Thursday, 28 March 2013

Why the Focus on 'Foxy Knoxy'?

Why the focus on Foxy Knoxy?

It’s ironic that Amanda Knox’s autobiography, entitled Waiting to be Heard, is set to be published at just the same time that Italy’s highest appeal court has sensationally announced that Knox and her ex-boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito will face a re-trial for the tragic and highly controversial murder of British student Meredith Kercher in Perugia in 2007.

Knox’s story has been one, unsurprisingly, of controversy, drama and fierce emotions. Viewed as an innocent victim by most American citizens, who whole-heartedly supported her when she returned to the USA in 2011 following her incredible acquittal, Knox has divided opinion around the worldwide. I read an interesting article in The Daily Mail, which suggested that, unlike the USA, most countries continue to view her with ambivalence, if not open hostility, and thus question how correct it is that her memoirs are being published at this controversial time. It emerges that the re-trial has been ordered, not because of new evidence on Knox and Sollecito’s guilt or innocence, but because it’s been felt that the appellate trial may not have been properly conducted.

Certainly the trials have been tainted in controversy; Knox herself claimed that the use of evidence was questionable, and many have agreed with her. Insufficient forensic evidence tests were particularly condemned, and prosecutors alleged that the court which acquitted Knox and Sollecito had ‘lost its bearings’ in the case. Knox issued a statement shortly after this announcement that it is ‘unfounded and unfair’. She maintains that ‘our hearts go out to them [Meredith’s family]. No matter what happens, my family and I will face this continuing legal battle as we always have, confident in the truth and with our heads held high in the face of wrongful accusations and unreasonable adversity’.

But is this process ‘unreasonable’, as Knox claims? Look at the incredible drama surrounding the case – as I write this, there are no fewer than 1096 comments on the Guardian’s article covering this development. Knox arouses strong opinions and feelings; whether love and respect from American citizens, or hatred and hostility from those who believe she had a crucial hand in Meredith’s murder.

It is my firm belief that the real victim, Meredith Kercher, is being ignored and neglected in all of this. If Knox is truly innocent, then it is understandable why she, famously, made numerous cartwheels and reacted with wild celebration on discovery of her acquittal, and celebrated even further by reportedly signing a multi-million book deal to reveal, in her eyes, the ‘truth’. But her reaction, for many people, seems callous and insensitive. Yes, she’s been acquitted, but what about the girl who she spent time living with, socialising with, befriending, eating together, sharing confidences etc? Does that friendship mean nothing? In my reading of this case (albeit only from newspapers), Knox appears to have made very few utterances regarding Meredith herself.

Meredith’s death was brutal and appalling. It shows the depth of sadism which sexual antics can degrade to and the murky nature of that night in 2007 will never be fully known. She was dead at the unbelievably young age of 21, her whole life ahead of her. Many people’s comments on the Guardian seem to agree with my stance – ‘AhBrightWings’ opines: ‘To make money off another young woman’s death is grossly insensitive. She should hand over the proceeds to charity. That would go a long way to clearing her name’.

I am not suggesting Knox is guilty, far from it. But she does not seem a likeable woman. She has been portrayed by the media as calculating, manipulative, insensitive and fully aware of the sexual power she holds over men. Whether or not this is true, and one must remember how much the media exaggerate and distort, there is something very distasteful about a young woman who, rather than mourning her housemate’s tragic and brutal death, is currently celebrating the millions she will make from a book supposedly revealing the ‘truth’ of her case. Let’s remember who the real victim is here, who is forever silenced, and who may never receive justice. 

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

England's Worst King in the Medieval Period

Above: Henry VI (reigned 1422-1470), Stephen (reigned 1135-1154), Richard II (reigned 1377-1399)

The last few weeks, reading studies on late medieval English monarchs roughly in the period after the Norman Conquest up until the fifteenth century, have left me grappling with the fascinating and highly debated issue: who was England's worst medieval king? This article will look at arguably the prime contenders for this dubious title in the period 1066-1483.
Of course, not all English kings will be considered here, since the likes of Henry II, Edward III and Henry V are widely recognised to have been comparatively successful monarchs in medieval England. The prime contenders will each be discussed in turn, beginning with William Rufus.

