Monday, June 24, 2013

Margaret of Anjou: Queenship and Power in Late Medieval England

Reviewed by:
Anna Dronzek
University of Minnesota, Morris

Helen Maurer's Margaret of Anjou: Queenship and Power in Late Medieval England combines feminist approaches with straightforward political narrative of fifteenth-century England to evaluate the role that Margaret of Anjou, wife to the pathetic Henry VI, played in late medieval politics, especially the Wars of the Roses. Maurer's study will be of greatest use to those with an interest in the political turmoil of this period, but provides a welcome corrective to previous interpretations of the French-born queen.
Margaret of Anjou, daughter of Rene of Anjou, was born in 1430 and married to Henry VI of England at the age of fifteen. While her political role as a queen of England certainly merits interest, no doubt her career would have passed with much less notice if Henry had not fallen into a catatonic stupor in 1453, a personal tragedy with devastating political consequences. In the absence of a competent king (and there are those who would argue that even at his best, Henry VI scarcely qualified as such), Richard, Duke of York stepped forward to guide the kingdom, assuming the title of protector. Factions that developed during this period only intensified following Henry's return to sanity a year later, culminating in the rebellion of York and the birth of the Yorkist and Lancastrian parties, contenders in the Wars of the Roses. Given Henry's inability to offer any kind of effective leadership, the task of defending Lancastrian kingship fell largely to Margaret.
Margaret has attracted biographers in the past, but no serious book-length study of her reign has appeared since J. J. Bagley's Margaret of Anjou, Queen of England in 1948 (Philippe Erlanger's 1970 biography contributes little to the discussion). This previous scholarship, written before the advent of women's history as a modern research field, has suffered from possessing no framework into which to fit the political contributions of a queen. Clearly Margaret could not and did not participate in politics in the same way as kings and nobles such as Henry VI, Richard of York, or Louis XI of France. At the same time, she was actively involved in the political conflicts of the day, and her role was often significant. Most previous biographers have succumbed to gendered readings of the evidence and portrayed Margaret's actions as generated entirely by wifely and maternal love for her husband and child. Unlike male actors on the political stage, whom historians represent as acting according to "rational" motives like economic or political gains, Margaret appears in these writings as motivated by "irrational" emotions.
Maurer's study, in contrast, approaches Margaret in light of a generation's work on women's history, especially Mary Erler and Maryanne Kowaleski's Women and Power in the Middle Ages[[1]], which argues that historians must reconsider traditional definitions of power when studying medieval women, and a significant body of research on medieval queens, represented perhaps most ably by John Carmi Parsons. [[2]] Following these studies, Maurer evaluates Margaret's actions, not according to emotional motives, but in light of the possible arenas of power available to a queen of England, providing a valuable reassessment of the political conflicts fueling the Wars of the Roses in fifteenth-century England.
Maurer's central argument is that although writers at the time and beyond (most famously, Shakespeare) have described Margaret as a woman who stepped beyond the boundaries of her assigned role--who in essence meddled in matters beyond her ken--in fact, Margaret's greatest concern was trying to maintain those boundaries. Margaret of Anjou was anything but radical; instead, she worked hard to maintain a balance between the subordination and subservience expected of her as a medieval woman, and the defense of royal interests to which she felt obligated in the absence of a strong, competent royal leader. Had Henry VI been capable of ruling effectively, Margaret would never have found herself in the position of trying to maintain royal authority in the face of growing noble fissures and dissension, and whenever she made a step outside of traditional roles she was quick to retreat at the earliest opportunity. As Maurer notes, "When Margaret found herself with no real place to stand, it may have been easier to step back into her gendered place than to claim a more overt leadership." (210)
In addition, Maurer clearly emphasizes the way that Margaret's reliance on a queen's traditional sources of power and authority trapped her in an untenable position, given the circumstances of her marriage and the incompetence of her husband. Maurer argues that a queen derived her power solely from the king: it was as the king's agent that a queen had the greatest freedom to act. Henry VI's weakness was such that he provided Margaret with very little power or authority from which to draw. As Maurer points out, "[Margaret's] efforts had been directed towards upholding the king's authority or the potential authority of her son & this posture placed her in an untenable situation as the representative and intermediary of a king whose authority had been revealed as a sham." (187) As Maurer demonstrates, Margaret enjoyed her greatest political success during Henry's captivity in 1460-61. Captivity gave the king a justifiable reason for weakness, providing Margaret with a legitimate opportunity to represent royal authority. Maurer's discussion of this conundrum provides a nicely nuanced analysis of how the same factor--in this case, a queen's ability to derive authority from her husband--might simultaneously constrict and empower.
Maurer traces her argument clearly throughout the narrative and, along the way, provides important reassessments of the development of the Wars of the Roses. For instance, she demonstrates that Margaret's antagonism to and definitive break with Richard of York developed only when York took up arms against the king at St. Albans in 1455, after the period of Henry's illness. Although historians have generally described Margaret as adamantly opposed to York's protectorate in 1453-4, Maurer places Margaret's behavior towards York in the context of her treatment of other major barons, and shows that although tensions certainly existed prior to 1455, historians have greatly exaggerated Margaret's hostility to York in the earlier period. As for Margaret's resistance to York's protectorate, Maurer convincingly argues that the queen, familiar with regencies from her French background, sought the regency herself in order to maintain royal authority during Henry's illness, but expressed no significant personal hostility to York throughout the process. Maurer's careful attention to what the records show that Margaret actually did --for instance, what gifts she gave to York at New Year's and how these compared to her gifts to other barons--highlights the degree to which past historians have interpreted the queen's behavior according to hindsight; according to the latter logic, since Margaret and York had clearly become implacable enemies by 1455, this antagonism must have informed the confrontations in 1453-4.
This book will be of primary interest to those researching the Wars of the Roses and only secondarily of interest to those studying queenship in general. Maurer benefits immeasurably from recent studies of queenship and deftly incorporates their insights into her analysis of Margaret's career. Her study does not, however, add significantly to theories of medieval queenship themselves. Although Maurer's opening section is more thematic, addressing issues in Margaret's career such as motherhood and the expectations that England had for a queen, Maurer's principal focus is a close, detailed, chronological narrative of the political conflicts leading to the Wars of the Roses, and of the events following. This narrative focus places the political history of late medieval England at the heart of her book; explaining Margaret's role as queen functions largely therefore to provide a corrective to previous understandings of the Wars of the Roses and politics in late medieval England. Certainly such a study provides also important material for those interested in queenship, but subordinates queenship specifically to politics more generally. The strength of this approach, however, is that it takes for granted that gender is an important category of analysis for understanding politics and thus integrates the two seamlessly. Within this political narrative, Maurer's well-argued reassessment of the antagonism between Margaret and York, and her emphasis on Margaret's conservatism, make valuable contributions to late medieval English political history.
[[1]] Mary Erler and Maryanne Kowaleski, Women and Power in the Middle Ages (University of Georgia Press, 1988).
[[2]] See especially John Carmi Parsons, Eleanor of Castile: Queen and Society in Thirteenth-Century England (New York: St. Martin's, 1995) and John Carmi Parsons, ed., Medieval Queenship (New York: St. Martin's, 1993).

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