry VII of England. His first parliament recognised her right to hold property independently from her husband, as if she were unmarried. Henry VIII often visited Woking Palace and throughout his reign it underwent regular maintenance as well as some alterations. But i never got to see its ruins this week.

Lady Margaret Boat Club in Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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