William Rufus (c.1060-1100), reigned 1087-1000

William Rufus, also known as William II of England, reigned for thirteen years in the period 1087-1100, following the death of his highly successful father William the Conqueror. The third son of William the Conqueror and Matilda of Flanders, William Rufus can arguably be considered one of, if not England's worst, medieval king, because of his unfavourable temperament, his dubious policies and his notorious reign. Described by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as 'hateful to almost all his people and odious to God', his struggles with the Church in his reign would make him notorious amongst contemporary chroniclers.

William never married, and as the third son of King William could never realistically have hoped to attain the throne of England. However, circumstances dramatically changed this in 1067 following the death of his father. At the age of about 27, William sailed to England from Tonques and was crowned in September 1087. He was described by William of Malmesbury as being 'well set, his complexion florid, his hair yellow; of open countenance; different coloured eyes; varying with certain glittering specks; of astonishing strength, though not tall, and his belly rather projecting'. Frank Barlow describes him on the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography as being at the time of his accession 'a seasoned soldier and commander but with only a limited knowledge of England, and, although well acquainted with his father's ways, without experience of government'. William's reign was unstable the moment he commenced it, most notably in 1088 with the rebellion of the nobles who supported his elder brother Robert, the ruler of Normandy, in favour of uniting England and Normandy. Hostilities lasted up to six months. Luckily, Rufus' appeals to the English people and his attack of the rebels personally, taking Rochester Castle, allowed his success. Barlow rates Rufus' reaction to the rebellion 'shrewd'.

Notwithstanding this, the historian H.W.C. Davis of Oxford University, in his book England Under the Normans and Angevins 1066-1272, first published in 1905, is dismissive of Rufus, characterising him as 'so illiterate that he could not spell his way through an ordinary letter', he 'fought and squandered, leaving extortion to his clerks and judges'; he 'mounted the throne with little preparation and less fitness for that high position', criticising his policies towards the Church and his foreign policy during his reign. Certainly Rufus' long-standing conflict with Anselm of Canterbury made him notorious in a highly religious age, intensified when the archbishop went into exile in 1097. His failure to marry and sire a son, something expected of all kings in the medieval period, further gives impetus to the notion that he was something of a failure. The fact that Rufus faced continuous rebellions throughout his reign, including one from the Scottish King in 1091, further weakened his authority. Famous for his hot temper, monastic writers condemned his immorality, and there were even suggestions of homosexual behaviour, according to Barlow. This is strengthened, of course, by his failure to marry and sire an heir. His contentious relations with his brother Robert were not particularly helpful to his cause, although understandable in context. Killed in a hunting expedition in 1100, medieval commentators believed that Rufus' death was the act of a vengeful God against this blasphemer. Yet Barlow dismisses the notion that he could be seen as England's worst medieval king, writing: 'he had maintained good order and satisfactory justice in England and restored good peace to Normandy. He had extended Anglo-Norman rule in Wales, brought Scotland firmly under his lordship, recovered Maine, and kept up the pressure on the Vexin', suggesting that Rufus was 'a hero', even if he was lustful and 'a scandalous figure'.

Stephen (1092/6-1154), reigned 1135-1154.

Davis seems to rate King Stephen the worst medieval king in England's history, closing his account of Stephen's reign with the passage: 'Stephen did not die too soon... Too simple to anticipate intrigues, too scrupulous to destroy the root from which they sprang, too vacillating to crush them when they began to take effect, he failed alike in peace and war. Among all our medieval sovereigns none owed his title in so real a sense to the election of the nation; few showed themselves more incapable; none was a greater curse to the nation... his reign furnished a warning...' Are these claims fair, suggesting as they do that Stephen was England's worst medieval king?

Born in c1092/6, Stephen was a grandson of William the Conqueror and thus kinsman to William Rufus, the son of Stephen II Count of Blois and his wife Adela of Normandy. A powerful landholder in French provinces, Stephen married Matilda of Boulogne through the efforts of the English king Henry I in 1125, and thus became even more influential in northern Europe. Edmund King suggests that this marriage 'moved him to the centre of Anglo-Norman political life'. Henry I seems to have regarded Stephen, who was his nephew, as his successor at this time, but following the death of Henry's daughter Matilda's husband in 1125, the situation changed, and in 1127, having returned to England, Matilda was declared heir to the English throne. In 1135 the English king died, setting in place the events which would eventually lead to Stephen's succession. Davis, in a somewhat misogynistic fashion, claims that Stephen became king because 'on the death of Henry I there was hardly a man in his dominion who desired the accession of the Empress [Matilda]. Her sex, the arrogance of her temper, above all her Angevin marriage, were objections which in most minds overrode all scruples as to oaths and pledges'.

