Ricardian FictionSpecial Section in the Winter 97-98 Ricardian Register
Margaret of Anjou
She-wolf of France, but worse than wolves of France...Margaret of Anjou was an uppity woman, or so we have been told. In early 1456, perhaps with a hint of grudging admiration, she was observed to be "great and strong labored" as her power expanded. After the Lancastrian defeat at Towton, however, George Neville, bishop of Exeter, new-made chancellor and brother to Warwick the Kingmaker, contemptuously referred to her as "the wife," as if to underline the impropriety of her meddling in political affairs that were not properly her concern. Shakespeare immortalized the image of a transgressive Margaret: a harlot and a harridan who both betrayed and ruled her weak and ineffectual husband, Henry VI; a vengeful she-wolf who could place a paper crown on York's head to mock his royal claim before stabbing him with her own hand.
Women are soft, mild, pitiful, and flexible;
Thou stern, obdurate, flinty, rough, remorseless.
Although historians have by now rejected Shakespearean excess--Margaret's alleged adultery is suppositious at best, and she was in Scotland when the battle of Wakefield took place--they still have perpetuated a view of Margaret as political actor that is not so far removed from her fictional persona. Thus we are told that her "fiery determination made compromise impossible and civil war almost inevitable," and that "she made no pretence to hold aloof and arbitrate between the two parties [of York and Somerset, so that the] crown descended into the welter of political intrigue"; or that she bore an "attitude [from at least late 1457]...of unforgiving severity" towards the Yorkists. Such a view recognizes that Margaret came to exercise significant political power, but then shies away from looking at the origin and nature of that power very closely.
A part of the problem lies in our traditional habit of regarding the Wars of the Roses from a male-centered perspective. There is nothing particularly wrong with the approach, so far as it goes: men visibly dominated the fifteenth-century English political scene and, in any case, left more evidence than women of their various activities. Moreover, until quite recently, all history was male-centered. But this approach inevitably relegates a Margaret of Anjou to the role of adjunct, even as it acknowledges her importance. On a more concrete level, in Margaret's case it has led to certain assumptions about her allegiances that have colored our overall perception of her role and public personality as queen. As a result, her political activities are retrospectively constructed around the poles of opposition (to York and the Nevilles) and collusion (with Somerset specifically, and possibly with his predecessor, Suffolk). This means that while York's own intentions and role, for example, have undergone considerable reassessment, the analysis of Margaret's role has remained relatively static.
In order to move beyond this picture, the very real issue of gender must be engaged. Margaret was not, nor ever could be, simply "one of the boys." Although gender did not prevent her from acquiring power, it dictated the terms on which she could obtain and exercise it and, by extension, affected the course of political events. What, then, did it mean for Margaret to wield power as a woman and a queen? What opportunities did queenship afford her, and to what limitations was it subject? Linked to this complicated issue are some subsidiary questions that must be answered afresh. For example: when did she become the duke of York's dire enemy? Why did she put herself forward as a political contender?
Although queenship provided access to power, the queen's political influence was presumed to lie in her acts of mediation or intercession, at all times subsumed by her husband's authority. There is every reason to believe that Margaret understood the role she was supposed to play, and substantial evidence to suggest that, for the most part, she tried to play it by the rules. It now appears that she initially entered the political arena at the time of Henry's illness, not as a leader or adherent of faction, but in an effort to contain factional conflict. Up until this point her treatment of York was officially "friendly," whatever her private feelings towards him may have been, and it then took a remarkably long time once the initial signs of suspicion and hostility began to appear for her to seem passably "wolfish."
During the later 1450s, when Margaret's power reached its height, she continued to appeal to the king's authority and to represent herself, with rare exception, as his subordinate and intermediary. Although there are some indications that a kind of role reversal had begun to take place as Margaret became more active politically while Henry became more passive, it remained shadowy and incomplete. In order to exercise political power, she had to resort to a kind of "masking"; in the end, the need to deny the extent and reality of her own power undermined its effectiveness.
- Henry VI, Part III, 1.4.111, 141-2. Shakespeare has the duke of York condemn Queen Margaret with these words just before his death.
- A.B. Hinds, ed., Calendar of State Papers...Milan, vol. I (1912), p. 61.
- Patricia-Ann Lee, "Reflections of Power: Margaret of Anjou and the Dark Side of Queenship," Renaissance Quarterly 39, no. 2 (Summer 1986): 215-16, notes that adultery and incessant wrangling were regarded as peculiarly female vices, while deliberately-chosen vengeance was a male offense. Thus, Shakespeare's portrayal of Margaret combined what were perceived to be the worst traits of both sexes.
- J.J. Bagley, Margaret of Anjou, Queen of England (1948), 77; Ralph A. Griffiths, The Reign of King Henry VI (1981), 804. Cf. Bertram Wolffe,Henry VI (1981), 323, note 48, who believes that her hostility to York went back at least to 1448, a position that is no longer tenable; elsewhere, he compares her to Isabella (another "she-wolf"!) and to Henrietta Maria, the wives of Edward II and Charles I, and points out that each of these foreign-born political meddlers "saw civil war in England and the violent death of her husband" (183). Most recently, John Watts, Henry VI and the Politics of Kingship (1996), 294 and note 144, has argued that Margaret was the duke of Somerset's "ally" from 1451, if not earlier, which permits a near-seamless transition to her emergence as York's opponent during the crisis of Henry's illness, and to full-blown enmity as matters progressed.
- For two very recent discussions of the queen's role as mediator/intercessor, see Lois L. Huneycutt, "Intercession and the High-Medieval Queen: the Esther Topos," and John Carmi Parsons, "The Queen's Intercession in Thirteenth-Century England," both in Power of the Weak: Studies on Medieval Women, ed. by Jennifer Carpenter and Sally-Beth MacLean (1995), 126-46, 147-77.
- Anton Blok, "Female Rulers and Their Affinities," in Transactions: Essays in honor of Jeremy F. Boissevain, ed. by Jojada Verrips (1994), 5-33, suggests that women obtain political authority through their acceptance as "social males" and in the absence--real or symbolic--of a husband or close male associate.