Helen E. Maurer: Margaret of Anjou: Queenship and Power in Late Medieval England
Much has been written lately about Shakespeare’s influence on the posthumous reputation of Richard III, but Shakespeare’s history plays have had other victims as well – Margaret of Anjou among them. Shakespeare’s Margaret is a haughty, stubborn, aggressive, divisive, vindictive, violent, bitter, malicious, adulterous, unnatural and vile woman – the ‘she-wolf’ who herself kills Richard, Duke of York on the battlefield. Even in serious history, the description I’ve most often seen applied to Margaret is ‘aggressively partisan’. The (extremely simplified) traditional view is that Margaret and the Duke of York hated each other, and that’s why the Wars of the Roses happened. (She was a woman, you see: she was so swayed by her emotions she couldn’t help treating the Duke badly, used her womanly wiles to make the King treat him equally badly, so the proud Duke’s resentment grew, and voilà! War.)
Well, sure, the Duke’s head did end up impalled over a gate in York . . . but Margaret herself was in Scotland at the time, negotiating with the Scottish Queen Regent, Mary of Guelders, for military aid. (Is it just me, or is the fact actually far more interesting than the fiction? Here we have two strong queens negotiating about military and territorial matters, which was quite extraordinary, no matter how you look at it. And why isn’t there a book written about Mary of Guelders, I wonder?)
The Shakespearean view of Margaret of Anjou was endorsed by centuries of misogyny, and now it – or a slightly modified version of it – is endorsed by our yearning for the life-stories of strong women in history. Before, being labelled a ‘she-wolf’ would have been a mark of disapproval; now it’s an honour. But it’s still not the whole truth about Margaret of Anjou. The truth is actually not more boring, just more truthful – and Maurer’s evenhanded treatment takes us much closer to it.
How to summarise a Queen in one paragraph? Let’s see. As the 15-year-old niece of Charles VII of France, Margaret came to England not only as the future wife of King Henry VI but as the symbol of peace negotiations between England and France. Needless to say, the peace didn’t work out; Henry – never a strong king – eventually lost England’s last remaining territories in France, except for Calais, and then had a complete mental breakdown in 1453. (What exactly his condition was, we cannot know; but he was in a catatonic state for over a year.) In this time Margaret, now in her twenties, made a bid for regency but lost to Richard, Duke of York, who was named as Lord Protector. Henry VI eventually recovered, but his hold on his realm weakened further over the following years. York and his followers began to be seen as a threat to the King’s authority, and Margaret began to take action to protect the interests of his husband and their only son. The conflict culminated in 1460, when York presented his claim to the throne (arguably better than Henry’s) and a civil war ensued – with Margaret taking the lead on the other side. Henry was officially deposed in 1461, York’s son Edward was crowned as the new King, and for Margaret, Henry and their young son, the following years were full of drama: for Henry, narrow escapes and eventual imprisonment, and for Margaret, exile and indefatigable activism for their cause from the Continent. In 1470-71 Margaret made another serious effort to claim the English throne back for her husband and son. It didn’t work out, and said husband and son both ended up dead. Margaret spent the last seven years of her life in France, treated with contempt by Louis XI. The End.
No one can deny that Margaret of Anjou was ‘a great and strong-laboured woman’, as she was described by a contemporary. She was undeniably the leader of the Lancastrians after her husband’s deposition, and her position was certainly that of a ferocious she-wolf fighting for the rights of her son and husband. But Maurer’s careful and balanced approach is a welcome take on the existing evidence, and it reminds us it is important to neither overstate nor understate what Margaret actually did. While Maurer’s Margaret does come across as a woman with strong views and the courage of her convictions, to see her as a transgressor with a lust for power, or as some kind of a pioneering feminist icon, does not do her position justice. She wasn’t in the shoes of Elizabeth I. She derived her authority from her husband the King, and her son the Prince of Wales, and Maurer persuasively argues that she never (well: almost never) forgot to acknowledge that.