Stephen immediately came to England, and was received by the citizens as king, probably because of his comparative popularity in English society at this time. He was seen as being modest, easy-going, and gentle. Henry's death occurred at a difficult time: his daughter Matilda and her husband Geoffrey of Anjou were in Anjou, involved in a rebellion against the royal army, while Stephen's elder brother Theobald - who arguably had a better claim to the throne - was further away, in Blois. Yet like Rufus' reign, Stephen suffered a succession of rebellions during the early years of his reign which severely threatened his authority, notably from the Welsh in the 1130s. Matilda's husband Geoffrey also periodically invaded in this period, and many saw Matilda as the rightful ruler of England. Compounding this, the complex relations with the Church caused discontent, particularly when Stephen seized the lands of the dead Archbishop of Canterbury in 1136. Barons increasingly opposed the king, feeling that they had not been aptly rewarded for their loyalty. Foreign policy further threatened Stephen in this years.

The situation took a turn for the worse in 1139, when civil war in England occurred. Empress Matilda was invited by Henry I's consort Adeliza to stay with her at Arundel, and in September the former Empress and her half-brother Robert invaded England. Robert marched north, hoping to obtain support for their rebellion. But Stephen besieged Arundel, entrapping Matilda, showing a fierce determination to preserve his crown. The complex events of this years are difficult to explain in detail. But civil war severely undermined Stephen's kingship. In 1140, Stephen faced further revolts from former loyalists, such as Nigel bishop of Ely, who had become disaffected with Stephen's rule. The king, later captured by Robert, was imprisoned in Bristol Castle, and Matilda was proclaimed Lady of the English - in effect, England's first ruling female. However, the Londoners refused to crown Matilda, viewing her as haughty, and she was forced to flee to Oxford, thus offering some hope for Stephen. Stephen's queen, confusingly also named Matilda, played a central role in these events, generating sympathy for Stephen's cause. Stephen was eventually released following the Angevin defeat at Winchester. A stalemate occurred in the period 1143-1146, although Stephen faced further rebellions from dissatisfied barons such as from the Earl of Essex. By 1147 England had suffered severely from the 'Anarchy', and it was believed to be in a state of chaos and destruction. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle wrote that 'there was nothing but disturbance and wickedness and robbery'. Yet the death of Robert that year, and Matilda's flight the following year, changed the nature of the conflict. But Stephen's chaotic relations with the Church did not help matters, particularly conflict with the papacy.

The next few years saw Stephen maintaining peace with Matilda's son Henry, later Henry II, and he was later recognised as Stephen's heir following the death of his son Eustace. In 1154 Stephen died, and Henry II succeeded to the English throne. Edmund King depicts Stephen as a weak king, easily manipulated by his brother or wife, and Crouch has also been negative in relation to Stephen. Yet was he England's worst king? Arguably, yes - his reign was characterised by civil war, rebellions, dissatisfaction of the nobles, problems with the Church, and conflict-ridden foreign policy. Yet Stephen survived, and the throne passed in a peaceful manner to Henry following a series of truces. It remains to be seen whether Davis' critical assessment can be confirmed.

John (1166-1216), reigned 1199-1216.

Most famous for the Magna Carta (1215), John has a strong claim to being England's worst king. Historian Ralph Turner criticises his 'distasteful, even dangerous personality traits', which encompassed spitefulness, cruelty and pettiness. Famously, John has been presented as the arch villain in Robin Hood, particularly the Disney film of the same name.

John was born in 1199 as the ninth child, and sixth son, of Henry II of England and his infamous queen consort Eleanor of Aquitaine. Described as being red-haired, around 5'5 tall, and with a 'powerful, barrel-chested body', John's early life was engulfed by the rebellions led by his elder brothers Henry, Geoffrey and Richard (later Richard I) against their ageing father Henry II, John became increasingly influential, for instance being granted the estates of the Duchy of Cornwall in 1175. Following the death of his brother King Richard in 1199, John acceded to the English throne aged 33, having been supported by most of both the English and the Norman nobility against a pretender Arthur of Brittany. In 1200 John married Isabella of Angouleme, abandoning his first wife Isabel countess of Gloucester. This meant that warfare in Normandy recommenced. Complex events in Europe encompass this period, characterised perhaps most profoundly by the loss of Normandy in the period 1202-04. John's mother Eleanor was threatened by Arthur's forces, but John's forces were successful at the battle of Mirebeau. Yet John's power was not secure following this victory. John's local allies were deserted in 1203, and the pope was not successful in aiding John's cause. Arthur was probably murdered by John that year in an attempt to quash the unrest engulfing Europe and threatening John's stability.

