Tuesday, 31 May 2016

31 May 1443: The Birth of Lady Margaret Beaufort

On 31 May 1443, Lady Margaret Beaufort was born at Bletsoe Castle in Bedfordshire. She was the daughter of John Beaufort, duke of Somerset, and Lady Margaret Beauchamp. Through her father, Margaret was a descendant of Edward III. Less than a year after his daughter's birth, the duke of Somerset died in suspicious circumstances while on campaign abroad. Some of his contemporaries believed that he had committed suicide, a heinous sin in the eyes of fifteenth-century individuals. Margaret probably did not learn of her father's death until she was older, but the knowledge that he may have killed himself would have brought shame and dishonour both to herself and to her family.

Shortly afterwards, Margaret's wardship was granted to the king's favourite, William de la Pole, first duke of Suffolk. As the heiress to her father's fortunes, Margaret was a highly valuable commodity. In early 1444, when she was less than three years old, Margaret was married to the duke's son John de la Pole. Occasionally, highborn children were married while still in infancy. Later, Edward IV's son Richard married Anne Mowbray when he was four years old and she five. Other evidence indicates that Margaret may actually only have married John in 1450, the year in which Suffolk was murdered. Irrespective of its date, the marriage was annulled in 1453 and Henry VI granted Margaret's wardship to his half-brothers Edmund and Jasper Tudor. 

Above: Edmund Tudor, earl of Richmond.

On 1 November 1455, when she was twelve years old, Margaret was married to the king's twenty-four year-old half-brother Edmund Tudor, earl of Richmond. Usually when girls were married at a young age, consummation of the marriage was delayed until a later date. Edmund, however, elected to consummate his marriage immediately. At the age of thirteen, Margaret fell pregnant. Her husband, however, was not to learn the outcome of her pregnancy, for he died while in captivity at Carmarthen in November 1456, perhaps of plague. Two months later, his widow gave birth to her only child, Henry Tudor, at Pembroke Castle. Evidence suggests that the birth was a difficult one, and Margaret may have been physically and mentally scarred by the experience. A year after the birth of her son, the widowed countess remarried. Her husband was Sir Henry Stafford, son of the duke of Buckingham. Evidence suggests that their marriage was a happy one. 

Above: Pembroke Castle. Margaret gave birth to her son Henry there.

In 1461, the castle was captured by the Yorkists, and the infant Henry was placed in the custody of William Herbert, earl of Pembroke. Henry later departed for the Continent in the company of his uncle Jasper. The year her son departed for France, Margaret's husband died at the Battle of Barnet. 1471 was a tumultuous year. The Lancastrian king Henry VI was probably murdered in the Tower of London by the victorious Yorkists, and his only son Edward of Westminster was slain at Tewkesbury. Margaret, whose status had naturally inclined her to support the Lancastrian cause, dutifully made a show of supporting the new Yorkist dynasty. She understood that her son, Henry Tudor, was the only Lancastrian claimant still alive. Edward IV, understandably, was determined to gain custody of Henry. In a bid to protect both herself and her son's future, Margaret outwardly supported the house of York. 

A year after her husband's death, Margaret married for the last time, to Thomas Stanley. This marriage enabled Margaret to reside at court, and she appears to have enjoyed amicable relations with both the king and queen, later serving as godmother to one of their daughters. However, Edward IV's unexpected death in 1483 and the usurpation of Richard III changed Margaret's life forever. Margaret initially signalled her support of the new regime by carrying Anne Neville's train at her coronation, but she wholeheartedly supported the duke of Buckingham's rebellion against Richard III, perhaps with the backing of Edward IV's widow Elizabeth Wydeville. The rebellion was legitimated by rumours that Edward IV's sons had been murdered, perhaps on the orders of Richard III. It was agreed that, if the rebellion succeeded, Henry Tudor would marry Edward IV's daughter Elizabeth of York. However, the rebellion failed and Buckingham was executed. Margaret was stripped of her titles and estates and placed under house arrest; she was fortunate to escape with her life.

Above: Thomas Stanley, husband of Margaret Beaufort.

Despite this setback, Margaret continued to scheme for her son's accession. Evidence suggests that she had been content to support Edward IV and desired no more than her son's attainment of the earldom of Richmond. However, Margaret may have believed that Richard III was a usurper and perhaps viewed him as guilty of the murder of his nephews. It may have been this that encouraged her to press for Richard's deposition and his replacement with her son. At Bosworth in 1485, Henry Tudor defeated Richard and the final Yorkist king was slain. It was a moment of triumph for Margaret. Her son duly married Elizabeth of York, but Margaret's influence was considerable during her son's reign. Known as 'My Lady the King's Mother', Margaret held property independently from her husband, and she administered justice in the king's name at several courts. 

