Characters in Motion with Historical Fiction Writer Judith Arnopp

Judith Arnopp II

Margaret Beaufort – The Beaufort Chronicles Books 1 – 3

Hi Stephanie, I am so happy to be part of your new series of blogs; thank you so much for including me.

As you know the characters in my books are historical figures from English history, mostly of the late medieval and Tudor period. They have all been written of before, many, many times but I enjoy adding my own version to the traditional view. Although I wouldn’t call myself a revisionist, I do like to find a different perspective. Instead of recording what they did, I like to consider why they did it. This is often difficult to judge from the outside; I like to hone in on the inner self and reveal the part of us that we often prefer to keep hidden from the world.

By far my most challenging protagonist so far has been Margaret Beaufort. Margaret appears in many novels set around the Wars of the Roses and is usually depicted as a negative character, a schemer and plotter. She has even been cast as a potential murderer of the missing princes in the Tower although my research has thrown up nothing to suggest that was so. My novels that comprise The Beaufort Chronicles illustrate the events of the Wars of the Roses through Margaret’s eyes, and trace the changes in her character as she grows from a child of eight to a woman of mature years, the mother and grandmother of kings and queens.

Before I began writing I had to consider why Margaret has been depicted so negatively and this research brought me to her portraits. The only surviving representations of Margaret were taken in later life, after her son won his crown. She presents a pious pose, in the attitude of prayer, or clutching a book, the symbol of great learning. I think this dour image may explain why she has not been the heroine of many novels but Margaret clearly wasn’t born old. Even old women have known youth and love. She was once young, records indicate she possessed a sense of humour, favoured red gowns, and had a great love of finery both in clothing and furnishings. Margaret’s resilience is astonishing. She puts me in mind of a beetle that can’t be crushed. Her journey from the child bride of Edmund Tudor to whom she bore a son at the age of thirteen, to the mother of the first Tudor king is really quite incredible.

At the beginning of the wars between Lancaster and York, Margaret and Henry were relatively insignificant members of the House of Lancaster. After Henry VI’s demise and the death of the Prince of Wales, Edward of Lancaster, Margaret and Henry were suddenly thrown into the spotlight. While Henry was exiled, Margaret began to fight her son’s battles – and she fought ceaselessly to that end for the rest of her life.

Under the reign of Edward IV she petitioned the king for her exiled son’s properties and titles to be restored. She was on the brink of obtaining this when Edward died suddenly in 1483 and England was cast once again into chaos. Margaret was at the centre of activities during Richard III’s acquisition of the crown, she served him loyally at first but at some point midway during his reign, she changed tack and began to plot with Elizabeth Woodville. Together they raised money and support for an army to bring Henry Tudor home. But, on the eve of the Battle of Bosworth Margaret had no idea what the outcome would be. Under house arrest she could only pray, her nerves in tatters as she waited to discover if her actions had resulted in triumph for the Tudors or in the death of her only son.

Most women, especially on the winning side, would be applauded for these actions, hailed as a heroine but Margaret is always seen rather differently. She has become the archetypal interfering mother in law, the cold hearted pious busy body, a critic of the etiquette of the royal court. To some extent these things are true but there was also another side. She was loyal, forgiving, careful of the welfare of her household, and a great benefactress of churches and colleges throughout the realm. I felt it appropriate that she be given the opportunity to present her own version of events.

Margaret prays a lot – most people did in the middle ages. She meditates. She likes to garden and is interested in healing, her still room is well supplied with remedies. She passed this habit on to her grandson, Henry VIII, who was terrified of contagion, and also liked to dose his household when they fell ill.

Margaret possessed a dry humour and I have embellished this in my books. She has a wicked wit, and when she chooses, she can make the most biting of replies. During her years of struggle she is often a victim but she plays the long game. She serves Elizabeth Woodville faithfully, gains her friendship, visits her in sanctuary and comes to know the royal children, including her future daughter in law, Elizabeth of York and the younger of the princes, Richard of Shrewsbury. After becoming involved in Buckingham’s rebellion her life was in King Richard’s hands but he chose leniency and placed her under house arrest, in the custody of her husband, Thomas Stanley. But she didn’t give up.  Margaret had absolute faith that God was on her side. When the time came for her to move against Richard III, she financed Henry, risking both her security and position. Without doubt, Margaret Beaufort is the most heroic women I have ever written about.

Her insecure environment sometimes makes her prickly, defensive and seemingly proud. In public she adopts a confidence that she doesn’t really feel. Each decision she makes, she makes blindly – the reader and I are privileged by hindsight and know she will triumph but when I am writing, I have to remember Margaret was on a knife edge, in dangerous times and her life was often in peril. Throughout The Beaufort Chronicles Margaret is isolated, in conflict with the world but she is possessed of such courage and strength that she achieves all her desires. On reaching her goal however, she discovers that fate isn’t done with her just yet.

Because I write in the first person, I am in a sense, stepping into Margaret’s shoes and moving through the events of the Wars of the Roses. When I am writing I become Margaret. I don’t always stick to the traditional motivations because I am writing from the inside. Her relationships are varied. Her devotion to her son, from whom she is exiled for fourteen years until the day after Bosworth, is unswerving. Although she serves Edward IV’s queen her loyalty to Lancaster does not change but self-preservation is her only way forward. Records indicate that she and Elizabeth Woodville worked together in Henry’s cause and I have developed the relationship into a cautious friendship. She wants to trust Elizabeth but she is wary, never sure. Margaret finds it difficult to trust anyone which is not surprising when you consider her experience.

