Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Lady Margaret Beaufort and Bl.Margaret Pole

This term I am teaching a course on women in sixteenth century England. When planning it I thought that a good way in which to approach the topic would be through giving a series of tutorials on individual women and their lives, both as of interest in themselves and also as a means of exploring the wider context and implications.

My first choice was a joint study of those two great matriarchs of the earlier Tudor period, who were also formidable as women in their own right - Lady Margaret Beaufort and Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury.

Lady Margaret's tomb

The tomb effigy of Lady Margaret Beaufort in Westminster Abbey.

Photo: Westminster Abbey

Her friend and confessor Bishop Fisher, who preached her funeral sermon at her month’s mind, said of her “Every one that knew her loved her, and everything that she said or did became her.”

The ODNB biography of Lady Margaret is here. The authors Michael Jones and Malcolm Underwood have written the standard biography The King's Mother (Cambridge 1992) . There is also one on Wikipedia, with links, here.

There is a website about her from the school she founded in Wimborne Minster here; it is of particular interest in that it includes a useful map of her estates, which gives an indication of her political and social influence. The Westminster Abbey website has an article concentrating on her tomb and funeral here.

A portrait traditionally identified as Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury

The ODNB life of Margaret Pole is here. It is by Hazel Pierce who has written a full length life - the first for a long time. The Wikipedia account, again with links, is here.

What struck me was how very similar the two ladies were in so many aspects of their upbringing and personality, and in many, but not all, of their lives. Most notably, of course, Lady Margaret died full of years and honours, the grandmother of the new King and esteemed as a benefactress, whereas Margaret Pole died particularly horribly at the hands of the headsman an attainted traitor - but in reality the victim of Henry VIII's vindictiveness.

Her violent end is a reminder of the extent to which both women lived all their lives in the shadow of violence. Thus Margaret Beaufort lost her uncle, two fathers-in-law, her step father, three male Beaufort cousins, their half brother and a cousin by marriage, two more cousins and finally a brother-in-law on the battlefield or scaffold between 1455 and 1495. Margaret Pole lost both grandfathers, a great uncle, father, two uncles, five cousins, her brother and her eldest son in similar fashions between 1460 and 1539, before she herself suffered in 1541.

Margaret Beaufort was, it was to turn out, more fortunate in the reign of Richard III when she had a son in exile who was a clear threat than was Margaret Pole in the time of Henry VIII when Cardinal Reginald Pole was perceived as one of the King's principal opponants, but out of reach on the continent.

Both were women who, in a certain sense, had to make their way in the world. Their fathers both died when they were young, and in adegree of dishonour, and Margaret Pole's mother the Duchess of Clarence had died when her daughter was three. Margaret Beaufort's mother lived until 1482, nearly long enough to see her grandson become King. Both women were of importance in the marriage market, and in both cases finding suitable husbands a political issue. Margaret of Clarence was married to Margaret Beaufort's nephew, as part of Henry VII's policy of marrying Yorkist female realtives to safe husbands linked to the new ruling branch of the royal house. Thus his mother's younger half-brother, John Viscount Welles, became his brother-in-law when he married one of Elizabeth of York's younger sisters, Cecily.

As landowners they are proof that aristocratic women (and those of fewer resources than these two exceptional figures) could and did manage great estates and exercise local influence. Under Henry VII Margaret Beaufort was a very substantial landholder and executive presence in the eastern counties. Both enjoyed exceptional status - Lady Margaret as the King's Mother and transmitter of his dynastic claim, signing herself "Margaret R", Margaret Pole, with her restored hereditary Salisbury title as one of only two women in the sixteenth century who did not have a titled husband - the other was the creation of Anne Boleyn as Marquess/Marchioness of Pembroke in 1532. In terms of income she ranked fifth amongst the peerage.

Both were devout women - examples of the aristocratic piety of the age, which included Cicely Duchess of York, grandmother of Countess Margaret, and later on Queen Catherine of Aragon and Queen Mary I. Both were patrons of the Church and learning. In John Fisher, as Lady Margaret's confessor and counsellor, and Reginald Pole, Countess Margaret's son, they had contact with two of the leading English churchmen of the age, both of whom were to become Cardinals.

As women of high birth they were seen as authoritative on precedence and ceremony in the case of Margaret Beaufort, whilst Margaret Pole was not only a lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine, but chosen as governess to the Princess Mary when she was seen as heiress apparent in the 1520s.

Margaret Pole was beatified as a martyr in 1886, and it is perhaps surprising that no-one appears to have sought the beatification of Lady Margaret - being Henry VIII's grandmother should not be held against her. I strongly suspect that she would disapprove very strongly of his actions, and given the opportunity in the afterlife to tell him so would not hesitate so to do.


The vault of the chantry chapel the Countess of Salisbury built for herself in Christchurch Priory in Hampshire in 1529. She was actually buried in St Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London.

Photo: Paradoxplace.com


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