Margaret was revered for her education and her piety. In 1502, she founded the Lady Margaret's Professorship of Divinity at the University of Oxford, and three years later founded Christ's College, Cambridge. St John's was founded in 1511. She was politically astute, intelligent and resourceful. Historians have debated the nature of relations between Margaret and her daughter-in-law Elizabeth of York, but irrespective of their true feelings towards each other, the two women cooperated and worked together for much of Henry's reign. Margaret's death in 1509 followed that of her only son, for whom she had schemed and worked to ensure his accession to the throne. Lady Margaret Beaufort deserves to be remembered for her considerable successes. 

Above: Henry VII, son of Margaret. 

Monday, 30 May 2016

The End of Joan of Arc

On 30 May 1431, a young woman of nineteen years was burned to death in Rouen, Normandy. A year previously, Joan of Arc (known to the French as La Pucelle d'Orleans, the maid of Orleans) had been captured by the Burgundians, who handed her over to the English. She had almost single-handedly revived French fortunes during the Lancastrian phase of the Hundred Years' War between the traditional enemies England and France. Now, she was to die a shameful death, associated with witchcraft and heresy, a perversion of the natural order of things.

Joan had been born in northeastern France in around 1412, in an area that remained loyal to the French crown despite being close in proximity to Burgundian lands. At the age of thirteen, Joan reportedly experienced visions while in her father's garden. She saw the figures Saint Michael, Saint Catherine and Saint Margaret, who instructed her to bring about the expulsion of the English from France, and to bring the Dauphin to Reims for his coronation. Thus began Joan of Arc's mission, as she perceived it. Her experience thus far could be viewed as a sign of God's favour, uniquely bestowed upon her, but to others it betokened witchcraft.

Joan later visited the court of Charles VII, and she was financed with an army by the king's mother-in-law Yolande of Aragon. Joan requested to be equipped for war and to be placed at the head of the king's army; her requests were duly granted. Stephen W. Richey notes: 'Only a regime in the final straits of desperation would pay any heed to an illiterate farm girl who claimed that the voice of God was instructing her to take charge of her country's army and lead it to victory'. The king perhaps viewed Joan as sent from God, the means by which France could be delivered from subjection to England. Her presence offered the promise of French independence and French victory. Others, however, were concerned; they wondered whether Joan was a heretic or a sorceress, while her decision to wear the clothing of a soldier would later be brought against her. In response to initial concerns about Joan, a commission of inquiry at Poitiers concluded that Joan was 'a good Christian' and 'of irreproachable life'. Shortly afterwards, Joan visited the besieged city of Orleans in April 1429, and was present at the councils and battles thereafter.

Charles VII by Jean Fouquet 1445 1450.jpg
Above: Charles VII of France.

Joan believed that she had been instructed by God to drive the English from France and ensure that the dauphin was crowned; as she saw it, her mission was a holy one. The lifting of the siege at Orleans was perceived by contemporaries as evidence that Joan truly was God's messenger, and she gained the support of the archbishop of Embrun and the theologian Jean Gerson as a result. Joan later provided the Duke of Alencon with advice about strategy. After the lifting of the siege and the battle of Patay, which was a decisive victory for the French, Joan accompanied the victors on the march to Reims. 

Above: The Battle of Patay, June 1429.

Reims opened its gates on 16 July 1429, and the coronation took place the following morning. The French army accepted peaceful surrenders from towns near the capital. In December that year, Joan and her family were ennobled by a grateful Charles VII as a reward for her actions. Six months later, she was present at the siege of Compiegne, the scene of her final military action. Joan was ambushed and captured; later, she was imprisoned by the Burgundians at Beaurevoir Castle. She made several escape attempts, including jumping from a window 70 feet high, but miraculously survived, which was for her supporters another sign of her divine favour. Later, Joan was moved to Rouen. 

Above: Joan of Arc's entry into Reims in 1429; painting by Jan Matejko.

In early 1431, Joan's trial began. It was a contentious affair and several of the clergy had to be threatened with their lives to participate in it. These threats and the domination of the trial by a secular government actually violated the rules of the Church. Usually, a heresy trial should be conducted without secular interference. Ecclesiastical law was further violated by the refusal to allow Joan a legal adviser. Joan was charged with heresy and cross-dressing, a heinous offence in fifteenth-century eyes since it violated the natural order. Joan explained that she had chosen to wear male attire to protect herself from molestation; others testified that her dress had been taken by the guards and she had nothing else to wear. On 30 May, her execution took place. Burning at the stake was the customary method of execution for those found guilty of heresy. A crucifix was held before her by two of the clergy as she was tied to the stake. Her remains were cast into the Seine river. Some, at least, believed that a saint had been burned.

