Realistically, there could only ever be one major Wars of the Roses player left standing when it was all over. One of them always had to outlast the rest. In spite of the many battles involving men in armor, on horses with medieval weapons fighting on battlefields that are still in the United Kingdom today, the last major player standing was a woman. Her name was Margaret Beaufort, and she was almost a force of nature, working both sides of the conflict to promote her own agenda, which really had very little to do with the war in which she played such an important part. Here is her story.
Born May 31, 1443 to John Beaufort (the 1st Duke of Somerset) and Margaret Beauchamp, Margaret Beaufort was the only surviving child of her father. Her parents’ marriage was the second for her mother, and her mother had children by her first marriage, and yet another by her third. But, Margaret was her father’s sole heir. Since he was a grandson of King Edward III (making Margaret the great-granddaughter of a king), he had quite a large fortune. In her youth, Margaret Beaufort was the richest heiress in England, and a valuable prize on the nobility marriage market.
Margaret’s father died when she was not quite a year old. He had recently fallen out of favor with the current king, Henry VI, and his death was widely presumed by many to be a suicide, though whether that or an illness like the plague was the actually cause depends on which contemporary writer’s account you read. Either way, his death left his infant daughter extremely wealthy. She was betrothed when she was not quite two years old to John de la Pole, the son of the 1st Duke of Suffolk, and married to him when she was eight years old. However, the marriage was never consummated due to the young ages of the bride and groom, and the whole thing was annulled three years later. Margaret never even recognized this as a legitimate marriage in her older years, and did not refer to it among her other marriages.
After her young marriage was annulled, her wardship was transferred to the king, who was interested in rewarding his half-brothers for their service and loyalty on his behalf. To this end, he transferred wardship of the 12-year-old Margaret to his half-brother, Edmund Tudor, who was twenty-five years old at the time. Edmund married Margaret, who was of the legal age of consent at 12 years old in medieval law, and did so with the king’s blessing. The Wars of the Roses were just breaking out at the time, and Edmund was taken prisoner by the Yorkists less than a year after marrying Margaret. He died in captivity of the plague, leaving Margaret a 13-year-old widow, who was also heavily pregnant.
Margaret continued living under the protection of Edmund’s younger brother, Jasper Tudor, and gave birth to a son, Henry Tudor. Because she was so young and small, and likely not yet done growing, the birth was hard on her. In fact, it damaged her uterus so much that she was never able to get pregnant again. Henry was her one and only child, and became the focus of most of her life’s ambitions, and their resulting scheming, intriguing, and involvement in the Wars of the Roses.
Margaret eventually re-married to Sir Henry Stafford the next year. However, conflicts in the Wars of the Roses interfered in her being able to raise her son on her own, as Henry Tudor was technically a Lancastrian heir. In fact, besides the king’s own son (and only child), Henry was the only other legitimate Lancastrian heir in England. This meant when the Yorks took power when Henry was two years old, he was taken from Margaret and sent to live with his uncle Jasper Tudor in Wales, far away from the throne.
Various battles and transfers of power in the war meant Henry and Margaret only saw each other once in a while, though he did get to live with her full-time again for six months in 1470-1471 when the Lancastrians briefly took power back from the Yorks. When the Yorks once again re-took the throne, Henry and his uncle Jasper were considered enemies of the throne and had to go into exile on the European continent. Henry was fourteen years old at the time.
Despite demands from King Edward IV, the rulers of the countries Jasper and Henry stayed in refused to hand them over to him. Margaret kept in touch with them by letters. Meanwhile, Henry was undergoing military training, and Margaret had married her third husband, after her second one died of wounds sustained in battle while supporting the Yorkist cause… a cause Margaret was against.
Margaret chose her third husband herself, which was new for her. The king chose her first husband, and her mother chose her second. Margaret chose carefully, as she wanted someone who the Yorks trusted, but who was not unerringly loyal to them. She chose Thomas Stanley, the Lord High Constable of England and the King of Mann. With his influence, she got a position in the household of Queen Elizabeth Woodville, and began to ingratiate herself to the Yorks as a friend, hoping she could convince them to give her son his lands and titles back and allow him to come home as a free man.
She maintained her “fake” friendship with the Yorks into Richard III’s rule, and even carried his queen (Anne Neville)’s train at their joint coronation. It was only when rumors started that Henry Tudor was planning to invade England to take the crown from Richard, and the discovery that Margaret had been writing to her son encouraging this, that her friendship with the Yorks was ended. She was banished from court, forbidden to write to Henry, and only spared execution because of the loyalty Richard III thought her husband had for the York dynasty.
