Friends, rivals, enemies? The relationship between Margaret Beaufort and Elizabeth Woodville

 

With the ‘White Princess’ currently broadcasting in America it’s important to take a more balanced look at the relationship between the so called ‘Red Queen’ and ‘White Queen.’

Being UK based I haven’t actually seen the ‘White Princess’ so I’m basing any comments on the book and what American friends have reported.

Sorry about the length and quality.  Am working on my skills!

Why Lancaster DID have a better claim than York – at least according to Edward III

Loyal readers will know that I’m something of a ‘Wars of the Roses’ fan.  I mean, obviously I’m not actually a fan of any war – but you get what I mean.

Some argue the wars ended in 1471, others in 1485.  In reality they are still bring fought today – just on social media rather than the battle field.

Or, to be less dramatic, it is fair to say that the debate around which Royal House – York or Lancaster – had the best claim to the throne is still hotly debated.

Choosing the Red and White Roses.jpgThe Wars of the Roses saw the houses of York and Lancaster fight for the throne
between 1455 and 1470

The argument – with respect to my fellow geeks – is not always at the most sophisticated level.  A slightly flippant summary would go along the lines of ‘I’m a Tudor geek so Lancaster had the best claim’ to be retaliated with ‘York had the moral high ground because I fancy Max Irons.’

Up until recently, my more moderate view was that ‘York probably had the best claim’ while accepting it wasn’t a black and white issue.  I even created some quite hilarious memes to that effect.  But there’s a reason I decided to pick up my virtual biro and pen this post.  That’s right super cool readers…following a bit more research, I have changed my mind.

Let’s have a quick recap. In 1399, Henry Bolinbroke deposed his cousin Richard II and established the house of Lancaster on the throne of England.

Henry IV – as Bolinbroke became – was the eldest boy of John of Gaunt – third son of Edward III.

The Lancastrian crown then passed safely down the dynasty for three generations until in the late 1450s people got fed up with the well meaning but weak Henry VI who was probably mentally ill.  He was challenged for the throne by his distant cousin Richard, Duke of York – a descendant of Edmund of Langley, Edward III’s fourth surviving son.

On the face of it therefore, York’s claim seems pretty weak; Langley was certainly the younger brother to Gaunt.  But here’s the snag.  Richard was also descended from Philippa of Clarence, the daughter of Lionel of Antwerp – Edward III’s second son.  So, if you accept that women can transmit their claim to the throne to their male descendants, York really did have a claim worth taking seriously.

Richard, Duke of York claimed the throne as a descendant of Lionel of Antwerp,
Edward III’s second son

By the end of the end of the 15th century, descent through the female line was broadly accepted as a legal basis for succession.  Henry VII loosely claimed the throne through his mother, Margaret Beaufort and his son had a far greater claim through descent from Elizabeth of York.  Perhaps because my interest in history began in the Tudor era, I have always been tempted to read this mindset into earlier generations and this might be why I had always assumed York’s claim was slightly superior, despite recognising it was complicated.

However, the more I’ve researched the politics, law and conventions of the 14th century, the more I’ve begun to question my thinking.  I’ve discovered that- while Salic law, which prohibits women from inheriting the throne was never formally introduced – the trend toward male-only inheritance was gaining currency.  Many nobles were entailing their estates so that only sons could inherit.

It would seem that the great Edward III has similar sentiments.  Disaster struck the Royal House when Edward the Prince of Wales (known to history as the ‘Black Prince’) died prematurely leaving one surviving son behind.  In a world of high mortality, the succession was far from secure.

To the political classes it was unclear whether the next heir after Prince Richard (the future Richard II) was Roger Mortimer, son of Philippa of Clarence (the heir general) or John of Gaunt and his son (the heirs male).

Essentially, because the Duke of York inherited the Mortimer claim via his mother, it is this question that legitimised the Wars of the Roses.  But, little did I realise until recently, it is actually one that Edward III had decided to answer.  In 1376 he created a document that made clear his intent to entail the throne through the male line.  Should Richard II’s line fail, his intent was that the crown should pass to Lancaster.

