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Then King's Mother: Lady Margaret Beaufort.

The King's Mother: Lady Margaret Beaufort. M. K. Jones and M. G. Underwood. Cambridge University Press. Illustrated, 322pp. 35.00 [pounds].

At last we have an entirely satisfactory biography of Lady Margaret Beaufort, to whom Henry VII owed his throne. From this it is clear that she was one of the most influential women in our history, but we did not know enough about her. Many people may remember her ascetic, but very wideawake features from her tomb in Westminster Abbey. She is very much to the fore at Cambridge, where she was the foundress of Christ's College and St. John's; and she also founded the Lady Margaret professorships at Cambridge and Oxford.

These things keep her memory alive; but who was she, and what did she do that was so decisive politically?

She was the ultimate residuary legatee of John of Gaunt's Beaufort family, which had been legitimated by Act of Parliament. They were an able lot, with a Cardinal in the family, andshe inherited her full share of their ability. As a great heiress, a grand marriage was found for her, to Edmund Tudor, half-brother of Henry VI. At the age of fourteen she produced her only child -- a difficult child-birth, there were no more children, and her husband had died six months before. This concentrated her affection upon the boy who was a last sprig of the Lancastrian royal house. She made his interests her constant, care, though she could see little of him during the Yorkist reign of Edward IV. Young Henry was kept under careful watch and ward in Wales.

Margaret's second marriage to a young Stafford was happy; they trod very carefully, keeping in with a Yorkist king. A third marriage to the head of the Stanleys extended her wealth and family influence. Edward IV's temporary loss of the throne and brief return of Henry VI raised hopes. But Edward was bent on extirpating the Lancastrian house, killing Henry VI in the Tower and the Prince of Wales at Tewkesbury. Edward broke solemn promises right and left, and now Margaret urged her son to flee abroad and trust to no promises from Edward. There had already been talk of marrying Henry to Edward's eldest daughter, Elizabeth.

There would have been no chance of his coming to the throne but for Richard's usurpation. In July 1483 Margaret joined with the Woodvilles in an attempt to rescue Richard's nephews from the Tower. It failed, but this must have decided Richard to make away with them in August. Margaret was in dire danger; only the influence of her cautions Stanley husband saved her. But it was |the slaughter' of Edward's boys that opened up the chance for Henry, and Margaret grasped it. Marry him to Elizabeth, now the heiress of York, was in a way the obvious solution to the crisis posed by Richard. And so it came about after Bosworth.

At Henry's conoration Margaret was in tears, it was noticed, not of joy but because she feared further |adversity'. With the disadvantage of hindsight we tend to think that the union of Lancaster and York brought security. But this book brings home how insecure things were, and how hard Henry and his mother had to work to keep things steady -- rather like George VI and his Queen after the crisis of the Abdication.

Margaret treated herself as a Queen Mother, using the royal |we', accompanying Henry everywhere on his tours to acquaint people with the returned exile. They made the most of their relationship to the royal saint, and tried hard to get Henry VI canonised -- it would have been a great help to the dynasty.

She was now a greater power in the land. She did not run the government -- Henry was careful to keep power to himself -- but he carved outher own role. Her wealth and estates were much increased, and she took the closet interest in their administration. She encouraged reclamation in the Fenlands and built a sluice at Boston to improve the harbour works. Building and repairs went forward, at her City residence, Coldharbour; in the country at Collyweston in Northamptonshire, the large manor house which the authors call a |palace'.

They show how keen she was to exact all her rights and increase the returns on her holdings. The tough little woman had a good business head, and if she took advantage of her status it was only what others had done against her. In her case it was to finance her widespread benefactions and charities, her personal interest in education, her religious foundations. There were all the marriages she arranged, the able young men whose careers she forwarded -- Sir Reginald Bray, bishops Oldham and Fisher.

In addition were all the families she helped, the instances of personal kindness. In three outstanding cases she even withstood her son and the Crown's interests to aid families in trouble. One of these, Lord Morley, paid tribute to her character, to her courage and patience: |albeit that in King Richard's days she was oft in jeopardy of her life. Yet she bore patiently all trouble in such wise that it is wonder to think it.' Of course it was all in the game, to prop up her son's throne, but how hard she must have worked at it on top of all her religious devotions. For she was a pious as she was politic.

A. L. Rowse
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Author:Rowse, A.L.
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1992
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