Monday, April 29, 2013

Margaret of Anjou - "She-Wolf"?

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Stupidly, I've recently gone crazy with buying books -
 I currently have about 30 which need reading, 6 of 
which I'm trying to get through from the university 
library. As a history student, unfortunately, I get so 
passionate about wanting to discover the past that 
I feel I have to read constantly, and I've got this notion 
into my head that I need to know about every period 
and nation, not just early modern England. Anyway, 
I thought I'd post on someone who's fascinated me 
for a long time now, Margaret of Anjou, the subject 
of one of those said books I've taken out from the library.

Studying A Level Tudor History, with one module 
on the Wars of the Roses during the period 1450-1485, 
was incredible to me in allowing me to discover some 
of the most extraordinary women who lived in that 
period: Elizabeth Woodville, Margaret Beaufort, 
and of course, Margaret queen of England herself. 
Taking for this blog's post the book Margaret of Anjou: 
Queenship and Power in Late Medieval England by 
Helen E. Maurer, this post will explore Margaret's 
controversial but remarkable life as wife of the 
notoriously inept Henry VI of England. Was she 
the 'she-wolf' immortalised by Shakespeare's 
compelling lines? Or was she a powerful political 
player who genuinely sought to bring a measure of 
stability to a faction-ridden and corrupt English court?

Maurer makes the very true point when starting 
her book that the likes of Shakespeare have influenced 
our understandings of Margaret as 'a vengeful and a
 violent woman', 'a bitch, an adulterous she-wolf who 
mocks her captive enemy, Richard, duke of York,
 before killing him in cold blood'.[1] More to the 
point, Maurer insists that since Shakespeare, most 
modern historians have generally agreed with his 
verdict of Margaret, though recognising the 
inaccuracies and exaggerations which plague 
his play. Maurer laments that serious academics 
have spoken of ‘the queen’s harsh determination’, her 
‘unforgiving severity’ towards the Yorkists.[2] One 
cannot but agree with Maurer when she notes somewhat 
ironically that this fails to take into consideration 
Margaret’s incredible leadership and political abilities 
at an unstable court. But there is a likely reason for 
such harsh judgments persisting in relation to this late 
medieval queen: ‘until quite recently all western history 
was male-centered as a matter of course. The problem 
that this poses for the inclusion and study of 
anachronistically prominent women is that they have 
had to be fitted into male standards and constructs, present 
as well as past. The result too often has been judgment rather 
than analysis’.[3]

This, of course, is true in relation to other queens of 
this period. Retha M. Warnicke critically notes that, 
writing of Anne Boleyn, ‘in histories that treat men as 
three-dimensional and complex personalities, the women 
shine forth in universal stereotypes: the shrew, the whore, 
the tease, the shy virgin, or the blessed mother’.[4] Similarly, 
Katherine Howard, who supposedly deviated from notions 
of the ideal woman in early modern England, was condemned 
as a whore and traitoress and suffered execution for it.[5] I
n view of this, Maurer’s insistence that we utilise gender as a 
central historical category of analysis is compelling: ‘just as the 
addition of gender helps to make the political story clearer, so 
the chaotic political history of the Wars of the Roses cast 
the gender issues into high relief’.[6]
In view of this, this article will attempt to survey the events 
(diplomatic, political, social, factional) of Margaret’s life 
through a gendered framework, paying critical attention 
to the difference her sex made and notions of the female sex. 
This is essential since ‘in order to move beyond the traditional 
picture of Margaret’s activities (ie. which eventually condemn 
her as an adulteress, a shrew and a she-wolf), the very real issue 
of gender must be engaged’.[7]

