She switched sides more often than Cersei changes clothes, and she’ll doing anything to see her family on the throne…
Mild spoilers for A Storm of Swords below.
Meet Lady Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and Derby, and dead ringer for Olenna Tyrell, the Queen of Thorns. So what have they got in common?
Husbands: vital for appearances’ sake, but not much else: Olenna Tyrell famously refers to her late husband as “not unskilled in the bedchamber,” but I doubt Margaret had the same experience. She was twelve when she was married to a man literally twice her age – her guardian Edmund Tudor, the half-brother of Henry VI and created by him Earl of Richmond (she had earlier been married to her previous guardian’s son John de la Pole, but as she was only ten at the time this marriage was never consummated and therefore invalid). She was widowed a year later in 1456 when Edmund died in captivity: two months after that, she nearly died herself giving birth to their son Henry (she was 13 at the time).
Still, they shared some of the same attitude to the patriarchy: pay it just enough attention to get by while furthering your own agenda. Both Olenna and Margaery clearly see King Joffrey as only a conduit to power, to be appeased but never taken seriously. Margaret married first Henry Stafford, and then upon being widowed again in 1471, then Lord Thomas Stanley, whom she eventually persuaded to back her son against against the Yorkist king Richard III. Later, she took a vow of chastity and lived independently from Stanley, yet seemed to have remained on good terms with him.
Always thinking of the children: Despite these later marriages, Henry was Margaret’s only child – an unusual situation for a woman of her time (possibly due to injuries sustained during Henry’s birth), and perhaps goes some way to explaining her ambitions for him. In her own words, he was
my good and gracyous prynce, kynge and only beloved son
and she worked for over twenty years to put him on the throne of England, at some personal cost. For most of his childhood and young adulthood, she could only communicate with her son by letter: from the age of two, Henry was brought up away from his mother, and when the risk to him became too great, she had her brother-in-law Jasper Tudor take him to France, where he lived from the age of 14 to until he invaded England in 1485. During this time, she narrowly escaped execution for treason when her actions on her son’s behalf were discovered by Richard III: she had
of late conspired confedered and committed high treason in divers and sundry wises, and in especial in sending messages writings and tokens to the said Henry (the King’s great rebel and traitor) desiring procuring and stirring him by the same to come into this Realm, and make war against our said Sovereign Lord – Act of Parliament 1483, quoted here.
Instead, her property was given to her husband Lord Stanley, for whose sake she was kept alive though not allowed to communicate with the outside world (you can imagine how seriously she took that command). Olenna’s interests lie with her grandchildren, Margaery and Loras, but she is no less ambitious for them.
Mistress of the strategic marriage: when King Robert died, the Tyrells masterminded an attempted takeover by his younger brother, Renly, on the grounds that Robert’s son Joffrey is illegitimate, and Margaery was married to Renly. When Renly is murdered and it becomes clear that the Lannisters are in the ascendant, they deftly switch sides and have Margaery marry Renly’s putative nephew Joffrey. A member of the Lancastrian faction all her life, Margaret firstly managed to survive the shifting allegiances of the Wars of the Roses – which saw the deaths of every other male Lancastrian claimant to the throne – and despite being married to the Yorkist Lord Stanley, also placed her son’s interests above everything else. She secretly conspired with King Richard III’s enemy, the Yorkist queen Elizabeth Woodville, to marry Henry to her daughter Elizabeth (pay attention at the back!), the eldest daughter of Edward IV.
A darker side: Margaret was accused of having been involved in the conspiracy to murder the sons of Edward IV: having been de-legitimised by their uncle Richard III so that he could usurp the throne, they were re-legitimised by Henry to strengthen his claim to the throne through their sister Elizabeth – but by doing so, became his rivals for the throne again:
[17th century historian Sir George Buck] claimed that Margaret had been involved in a plot with her chaplain, later cardinal, John Morton, and others to cause the deaths by sorcery and poison, of the princes in the tower. – The King’s Mother: Margaret Beaufort by Jones and Underwood
Anyone who’s read A Storm of Swords knows that Olenna was heavily involved in the murder by poison of a similarly highly-placed royal, though she is too powerful to be publicly accused of it. Whether or not Margaret was actually involved in the princes’ deaths will probably never be known, but she was certainly the driving force behind Henry’s accession. Henry’s actual claim to the throne was tenuous, being both through the female line and an illegitimate descendant of Edward III – he succeeded through his mother’s political support; his marriage to Elizabeth, whose claim was much stronger than his own; and the death of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field.
The real power behind the throne: In A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones, it’s clear that whatever actions the Tyrells take are masterminded by Olenna – indeed in the TV series, her ineffectual son Lord Tyrell doesn’t appear at all, and it is Olenna herself who negotiates with Tywin Lannister on behalf of the Tyrells. When her son Henry became Henry VII, Margaret’s power grew: she was granted the right to own property in her own name, and was second only in precedence to her daughter-in-law, Queen Elizabeth. Henry devoted much time and money to her, and ambassadors counted her as among the most influential people at court. She had special responsibility for any arrangements to do with the king’s children, and was not above using her son in marital disputes:
There is in one of her letters to the King an unexpected and amusing trace of guile, when, wishing to act in a way she thinks Lord Derby will disapprove, she asks her son to send her a Royal Command to carry out her own wishes, because, she explains ingenuously, “it shall be a good excuse for me to my lord and husband.” – Lady Margaret, by E.M.G. Routh
When Elizabeth’s aunt Cecily (another daughter of Edward IV) was banished from court for marrying a man far beneath her, it was Margaret who persuaded her son to allow Cecily her lands and titles back. She continued to exert a strong influence over her son and grandchildren until her death in 1509 (the day after her grandson Henry VIII’s 18th birthday. Way to spoil the party, Grandma!).
Further reading: Philippa Gregory’s The Red Queen is a fictional account of her life – read with The White Queen, a similar novel of the life of Elizabeth Woodville (together they are the grandmothers of Henry VIII). In the BBC’s adaptation of the latter, Margaret is played by Amanda Hale.