Early modern half-figure portrait of Edward III in his royal garb.

The mighty Edward III wanted his throne to pass only
through the male line

Legally, the only thing that could really override this would be if Richard had nominated a successor – but he appeared to leave the question open, possibly for political leverage.  However he did ultimately name Henry as his successor by the handing over of the ring – admittedly under some duress.  When Parliament accepted Henry IV’s sovereignty in 1399 it was probably not because of the size of his army – and indeed there is much to suggest that his ‘coup’ was relatively bloodless – and more to do with the fact that,  once a case could be made to dispose Richard, a Lancastrian succession was legally appropriate.

That said, there were those in the reign of Henry IV who always believed the Mortimer claim to be superior – although usually because they had something to gain from thinking like that.   I accept this is not a closed conversation.

But what you can’t do, is start applying attitude changes retrospectively.  By the 1460s, people were more open to female succession in the 1460s.  To an extent, even Lancastrians had to be.   Henry VI’s unimpressive efforts in reproduction were leaving Margaret Beaufort as one of the talked about candidates for the crown.  But you can’t wind the clock back and uproot a dynasty and this is why no one took York’s claims particularly seriously until he made them good on the battle field.  When changes in attitude take place and the rules of succession evolve, it is generally accepted that these apply only to future generations.

Lady Margaret Christ's College Library.jpg

In her youth, Margaret Beaufort was talked about by some Lancastrians as the
potential heir to the throne

I’ve had blogged previously about why Edward IV must be deemed a usurper; this post reinforces my views.  The House of York did not have a superior claim to the throne than Lancaster; instead they did what other usurping dynasties before them had done – they allowed might to make right and came up with a justification to rubber stamp it.  Lancaster had done the same in 1399 by attempting to claim senior descendants from Henry III.  It just so happens that York’s claims had a little more credibility to back up their military antics.

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In defence of Henry VI

Image result for Henry VI

Been thinking lately about good King Henry.  No not that one.  Nor that one.  Not even that one.

I speak not of Henry VIII, who transformed England perhaps more than any other ruler.  Nor do I dwell on his father, who founded the infamous Tudor dynasty.  I do not even mean the fifth Harry, who took England to its 100 year war zenith at the battle of Agincourt.

Instead, I’ve been pondering the reign of Henry VI – the man whose reign was seen as so disastrous that it led to the Wars of the Roses and ultimately, the downfall of Lancaster and the rise of York.  He was weak.  Easily led.  He had no desire for glory in war.  He lacked ruthlessness.  He was far too trusting; particularly when it came to unscrupulous advisers.

All this is accurate.  He had none of the qualities necessary for successful medieval Kingship.

But something bothers me about how history judges him.  No sympathy has emerged and few rarely speak up for his good qualities.  He was a man of genuine religious conviction.  He was compassionate.  He invested in education.  He forgave people that wronged him.  He was not promiscuous.  He took care of his maternal half-brothers.  He was a lover of peace.

None of this, I agree, would have endeared him to contemporaries.  But shouldn’t the 21st century observer be pouring praise on these virtues?  After all, the behaviour of Catherine Howard made her a totally unsuitable Tudor Queen; but the modern reader has sympathy with her, recognising that she was essentially an abused teenage girl, forced into marriage with an obese man in his 50s.  Why isn’t Henry VI given the same generosity?

It has come to my attention of late that the Wars of the Roses are still being fought – albeit by history fans on Twitter.  Great!  But it surprises me that so many side with Edward IV at the expense of poor Henry.

Don’t get me wrong – as I’ve said above, I understand why contemporaries would have seen Edward as the better King.  But shouldn’t we judge differently?  Shouldn’t we be quick to acknowledge that virtuous, faithful, peaceful Henry is a better offering than adulterous, gluttonous and war ready Edward – even if we have to sadly acknowledge that the latter probably makes you a better ruler of 15th century England?

But we don’t.  Part of me can’t shake the feeling that this has all been distorted by the fact that so many history fans have a crush on Max Irons…

Anyway, for this blogger at least, Henry VI deserves a reprieve.  He may have been one of the most unsuited heads to ever wear a crown – but he’s one of the finest characters in the annals of history.

