Women in History: Margaret of Anjou

In my ‘Women in History’ post about Anne Neville, I commented that she was one of the women of history most grievously misrepresented by Shakespeare. There is a good argument for Margaret of Anjou being another. 

Margaret was the wife of Henry IV and the mother of Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales, who married Anne Neville.

Shakespeare paints Margaret as a bitter and twisted old woman who hung around the castle and served everyone with a vitriolic curse or two before breakfast every morning. Of course, Shakespeare was not one to let the truth get in the way of a good story or a really effective dramatic device. He was all about the entertainment— and on sucking up to Elizabeth I by portraying her grandfather as the king who brought peace to England after the Wars of the Roses.

It’s understandable, really. Not only was he working from accounts of history written by Tudor-friendly historians, he also understood how foolhardy it would be to offend the reigning monarch and risk his head. Thus, his play casts the first Tudor king, Henry VII in a very godly light, and delivers messages to the masses about how only evil people try to take the throne from the rightful ruler. 

It is a matter of course, then, that both the Yorks and the Lancasters are shown to be fractious, grasping and hateful people. 

What, then, is the real story of Margaret of Anjou?

Margaret was born in 1430 to the Duke of Naples, Rene of Anjou, and his wife Isabella, Duchess Of Lorraine. As the niece of the queen of France, the arranged marriage of Margaret to the young Lancastrian king in 1445, and solidified a truce between France and England that brought an end to the Hundred Years’ War.

Margaret took an active role in supporting Henry IV in his rule, but when his mental health declined, Richard, Duke of York, who held significant position and power at court was appointed as Lord Protector. Margaret and York distrusted one another’s pride and ambition, she because she feared he would claim the throne that rightfully belonged to her husband and son, and he because he deeply disliked the self-assured and proud young French queen. 

Enmity blew out into full conflict in 1455, and the two factions met on battle at St Albans. Henry VI’s forces were defeated, and Richard took the reigns of government.  Henry VI’s mental and physical health had deteriorated to the point where he was unable to govern, so Margaret, determined to maintain hold on the throne for her husband and son, worked relentlessly to remove York from his position, finally regaining control of the throne in 1456. 

By 1459, the situation had degraded so badly that Margaret outlawed York and his key supporters, and armed conflict could no longer be avoided. Henry VI was captured at Northampton in 1460 and, when offered a compromise that would see York declared to be Henry’s heir instead of her son, she steadfastly refused, maintaining that her son was the only rightful heir to the throne of England. 

Margaret’s soldiers killed York near  the Yorkshire town of Wakefield in the December of 1460 and won Henry’s release from Yorkist captivity at the second Battle of St. Albans in February of 1461. 

This was not the end of the conflict, however. York’s sons and supporters continued to fight, and his eldest son Edward of York laid claim to the throne as Edward IV on March 4. His army met and crushed Margaret’s forces at the Battle of Towton on March 29, causing Margaret and Henry to flee to Scotland with their son.

By 1470, Warwick the Kingmaker had become disillusioned with Edward IV as king and commenced machinations to lead a coup against Edward and return Henry IV to the throne. Although there had been strong enmity between them, Warwick and Margaret negotiated a reconciliation arrangement by which Henry was restored as king in October of 1470, and his son Edward was married to Warwick’s daughter Anne Neville to seal the deal. 

It was only a matter of months before Edward’s soldiers killed Warwick in the Battle of Barnet on the on the 14th of April— the same day that Margaret, Edward and Anne returned to England from France. 

The two armies met again at Tewksbury on May 4th, 1471, with Margaret leading the Lancastrian forces in the absence of Henry, whose health had once again deteriorated. Edward dealt Margaret a crushing defeat and her son was killed. 

Shortly after that,  Henry VI was put to death in the Tower of London. This final blow put an end to Margaret’s hopes to reclaim the kingdom, and she was taken into custody where she was held in various places including the Tower of London. She appealed to her father for help, but he refused, so she remained imprisoned until 1475 when the French king Louis XI negotiated her release and paid the ransom that enabled her to return to France.Margaret died in poverty in 1482.

While I have no doubt that she did indeed weep and that she most passionately hated the Yorks, she certainly didn’t get a chance to lurk behind pillars in their castles and curse them face to face. She never saw Richard take the throne of England, nor was she a witness to the death of his wife Anne, her own former daughter-in-law. Both of those things happened in the year after her death.

6 thoughts on “Women in History: Margaret of Anjou

  1. Shakespeare dramatised Margaret & he used an unreliable but popular source from his time for his history (Edward Hall). That is why his Margaret is portrayed as some kind of arch-villain. The reality is the real Margaret of Anjou was no more a villian than Richard of York or Somerset or Warwick et al.

    History is written by the victors – the chronicles of the time (the main sources used by historians – and almost solely relied on by C20th historians) are largely pro-Yorkist and anti-Margaret. We know they are biased accounts but obviously it is difficult to tell exactly how biased they are and in what way they are biased. (Although we can safely rule out Edward Hall!)