Born in March 1430 to René, duke of Anjou and his wife 
Isabelle daughter and heir of Charles II duke of Lorraine, 
Margaret was born into a prominent European royal family 
during this period and thus, in the words of Diana E. S. Dunn, 
‘destined her from birth to be a pawn in the complexities of 
European diplomacy’.[8] European politics governed 
Margaret’s course of life, which must be considered from 
both French and an English perspective. In terms of England, 
Henry VI had acceded to the throne in 1422 aged just nine
 months following the death of his renowned father Henry V, 
who had brought prestige and glory to the English crown through 
his military victories abroad and his claims to the crown of France. 
This, however, provided a situation of conflict, crisis and factional 
discontent, a common occurrence when a minor acceded to the crown. 
Henry, having reached his majority, sought a bride in the early 
1440s; an essential element of kingship was the fathering of a 
male heir who could then succeed his father peacefully following 
his father’s death. It is not surprising that Henry sought a 
French princess as his bride – the majority of queens since the
 Norman Conquest in 1066 had been of the French royal house.
[9] Yet this did occur at a time when English dominance in France 
was slowly fading, since the French had managed to recover some 
English-held territory while attempts to achieve a settlement 
between the powers failed.

In terms of Margaret’s perspective, the marriage alliance 
with England represented a prestigious match for Margaret’s 
father, while it also brought a fundamental source of influence 
at the English court to the French monarch Charles VII. Margaret 
was able to bring important links with parts of the French kingdom, 
including the duchies of Lorraine and Bar, although her dowry was 
‘meagre’.[10] Yet the English desire to effect an alliance with France
 probably dispelled any annoyance at the prospective queen’s 
unremarkable dowry.

How Margaret felt about her prospective bridegroom, Henry VI, 
we cannot tell. She may have held a negative opinion about his 
father, Henry V, gained from stories of his exploits in France 
and his undermining of the French kingdom during the early 
fifteenth century. Nonetheless, the opportunity to become 
queen of England was a significant and exciting one, and probably 
the best match she was ever likely to make. In 1445, aged 
fifteen – this youthful age was not seen as representing 
particular problems; Isabella of France had wed Richard II 
aged twelve, while Katherine Howard may have been only 
around fifteen at marriage – Margaret arrived in England 
and in May the king presented her with jewels fit for a queen, 
before marrying Henry at Titchfield Abbey and being crowned 
on 30 May in Westminster Abbey. [11] Margaret was later 
described as being ‘a most handsome woman, though 
somewhat dark and not so beautiful’ as Bianca Maria Visconti, 
duchess of Milan, although she had very long hair worn loose 
at her coronation.[12] Margaret was well aware of the duties 
she was expected to fulfil as queen: namely, produce a male 
heir in order to ensure the continuation of the Lancastrian 
dynasty, and to bring political and social stability to a 
faction-ridden and economically unstable kingdom. It is 
unsurprising, in view of this, that there was considerable 
hope and expectation at the royal wedding.

Margaret was granted 10,000 marks per annum as the 
new queen of England by parliament in March 1446, 
and estates worth £2000 per annum were settled on 
her from the duchy of Lancaster.[13] As has been noted
 in relation to Anne Boleyn, Margaret’s elevated status 
had meant she became a woman of considerable economic 
power as a landowner and a source of patronage in the 
English court.[14] Margaret’s marriage was initially 
successful, and she was a strong queen consort. However, 
her inability in the early years of her marriage to Henry VI 
to produce a son must have caused considerable concern 
at the court. Whether or not this was Margaret’s fault is 
impossible to discern. Viewing her life through a gendered 
framework, it is plausible to argue that, by virtue of their 
sex, failures in pregnancy were attributed to queens, as 
seen in the case of Henry VIII’s queens. Despite this, she 
was a strong figure, ‘a determined and effective distributor 
of patronage, and a woman concerned for the welfare of her 
household servants’.[15] Evidence of her patronage exists in
 her founding Queen’s College, Cambridge in 1448, shortly 
after her husband’s foundation of King’s College. Her excellent 
upbringing as a princess of the royal house of France undoubtedly 
benefited her, allowing her to act in her role with dignity, 
compassion and political sense. Yet unsettling events in
 her adopted country were soon to threaten Margaret’s 
stability as queen.

