BEAUFORT, MARGARET (1441–1509), Countess of Richmond and Derby, was daughter and heiress to John, first duke of Somerset, by his wife Margaret, widow of Sir Oliver St. John, and heiress to Sir J. Beauchamp of Bletso. She was only three years old at the time of her father’s death; but her mother appears to have brought her up with unusual care until, in her ninth year, she was brought to court, having passed into the wardship of the Duke of Suffolk, then in the height of his power. He hoped to obtain her in marriage for his son, not without thought of her possible succession to the throne. On the other hand, Henry VI destined her for his half brother Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond. A vision inclined her to the latter suitor, and she was betrothed at once to him, and married in 1455. In the following year the Earl of Richmond died, leaving Margaret with an infant son. The breaking out of the war of the Roses endangered the safety of any related to the throne, and the child-widow retired with the future Henry VII to her brother-in-law’s castle of Pembroke. Here she remained after her marriage with Henry Stafford, son of the Lancastrian Duke of Buckingham, and here she was detained in a kind of honourable confinement after the triumph of the Yorkists in 1461. The revolution of 1470 saw Margaret back at court; but the speedy return of Edward IV, and his final victory at Tewkesbury, by making the young Earl of Richmond immediate heir to the Lancastrian title, increased his danger, and forced him to escape to Brittany. Margaret remained at home, and, though keeping up communications with her exiled son, wisely effected a reconciliation with the ruling powers, and took as her third husband the Lord Stanley, Edward’s trusted minister, afterwards Earl of Derby. The accession of Richard III (1483) and the consequent split in the Yorkist party raised the hopes of the Lancastrians, and Margaret, emerging from her accustomed retirement, took an active part in planning the alliance between her own party and that of the Wydviles by the marriage of Henry with Elizabeth of York, and in preparing for the abortive insurrection of 1484. Richard’s parliament at once attainted Henry, and deprived Margaret of her title and lands. Further persecution she was spared, for Richard, though he did not trust, dared not alienate her husband, Lord Stanley, to whom her lands were granted for his life, and her person to be kept ‘in some secret place at home, without any servants or company, so that she might not communicate with her son.’ Yet Stanley’s growing sympathy with her cause enabled her to aid in the preparations for the rising of 1485, and his final defection from Richard’s side on Bosworth field secured the throne to her son. After this she took no part in the active duties of government, and seldom appeared at court, except for the christening of a goddaughter or the knighting of a godson; but the king deferred to her opinion, especially in matters of court etiquette, and their correspondence shows the respect he bore her, and that he never forgot that he derived his title through her, who, had there then existed a precedent for female succession, might herself have mounted the throne. Sharing to the full the religious spirit and strict orthodoxy of the Lancastrian house, a life of devotion and charity best suited her after the anxieties of her early life. ‘It would fill a volume,’ says Stow, ‘to re-count her good deeds.’ She fell under the influence of John Fisher, who left his books at Cambridge to become her confessor; and long before her husband’s death, in 1504, she separated from him and took monastic vows. Yet she never retired to any of the five religious houses to which she was admitted member, but lived for the most part at her manor of Woking, in Surrey, which had been seized and made a royal palace by Edward IV, and was restored, with its new building, to the countess when Henry VII became king. Following Fisher’s advice, she instituted that series of foundations which have earned her a lasting name at the universities as ‘the Lady Margaret.’ Her divinity professorships at both Oxford and Cambridge date from 1502. Fisher was the first occupant of the latter chair, and when Henry VII, not without asking his mother’s leave, made him bishop of Rochester, he was, after an interval, succeeded by Erasmus. The Cambridge preachership was endowed in 1503; but Fisher had still greater plans for the development of the university of which he was now chancellor. Margaret’s religious bias had inclined her to devote the bulk of her fortune to an extension of the great monastery of Westminster. Her spiritual guide, strict Romanist as he was, knew that active learning, not lazy seclusion, was essential to preserve the church against the spirit of the Renaissance, and he persuaded her to direct her gift to educational purposes. Henry VI’s uncompleted foundation of God’s house at Cambridge was enriched by a fair portion of Margaret’s lands, and opened as Christ’s College in 1505. Nor were her benefactions to cease here. The careful son’s full treasury did not require swelling with the mother’s fortune. An educational corporation should be her heir. Her Oxford friends petitioned her on their behalf, and St. Frideswide’s might have been turned into a college by Margaret, and not by Wolsey. But Fisher again successfully pleaded the cause of his own university, and the royal license to re-found the corrupt monastic house of St. John’s as a great and wealthy college was obtained in 1508. In the next year both the king and the countess died, and Henry VIII, although, during the short interval which elapsed between the death of his father and that of his grandmother, he followed the advice of the able councillors whom she had selected, tried to divert her estates to his own extravagant expenditure. His selfish intention was thwarted by Fisher, who proved an able champion of his benefactress’s will, as he had been an eloquent exponent of her virtues in his funeral sermon. He obtained a peremptory papal bull, which Henry dared not resist, and the charter of foundation was given in 1511, the buildings being completed five years later at the then enormous cost of 5,000l. St. John’s College is the Lady Margaret’s greatest monument, and possesses the best memorials of her life. Although her own contributions to literature are confined to translating part of the ‘Imitatio Christi’ and other books of devotion into English from French editions, she was a valuable and early patron to Caxton and Wynkyn de Worde, who undertook the composition and printing of several books at her special desire and command, the latter styling himself in 1509 ‘Printer unto the most excellent princess my lady the king’s grandame.’ She was one of the few worthy and high-minded members of the aristocracy, in an essentially selfish and cruel age; and Fisher scarcely exaggerated her reputation when he declared: ‘All England for her death had cause of weeping. The poor creatures that were wont to receive her alms, to whom she was always piteous and merciful: the students of both universities, to whom she was a mother; all the learned men of England, to whom she was a very patroness; all the virtuous and devout persons, to whom she was as a loving sister; all the good religious men and women, whom she so often was wont to visit and comfort; all good priests and clerks, to whom she was a true defender; all the noble men and women, to whom she was a mirror and exampler of honour; all the common people of this realm, for whom she was, in their causes, a common mediatrix, and took right great displeasure for them; and generally the whole realm hath cause to complain and to mourn her death.’ To the list of her benefactions must be added a school and chantry at Wimborne Minster, where her father and mother lay buried beneath the stately monument she erected to their memory, and a sum for perpetual masses to her family at Westminster.
[Halsted’s Life of Margaret, Countess of Richmond. 1839; Cooper’s Memoir of Margaret, Countess of Richmond and Derby, edited by Rev. J. E. B. Mayor, 1874; Baker’s edition of Fisher’s Funeral Sermon, re-edited by J. Hymers, 1840; Ellis’s Original Letters, Series I. i. 41-8; Lodge’s Illustrious Portraits, vol. i.]
Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 04
Beaufort, Margaret by Henry Avray Tipping