Sunday, August 23, 2020

The Portraits of Lady Margaret Beaufort

by Judith Arnopp

Most of us are familiar with the portraits of Margaret Beaufort. Invariably she is depicted toward the end of her life, elderly, austere, and pious. It is difficult to imagine this staid, nun-like woman as a gurgling baby, or a naughty child; even less as a vigorous young woman. 

But people, even Countesses, are not born pious. Her face must once have been unlined, she may have been frivolous, perhaps even reckless. She was certainly determined; her crusade to secure her son Henry VII on the English throne involved intrigue against a reigning monarch. Against all odds, she financed her son’s campaign and in doing so, changed her life forever. 

With Henry’s accession to the throne, she became the most powerful woman in the realm, and she did not waste her new-found success but became one of Henry’s chief advisors, her charitable work extending to the foundation of universities, and championing the arts.

The portraits we see today are not contemporary. Without exception, she is depicted in her later year, clothed in a peaked white headdress, usually with a book, and always in the act of religious contemplation with an aura of chastity and charity.

Of course, portraits are not always about the subject’s appearance; sometimes a painting depicts a person’s character rather than how large the sitter’s nose may have been. Margaret, in her exalted position, would have been keen to project an authoritative, reverent persona but she evolved into a nun-like figure, as a young woman she would have suffered all the uncertainties, the passions and the flaws that we all experience. That is the Margaret made more fascinating simply because of the lack of portraiture from the uncertain days of her youth.

There are no extant portraits of Margaret from her lifetime, the ones we see today were made during the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. Undoubtedly they are copies of a lost original so, particularly if we compare them to the effigy on her tomb at Westminster, we can be fairly sure of her appearance during the later years of her life. This portrait of Margaret is believed to have been part of a set of corridor portraits including Henry VII, Henry VIII, commissioned during the reign of Elizabeth I. Again Margaret is in a religious pose, her clothing and book of hours illustrating her religious devotion. It is the best-preserved portrait we have of Margaret, the detail of the golden arch beneath which she sits, and the ornamented cloth of state is still visible to the naked eye.

My personal favourite portrait of Lady Margaret hangs in St John’s College in Cambridge. It was painted by Rowland Lockey in the 16th century. Margaret is shown at prayer in a lavish apartment, presumably her private chamber. She kneels at a desk with a heavy embroidered cloth and before her is a prayer book, a sign of piety and learning, and beneath it the ‘chemise’ cover she wrapped it in. Above her head, a tester bears the Tudor rose. The chamber itself is sumptuous, testament to her love of comfort, the stained glass windows with the badge of the Beauforts and of England.

This portrait tells us more about her lifestyle than the others. We can see that despite her sombre attitude, she lived luxuriously, as one would expect. Her dark clothes, although quite dour to our modern eyes, were of the best quality, black being among the most expensive and difficult hues to buy. 

After her death ‘seven gowns of black velvet were found, trimmed with ermine, and a mantle of tawny.’ And, most interesting of all, was ‘a scarlet gown with a long train, ornamented with the badges of the Garter and evidently to be worn on St George’s day. In another inventory we find a crimson gown to be work with her ‘circuit’, not a diadem but a surcoat, such as she had worn at Christmas 1487.’

So, a new Margaret begins to emerge, a woman who favoured scarlet and ermine, whose ‘chariot men wore scarlet. The very buttons of the horse harness were of gold of Venice.' This speaks less of piety and very much of majesty, perhaps even a little vanity.

The National Portrait Gallery has a portrait previously thought to be Margaret but now largely dismissed. It features a younger woman, hands clasped in pious prayer, her head covered with a veil. The painting is dark but the gown appears to be dark red, the veil itself lavishly embroidered. The nose is long and heavy, the eyes heavily lidded, as Margaret is shown in other portraits, and the face is pensive. Whether the sitter is lost in religious contemplation or distracted by plots of rebellion, it is difficult to judge. 

As I said earlier, the portrait is no longer believed to represent Margaret but it is intriguing none the less and I confess I used it during my research to picture the younger Margaret, the young woman who, widowed three times and separated from her only son, had no notion of the triumphs the future held.

[1] Jones and Underwood, The King’s Mother p188
[2] Ibid p189

Portraits from Wikimedia Commons

This is an Editor’s Choice from the #EHFA archives, originally published February 25, 2019.


Judith Arnopp is the author of eleven historical fiction novels including The Beaufort Chronicle: the life of Lady Margaret Beaufort. 

Connect with Judith at Judith's books are available through Amazon including The Beaufort Bride, The Beaufort Woman: Book Two of the Beaufort Chronicles, and The King's Mother: Book Three of the Beaufort Chronicles


  1. A picture says a thousand words. Excellent article!

  2. Don't forget that scarlet was, initially, a fabric not a colour.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.