In April 1453, famously, Henry VI collapsed with a 
very serious physical and mental illness, commonly 
believed by historians to have been schizophrenia. This 
was highly unfortunate, for Margaret had fallen pregnant 
that year, and when in March 1454 her son Edward was born,
 the king was unable to recognise him. In view of both 
her son’s birth and her husband’s mental collapse, Margaret 
‘was forced into the centre of the political arena, as control 
of her husband and son became the focus of competing groups 
among the nobility’.[16] We therefore must reconsider our 
interpretation of Margaret’s character and behaviour in 
view of these events. The argument that she was a cold 
and ruthless ‘she-wolf’ who ambitiously sought power 
and political advantage for both herself and her ‘party’ 
at court is nonsensical in view of the events which occurred 
in 1453-4. By stepping into the centre of power, Margaret 
was acting logically and common sensically, determined 
to preserve her lineage and ensure the position of her 
husband the king was not undermined further. We should 
recognise these actions as courageous and representative 
of a strong woman acting on her own in a ruthless court 
which viewed ruling women in a hostile manner. Of course, 
contemporary gender beliefs among courtiers did not lead 
to this view, and beginning with these events, Margaret 
became increasingly unpopular. Her bid for the regency 
failed, and Richard duke of York, later her enemy, filled 
that position instead.

Margaret probably viewed York as a very serious threat to 
her son’s position, for royal blood flowed in the veins of 
York and his family. Yet it is unlikely that there had been 
long-standing hostility and hatred between the two, as Dunn 
makes clear. Of course, factional discontent intensified following 
York’s appointment, culminating in the first Battle of St Albans
 in 1455 whereby Margaret’s ally, the duke of Somerset, was 
murdered, and York’s party emerged triumphant. However, 
York was forced to resign the protectorate in 1456, allowing 
Margaret to regain a sense of political authority within the 
English court. She and Edward departed from London to take 
up residence in Kenilworth, before being joined in August by 
the king, who later recovered miraculously from his illness. 
Margaret played a strong and active role in her son’s household,
 controlling appointments to his council and ensuring that her 
supporters within the Lancastrian monarchy filled vital roles. 
A reconciliation between the Yorkists and Lancastrians was 
sought by King Henry in 1458, known as the ‘Loveday’, where
 the queen was to walk with her enemy York hand-in-hand in 
a procession in the streets of London. However, it was nothing 
but a sham, and factional discontent had worsened by spring 1459.

Further battles, in what became known as the Wars of the 
Roses, occurred shortly afterwards, which Margaret was to 
play a prominent role in – allegedly, she watched the battle 
of Bloreheath from Mucklestone church tower, a story which 
Dunn dismisses as false.[17] Nonetheless, it does indicate 
that Margaret had taken over the reins of the Lancastrian 
government in this period of time following her husband’s 
intermittent illnesses and his ever-present political 
weaknesses and ineptitude. Following Henry’s capture 
at Northampton in 1460, Margaret and her son fled to 
Scotland, and following the Yorkists’ victory at Towton 
in 1461, which culminated in the accession of Edward IV, 
the Lancastrian royal family again fled to Scotland for safety.

The next 10 years saw Margaret attempting to regain the crown, 
which she saw as rightfully hers. Contemporaries, who resented 
powerful women in prominent government positions, 
characterized her as scheming and ruthless, but a more
 nuanced position allows us to view her efforts as commendable, 
in a way similar to those of Katherine of Aragon’s some seventy 
years later although in an entirely different context: she believed 
that she and her husband were the rightful king and queen of 
England, and she was determined to preserve her family’s 
inheritance. While prominent nobles, such as Somerset, 
Exeter and Pembroke remained loyal to the Lancastrians, 
a lack of money and committed political backing severely 
hampered Margaret’s efforts to regain the crown.

