Margaret had a difficult part to play in the history of England; married to a weak king, who preferred founding colleges to governing a kingdom, she had to take the reins of government into her own hands. With the interest of her only son at heart, she refused to stand by and see the kingdom snatched from her husband and son; wrath roused her to energy. So far she may have been right, but she was led on to hard hearted cruelty; love for her son made her bloodthirsty; and when both her husband and son were slain, the woman, once beautiful and strong, was left to go back friendless to her native land, ruined, miserable.
Margaret of Anjou was born in one of the grandest castles in Lorraine in 1429. Her father, René of Anjou, was taken prisoner fighting for his country, when Margaret, the youngest of his four little children, was but a baby.
"Alas!" cried the mother, clasping her little golden-haired Margaret to her bosom, "Where is René, my lord? He is taken—he is slain!"
The four children of the captive prince were very beautiful, and the bards loved to sing of them, and follow them in crowds, and scatter flowers in their path.
When Margaret was but six, it was arranged that she should marry Henry VI., the young King of England, in order to make peace between the two countries.
When her father, René, was released, Margaret went to live in Italy with her father and mother; she inherited her father's taste for learning and love of art. "There was no princess in Christendom more accomplished than my lady Margaret of Anjou," said a writer of these times.
The news of her charms, beauty, talent and courage reached Henry's ears in England, and he sent for a portrait of the princess. The picture delighted him, and it ended in a truce being signed between the two countries, and Margaret starting for England to marry King Henry. The parting with her uncle, Charles VII. of France, was very affecting; sobs stifled his voice; the young queen could only reply by a torrent of tears, as they parted, never to meet again. It was harder still to part with her father, for "never was a princess more deeply loved in the bosom of her own family." Neither father nor, daughter could speak, but each turned their different ways, with full hearts.
The people pressed in crowds to look at Margaret when she was married, for "England had never seen a queen more worthy of a throne than Margaret of Anjou."
Now King Henry shrank from the toils and cares of governing the kingdom; he gave himself up to the learning of the country, and all branches of study; so that Margaret found the government of England left almost entirely in her hands. She tried to make the people turn their attention to manufactures and trade, but England was not in a state for peace; the men who had fought at Agincourt thirty years before, and the future soldiers of St. Albans, were not willing to till the soil or weave their clothes. A rebellion led by Jack Cade excited them more, and in 1455 all were ready to take up arms and fight.
Now the cause of war was this: Margaret had no children, and the question was, who should succeed when Henry died. The Earl of Somerset said he was the heir, but the Duke of York thought he had a better right to the throne. This was the beginning of the "Wars of the Roses," as they were called, for the friends of York wore a white rose, the friends of Somerset a red rose.
Now while they were still debating who should be the future king, a little son was born to Margaret. King Henry had been very ill with a sort of madness, and did not know about the birth of his son, till one day Queen Margaret came to him, bringing the baby with her. The king was delighted.
"What is his name?" he cried.
"Edward," answered the queen. Then Henry "lifted up his hands and thanked God."
Still the Duke of York was not satisfied; for he was very jealous of Somerset, who ruled the kingdom when the king was ill. In 1455 Somerset was killed at the battle of St. Albans, and York became very powerful, and still went on fighting, because he wanted to be king.
At last the poor king himself was taken prisoner, and led bareheaded into London, while Queen Margaret and her infant boy fled to a Welsh castle. The next news the queen heard was, that it had been decided, when Henry died, his little son Edward should not succeed him, but the Duke of York should reign.
When Margaret the queen heard this, she was roused to energy. Why should not her son reign when his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather had reigned before him? Among the rocky wilds of Wales she wandered, trying to collect trusty followers, and rouse the nation to fight for her husband and son.
Her youth, beauty, courage, and love for her little child touched the people; they not only gave themselves, but got some of the Scotch people to help too, and Margaret was able to unfurl the banner of the Red Rose at Wakefield, almost before the Yorkists knew she was there. Then a terrible battle was fought, and the Duke of York was slain. His head was cut off, crowned with a paper crown, and taken on a pole to Margaret.
"Madame, your war is done; here is your king's ransom," cried one of her nobles.
At the ghastly sight Margaret shuddered and turned pale; then a revengeful look of pleasure passed over her face, as she laughed long and strangely, and commanded the head of her foe to be placed over the gates of York, ordered another earl to be beheaded, and pushed on to London.
But the people of London would not admit her, and very soon after Edward, son of the Duke of York, was proclaimed king. Seeing the south was against her, Margaret, with her husband and son, fled north to gain help. Many of Somerset's friends joined her, and things were looking brighter, when a large body of Yorkists defeated her army at Hexham. Seized with terror for the safety of her boy, Margaret fled on foot to a forest near, alone and unprotected. There she wandered about with the young prince in unbeaten tracks, weary and anxious. It was growing dark, when, by the light of the moon, Margaret observed a robber of gigantic size coming towards her, sword in hand. The child Edward clung to his mother in terror—but Margaret showed no fear; she took Edward, and thrusting him forward, said, "Behold the son of Henry your king, and save him!"
Struck with the loveliness of the child, the loneliness and courage of the mother, the robber of Hexham knelt down, and dropping his sword, promised to help them, for he was on the king's side. Then taking the little prince in his arms, he led them to a cave in the forest where he lived, and took care of them till it was safe for them to escape to Scotland, and from thence to France.
There tidings reached her of Henry's fate; he had been betrayed into the enemy's hands, and shut up in the Tower of London.
For many years Margaret and her son lived in France, until the tide once more turned in their favour. The Earl of Warwick, who had fought against Henry and Margaret, now turned round, and offered to help the exiled queen and her son to win back the kingdom. It was some time before the haughty queen could make up her mind to forgive him, but the future of her son was very dear to her, and at last she sent him pardoned to England, where he raised an army and surprised the king, who had to flee for his life.
Meanwhile Margaret and her son were trying to cross to England, but time after time they were driven back by wind and storm, and when they did arrive, it was only to learn that King Edward had returned, gained a victory, that Warwick was slain, and the king again put into prison.
When Margaret heard this crushing news, she fell to the ground in a stupor of despair, for all hope seemed gone. At last her son roused her, he told her that he himself would go and fight, and they started again for Wales, collecting supporters as they went. But King Edward's army met them at Tewkesbury, and a terrible battle took place. Margaret watched it; she saw the battle was going against them; she saw her only son in the thick of it, and it was with difficulty she was kept from rushing into it herself. At last she was carried away insensible, and the next thing she heard was that the battle was lost, her son Edward slain!
Love for her boy seemed the only tender part of Margaret's nature, and she was overwhelmed with motherly grief. A few days after, she was taken captive to the Tower, and at midnight on that same day King Henry, her husband, was put to death.
King René's love for his daughter never failed; he had sympathized with her in all her troubles, shed bitter tears when her son was killed and the kingdom wrenched away, and now he gave up half his own kingdom to ransom the daughter he loved so well.
So Margaret returned to her native land, to her father's home—no longer the beautiful, powerful Queen of England, with spirit to do and to dare, with courage to face any foe; but a desolate, unhappy woman, with all spirit crushed out of her, with no courage left ever to face the world again. Hardened by oft-repeated failure and stormy conflicts, she wandered listlessly about the gardens and galleries of her father's castle, going over and over the sorrows of her past life, her eyes dim and red from continual weeping, caring for nothing. Her father died in 1480, and Margaret did not live long after. She seldom left her retreat to see anyone, and at last, worn out with trouble and sorrow, she died on August 25th, at the ago of fifty-one.