By Nathen Amin
Marketed as the first full biography of Margaret Beaufort in over three decades, ‘Uncrowned Queen’ is the latest release from Dr Nicola Tallis, one of the rising stars of the new generation of historians that have come to the fore in recent years. On the back of her earlier work exploring the lives of Lettice Knollys and Jane Grey, Tallis has now turned her attention to the matriarch of the Tudor Dynasty, seeking to reveal her “true character as a living, breathing woman” which is a “far cry from flat representations” of recent memory, two-dimensional ideas that only serve to portray her as “a religious fanatic who was obsessively ambitious on her son’s behalf”.
Tallis endeavours to reveal the true Margaret by covering her subject’s life chronologically in three parts, the first covering her childhood and how she famously became a mother at just thirteen, a fact which still shocks the modern conscience 562 years later. Perhaps more interesting to the more experienced reader is how Tallis examines Margaret’s early years alongside her St John half-siblings, and her education, the foundations of which enabled her to grow into a woman described at her funeral as one ‘of singular wisdom’.
The second part examines Margaret’s comparative lesser-known years as Lady Stafford and thereafter Lady Stanley, maintaining a low-profile as a Lancastrian heiress in a perilous Yorkist world, before the book is rounded off with her most well-known years as the devoted mother of Henry VII, the first Tudor sovereign. No part is skipped, with each section of Margaret’s life given full attention. This truly is a full biography in ever way, and not just an empty promise on the cover.
What do we ultimately learn of Margaret herself through Tallis’ research? Well, unlike the dour, negative image that has unjustly pervaded historical fiction and social media, a false reading that has partly influenced this work, the real Margaret proves to be a woman who maintained a joyous court, often presiding over raucous festivities at her various manorial homes whilst maintaining an enthusiastic penchant for collecting jewels. We learn of her charitable nature, which has so often been unfairly depicted as religious fanaticism, and her deep love for her family, not just her son Henry but even her York in-laws to whom she has often been erroneously pitted against in historical fiction. This, then, is compulsive reading as the layers of history are carefully removed to allow the real Margaret, a warm, amiable, loyal, woman to emerge.
Tallis cautions that Margaret’s image “has been through some revisions over the years since her death, but the popular one has rarely been accurate”, lamenting how her impact on English history has therefore “often been little more than a footnote, overlooked and ignored”. With this book that can no longer credibly be the case.
‘Uncrowned Queen; The Fateful Life of Margaret Beaufort, Tudor Matriarch’ is an eminently readable and insightful book packed with fascinating detail about an astonishing figure who deserves far greater spotlight than she has hitherto received. The early 16th century humanist Polydore Vergil, who knew Margaret Beaufort personally, once referred to her as ‘a most outstanding woman’ and this truly is an appropriately outstanding account of her life that rights many wrongs.