In England, John's financial measures were not popular. He levied scutage payments eleven times in his reign, a much greater amount in his comparatively shorter reign compared with preceding English monarchs. Enormous sums were often charged in relation to relief payments when estates and castles were inherited. A new tax on income and movable goods in 1207 may also have caused resentment, although it was successful for the king in raising £60,000. Inflationary pressure and bad harvests, however, may have contributed to an increasingly resentful atmosphere. John, notoriously, was deeply suspicious of the barons at the English court, and numerous barons were subjected to John's malevolentia (royal ill-will), including William Marshal. William de Braose's wife and son were imprisoned by John following conflict between this baron and the king, and they eventually died. John was also criticised by chroniclers for being lustful and irreligious, heinous sins by the standards of the clerical writers. He had many mistresses and illegitimate children. Some even accused John of being an atheist.

All this was worsened by John's continental policy in the years 1204-14. A potential French invasion undermined England's security, worsened by increasing baronial unrest. John also became embroiled in a dispute with Pope Innocent III in 1205, leading notoriously to the king's excommunication, the worst penalty possibly levied by the papacy. This resulted from John's desire for John de Gray, bishop of Norwich, to be appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, but Reginald was favoured by the Canterbury Cathedral chapter. Stephen Langton was later made Archbishop, and John was furious, barring Langton from entering England and seizing the archbishopric's lands and papal possessions. Innocent, not surprisingly, placed an interdict on England in 1208. His anger intensified, John tried to punish Innocent personally and sought to create a conflict between the English clergy who supported him and those who favoured the pope. John was later excommunicated in 1209. A reconciliation finally occurred in 1213, but John's reputation must have suffered appallingly.

This was made worse by the barons' discontent; in 1212 there had even been a plot against the king. Following John's return from France in 1214, rebel barons in north and east England organised resistance to his rule, congregating at Northampton in May 1215 and renouncing their feudal ties to John, appointing Robert FitzWalter as their military leader in an entirely unprecedented action. This 'Army of God' shockingly marched on London, taking the capital as well as Lincoln and Exeter. John later met the rebel leaders at Runnymede in June, and a charter was later created, named Magna Carta. This promised new political reform, curtailing the powers of the king, promising the protection of church rights, protection from illegal imprisonment, access to justice, limitations on scrutage and other feudal payments, and new taxation only with the consent of the barons. Pope Innocent, having been contacted by the king, dismissed this document as 'illegal and unjust', excommunicating the rebels. The First Barons' War occurred shortly afterwards, following the failure of the agreement, and the first move was the seizure of Rochester Castle. In November John retook it, and while John was initially successful, by the end of the summer the rebels had regained southeast England and parts of the north. Attacking eastwards from London to Cambridge in September 1216, John later travelled to Lincoln and King's Lynn, but later contracted dysentery there, which proved fatal.  By this time John was seen to face a 'stalemate' and a possible defeat. His illness worsened, and he died in October.

While John was initially praised by medieval chroniclers, he was later criticised by later commentators. Kate Norgate, a Victorian historian, attacked 'his almost superhuman wickedness', although Whiggish scholars saw Magna Carta as essential in the economic and political progress of England during this period. Historians today suggest that John's vices and failures were wildly exaggerated by contemporaries, but agree that he was a failure. They recognise that he was hard-working and enjoyed notable successes, although Jim Bradbury suggests that modern historians are too lenient towards John. Thus, while it is not certain that John was England's worst medieval king, his reign was certainly characterised by conflict and controversy, and it cannot be seen as a success in any sense of the word.

Edward II (1284-1327), reigned 1307-1327. 

A recent popular history study of Edward II's notorious queen, infamously named the 'she-wolf of France', Isabella, suggests that Edward was 'a weak and vicious monarch'. Many probably see Edward II as England's worst ever king. Although he fathered five children by two children, he was widely rumoured to be bisexual or even homosexual, due to his notorious relationship with Piers Gaveston (later executed), although historians should remember that notions of alternative sexualities in the modern sense of the word only really came into being in the nineteenth century, not the fourteenth.