Okay Yorkists (and other geeks) – do your worst.  Tell me where I’m going wrong!  I want to hear what you think!

How the ‘White Queen’ got Margaret Beaufort so, so wrong…

cropped-beaufort_margaret1-1.png

As I trawled through my Google analytics the other day, I noticed that my post on the ‘Three things the White Queen Got Wrong’ was one of the highest read so far.  In fact, with the exception of anything about Prince Harry, the Wars of the Roses is easily the most popular topic.  Clearly the hit BBC series had something to do with that.

And for the most part, I’m a fan.  I’m relatively relaxed about the fact that historical fiction needs to take twists and turns that cause it to differ from the facts.  Obviously I wish that people would channel their new found interest into checking out an actual history book, but the fact that they don’t isn’t the fault of fiction writers or TV producers.

But it’s the Margaret Beaufort stuff that still bothers me.  I know, I know – I’ve blogged about this before.  However, the more I get into engaging with the historical community on Twitter (which I love by the way) the more I realise that some stuff still needs to be said.

For me, it isn’t the fact that the White Queen series has got facts about Margaret’s life wrong.  These things happen and actually the Philippa Gregory book of ‘The Red Queen’ is chronologically very accurate (and btw, an excellent read).  It’s the fact that her portrayal on the series – and how she is presented in other formats – has totally skewed perceptions of her.  This has now reached such an extent that back in 2013, the BBC history website (which many might understandably view as a respectable source) actually listed Margaret as a potential killer of the Princes in the Tower – almost as if the case against her was as strong of that against Richard III.

Anyway, I’m getting toward the end of my rant.  What I want to do quickly, is just list three things I believe about Margaret which the White Queen TV series entirely failed to capture:

  • She had a sense of humour – Okay, so she didn’t exactly leave behind a collection of published jokes in her (for the time) quite extensive collection of books, but that doesn’t mean she was all work and no fun.  There is evidence of her sharing jokes with servants and making humorous remarks in correspondence.  Her household was remembered as a happy place to be.
  • She was a pragmatist – I really did not like the Lancastrian fanatic that was presented in the White Queen.  Yes, she knew where her deep loyalties lay but she was as happy as most people of the era to play the game.  When she needed to be loyal to the Yorkist Edward IV (who she was actually genetically more closely related to than she was Lancaster’s Henry VI) then loyal she was.
  • She was quite a good wife – Margaret’s second husband, Sir Henry Stafford, was presented in the series as a loyal and long suffering spouse to the cold and aggressive Margaret.  Despite being only fifteen when she married the thirty-something year old, there is much evidence that their wedding was warm and happy.  Its childlessness is probably better explained by the damage caused by the birth of Henry VII (when Margaret was just 13) rather than any sexual frigidity on her part.

Rant over for now.  But one day, I would love to see a novel and TV series that present the warmer, practical and realistic Margaret that I have been privileged to get to know through study.

Was Edward IV a usurper?

Image result for edward iv

I stumbled across something interesting the other day.  For some reason, I was checking out the Wikipedia entry on ‘usurpers of the English throne’ (we’ve all done it) and discovered that it features a list of those who had seized the crown.  As you can imagine, it was an exciting moment!

But it was also a moment that triggered a surge of indignation in my usually placid personality.  For while Henry IV, the first Lancastrian King had made his way onto the list, Edward IV of the House of York was strangely absent.

Before this spirals into a whole Lancaster vs York partisan thing, let me be clear: I fully accept that Henry IV deserves his place on the list.  Even though his bid to seize the throne was initially fairly popular and despite propagandist claims that his cousin Richard II ‘agreed’ to the new arrangement, there can be no doubt that Henry of Bolingbroke was a usurper.  Richard II was clearly forced off the throne and even if he had died or surrendered it willingly, there was arguably another with a better claim.

But excluding Edward IV, who seized the throne from the Lancastrians in 1461, really got my goat.

