Watch out! Spoilers ahead.
“None get to God but through trouble.“
In the premiere season of Starz’ The Spanish Princess, Catherine of Aragon has an almost laughably contentious rivalry with her grandmother-in-law, Margaret Beaufort. As the grandmother of Catherine’s doomed first husband Arthur and his brother, future king of England Henry VIII, Margaret feels very protective. Her concern over their prospects is borderline fanatical. As the season unfolds, her actions toward Catherine become harsher and harsher, to the point where she might as well tie her to a set of railroad tracks.
Things start heading downhill from the moment Catherine arrives on English shores. After a long, arduous, peril-laden journey, Catherine is ill-tempered and exhausted. She wants nothing more than to retire and have a bath. Margaret, who is among the welcoming party, has her own ideas for what Catherine should do. It doesn’t take long for the haughty young Spanish princess to make a poor impression on the great Tudor lady.
As the first season wears on, Margaret does everything in her power to keep Catherine (and quite a few other characters) downtrodden and under her thumb.
Poor Mrs. Pole
It begins with Maggie Pole, the cousin of Elizabeth of York, the Queen when Catherine arrives. Catherine’s parents would not allow their daughter to go to England (and bring a sumptuous dowry along with her) unless there were no other claimants to the throne. To appease them, Maggie Pole’s brother was executed. Pretty ruthless.
With this hanging over her, Maggie tries to go about life at court as though nothing is wrong. She’s very fond of Arthur, and when he dies she’s dealt another blow. Once he is gone, Margaret Beaufort does all in her power to banish Catherine on the basis that she consummated her marriage with Arthur and therefore cannot marry his brother Harry. When Maggie (who overheard said consummation when it happened) refuses to acknowledge it, Margaret has her removed her from the castle.
After that, it’s all downhill. Maggie’s husband dies unexpectedly, she and her children become destitute, and she gives one of her sons to the church while another goes to fight with traitors to the Crown. Maggie and the rest live in a nunnery. In exchange for a forced confession, Margaret offers to restore Maggie’s riches at the expense of her honor. Faced with an impossible choice, Maggie still refuses, much to the ire of Lady Beaufort. She brands Maggie as a traitor and throws her and her children into the Tower of London.
It’s this over and over again. Throughout the season, driven by hatred for Catherine, Margaret uses her considerable influence to manipulate and punish those around her. She banishes Catherine and her retinue from the castle. She orchestrates horrible circumstances to force a confession from Lina, Catherine’s most loyal lady-in-waiting and orders the execution of Lina’s love interest Oviedo after tricking him into working for her.
While her son the King is catatonic over the death of his wife Elizabeth, Margaret takes control of the kingdom and commits a laundry list of crimes. Once caught, she frames a man named Lord Dudley and has him beheaded. She becomes increasingly manic as the season wears on, and eventually dies in her bed, plagued by sins and demons.
So Did That All Actually Happen?
No — some of it is most definitely made up. Shows and books like The Spanish Princess have a lot of leeway in how they can portray historical figures, often dreaming up big storylines based on small key facts. But don’t let that make you think Margaret Beaufort wasn’t a fascinating, powerful woman who very likely had blood on her hands.
Just like in the show, Margaret did have the ear of her son, King Henry VII. It was said that he respected her greatly and consulted her on nearly everything. She was the Tudor matriarch, and had suffered and struggled much in her life to attain that lofty position. From a personality standpoint, she was shrewd, loyal, and known to crack a joke or two. To understand her actions later in life, it’s important to know what she went through to get there.
Devout and ambitious, Margaret was the daughter of John Beaufort, a direct, but illegitimate, descendant of King Edward III. As such, the Beauforts were excluded from royal succession. When Margaret’s father died, possibly by suicide, she became the ward of William de la Pole. Before he died, de la Pole arranged for Margaret to marry his son at the ripe age of six. (The groom was seven). This was the first of Margaret’s four marriages.
As the country deteriorated into civil war, the king had the marriage annulled, and twelve-year-old Margaret was married off to his half-brother, Edmund Tudor, in 1455. Within about a year, she was pregnant and her husband was dead from plague. While it wasn’t unusual for aristocrats to marry at a tender age, thirteen was uncommonly young for pregnancy. Couples usually waited until the woman was at least fourteen, but for some reason, this marriage was consummated early. Many expected that mother and child would not survive.
Against astronomical odds, they did. After a difficult labor, Henry Tudor was born. Margaret would never conceive again and was possibly damaged from her early pregnancy. This didn’t stop the late Edmund’s brother Jasper from arranging a new marriage for her almost immediately. In 1458, when she was fourteen, Margaret married Henry Stafford. It was said to have been an affectionate union.
Mother and Son
Margaret was not allowed to raise her only child, but she worked tirelessly in his interest from the day he was born. He was placed under the custody of Jasper, and she likely did not see much of him during his infancy. At the same time, civil war raged on, and the Battle of Towton, 1461, was won in favor of House York at the expense of the House of Lancaster. Jasper Tudor and Henry Stafford had both fought for the losing side. Jasper fled, and Henry made peace with the new Yorkist king, Edward IV. With Jasper gone, five-year-old Henry Tudor was given over to one of Edward’s key supporters, William Herbert. His mother remained in contact with him over the next few years, but there was only one recorded meeting.
