I tend to think of Lady Margaret Beaufort looking rather austere in a wimple and black gown as pictured left. Melanie Taylor, art historian (https://melanievtaylor.co.uk) very kindly told me about the image of Margaret at prayer which hangs in St John’s College, Cambridge. It was painted by Rowland Lockey who was Nicholas Hilliard’s apprentice. He was born in 1565 and his best known picture is probably that of Sir Thomas More and his family. The image of Lady Margaret was presented to St John’s in 1598 by Julius Clippersby – Roy Strong says it was Juliana Clippersby who gave it to the college, making it less of a primary source than you might have imagined on first looking at it. It certainly accounts for the abundance of Tudor royal images and coats of arms.
A quick check on the National Portrait Gallery website revealed eighteen images associated with Henry Tudor’s mother in their collection. They all picture her dressed as a widow. There are other portraits dotted around the countryside including the one at Hever Castle pictured left which features an expensive cloth of state, trademark widow’s wimple, black frock and prayer book. We tend to think that the black dress she is most commonly associated with is akin to a monastic habit but in actual fact the fabrics and dyes made her clothing some of the most expensive available. The robes she wore were the same quality as those worn by Henry VII’s queen and during one Christmas celebration they wore identical garments.
Let’s make no mistake here. There was a degree of nunliness (is that even a word?) about the king’s mother especially during her last decade. Despite the fact that her last husband Lord Thomas Stanley was very much alive Margaret had taken a public vow of chastity in 1499 and thereafter the pair lived separate lives. Margaret was enrolled in the lists five religious houses- Charterhouse, Croyland, Durham and Westminster are listed by the Catholic Encyclopaedia. Essentially she took vows under canon law that enabled her to continue living in the public sphere rather than the secluded world of a nunnery.
Her friend and confessor John Fisher developed this image of her in his sermon about Margaret entitled A Mornygne Remembrance. He compared her to Martha, a woman of action, but who combined her capabilities with prayer, fasting and abstinence. Records of her gifts and patronage also develop the theme of piety. She helped found the Cult of the Holy Name of Jesus in England during this period – the letters IHS which are so common in churches today were little used before this period (Unfortunately her patronage of the cult meant that it was very markedly Catholic which proved somewhat of a problem during her grandson’s reign.) In her later years she attended several masses daily that caused her back problems. Please, no one comment on the possibility of a guilty conscience – draw your own conclusions – pious woman or maniac murderer of princes wishing to atone – take your pick. Since Fisher didn’t break the confessional its all circumstantial!
It turns out that there is only one original known likeness of the redoubtable matriarch of the Tudor family – her funeral effigy cast by Italian Master Pietro Torrigiano. He also created the wonderful sculpture of Henry VIII as a little boy and the bust of Henry VII. The face was probably taken from her death mask – so not one of her better days. Interestingly as well as the Beaufort arms the Stafford knot features in the imagery around her effigy.
All the rest of the images of Margaret were created during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries at a time when all those new manor houses with their brand new long galleries required populating with portraits demonstrating loyalty to the monarchy. The images may have been created from an original now lost or perhaps from the effigy in Westminster.
The portrait that I’m particularly fond of is purported to be Margaret Beaufort in her youth but unfortunately the headdress doesn’t match to the correct period but to a time closer to the beginning of the sixteenth century. The National Portrait Gallery identifies it as an Unknown Lady. Despite that you can see how the folded hands, the rings on her fingers, and headdress would lead to the idea that it was Margaret Beaufort. The portrait has been in the National Portrait Gallery since 1908.
Davis, David J. (2013) Seeing Faith, Printing Pictures: Religious Identity during the English Reformation.