Although the authors of the page do not present a reason for their spurious (yes, I said it – spurious) decision, it’s not hard to guess where they’re coming from.  While Henry Bolingbroke – as the eldest son of Edward III’s third son – was the heir male of his grandfather (or at least, he was after Richard II had actually died), the house of York descended in the female line from Lionel of Antwerp (Edward’s second son), making Edward IV the heir general of his namesake.  Most historians now believe this gave York a superior claim to the throne.  No doubt the Wikipedia entry does therefore not list the first York King as a usurper because they view it as a restoration of the true blood line.

But this doesn’t stack up.

To start with, back in 1399, when Henry IV was crowned, there was genuine confusion as to whether someone could base their claim to the throne through descent in the female line.  Obviously this had become fairly meaningless by the end of the War of the Roses when even the best Lancastrian claimant (Henry Tudor) was basing his right to the crown on his mother’s lineage.  But for as long as the male-line Lancastrian wing existed, they had a right which could well have been viewed as superior.

The real reason actually goes much deeper.  Regardless of the ‘who had the better claim’ debate, the truth was that by 1461, the house of Lancaster was an established dynasty.  The crown had passed seamlessly from the first Lancastrian King to his son who reigned so successfully that his infant boy inherited without challenge.  Not only had Henry VI inherited the crown smoothly enough, he had held it for the first 40 years of his reign without anyone questioning it.  When Edward IV managed to get his hands on power, Parliament had only recently re-asserted Henry’s right to it, albeit at the cost of disinheriting his son.

To take the throne, Edward IV had to seize it by force.  Both law and the establishment were initially against him.  In my book, this is the very definition of usurption and, to be frank, it should be in anybody’s.  Perhaps the Wikipedia community could take a little look at this post and snap into edit mode.

(Editor’s note: What really makes my blood boil is that Richard III is also excluded from the list of usurpers.  I’m too angry about this to even put pen to paper.)

Well geeks over to you…am I misjudging what it means to usurp?  Are you a crazed Yorkist who believes that house can do no wrong?  Do you have a crush on Max Hastings and are letting that cloud your view?  I want to know what YOU think!

Could Edward IV have been illegitimate?

EdwardIV

The great Tudor rose.  Red for Lancaster and white for York.  A symbol that good King Henry had united the waring houses and brought stability to England.

And of course it wasn’t just a piece of empty imagery; it was a symbol of success.  He had infused his Lancastrian blood with the rival genepool of Elizabeth of York, thanks to an alliance between their respective mothers, giving birth in turn to a host of young Yorkcastrians, better known to us as the Tudors.

But what if there was a break somewhere in the chain?  What if instead of uniting his line with the descendants of Richard, Duke of York, Henry had inadvertently hooked up with the heir to a little-known French archer?  According to rumours, he had done just that.

The story goes that when they were both in France, Cecily, Duchess of York and her husband the Duke were temporarily estranged due to his military commitments.  During this separation, she succumbed to the advances of an archer named Blaybourne and fell pregnant with the child that would one day become Edward IV, hero of the house of York and father to the first Tudor Queen.

Most damagingly, it is claimed the story originates with Cecily herself.  As even the most casual observer of this era will be aware, Edward’s marriage to the low-born Elizabeth Woodville (whose family were both known as Lancastrian sympathisers and fierce social climbers) was immensely controversial.  Apparently, so enraged was she with her son, that she threatened to confess that he was illegitimate and deprive him of the throne.

It’s a serious accusation but one we should be cautious about taking at face value.  There is no record of the rumour before 1483 when it emerged in the pages of Dominic Mancini, an Italian scholar dispatched to England to serve as the eyes and ears of a continental Bishop.  It must be remembered that at this point, Richard III and his cronies were putting it about that Edward IV was a bastard, in order to bolster his younger brother’s claim for the throne.  It is likely therefore that this rumour crops up for the first time in 1483 and probably didn’t spring from Cecily’s lips.

Without being able to depend on this fundamental plank of evidence, the rest of the arguments fall down somewhat.  Let’s explore them.

