On January 28, 1457 the future King Henry VII was born at Pembroke Castle in Wales, but the real star of the show was his mother, the Countess of Richmond. In fact, at the time of his birth it couldn’t have seemed less likely that the infant would one day ascend the English throne and it certainly wasn’t seen as an event of national importance. His father was Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond, the younger half-brother of King Henry VI, through the second marriage of their mother, Katherine of Valois.
But unlike Henry VI, who was fathered by the celebrated Henry V, Edmund and his siblings were fathered by a Welshman attached to Queen Katherine’s household, Owen Tudor. For political reasons, the relationship was conducted under the radar and it wouldn’t be until the early 1450s that Edmund and his younger brother, Jasper, were transitioned from a legally grey area to members of the peerage as the Earls of Richmond and Pembroke, respectively.
Because of these circumstances, the infant Henry Tudor born in 1457 had a better claim to the French crown than the English, if you disregard the Salic Law, barring inheritance of the throne through a woman (a pesky byproduct of the Hundred Years’ War).
Through his mother he could claim descent from the illustrious King Edward III (but honestly, who couldn’t during the Wars of the Roses? It was a serious problem how many sons this man had), but not in the way you want. Edward III’s son, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, took as his third wife, Katherine Swynford, his long-time mistress. The couple had already four children who were legitimized after the couple were married, but specifically blocked from laying claim to the throne by their half-brother, Henry IV.
The eldest of these children was John Beaufort, eventually raised to Earl of Somerset. He would marry an English noblewoman named Margaret Holland and have several children, the famous Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, among them. However the eldest of these sons was another John Beaufort, who inherited his father’s earldom in 1410 and was captured by the French at the siege of Rouen in 1418. He would remain a prisoner of war for 20 years, not released until 1438, aged roughly 35.
John returned to England and was well looked-after by his cousin, Henry VI. He married heiress Margaret Beauchamp of Bletsoe in 1439 and was elevated to Duke of Somerset, a Knight of the Garter and Lieutenant of Guienne in 1443. It was this same year that his wife gave birth to his first child, a daughter christened Margaret. However, John Beaufort found himself at odds with the increasingly-prominent Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York over the handling of English-held French territories and in 1443 he was disgraced over a military misstep. Marching from Cherbourg to Gascony, he led his army to the Breton town, Guerche, where he accepted money from the Duke of Brittany and let all of his prisoners free. Humiliated, John wandered about western France for a few months before returning to England where he died on May 27, 1444, possibly by suicide.
His infant daughter, Margaret, thus became a significant heiress on the English marriage market, a potential bride with close ties to the Royal Family and the House of Lancaster. She was married at the age of seven to John de la Pole, only son of Henry VI’s close friend and councilor, William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk. However, when Edmund and Jasper Tudor showed up on the scene in 1453 and were given places on the King’s council and titles, Margaret’s marriage (never consummated, obviously) was annulled and her wardship was given to the Tudor brothers with the intention that she would eventually marry Edmund. This way, in addition to having a title and political power, he had a fortune.
Unfortunately for Margaret, Edmund wouldn’t be able to legally hold or access her money until the marriage was consummated. Margaret was 10 in 1453, but in 1455 she turned 12, the legal age that girls were considered old enough to consummate their marriages and begin childbearing. Edmund, for his part, was roughly 25. Now, in many circumstances, the parents of young brides and bridegrooms would withhold such an arrangement until their children were older – brides of 15 and 16 were by far more common than brides of 12 and 13. But Margaret didn’t have a father looking out for her in this circumstance, her mother seemingly didn’t intervene and neither did any of Beaufort relations (though, to be fair, they were likely distracted by the First Battle of St. Albans, the first direct military clash of the so-called Wars of the Roses, which took the life of Margaret’s uncle and Beaufort patriarch, the Duke of Somerset.)
Edmund and Margaret went through an official wedding ceremony on November 1, 1455 and when Edmund set off for the Welsh border to secure it in the King’s name, Margaret went with him. Living under the same roof, the marriage was likely consummated early on and, unless he was premature, Margaret conceived Henry in April 1456.
By this time the political tension between York and Lancaster was filtering its way out of London to the Welsh border. By August 1456, Edmund had captured Aberystwyth, Carmarthen and Carreg Cennen Castles from the Welsh, however on August 10, forces led by William Herbert, one of York’s men, came to assert a Yorkist stronghold in South Wales. Edmund was taken prisoner and kept at Carmarthen Castle for two-and-a-half months. However, upon his release that autumn he didn’t leave – Edmund had fallen ill while in captivity, likely of the plague, and died on November 1, 1456.
By the time news reached his widow, 13-year-old Margaret was seven months pregnant and without protection. She immediately traveled to nearby Pembroke Castle – a risky journey that far along in her pregnancy – to the home of her brother-in-law, Jasper Tudor. And it was here that, two months later, Margaret was delivered of a son, who was styled the Earl of Richmond at birth. There are rumors that the baby was initially given a more Welsh name in honor of his paternal ancestry, but Margaret, wisely and perhaps presciently, had him re-named Henry in honor of the Lancastrian king.
While details of the labor are unknown, it’s believed to have been physically traumatic for both mother and child. Margaret, believed to have been a petite woman to begin with, was barely physically equipped for pregnancy and childbirth. While both she and her son survived, there is no record of Margaret ever conceiving again, despite two more marriages. Henry would be her only child, making it all the more remarkable that he not only survived a difficult birth, but an intermittent civil war going on throughout the country and remained standing as the last heir to the House of Lancaster.
Margaret had barely recovered from the birth when Jasper helped her arrange another marriage, this time to Henry Stafford, a son of the powerful Humphrey Stafford, Duke of Buckingham. The Staffords were well-positioned between York and Lancaster and, in theory, would be able to safeguard not only Margaret, but eventually her son. For their part, this alliance infused a younger Stafford son with Margaret’s fortune. And while it may seem barbaric to have been negotiating a marriage for a likely traumatized teenager, in Jasper’s mind, this was perhaps the best way to protect his brother’s widow.
On January 3, 1458, a 14-year-old Margaret and a roughly 23-year-old Sir Henry Stafford were married at Maxstoke Castle in Warwickshire. In the year that preceded it, Margaret lived at Pembroke Castle with her son, which would end up being the longest, unbroken period of time they would spend in each other’s company until Henry ascended the throne in 1485.
In the years in-between, which saw Henry’s importance grow as civil war claimed more and more royal bodies, Margaret continued to be a voracious and untiring advocate for her son, protecting his inheritance at every turn. Once Henry did come to the throne, deposing Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth, his clear respect and reverence for his mother’s efforts and sacrifice were rewarded. She was honored at Henry’s court, on par with his wife, Elizabeth of York, and granted the power by Parliament to hold property independently of her husband. For her part, Margaret took to signing her name “Margaret R” during her son’s reign, perhaps signifying “Margaret Richmond,” but it looked a bit too similar to “Margaret Regina” for many onlookers.
Henry VII would die on April 21, 1509 at Richmond Palace after an unbelievably successful reign that not only ended civil war, but enriched its coffers and put England back on the map of continental politics. Margaret, by now almost 66, would briefly serve as regent for England on behalf of her grandson, Henry VIII, before he turned 18 and she, herself, passed away on June 29 in Westminster Abbey. Perhaps fittingly, Margaret’s tomb can be found in the Abbey today, close to that of her great-great-granddaughter, Mary, Queen of Scots, who would be executed in 1587 by Margaret’s great-granddaughter, Elizabeth I. Indeed, the current House of Windsor, and all the monarchs in-between, can trace their descent from Margaret.
For more, see From Normandy to Windsor