A few months ago, I watched The White Princess which I enjoyed in spite of its flaws. It’s a period of history that interests me, but it’s by no means a favourite era: the subtext here is that I’m not an expert when it comes to the details. One character leaped out me: Margaret Beaufort. I saw her tomb years ago, and have always remembered it. While I found her role in the series interesting, I knew the programme was far from historically accurate, and that made me want to learn more. The series portrayed her as a religious fanatic, multiple marriages in her past, that incredibly tight relationship with her son Henry (who became Henry VII), the mother-in-law from hell, in love with her brother in-law Jasper, and even at one point she commits murder. What was up with all that?
So this brings me to the book: Uncrowned Queen by Nicola Tallis. The first section of the book explores Margaret’s origins. With history, there’s always an argument as to how far back one should go. In this case, there are so many people mentioned that I became bogged down with keeping everyone straight. No doubt someone who is well versed in the period would fare better.
While some things about Margaret’s early life are known, there are also huge gaps in her early history. It’s clear from her history, a young heiress whose father died young, that she was a bargaining chip. I was unaware of the whole ‘wardship’ scam (I may be using the word ‘scam’ out of context but after reading that wealthy lords were granted and/or bought wardships, the word seems to fit–especially when you consider that those guardians got first dibs when it came to marrying off their wards and the doling out of their wealth.)
Margaret was a hot commodity–a “marital pawn since the earliest days of her childhood” as the author points out so well. Engaged then married and unmarried when politically expedient. Married at 12, pregnant and widowed at 13. These are things that make or break a person, and what rings through loud and clear, is that Margaret came through all the marriages, the political intrigue and turmoil of her era, strong, pragmatic and ready to play the long game.
I found some parts of the book frustrating: so many people mentioned (and this reflects my own deficit not the author’s), plus then there are some speculations that while they were minor, were to this reader, a bit superfluous. We don’t really get down to the nitty gritty of Margaret’s life until about the half way point of the book when her son, Henry, finally becomes king.
There’s an argument here regarding Margaret Beaufort’s personal lack of involvement in the death of the two princes in the tower. I have no issue with that particular argument but IMO while we can speculate until the end of time, whatever happened is all so murky, we will never know for certain the Tudor involvement.
Anyway, an interesting read: Margaret emerges as an incredibly strong woman, a survivor who as an heiress saw her lands confiscated for the actions of others. This period is a time when people threw caution to the winds for religion, and courted terrible fates in the pursuit of power. Margaret, intelligent and self-controlled, learned how to survive and fight another day. Particularly interesting is her devotion to education.
Over time, Margaret pressed against the constraints imposed by her sex and society, slowly demanding more and more control over her life, until the crown on her son’s head allowed her to make the unprecedented move for almost total independence: financially, physically and sexually. This is a woman who learned pragmatism very early on, who knew when to lay aside ego and finer loyalties for the sake of the long game–unlike so many of her male contemporaries.