In 1462, Margaret and her son departed for France, perhaps 
hoping for more effective aid there. A meeting with the 
French king Louis XI was fairly successful: Margaret promised 
to renounce Calais to the French in return for a loan of 20,000 
francs. A mutual friendship was later signed. Yet the period 
1463-1468 was a dismal failure for Margaret, as Louis renounced 
his promises and the weakening of the Lancastrian cause. 
However, the growing disaffection of Margaret’s enemy York’s 
son Warwick, known as ‘the Kingmaker’, with the English king 
meant a new development in Margaret’s condition. Although 
Margaret initially refused to listen to Warwick when he journeyed 
to France, she was later encouraged to listen to his promises, 
agreeing to the marriage of her son Edward to Warwick’s 
daughter Anne Neville. Later sailing to England, Margaret’s 
cause fell irrevocably apart in 1471 following the brief return 
of her husband to the kingship. Margaret was informed of 
her son’s death in battle, something which must have meant 
her world fell apart. She was later brought in a carriage as a 
prisoner through the streets of London, followed by King 
Edward in his triumphant procession through London. 
Henry VI, her husband, was probably murdered that night 
in May 1471 in the Tower. The fact that both her husband and 
heir had died completely changed Margaret’s position, and 
the grief and shock she must have experienced is unimaginable.

Not much is known about Margaret’s decade, but she died in August 1482, a tragic and obscure ending to an initially glittering career and eventual failure. She was buried in Angers Cathedral, neglected by her family, forced to renounce her claims to the Angevin inheritance by King Louis. Yet, as Dunn concludes, ‘of all medieval queens consort, Margaret has received some of the harshest criticism from both contemporary commentators and later historians’, which Maurer of course exemplifies through criticising conceptions of Margaret as a ‘bitch’ and ‘she-wolf’.[18] Dunn’s conclusion is compelling: ‘... she was subsequently forced, by political circumstance and the weakness of her husband, to take on a much more active role in politics in order to protect both her own position and that of her son’.[19] Yet, to most people, like Isabella queen of Edward II and Anne Boleyn, Margaret remains a ‘she-wolf’, an unnaturally ruthless and powerful queen consort who meddled in politics enthusiastically, a place not fit for a medieval woman. Surely we should alter our views of her and recognise her for what she was: a strong, intelligent, pragmatic woman who sought to preserve her family’s inheritance and retain stability within the English monarchy. Her husband’s madness and the factional discontent and corruption pervading the court can hardly be blamed on her. It is time to reappraise our views of this mysterious, but notorious, queen of England.

[1] H. E. Maurer, Margaret of Anjou: Queenship and Power in Late Medieval England (The Boydell Press, 2003), p. 1.
[2] R. A. Griffiths, The Reign of Henry VI (Berkeley, 1981), quoted in Maurer, Margaret of Anjou, p. 2.
[3] Maurer, Margaret of Anjou, p. 3.
[4] R. M. Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn: Family politics at the court of Henry VIII (Cambridge, 1989), p. 57.
[5] C. Byrne, ‘Katherine Howard and the Importance of Gender History’, The Historian 2 (March 2013), 58-62; also available on
[6] Maurer, Margaret of Anjou, pp. 4-5.
[7] Ibid., p. 4. See also my article on Katherine Howard for similar points.
[8] Diana E. S. Dunn, ‘Margaret [Margaret of Anjou] (1430-1482), queen of England, consort of Henry VI’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004).
[9] Maurer, Margaret of Anjou, p. 17.
[10] Dunn, ‘Margaret, queen of England’. 
[11] Dunn, ‘Margaret queen of England’.
[12] CSP, Milan, p. 19, quoted in Maurer, Margaret of Anjou, p. 23.
[13] Dunn, ‘Margaret queen of England’.
[14] Warnicke, Anne Boleyn.
[15] Dunn, ‘Margaret queen of England’.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid, Maurer.
[19] Ibid. 

No comments:

Post a Comment