The Tudor era can boast a plethora of family feuding, crimes of passion, collections of tragedy and acts of cruelty that would stretch the imaginations of even today’s most far-fetched soap opera writers.
And of course, Tudor addicts like me, will know that the founding of the Royal dynasty begins with one savage, selfish and almost unforgivable act of cruelty. That of a pre-teen child bride being forced into marriage with a man twice her age and exposed to sexual intercourse and the dangers of child birth long before her body, let alone her mind, was ready for either.
Margaret Beaufort fascinates me. I have spent more time trying to stitch the fragments of her life together than I have any other member of history’s royalty. And that’s why, as I have trawled through some of her earlier biographies, I have been fascinated to find that many have underplayed the trauma of her early years by making a simple but significant error, calculating her birth date at 1441 rather than the correct 1443.
Why does this matter? Because it, in part, dilutes the tragedy. If born in 1441 than Margaret fell pregnant at 14 and gave birth at 15. Still far too young of course – but it would have meant both her body and mind would have enjoyed two extra years of development and by the standards of the day, this would have been far more socially acceptable.
The origins of the error are fairly simple and apparently arise from misinterpreting evidence given at the inquest of her father’s death. However, a much stronger case can be made for a 1443 birth date; in that year her father – preparing to go off on a military adventure – was negotiating the future of his unborn child should anything happen to him. Further to this a book of hours from the family has been discovered that states her birth clearly as 1443.
But there is another piece of evidence which, despite rarely cropping up in the debate, actually makes the case for a 1443 birth almost watertight.
In his funeral sermon of the venerable Lady, her long-time friend and confessor Bishop Fisher makes it clear that she gave birth ‘before she was 14 years of age.’
Surely, I hear you ask, this could just be a miscalculation? No, it can’t be.
By saying ‘not yet 14’ Fisher is not just making a passing comment on her age. In fact, were she 14 or over he probably wouldn’t have mentioned it.
Fourteen was the closest thing that this era had to an age of consent. Sex was just about permissible at 12 but few thought it appropriate before the age of 14. Sometimes, this proviso was even written in to marriage contracts.
By saying that she was ‘not yet 14 years of age’ Fisher is acknowledging – subtly and tactfully of course – the early tragedy that befell her. That a man had violated her before an age at which it was appropriate. That everything that followed – her ensuring her son’s early safety and fighting for continual advancement – shows her incredible strength of character by being able to overcome this early tragedy.
Recent students of Margaret Beaufort cannot help be amazed at how she survived and recovered from such a horrible early experience. It would seem, from Fisher’s comments, that contempories also had a sense of it. No wonder that respective for this great lady, was almost universal.