It was a difficult balancing act, as Maurer well describes. The role of a queen consort was one of intercession and intermediation – in short, that of a skilled PR professional. This book is fascinating in its analysis of the symbolism inherent in that role, and of the indirect channels of power that would have been available to a mediaeval queen; the influence that a conventional queen consort might have in her own right, as well as the extent to which a strong-willed, intelligent, well-educated and politically astute queen might influence the policies of the King and his advisors. (But there are some intriguing occasions when this isn’t quite so clear-cut: for instance, Margaret’s bid to be her husband’s regent was not completely unheard of, but it was bold, nonetheless. There were also instances of what Maurer calls ‘perceptual slippage’ in Margaret’s symbolic role, and how it was viewed by the public, which make you wonder about its overtly political implications. One such case is the bizarre ‘loveday’ spectacle of 1458 in which the reconciliation was clearly presented as being between the Duke of York and the Queen.)
At any rate, Maurer argues that instead of being ‘aggressively partisan’, Margaret was, in fact, quite balanced and successful in her queenly role – until it was no longer possible.
In my opinion, this is the best kind of biographical writing: Maurer binds herself to known facts and sources and lets them speak for themselves, but still manages to make a thoroughly engrossing book out of them. For a short book that contains so much information, it’s also surprisingly readable, though inevitably something of a nightmare for anyone who hates keeping track of an endless flow of dates and names. That said, this is not a biography of Margaret of Anjou, the woman. Her strong personality does emerge from the known facts, but at a remove. Someone looking for a more ‘personal’ biography would be disappointed – this is more like observing someone fascinating at a distance. Maurer refuses to go off on speculative flights of fancy, and even says at one point, ‘Efforts in our own time to diagnose Henry’s malady can only be speculative and are really relevant only to us’; and one feels that this is her take on speculation in general.
‘But speculation is such fun,’ I found myself whining. At its most fascinating, mediaeval history is like a DIY mystery for an enthusiastic amateur detective. And there are such tantalising glimpses of personality – for example, the small but endearing point that Margaret was a connoisseur of horses. Oh, if only we had more access to her private self!
It must also be said that I was reading the book for the facts, not for the ‘story’; someone who’s simply looking for an entertaining read might not find it equally engrossing. In many places Maurer also assumes a certain pre-existing familiarity with the subject matter on the reader’s part. She refers to ‘the events of the past year’ without spelling out what exactly happened in the past year, and writes about the aftermath of Jack Cade’s rebellion without an explanation of the rebellion itself and its origins.
Personally, my only disappointment with this book was that arguably the most interesting part of Margaret’s life – the time period when she was no longer a queen, but fighting on her husband’s and son’s behalf – wasn’t its focus at all. The actual Wars of the Roses are dealt with in two chapters. The time period from 1460 to the bloody Battle of Towton in 1461 gets one chapter; the rest gets only a few paragraphs in a short chapter, more of a postscript. But the explanation for this lies in the subtitle: Queenship and Power in Late Medieval England. This book doesn’t claim to be the story of Margaret’s life; it analyses Margaret as a queen consort, and her role in the events that led to the Wars of the Roses. For the large part, the analysis of Margaret’s personality and behaviour rests on her letters, most of them written before 1455 – from her teens to her mid-twenties. Which one of us is the same person from her teens to her thirties, I wonder? Might not experience have hardened a fair and balanced personality into something more unyielding, a strong will into stubbornness, and a desire for justice into a lust for bloody revenge? Maurer doesn’t comment on that. She is more interested in challenging the traditional view of Margaret’s queenship, and as such, this is an important book. The book ends on a thought-provoking note: Margaret’s authority as the Queen was dependent on her husband the King, but after the Lancastrian defeat, she, not Henry, was viewed as the enemy leader. Partly, of course, this was because Henry was such a weak ruler, but partly it was to justify the Yorkist cause by emphasising the Lancastrian claim to the throne as illegitimate and unnatural, something devised by a ‘malicious wymman’ who wanted the crown for her bastard son and brought the country in a state of disorder because of it. History, as we know, is written by the winners; so this would become the basis of Margaret’s posthumous reputation.
In conclusion, it doesn’t seem that Margaret sought power for herself, but was simply determined that things should go the way she believed to be the right way. Big difference, isn’t it? Oh, I think it is . . .