After Henry finally made good his promise to marry Elizabeth of York, Margaret’s relationship with her daughter in law develops over time into friendship and admiration. This may not have been the case had Elizabeth not been so compliant for there is no doubt that Margaret liked to be in charge. She ordered how Henry’s court should be run, how the apartments should be furnished, how the children should be raised – and Elizabeth seems not to have minded too much, although there are a few instances when she rebelled, or stood her ground.

In my books it is Margaret’s innermost thoughts and opinions that flesh her character. For instance when she encounters someone or something she shares her private opinion with the reader, criticizes manners, the style of dress, assesses each man’s loyalty to her son, their possible usefulness in her quest. In these books Margaret’s opinions are the only ones that are relevant because she is telling her own story. This way, Margaret’s experiences (hopefully) become the reader’s and her joys, happiness, fears and grief are immediate.

Her relationship with her four husbands took some consideration on my part. Margaret was first married as an infant to John de la Pole, the seven year old son of the Earl of Suffolk. After the Earl’s disgrace, the marriage was annulled and she was married instead to Henry VI’s half-brother Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond who was in his mid-twenties. Her second marriage took place when she was just twelve or thirteen years old. Usually the marriage would not have been consummated but Edmund could not take possession of her lands until she bore a son. I could have taken the route of an unhappy forced union but there are no records of Margaret ever showing resentment toward Edmund; she spoke gently of him and in her will she asked to be interred with him at Grey Friars in Carmarthen but the request was ignored. Had she born him any ill will I don’t think she would have asked to be laid with him. I chose to develop the relationship. Edmund is her protector, her husband, the father figure she lacked, and Margaret forms a sort of teenage crush for a man her senior by around thirteen years. Some authors have chosen to demonize Edmund Tudor and turn him into a child abuser but it was the fifteenth century – a different world, we shouldn’t judge by modern day standards.

Her third husband, Henry Stafford, was her own choice. Not a love match but chosen for protection and to prevent her being married off politically for a second time. Although her son, Henry, remained in the custody of his uncle, Jasper Tudor, she and Stafford visited him several times in Wales and sent regular letters and gifts. Stafford died from wounds sustained at the Battle of Barnet where he fought for York. Their marriage seems to have been content, with a slight breach when he declined to fight for Lancaster but supported Edward IV. During this period I allowed Margaret to become stronger, more headstrong and determined to be accepted at the Yorkist court so she could win back her son’s lands.

Stafford’s death after the Battle of Barnet left her vulnerable and, once more at the mercy of fortune hunters, she made the tactical choice of allying herself with Thomas Stanley, a powerful baron, high in the king’s favour. This opened the way for Margaret at court and all that came after. There is very little about her relationship with Stanley but it seems they were tolerant of each other. They lived apart for much of the time but visited and remained on good terms. I had some fun with this relationship. Margaret took control of my pen and showed a Thomas who was a bit of a likeable fool with an abrasive manner and little patient with the niceties of court. He reveals to Margaret a sensuous side of her nature she had previously ignored, a complexity that she wrestles to come to terms with. At the time of their marriage they needed each other, once Henry became king and Margaret was no longer in need of Stanley’s influence or protection, their relationship settles into one of irritated tolerance.

Each step Margaret takes along the path to her destiny is littered with difficulties. Even after her son has won his crown and she has the highest position at his court, she is still beset with doubt. She and Henry find it hard to trust – little wonder at the mire of treason and betrayal they have negotiated. Henry Tudor’s reign, particularly the early part, is beset with uprisings, pretenders to his throne, traitors in his court. Neither he nor his mother can rest easy. Every curtain conceals a dagger, and every closed door hides another plot against them.

At one point Henry finds some consolation. He has three sons to follow him and he has just secured the longed for alliance with Spain by marrying his heir to the Infanta, Catherine of Aragon. The Tudor dynasty is at last secure, their bloodline stretching endlessly ahead. But, one by one, the children begin to die.

Child mortality was commonplace in the middle ages but devastating nonetheless. Having already lost a daughter, Elizabeth, in 1495, tragedy struck again. First, sixteen month old baby Edmund died in 1500. The royal couple would scarcely have recovered when their pride and joy, the royal heir, Prince Arthur of Wales died at Ludlow in 1502. Henry and Elizabeth with just one son to follow them, immediately began to try for another. A daughter was born to Elizabeth in 1503 but tragically Elizabeth herself did not survive. She was taken ill a few days later and died suddenly, her newborn daughter followed soon after. Henry Tudor was left with just one son, his heir who was later crowned King Henry VIII.

The king died in 1509. Seemingly, at the age of sixty-six, Margaret’s reason for living had ended and she survived him by just two months.

About Judith:

Judith lives on the coast of Wales in the UK with her husband John. She studied creative writing and Literature at university and went on to study for a master’s degree in medieval studies. She now combines those skills to craft historical novels, short stories and essays.

Judith Arnopp website

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