“The king sleeps, until I say otherwise.” With those icy words, Her Lady the King’s Mother, Margaret Beaufort (Harriet Walter), put herself in control of the reality of her son’s mortality and essentially established herself as regent. Catherine (Charlotte Hope) had only just reminded Lady Margaret in the previous episode that Margaret’s claim to the throne was in fact stronger than either her son or grandson. But of course, given England’s laws at that time, a woman could not ascend to the throne.
That has not stopped Margaret Beaufort from doing absolutely everything she could to be a shadow ruler of England for decades. Arguably one of the most powerful (and forgotten)f figures in English History, Starz’s anthology on the War of the Roses has in many ways been its own ode to her behind-the-scenes reign. Though The White Queen, The White Princess, and The Spanish Princess have all focused on glamorous heroines and smoldering love stories of a variety of English queens, there Margaret has remained in the background from the beginning. Played first by Amanda Hale, then Michelle Fairley and finally Walter, Margaret Beaufort’s machinations have largely been the cause of the central struggles for all of the aforementioned women.
And yet, Lady Margaret was so much more powerful than some kind of catty in-law. She was groomed for an obsession with the throne, one that she passed on to her anxious and paranoid son Henry VII, which filtered through and manifested in a tortured confidence for her grandson Henry VIII. It is here, in The Spanish Princess’ last episode of Part 1, that we finally see Margaret defeated after fulfilling her destiny to see the Tudors relish in power. And as we know, it would become more of the most famous yet fraught periods in English history, as Henry VIII carried forth the “curse” of Elizabeth Woodville and the sins of his grandmother’s decades of machinations.
For those disappointed with the lack of political moves in Game of Thrones’ flimsy final episodes, The Spanish Princess provided an entire season that focused primarily on the importance of marriage alliances and taxation. This was not a situation where someone suggested a boy become king because he has a good story; there was a very careful buildup to the episode’s payoffs both of Harry and Catherine being free to marry, as well as the destruction of Margaret’s corrupt privy counsel, which restored lands back to the people and kicked off Harry’s reign with an abundance of good feeling.
And yet, in Game of Thrones fashion, the way was mostly paved with blood. The quick-shot executions engineered by Lady Margaret were one thing (something her grandson would also enact later in his own reign), but the series has also heavily stood on the side of historical hypothesis that Margaret was responsible for the murder of the Boys in the Tower (Lizzie’s brothers, in line for the throne). In the series she also murdered her brother-in-law Jasper (who she loved), and was willing to stop at nothing to hold fast to power and security for her family—namely, her son Henry.
Lady Margaret’s death in this last hour signifies a sea-change in history. It ends the War of the Roses as well as York claims to the throne. The Tudors won, for awhile at least. Moving forward, Henry VIII would not be governed by his grandmother as his father was, though his court would be controlled and manipulated by others (and sometimes himself). In her final moments, we see Margaret plagued by the ghosts of her past, and the sins which paved the way for her triumph. Walter is good here, but she was even better in those tense moments after the death of Henry VII, where she spiraled in grief and yet also did what came naturally to her—she took control.
What might a Margaret monarchy have looked like? She was a woman who, historically, was passionate about education, founding Christ’s College, Cambridge, and endowing a lectureship in divinity at Oxford. She also built a free school for the public of Wimborne. She was clever in her commissions of restoration works as well as engineering projects, but none of these things even begin to suggest the power she wielded behind-the-scenes. Would she have been a ruthless leader? A tyrant? We know she was happy to imprison those rumored to be against her family, and she was also unbothered by taxing the English people to death. She might have been Machiavellian ruler; she obviously had a devilishly critical and ruthless mind that worked in concert with her ambition and piety (be it genuine or performative) to ensure success for the Tudor name. But is it possible that she, given her own power and control and a young age, might have transformed into a wise and benevolent Queen who was not plagued by the need to establish something for herself in a life otherwise controlled by men?
Starz’s War of the Roses series have all done a fantastic job of showcasing the stories of women who have been forgotten by history. Catherine of Aragon is often passed over as a footnote, the silent wife Henry VIII threw aside to marry Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth Woodville and Lizzie of York hardly even had that level of recognition, and the masterful manipulator Margaret Beaufort is similarly a name not commonly known. But these series have thrived on casual viewers not having preconceived notions of these women, which as allowed for some historical license, but all in service of giving these women the agency that perhaps they did have (which the record did not necessarily reflect), but certainly deserved.
Every good hero story needs a strong villain, and Her Lady, the King’s Mother certainly has provided one over three seasons of Starz’s historical drama. In many ways, the entire anthology has been (so far) about Margaret’s rise and fall. Her death, in a finale that had to cover quite a bit of plot in just an hour, felt like an ultimate triumph for the young lovers. The last wall between them fell, but as we know, a whole new host of struggles await them. But Margaret, and the shadow she cast, is far from them. Her influence on her spoiled grandson who is now King has already begun to manifest. Clear of all obstacles, Harry denies he slept with Catherine’s sister, adding that she (of course) did not sleep with Arthur. Essentially, “I didn’t do it, just like you didn’t do it … and we all know you did.” A breathless Catherine exits into the courtyard feeling the full weight of her “win.” In this moment, she couldn’t be more akin to Margaret, willing to do anything to secure power and what she believed to be her God-given destiny.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat, and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV