If not for Margaret Beaufort, England’s most notorious dynasty might never have claimed the throne.

The matriarch of the Tudors, Margaret schemed to steal the crown for her son, the future Henry VII, during the Wars of the Roses, a 15th-century dynastic clash between rival branches of the royal family. Thanks in large part to Margaret’s machinations, Henry emerged victorious at the 1485 Battle of Bosworth Field, killing Richard III and bringing the Plantagenet dynasty’s 331- year reign to an abrupt end.

Two years later, the new king gifted his mother a manor in Northamptonshire, a county in England’s East Midlands. Collyweston Palace hosted a veritable “who’s who” of Tudor England, from Henry VIII to Katherine Howard to Elizabeth I, in the century that followed. But the estate fell into disrepair by around 1650, and until recently, locals believed it survived only in stories passed down through the generations.

“Many of us were brought up in the village, and you hear about this lost palace and wonder whether it’s a myth or real,” Chris Close, chair of the Collyweston Historical and Preservation Society, tells the Guardian’s Jessica Murray.

Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII and grandmother of Henry VIII
Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII and grandmother of Henry VIII Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Henry VII
Henry VII Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Beginning in 2018, the society’s members—most of whom were retirees with no formal training in history or archaeology—embarked on a quest to investigate the local legend, diving into the archives and consulting experts to pinpoint the palace’s possible location. After raising funds to conduct ground-penetrating radar (GPR) surveys of the area and obtaining the landowners’ permission, volunteers started digging in promising spots. Finally, last May, they uncovered a telltale sign of the long-lost palace: the base of a centuries-old wall and a foundation.

“We knew it was here,” Sandra Johnson, a retired real estate agent who conducts research for the society, tells the New York Times’ Megan Specia. “It was just a question of getting the evidence to prove it.”

The find—which has since been verified by scholars at the University of York—is significant not only for its insights into Tudor history but also because of the unique nature of its discovery.

“We’re just a bunch of amateurs really, with no money, no plans, just a lot of enthusiasm,” Close says to BBC News’ Mariam Issimdar, “and against all the odds, we have unearthed this.”

Writing for the Conversation, historians Rachel Delman and Keely Hayes-Davies call Collyweston Palace “an epicenter of Tudor power and propaganda” that served as “a key stopping point” for royal progresses, or tours of the kingdom. From Collyweston, Margaret asserted the nascent Tudor dynasty’s authority, acting as a representative of her son, Henry VII, while he ruled from London.

“This site would have allowed Henry and Margaret to keep an eye on things further north, where things were still a bit shaky and uncertain,” Delman tells the Tudor Travel Guide’s Sarah Morris.

Born in Wales, Henry spent much of his youth in exile in Brittany, now part of France. He relied on his mother’s local connections to bolster his tenuous claim to the English throne. In turn, Margaret—described by historian Nicola Tallis as an “uncrowned queen” who never reigned but played a key role in running the kingdom—underscored the Tudors’ legitimacy by transforming Collyweston into a grand palace with a chapel, a jewel tower, a library and a deer park. When the royal court went on progress in 1503 to celebrate the marriage of Henry’s eldest daughter, also named Margaret, to James IV of Scotland, the wedding party stayed at Collyweston for two weeks.

That visit wasn’t the only time the royal family stopped at Collyweston. In 1541, Margaret’s grandson Henry VIII visited the palace (which he described as “fit and neat for a king”) with his fifth wife, the ill-fated Katherine Howard. Twenty-five years later, in 1566, Henry VIII’s youngest daughter, Elizabeth I, became the last Tudor monarch to stay at Collyweston, according to research conducted by the society. Subsequent owners of the estate dismantled its Tudor-era structures and built a new home on the grounds. By the 21st century, the only above-ground traces of the palace were earthen terraces and fish ponds.

A 1540 portrait of Henry VIII
A 1540 portrait of Henry VIII Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
The Rainbow Portrait of Elizabeth I
The so-called Rainbow Portrait of Elizabeth I Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

So far, GPR scans and excavations at the site have uncovered a wall, an intact runnel, stone moldings and other long-buried features. Moving forward, the society hopes to discover the palace’s exact layout and any surviving remnants of its grand furnishings, from its great hall to its formal entrance, reports the Peterborough Telegraph’s Darren Calpin. Members also want to collaborate with the University of York to create a 3D model of the palace.

“We’ve done it all on an absolute shoestring,” Close tells the Guardian. “For us, being a little society, to have achieved this with no money, or expertise or plans, I think it’s something that the whole society should be proud of.”

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