Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII, cannot have been an easy mother-in-law for Queen Elizabeth of York to have. The pair were often together, with Margaret occupying a dominant role in her son's life. Margaret was, however, also devoted to her son and his family and genuinely sought the best for her dynasty. Nowhere is this more apparent than in her reaction to the news that Elizabeth was expecting her first child in 1486.
The current royal birth - the first child of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge - is happening as I write, with the eyes of the world's media focussed on the hospital in Paddington. There has been a considerable amount of speculation in recent weeks about the manner in which the Duchess will give birth. Matters were no different in 1486 when Margaret Beaufort stepped in to cast a critical eye over the arrangements for the royal birth and to, effectively, write her daughter-in-law's birth plan. Margaret produced a set or royal ordinances which survive, and which were followed for some time, ensuring that the birth of her first grandchild - the heir to both the house of Lancaster and the house of York - was carried out with sufficient formality.
She began by setting out the furnishings and decorations to be prepared in the queen’s chamber:
‘Her Highnes Pleasure beinge understoode in what Chamber she will be delivered in, the same must be hanged with riche Clothe of Arras, Sydes, rowffe, Windowes and all, excepte one Windowe, which must be hanged so as she may have light when it pleasethe her. Then must there be set a Royall Bedde, and the Flore layed all over and over with Carpets, and a Cupboard covered with the same Suyte that the Chamber is hanged withall. Also there must be ordayned a faier Pallet, and all Things appertayninge therunto, and a riche Sparner hanginge over the same. And that Daye that the Queene (in good Tyme) will take her Chamber, the Chappell where her Highnes will receave and heare Devine Service, must be well and worshipfully arrayed. Also the greate Chamber must be hanged with riche Arras, with a Clothe and Chaire of Estate, and Quishins [cushions] thereto belonginge, the Place under and aboute the same beinge well encarped. Where the Queene (comminge from the Chappell with her Lords and Ladyes of Estate) may, either standinge or sittinge, at her Pleasure, receave spices and wyne. And the next Chamber betwixt the greate Chamber and the Queenes Chamber to be well and worshipfully hanged; which done, Two of the greatest Estats shall leade her to her Chamber, where they shall take their leave of her. Then all the Ladyes and Gentilwomen to goe in with her, and none to come unto the greate Chamber but Women; and Women to be made all Manner of Officers, as Butlers, Panters, sewers, & c. and all Manner of Officers shall bringe them all neadfull Thinges unto the greate Chamber Dore, and the Women Officers shall receave it there of them’.
Margaret decreed that the queen, a month before the birth, should retire to an entirely female and candlelit world.
Although no account survives of the birth of her first grandchild, it is certain that the ordinances were followed and that both Margaret and the queen’s mother, Elizabeth Woodville, would have been present, in all likelihood, vying for influence. Elizabeth of York herself may have felt somewhat lost in the well-ordered world and Margaret’s specifications extended even so far as the materials to be used in making the bed sheets and their exact sizes. She also specified the stuffing for the mattresses and the colour of the cushions. It is possible that, as she grew older and more experienced, Elizabeth found ways to rebel and her accounts for July 1502, a few months into her last pregnancy, record payments made for twenty-seven cushions ‘vi with blewe cloth of gold with cheverons the oon half of the said quysshons of satyn figure the other six with crymysn velvet and six of crymsyn dammaske and six of satyn figure two of purple velvet and oon quysshon of cloth of gold’. The queen, perhaps, intended to pre-empt her overbearing mother-in-law by at least choosing her own cushions to be used in her confinement. An account of the birth of Elizabeth’s second child in 1489 also shows that the queen, on occasion, was able to rebel against the confines of Margaret’s protocol. According to a contemporary manuscript, after Elizabeth had taken to her chamber:
‘Thier came a great Ambassade oute of Frannce, among the whiche ther was a kynsman of the Quenes called Francois Monsieur de Luxemburg, the Prior of Saint Mattelyns, and Sir William de Zaintes, Bailly of Senlis, and Montjoie, King of Armes of Frenshemen, whiche desired to se the Quene, and so they dide, and in her awne Chambre. Ther was with her hir Moder Quene Elisabeth, and my Lady the Kinges Moder; but ther entred no more then ben affore rehersed, savyng my Lord the Quenes Chamberlayn, and Garter Principal King of Armes’.
Margaret’s thoughts on Elizabeth’s breach of protocol in admitting men to her presence is not recorded but, given that the ambassador was kin to Elizabeth through her mother, Elizabeth Woodville’s own maternal family, it is possible that Margaret blamed the queen dowager.
Margaret undoubtedly meant well in the care that she took over her ordinances and she looked towards her daughter-in-law’s comfort but, to Elizabeth, the attention may well have seemed overbearing. Margaret also laid down specifications for the decoration of the church for the christening of her grandson, Prince Arthur, who was born in September 1486. It cannot have pleased her that the baby’s maternal grandmother, Elizabeth Woodville, who outranked her, was named the prince’s godmother although, as a compliment to his mother, Henry appointed his stepfather, Lord Stanley, as Arthur’s godfather.
Margaret was given a great deal of input into the prince’s upbringing and her ordinances decreed the furnishings for the nursery, what servants should be appointed and the precautions to be taken in the appointment and management of the wet nurse, who was to be observed by a doctor at every meal to ensure that ‘she geveth the Childe seasonable Meate and Drinke’. Margaret was present at the birth of her second grandchild in November 1489, a girl who was named Margaret in her honour, and she was named godmother to the princess, making her a gift at her christening of ‘a chest of silver and gilt, full of gold’. Elizabeth of York would eventually bear eight children and they provided a common interest between the pair as they found themselves almost constantly in each other’s company.
Interest in royal births has always been intense and, perhaps, by the end of today, a new prince or princess will have been born. In the modern world, the Duchess of Cambridge, was not required to go into confinement a month before the birth, but the speculation and interest in the birth is just as great as when her baby's ancestress, Margaret Beaufort, sat down to set out just how a royal birth should be managed.
You can read Margaret's Ordinances online at either Google Books or www.archive.org in John Leland's Johannis Lelandi Antiquarii de Rebus Britannicus Collectanea, volume IV from page 179.