Two decades after her death, in 1452, a retrial was ordered, authorised by Pope Callixtus III at the request of Inquisitor-General Jean Brehal and Joan's mother, Isabelle. A formal appeal followed three years later, and in the summer of 1456, the court declared that Joan was innocent. She was canonised by Pope Benedict XV on 16 May 1920. 

In a short but extraordinary life, Joan of Arc was perceived in the contradictory guises of woman, warrior, saviour, heretic, witch, and saint. Following her death, she became something of a legendary figure and has inspired many by her bravery and willingness to die for her faith. She was certain that she had been chosen by God to ensure France's total victory over the English; it was the driving force in her life. Since her death, Joan has inspired artistic and cultural depictions for six centuries. Ultimately, although she did not live to see it, France's victory in the Hundred Years' War lent credence to the legitimacy of Joan's mission, signifying that she had indeed been favoured by God. Her retrial served to vindicate Joan, and in death she has been granted the admiration and awe that was largely denied to her in life. 

Sunday, 1 May 2016

'Now Take Heed What Love May Do'

The exact date on which King Edward IV married Elizabeth Wydeville is uncertain, but traditionally they are held to have married on, or about, 1 May 1464. In literature, Mayday had long been associated with romance, chivalry and passion. The selection of the date was appropriate, because Edward's marriage to Elizabeth appears to have been a love match. 

The marriage took place in circumstances of secrecy. Elizabeth's mother Jacquetta attended - and perhaps arranged the match - as did an unnamed priest. Two gentlewomen also attended. Contemporary writers and chroniclers later wrote, variously, that Elizabeth had enchanted the young king under an oak tree; that she had defended herself with a dagger when he attempted to force himself upon her; or that he threatened her with a dagger. 

Edward has been criticised by modern historians for selecting Elizabeth as his bride. However, there were good reasons to marry her. Firstly, she was undoubtedly fertile. She had already produced two sons in her first marriage, and she herself had thirteen siblings. Clearly, from Edward's perspective, Elizabeth came from good stock and would be able to produce sons, which was the primary duty of the medieval queen. Secondly, as later events would show, Elizabeth was beautiful, intelligent, charismatic, pious and ambitious. Thirdly, she was descended from the ducal house of Luxembourg, and could in theory offer her husband a prestigious foreign alliance. Fourthly, she had been married to a Lancastrian knight and the Wydevilles had traditionally supported the Lancastrian regime, so marriage to Elizabeth offered Edward the opportunity to heal the divisions between the warring houses of Lancaster and York.

On the other hand, Edward's choice was surprising to his contemporaries, because Elizabeth was not a foreign princess; marriage to a French princess would have been more profitable both for Edward and for his kingdom. The earl of Warwick had been negotiating for the king to wed Bona of Savoy. By marrying an English widow, Edward failed to consolidate his position, which was a risky policy given that he was a usurper. The situation in England remained precarious, and marriage to a foreign princess would have offered the promise of foreign military and diplomatic support, in the wake of further conflict and bloodshed. Secondly, the marriage alienated Warwick, who had supported Edward until that point. There is no evidence that the nobility as a whole resented the Wydevilles, but they were certainly disliked by Warwick, and he was a dangerous enemy to have, as events were to prove. 

In defying convention, Edward behaved exactly like his future grandson Henry VIII, who married four English women, at least two for love. King Edward has often been viewed as a serial womaniser, and indeed it is possible that he was actually married to Eleanor Talbot before marrying Elizabeth Wydeville. The king could not have known it, but his previous involvement with Eleanor was to jeopardise his marriage to Elizabeth. In Richard III's reign, the Wydeville marriage was declared invalid and the children of Edward and Elizabeth were declared illegitimate and unfit to succeed. 

In September 1464, Edward finally admitted that he had married Elizabeth. She was crowned queen on 26 May 1465, and gave birth to their first child, a daughter named Elizabeth, in February 1466. The marriage seems to have been a successful one. Elizabeth demonstrated her suitability to be queen and was praised for her constancy and modest behaviour, particularly during the troubles of 1470. Ultimately, it was their daughter Elizabeth's fate to be queen of England as the wife of Henry VII.