    The chroniclers present Margaret as ambitious, ruthless and somewhat cold hearted. However, their own accounts can sometimes be self-contradictory – on the one hand presenting Margaret as very passionate and prone to temper tantrums and on the other as someone who is coldly oblivious to the suffering caused by her plundering army. Either she is passionate or ice cold and ruthless – she couldn’t have been both.

    80 of Margaret’s letters survive & these show a much more human Margaret and you see a whole side to Margaret in those letters that you don’t see in the chroniclers. For one thing you see a compassionate Margaret who frequently intervened on behalf of relatively poor / unimportant people. I would also say that her letters don’t show any signs of temper tantrums – think the chroniclers confuse “forthright, measured, criticism of men” with “temper tantrums” simply because Margaret was a woman daring to interfere with things that were regarded as an exclusively male sphere.

    You also rarely hear much about the appalling treatment Margaret was subjected to when she first arrived in England as a 16 year old girl. Before she had even said or done anything; she was denounced in parliament with violent language and so called “good” Duke Humphrey described her as a “queen not worth two marks”. The atmosphere created by Duke Humphrey’s faction was so poisonous that it prompted one noblemen to say of her “I wish she would be drowned!” – the girl was only 17 at the time. Imagine if a middle aged man said something like that about a 17 year old female celebrity on twitter these days! That was the kind of sustained personal attack Margaret had to endure at the start of her reign – and purely because she was French, basically.

    (On the plus side for Margaret – the idea that she died broken and in poverty in France is really an English perspective. In fact she was poor relative only to her previous status – she was well off enough when she died for Louis XI to discharge all her debts and pay for a fairly lavish funeral and still have money to spare afterwards. Plus we know from French records that Margaret enjoyed hunting with her French neighbours in later life; so she did enjoy some quality of life in her exile).

    1. Agreed. Shakespeare has unreliable sources AND an interest in not offending Elizabeth, so his portrayal is definitely unfair — not to mention that Margaret was no longer in England by 1483.

      1. I don’t think we will ever be able to truly know what the real Margaret of Anjou was really like. Her reputation has been too far darkened by the accounts of her enemies & too little has survived from the period of a more “Pro-Margaret” view of her.

        Just enough of her own letters survive to get a glimpse of the real woman first hand & none of these deal with especially significant political matters from the critical period immediately before the war. That said, enough does survive to seriously challenge the idea of Margaret as the “evil queen”. Certainly, we can be sure she was nothing like Shakespeare’s Margaret. I cannot image that the woman who wrote this (from one of her letters to a member of the clergy), was the same kind of person that Shakespeare portrayed:

        “Trusty, I’ve been informed that Robert Uphome, aged 17, the former chorister of our reverend father, my husband’s uncle the Cardinal, at the college of Winchester, has recently become a leper. We desire, therefore and pray you (seeing as he has no other succour or livelihood, but only such alms as Christian people choose to give) …. accept him into your hospital of Saint Giles. Such a thing would not only be most meritorious in the eyes of God but would also be deserving of my own special thanks.” Margaret of Anjou

        Caring about the fate of a penniless leper is not the act of an “evil” queen.

      2. I see her as a woman of strength. She faced incredible adversity and met it head on every time. She had her flaws like anyone else – but being a quitter wasn’t one of them.

  2. Margaret was certainly very extrovert and charismatic. That comes across strongly in her letters. There is a compilation of C15th letters called “The Letters of Margaret of Anjou and Bishop Beckington and Others” (quite an old publication) in which 67 of Margaret’s letters appear in a collection of 136 (the rest are by a mix of people including Henry V and Henry VI and various contemporaries of Margaret).

    Margaret has a very distinctive style of writing compared to the others in the compilation. Henry V, for example, might start one of his letters with a greeting like:

    “Trusty and welbeloved,” (that’s about as warm as Henry V gets)

    Margaret starts many of her letters similarly, but when writing to a friend (such as the Duchess of Somerset) you get the full-on Margaret personality shine through, she writes:

    “RIGHT dear and right entirely welbeloved Cousin, we greet you heartily well!”

    Margaret had a habit of adding the word “right” in front of adjectives to emphasise them – none of her contemporaries write like that to quite the same extent. She was especially fond of “right especial” or “right especially” – for example “deserving of my right especial thanks”.

    In 67 letters she uses the phrase “right especial” nine times. In the 69 other letters in the compilation from various other people, no one else uses this phrase even once. And that is just the “right especial”‘s – you also get “right dear”, “right meritorious” and so on quite often.

    Interestingly, the only other person in that compilation using an emotional greeting anywhere close to Margaret’s is Henry VI when writing to Margaret:

    “Right dear and right entirely bestbeloved wife, we greet you heartily.”

    So it would appear that Margaret was charismatic enough for her way of speaking to still stand out from the crowd some centuries after her death.

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