The Wars of the Roses or The Cousins War as it was called at the time is complicated enough without looking too closely at the relationships that existed between the women of the period and the links forged by marriages often arranged to secure family alliances and extend land holdings. Yet, to do so gives a new insight into the power dynamics, politics and family relationships of the period and also of the Tudor period given that Henry VIII emulated his father when he approached mid-life by starting to execute members of his nobility with too much Plantagenet blood in their veins.
Margaret Beaufort and her assorted extended family is typical of the far reaching links that often seem to run counter to what might be expected from the overarching political affiliations depicted in history books. Her mother was Margaret Beauchamp of Bletsoe. Margaret Beauchamp was married three times. She had children by all three of her husbands. These children were Margaret Beaufort’s half-siblings and thus aunts and uncles of Henry Tudor, thought much less publicized than Jasper Tudor. Margaret Beaufort’s youngest half-brother, John born sometime around 1450, was the child of Margaret Beauchamp’s third marriage to Lionel de Welles, the sixth baron Welles.
Lionel died at the Battle of Towton in 1461 fighting on the Lancastrian side. Barons number seven and eight (Lionel Welles’ son and grandson from a previous marriage) had their heads chopped off for plotting against Edward IV in 1470. This resulted in an Act of Attainder and the removal of titles and estates most of which were situated in Lincolnshire. John Welles, not put off by the severing of heads from shoulders, continued the family tradition of loyalty to Lancaster by becoming involved with Buckingham’s rebellion against Richard III in 1483. He then scarpered across the Channel where he joined his nephew Henry Tudor.
So far so good – though I admit a family tree would help. He returned to England in 1485 by his nephew’s side, was knighted and got his lands back. He also acquired a bride some nineteen years his junior and who tied him more closely than ever to the royal family.
His bride was Cecily Plantagenet, the second daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville to survive to adulthood (her elder sister Mary died young). She had been offered as a bride to King James III of Scotland’s heir in 1474 – and in 1482, the year before Edward IV’s death, to the Duke of Albany although there was the slight problem of Albany already having a wife.
Cecily’s grand Scottish match came to nothing. Instead her father died and she found herself in sanctuary for the second time in her short life and no longer a princess. Her parents’ marriage was declared invalid on account of her father’s alleged pre-contract with Lady Eleanor Butler making his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville bigamous and Cecily and her siblings illegitimate.
Richard III arranged for his niece to marry Ralph Scrope the younger brother of a northern baron. The marriage was swiftly brought to an end once Henry VII gained the throne. Cecily was required at court and in the hands of a good Lancastrian rather than a supporter of Richard III. In 1486 she carried Prince Arthur to his baptism and in 1487 she accompanied her sister Elizabeth, Henry VII’s wife, to her coronation. By the following year she was married to Henry VII’s less well-known uncle John Welles. This was a clever move on Henry’s part. It rewarded his uncle for his loyalty and ensured that Cecily didn’t acquire an overly ambitious husband.
It was, however, a marriage that makes for complicated family ties. Cecily as well as becoming Henry Tudor’s sister-in-law also became his mother’s (Margaret Beaufort) sister-in-law; something of an irony bearing in mind that Margaret Beaufort in the red corner and Elizabeth Woodville in the white corner (Cecily’s mother) were consummate rivals and only united in 1483 against a common foe in Richard III (if popular history is to be believed and we set aside the fact that Elizabeth Woodville not only accepted Margaret Beaufort at court whilst Edward IV was alive but asked her to be godmother to one of her daughters at a time when both women might reasonably have supposed that their positions were established and secure…I did say it was complicated).
Cecily and John had two daughters both of whom died in childhood. John died in 1499 and Cecily continued with her duties at court where she seems to have been something of a favourite. She was part of Prince Arthur’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon. Records state that she carried the bride’s train and danced with Prince Arthur at the festivities afterwards. Jones and Underwood note that during this time she and Margaret Beaufort spent time together and seem to have grown to like one another.
She was also financially secure. Welles having died without children left a will giving Cecily an interest in his estates for her lifetime. He named her as executor of his will along with Margaret Beaufort’s, and now Henry VII’s, long trusted henchman Sir Reginald Bray.
Behind the scenes Cecily was taking her life in her own hands. History knows relatively little of the arrangements behind her first marriage to Ralph Scrope but in all likelihood it was arranged by Richard III who’d promised his nieces marriages to gentlemen (but not nobility of the first order). Her second marriage was obviously political. In that Cecily’s life was no different from countless other women of the period but she was about to break the rules. In 1502, Cecily married Thomas Kyme of Friskney, a Lincolnshire esquire, without royal license and socially far below her in rank.
Henry VII was not amused.
However, Cecily and Thomas had an unexpected ally in Cecily’s sister-in-law, Margaret Beaufort. Margaret permitted Cecily, of whom she appears fond, to stay in her house at Collyweston until the king’s anger had time to simmer down. She also began negotiations on Cecily’s behalf. As you might expect much of Henry’s anger was about loss of prestige, something important to the parvenu Tudor. But, almost as important to Henry VII was his treasury. As soon as the marriage came to light Henry set about removing the Welles’ estates from his sister-in-law but Margaret, canny negotiator, ensured that Cecily retained some of her lands and was able to pay her way out of trouble though not back into royal favour which may explain why she didn’t attend her sister, Elizabeth of York’s funeral – a noticeable absence after all the other key events she’d played an important role in.
Cecily appears to have continued to be often in Margaret Beaufort’s company and when Cecily died in 1507 it was Margaret Beaufort who paid most of her funeral expenses.
Jones, Michael K and Underwood, Malcolm G.(1992) The King’s Mother: Lady Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and Derby Cambridge: Cambridge University Press