  • The absence of the Duke of York at the time of conception – When you look at Edward’s birthdate (in late April 1442) and work backwards, it appears as if the Duke of York was away from home at the time of conception, but the truth is, we just don’t have enough evidence to read too much into it.  The couple resided in France at the time and while the Duke was away, he wasn’t so far that the Duchess couldn’t have joined him for some of this time.  Of course, the future King could also have been slightly premature or even a little late – there isn’t much time in it.  All of these seem more likely than the Duchess secretly ‘liaised’ with a man of such lower rank, that tongues would surely have been set wagging.  We should remember that no rumours of Edward’s paternity are recorded before a time when they were politically advantageous to someone.
  • A low-key baptism – It has been suggested that Edward’s low-key baptism (in the corner of the church), which contrasted a year later with a more lavish christening for his younger brother, indicate that the Duke of York was not going to splash out for a baby that he didn’t think was his.  However, this is counter-intuitive; if the Duke of York had decided to raise this child as his heir, even if he was suspicious of paternity, surely he would have gone out of his way to maintain a pretence of legitimacy rather give the world a sign that his wife had so embarrassingly betrayed him.  Besides, the Duke and Duchess had previously had a son who died very soon after birth; their decision to go for a low-key baptism was probably a sign that they had concerns for his health and wanted to make sure he was dedicated to God before anything went wrong.  Incidentally, this somewhat backs up the suggestion that he was premature.
  • A lack of physical resemblance between father and son – This is a bit of a non-starter.  Yes, Edward was tall and strapping (which his father was not) but there are plenty of obvious people in his blood line (on both mother and father’s side) where he could have got this from.  Family resemblance is tricky and for those of us analysing today, we don’t have an awful lot to go on.
  • Both his brothers accused him of being a bastard – Yes they did.  Both had a political motive for doing so.  Others made such accusations as well, but not until long after he was born and crowned.  Besides, when a noble was born in another country, away from the glare of the commentators of the day, rumours often surrounded the circumstances of their birth.  John of Gaunt is an example of this.

Aside from all the above there are other points worth mentioning.  Cecily was outraged by such rumours (suggesting, again, that she didn’t start them) and it seems hugely out of character for her to have committed adultery, especially with someone of low-birth.  I think it is also reasonable to assume that Richard, Duke of York believed that Edward was his; he is unlikely to have claimed the throne for his descendants and willingly passed it on to another man’s son.

All this said, I have only had chance to #digalittledeeper into this topic.  One day I would love to research it more thoroughly and am certainly open to changing my mind.

Why Margaret Beaufort could NOT have killed the Princes in the Tower

Picard - Beaufort - Princes

I’ve always known that a handful of people judge Margaret Beaufort guilty of the death of the Princes in the Tower.  But until I published my series on Richard III – and incurred the wrath of the Ricardians – I had no idea just how widespread the theory was.

Absolutely no contemporary source links Margaret to the crime.  An obscure 17th century biographer attempting to redeem Richard III links the deaths to a ‘certain Countess’ (presumably of Richmond) but offers nothing by way of evidence.   I can’t shake the feeling that this view is currently so popular because of the ‘White Queen’ TV series in 2013.

It is, I believe, credible to suggest that Margaret had a motive.  With the sons of Edward IV out the way, nothing would stand in the way of her son making an alliance with Elizabeth of York, uniting their claim to the throne and over throwing the tyrannical Richard. But a motive is not proof.  It isn’t even close.

At the heart of this debate, in my opinion, is a correct understanding of how closely guarded the Princes were. Mancini tells us that Richard dismissed the boys’ servants and drew them closer into the tower.  Only Richard’s loyalist men had access to them in the context of a high security prison.

How could Margaret possibly have gained access to the Princes, even if she had wanted to?  The usual arguments go like this:

She was a wealthy woman who could have bribed the guards – She was a woman of some means.  But what on earth could she have given Richard’s most trusted men that would trigger abandonment of their master.  Killing princes, even ones deem illegitimate, is a pretty risking business – one you would answer for with your head.  I just can’t believe that you would do it under the orders of anyone but the ruler of the day.