Under house arrest, Margaret still managed to get letters out into the world with the help of her husband. He wouldn’t risk letting her write to Henry, but he did help her write to the dowager queen Elizabeth Woodville, her former enemy, who was hiding with most of her children in sanctuary in Westminster Abbey, and had been since her husband died, assuming his brother Richard would try to steal the crown from her eldest son by Edward and the rightful Yorkist heir… something that proved true.
In their letters to each other, the former enemies devised a plan that would benefit them both. When Henry was sufficiently prepared, he would invade England and fight Richard. If he was successful and became king by right of the battlefield, he would marry Elizabeth Woodville’s eldest daughter by the late King Edward IV, Elizabeth of York. This marriage would not only legitimize Henry’s kingship to the people of England by marrying a known and beloved princess, it would end the Wars of the Roses by united both Lancaster and York through marriage at the highest royal level.
Elizabeth Woodville’s sons by Edward IV eventually disappeared into the Tower of London, never to be seen again (no one knew… or would say… what happened to them at the time, and we still don’t know for sure today), her youngest son by her first marriage was executed (along with one of her brothers) by Richard III, and the only son left to her was her eldest son by her first marriage, Thomas Grey. Her daughters by Edward IV were eventually permitted to leave sanctuary with a public declaration of their safety by Richard III, and Elizabeth of York was sent to live with her future mother-in-law, Margaret Beaufort.
Henry Tudor invaded England after Richard III had been on the throne for just over two years. He was not as experienced in battle as Richard, and his soldiers were largely foreign mercenaries, rather than loyal native soldiers like were in Richard’s army. It was widely assumed Richard would win, and he certainly seems to have thought so. However, Margaret’s husband was one who was skilled at playing both sides, and he always managed to ingratiate himself to whoever was in power or looked like they might be in power. He also had his own army. He took his army to the sidelines of the battle and watched and waited.
When it looked like Richard might be vulnerable, Stanley decided to go in for the step-son he’d never met in person. With Stanely’s experienced army on his side, Henry won the battle, and Richard was killed. Stanley himself put the crown taken from Richard on Henry’s head and declared him king on the battlefield.
Margaret’s lifelong ambition to not only have her son home with her, but on the English throne, came true. And, Henry never forgot all his mother sacrificed and did for him to get him there. Even after his marriage to Elizabeth of York, he gave his mother precedent in all royal things. Margaret was known as “My Lady, the King’s Mother,” and signed her letters “Margaret R,” indicating her royal status. She ruled over the king’s household, making rules for everyone in it except her son. This included the queen, who seemed content to let Margaret have her way. Elizabeth of York saw first-hand what havoc royal ambitions could bring, and she was happy to just raise her children, even if it was under Margaret’s instruction and supervision.
Henry became King Henry VII in 1485. By 1509, all of the other major players in the Wars of the Roses were gone, even Elizabeth Woodville and Edward IV’s mother, Cecily Neville. Even the secondary players, like Elizabeth of York, were gone. It was just her and Henry left, a mother-son duo to be reckoned with, powerful together as Margaret always wanted them to be. In April of 1509, even Henry left the stage. Margaret was alone, the sole surviving major player in the Wars of the Roses, though the wars were long over.
Her grandson, Henry VIII, was not yet 18 years old when his father died, and technically not legally able to rule on his own. Henry VII left his mother Margaret Beaufort in charge as regent until the new Henry VIII came of age, which showed Henry’s total trust in his mother and his reliance on her advice and guidance in all things, as a woman had never been regent of England.
Henry VIII was going to turn 18 in a couple of months when his father died, and this gave Margaret just enough time to do three very important things that exerted her considerable power once more. One, she planned and organized her son’s funeral down to the last detail. Two, she planned her grandson’s coronation with the same fine attention to detail and total control over the entire affair. Three, she wrote her will. With her son gone, upon whose success and triumph she had devoted most of her life, she had no real interest in staying around.
Once her three final important tasks were accomplished, she watched as her grandson was officially crowned Henry VIII at the lavish coronation ceremony she organized, continuing the Tudor dynasty her son started. Then, she went home, and quietly left this world in June of 1509. The last major player in the Wars of the Roses was gone, but she left a lasting legacy that continues to this day, as every English monarch who has sat on the throne since her son has been a direct descendant of hers (as well as a direct descendant of Elizabeth Woodville and Cecily Neville). Margaret lived through tumultuous times, schemed her way into the highest levels of the nobility, helped get her son on the throne with a marriage that ended the wars, and came out the ultimate champion of it all.