Cersei Lannister shares many personality traits (and some story lines or events) with Queen Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI—the “Mad King” defeated in the first phase of the Wars of the Roses. Both women were good-looking, commanding, indomitable, and fiercely devoted to their children, regardless of their flaws. Rumors of infidelity plagued the two queens. Their subjects despised them and they had few loyal followers. In addition, both women had a permissive attitude towards their reputedly monstrous sons. In some ways, Cersei is like the dark side of Margaret of Anjou—the rumors about Margaret of Anjou brought to life. At first glance, the two women have a lot of parallels.
While this certainly isn’t unique for the period, both Cersei and Margaret had arranged marriages. Years before Game of Thrones begins, Robert Baratheon married Cersei to not only reward Tywin Lannister for switching sides during Robert’s Rebellion but also cement their alliance. However, the marriage was unhappy and Robert typically wasn’t interested in sleeping with his wife.
Margaret of Anjou’s arranged marriage may also have been sexless. Henry VI supposedly shied away from sex, arguably due to excessive piety and mental illness. It took eight years for the couple to conceive, which no doubt fed rumors of a sexless marriage. However, some historians, such as Alison Weir, report that the couple was extremely happy and appear to have spent as much time together as possible.
Even before Margaret’s became queen, she was almost set up to fail. Not only were the people unhappy when they learned of the marriage, Henry and Margaret’s father (Rene of Anjou) had kept divisive secrets about the arrangement.
The English automatically mistrusted Margaret because she hailed from England’s traditional and long-hated enemy France. In the 1440s and 1450s, England was still immersed in the Hundred Years’ War so forging an alliance, through marriage, with France seemed unnatural. Worse, Henry VI and Margaret’s father (Rene of Anjou) secretly agreed that not only would Henry VI to accept Margaret without a dowry, but also Henry would return Maine and Anjou to Charles VII of France.
This agreement was so unpopular that Henry almost chickened out of giving back the territories and dragged his heels until the last-possible minute. When he gave the order for the troops at those garrisons to withdraw, it proved so divisive amongst the magnates, especially ones like York who’d sacrificed his personal money to protect French territories, that the rift it created would ultimately fester into civil war.
None of these events are Margaret’s fault, but they certainly got the young princess off to a bad start with the English.
When Margaret in England, she was a lovely, but impoverished, fifteen-year-old French princess. Knowing little English, yet highly intelligent, she quickly became fluent. However, Margaret was also politically naïve, temperamental, uncompromising, arrogant, entitled, and haughty. Unfortunately, like Cersei, Margaret had a whiff of the old “Let them eat cake” about her.
When Margaery Tyrell feeds the poor in King’s Landing, Cersei dismisses it to Joffrey as a bid for popularity. While Margaery may have ulterior motives, Cersei’s cynicism likely stems from the fact she herself isn’t particularly concerned for the less fortunate. Cersei only cares about maneuvering to gain power. It’s no wonder people don’t like her. Likewise, towards the end of her reign, Margaret of Anjou had no compunction about hiring Scottish mercenaries as her soldiers and paying them by letting them take whatever spoils and plunder they could.
Rumors swirled around Margaret and Cersei that their husbands did not father their children. In Cersei’s case, the rumors were true. Jaime fathered all of “Robert’s” children, except for one dark-haired boy who died. In Margaret’s case, there’s never been any evidence she was unfaithful to Henry VI. However, Yorkist-generated rumors that her son Edward was a bastard ran rampant across the kingdom.
Until Henry VI had a son, many expected Richard of York would be appointed heir. Richard of York was extremely loyal but also wealthy and powerful. He had a stronger claim to the throne than Henry himself. Because of this, Henry, and Margaret in particular, were reluctant to make York the official heir and give him any more power (or influence). Richard had faithfully served the crown, often at his own expense, and he felt overlooked. Perceived slights eventually fostered discontentment, rage, and resistance.
When Margaret finally gave birth, Henry had gone mad and was in an unreachable stupor. This alone gave the Yorks, who had hoped Henry would stay without an heir, the ability to spin believable rumors that the baby was a bastard and Henry wasn’t capable of fathering a child.
Nobles often claimed their enemies’ children were bastards in the fifteenth century. Like Cersei, Margaret of Anjou was repeatedly accused of adultery – first with her avuncular mentor Suffolk, a man in his late fifties, and then with Edmund Beaufort, the Duke of Somerset (commonly known as “Somerset”). Alleging adultery or witchcraft let opponents obliquely attack the man heading up a dynastic house without overtly targeting him.
Soon after Margaret gave birth, Warwick publicly described Edward of Westminster as the product of adultery or fraud at a huge assembly of nobles and, falsely, claimed the king hadn’t acknowledged the prince as his son. As a result, rumors of Edward of Westminster’s illegitimacy persisted until his death. Historians haven’t found any evidence Edward was illegitimate. Of course, the rumors about Margaret’s infidelity had a ready audience in many English people, particularly the London merchants, who already mistrusted their foreign queen and felt the kingdom was mismanaged.
By Jamie Adair