Her husband, Lord Stanley was a mover and shaker at court – Yes he was.  But it does not equate that he would have access to the Princes.  He was powerful; but he was not part of Richard’s inner circle.

I’m worried about the way some people are thinking about the Wars of the Roses at the moment.  I consider myself a feminist and I agree that for too long, historians neglected the powerful impact that women have made throughout the ages.  But we do no favours to anyone when we try and make the facts match our values.  Women were not the key players in the 15th century.  Perhaps they should have been.  But they weren’t.

When engaging with people on this debate, I keep hearing people argue Margaret’s guilt with lines such as ‘she was a powerful woman in a man’s world.’  Perhaps she was; but it’s disturbing that people are almost suggesting that the murder of two young boys is somehow a display of power that we feminists should be proud of.

There’s much we don’t know about Lady Margaret Beaufort.  But what we do know suggests she was a kind, generous, pious, if a little austere figure.  Child murder was not something that was likely to appeal to her and even if it had, she could not have had the means.

Only one man had access to the Princes – only one man can reasonably be assumed to have murdered them.

What do you think geeks?  Am I underestimating Margaret’s ambition?  Have I been naive to the means or access she might have had?  I want to know what YOU think!

Margaret Beaufort’s claim to the throne part 3: The better arguments

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As we have shown in the previous post, most of the arguments that suggest Margaret was looked upon as a potential heir to the throne are not satisfactory.  Now it is time to examine the two stronger theories.

In part 2, I examined three of the most common reasons given for Margaret having a claim to England’s throne; but I also showed why they sadly don’t amount to much.

But there are two stronger – although I think ultimately unsatisfactory – reasons that are also given.

Parliament had acknowledged her claim in 1450

Maybe.  When she was the ward of the unpopular Duke of Suffolk, Parliament had accused him of trying to marry her to his son ‘pretending and believing her to be the heir to the throne.’

Essentially they had major beef with Suffolk, the King’s unpopular adviser and wanted him out.  They needed an excuse.  Margaret had been his ward for years and he had either married her or planned to marry her to his son.  Those that had it in for Suffolk concocted a story that he had ganged up with the French to try and do away with the King, and get his son to claim the throne by right of marriage to Margaret.

It does add weight to the claim that she was considered next in line, but…but, but, but: we have to remember that neither was Suffolk saying he thought she actually was (and indeed, he denied he thought she was) and nor did Parliament suggest that she actually was.  They were accusing Suffolk of pretending she was.

Nonetheless in order to Parliament’s framing of Suffolk to have been in any way credible, there must have been a certain sense that Margaret was not an outlandish candidate for succession.  It’s also very possible that anyone who was not keen on the idea of the Duke of York being next in line, may have considered Margaret a more viable option.

Her son had to flee to exile in 1470 – surely that means he was considered a rival to the Yorks?

This is a strong argument.  Why on earth did the future Henry VII have to flee the country when the Yorks were restored in 1470 if he was no threat?  Some must have thought him a claimant and that claim was transmitted from his mother.

However at this point, Lancaster had little choice.  In the 1450s, York was generally considered Henry VI’s heir: but this was hardly an option now.  And, after the battle of Tewksbury the house of Lancaster (including the Beauforts) had been eliminated in the male line.  Henry Richmond was ‘the closest Lancaster had to Royalty.’  Therefore at this point it does seem that opinions had shifted and Margaret’s Beaufort claim now had validity.  But we must be clear.  This was placed firmly on her son.  Nobody envisaged her making a bid for power herself.

So where does all this leave us?  Let’s hop on over to the conclusion to find out.

Richard III part 7: Conclusion

In the past six posts I have attempted to demonstrate why I believe the circumstantial evidence and other reliable sources point firmly to the blame of Richard III who usurped his throne and killed his nephews.  Now I will sum up my conclusions and look forward to the conversation that will follow. Continue reading

Richard III part 5: MORE of less – can we trust Thomas More’s account?

The most detailed account of Richard III’s murder of the Princes in the Tower was penned by lawyer and philosopher Thomas More c. 1515.  But can his ‘History of Richard III’ be trusted and respected as a credible piece of historical research and writing? Continue reading