Meanwhile, Margaret and her husband acquiesced to Edward IV, allowing Henry’s heir (also named Henry Stafford) to be married off to Catherine Woodville, sister to Edward’s consort Elizabeth. They hosted the king in 1468, and Stafford even helped quash a rebellion.
All the while, Margaret was biding her time, playing the long game. She made her Lancastrian loyalty clear when Henry VI was briefly restored to power in 1470. She had a personal appointment dining with the king, her son, and Jasper Tudor, during which she doubled down on her alliance. This would become a bit of an issue when Edward IV returned to power the following year.
By this time, William Herbert had been executed (a common fate), and Henry was back in Jasper’s custody. Bad luck, though, because the fateful Battle of Tewkesbury took place two years later, and the Lancaster forces were soundly defeated. Uncle and nephew fled to Brittany, where they would remain exiled for well over a decade.
King Without a Country
This period was an eventful one, in which Edward IV died suddenly and his brother Richard III seized the throne. Edward’s young sons were imprisoned and never seen again, and his wife, Elizabeth Woodville, was stripped of dowager rights. Margaret and Elizabeth were in communication at this point, and the two conspired to have Edward’s oldest daughter, Elizabeth of York, marry Henry Tudor. Thus, the houses of Lancaster and York would be bound together.
Some historians suspect Margaret may have had a hand in the permanent disappearance of Edward’s sons, the “princes in the tower” while others believe she tried to have them freed. Either way, she would benefit greatly from their mysterious deaths. She and Elizabeth Woodville were in unified rebellion and sought to bring Henry (the strongest living Lancastrian claimant at this point) home to take the throne.
Margaret had never lost contact with her son, often risking her safety on his behalf. She went so far as to orchestrate a series of failed rebellions to help him return to England in 1483. She escaped being arrested for treason but was forced to give up her titles, estates, and free will to her (new) husband, Thomas Stanley. Thomas, to his credit, barely enforced the rules meant to confine her.
The King Comes Home
Finally, after years of risk, plotting, and shifting loyalties, Henry won the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Surprisingly, his victory was thanks to two last-minute participants — his stepfather Lord Stanley and his younger brother William. Stanley had played a neutral role throughout the entire War of the Roses, and when the brothers brought their armies to the battlefield, they held back until they could decide who would be more advantageous to support. Margaret likely did her utmost to convince him to side with her son when the time came.
Whatever their means and motives, the Stanleys’ forces joined Henry Tudor and sealed the fate of England. Richard III died in battle and Henry and was crowned king.
During his coronation, Margaret wept with joy. It wasn’t long before she declared herself “femme sole”, which meant that she would have sole possession of all her titles and possessions, an oddity in an age where a living husband would usually enjoy those perks. She was referred to in court as “My Lady the King’s Mother” and refused to accept a status lower than her daughter-in-law, Elizabeth of York. She wore robes of the same caliber as the Queen Consort and walked only half a pace behind her.
Throughout Henry’s reign, Margaret was never far away. She often joined him on royal visits and progresses, and had accommodation at every residence used by the Crown. When they were apart, they corresponded affectionately by letter.
Henry entrusted Margaret with many responsibilities and gave her the power to dispatch tasks as she saw fit. She was given her own council at Collyweston (a first for a woman) and could settle disputes. She presided over a regional court, which brought forth cases from the Midlands and the North. When Elizabeth of York died and Henry’s health deteriorated, Margaret stepped in and governed the country in his stead.
Henry died in April of 1509 having designated his mother as the chief executor of his will. She arranged his funeral and took precedence over all the other women in the royal family during the ceremony. She was also responsible for arranging her grandson’s coronation.
Margaret Beaufort was known for her business acumen and piety. She took an interest in education, helping to found the likes of Cambridge and Oxford, commissioned books, translated two of her own, and much more. At her funeral, Bishop John Fisher said:
“She was bounteous and lyberal to every Person of her Knowledge or acquaintance. Avarice and Covetyse she most hated, and sorowed it full moche in all persons, but specially in ony that belong’d unto her. She was of syngular Easyness to be spoken unto, and full curtayse answere she would make to all that came unto her. Of marvayllous gentyleness she was unto all folks, but specially unto her owne, whom she trustede, and loved ryghte tenderly. Unkynde she woulde not be unto no creature, ne forgetful of ony kyndeness or servyce done to her before, which is no lytel part of veray nobleness. She was not vengeable ne cruell, but redy anone to forgete and to forgyve injuryes done unto her, at the least desyre or mocyon made unto her for the same. Mercyfull also and pyteous she was unto such as was greyved and wrongfully troubled, and to them that were in Poverty and sekeness, or any other mysery.“
Did she execute Lord Dudley, torture Maggie Pole, and harass Catherine and her ladies-in-waiting? No. Was she evil? No. However, she was a fierce and devoted mother who was willing to get her hands dirty if it meant victory for her family. If Catherine had truly got on her nerves and Margaret wanted her gone, history would have likely recorded a very different story.