Edward was the fourth son and eleventh child of Edward I of England and his queen Eleanor of Castile. Following the death of his father in 1307, Edward acceded to the throne as king of England aged twenty-three, comparatively young for an English monarch. Edward recalled to court his friend Piers, who had been dismissed by Edward I due to the belief that he was not suitable company for Prince Edward, and he was made Earl of Cornwall soon after. Piers was also married to the king's niece Margaret of Gloucester, a clear sign of his favour towards the Gascon knight.

In 1308, Edward married Isabella of France, aged merely thirteen, and later demonised as a 'she-wolf' (other English queens, such as Aelgifu and Margaret of Anjou, also suffered this dubious epitaph). Renowned for her beauty, intelligence, and diplomatic and political competence, Isabella arrived in England at a time of increasing discontent between the king and the barons (similarly to John in a sense). Her husband was resented at court for the lavish influence and rewards he bestowed upon Piers, meaning that it is not surprising that hostile commentators interpreted this as signs of a homosexual relationship between the two. Some have suggested that Edward frequently neglected his young queen, perhaps provoking her hostility, and many historians have noted with sympathy her uncomfortable position as the wife of a king who indiscreetly favoured another man at court. These problems were compounded when Edward left Piers to serve as Regent of England in 1308 when he travelled to marry Isabella, and some barons in the Ordinances of 1311 insisted vocally that Piers be banished immediately from the kingdom, due to the troubles associated with his presence. Other concerns present in the Ordinances concerned fiscal reform, setbacks in the Anglo-Scottish war, and the king's personal incompetence. In 1312 the earl of Lancaster ordered Gaveston to be captured, and he was handed over to two Welshmen who promptly murdered him at Blacklow Hill. The king suffered profound grief over his favourite's execution, and he became increasingly fixated on revenge upon those who had instigated his friend's death. The earls of Lancaster, Warwick, Arundel and Hereford were later forced to seek Edward's pardon.

Whether or not Edward and Piers engaged in homosexual sex is unknown; chroniclers criticised the king's passion for 'wicked and forbidden sex' and saw the relationship as being 'excessive' and 'immoderate beyond measure'. The Meaux Chronicle later noted that the king 'took too much delight in sodomy'. Added together, this compellingly suggests that the two did have sexual relations. However, sodomy encompasses much broader sexual relations than merely homosexual sex, and so it's difficult to tell what was meant specifically. Both Edward and Piers had children in their marriages and some historians have suggested that the relationship between the two actually more closely resembled an 'adoptive brotherhood'. Anyway, King Edward's defeat in Scotland in 1314 further blackened his reputation, considered by contemporary historians to be the English's worst defeat since 1066. The increasing influence of the Despenser family at court provoked the hostility of the barons, and in 1321 Edward was forced to banish them due to increasing pressure from hostile earls at court. Yet the king's opponents came to be murdered in a bloodthirsty revenge enacted shortly afterwards, including the beheading of Lancaster in the king's presence.

In 1325, Queen Isabella returned to France following a disagreement between England and France over whether Edward should pay homage to the French king. She was able to escape the influential Despenser family and the king's families, whom she resented deeply - it's possible to regard her with sympathy, her position must have been almost impossible in these embarrassing years. Isabella declared that she would not return to England unless the Despensers were removed. Isabella fell in love with Roger Mortimer, earl of March, during her time in Paris and they decided to plot together to usurp the throne from Edward - hence the beginning of Isabella's notorious reputation as a 'she-wolf' and adulteress. Edward was betrayed by those formerly close to him, perhaps alienated by his policies, and in September 1326 his wife and her lover invaded England. The king and the Despensers were left isolated, and the king was forced to flee. Unable to rally an army, this proved Edward's downfall. The Despensers were captured and executed by a victorious Isabella. Isabella was condemned, however, by some as being bloodthirsty when she ordered Hugh Despenser the Younger to be hanged, drawn and quartered publicly. Edward, imprisoned at Kenilworth Castle, was charged in 1327 with incompetence, losing lands in Scotland, Gascony and Ireland, allowing the murder of nobles, the failure of government, and a host of other failures. Weeping, he agreed to abdicate, and his 14-year old son Edward III was proclaimed king, controlled by the queen and her lover. Later imprisoned in Berkeley Castle, Edward was almost certainly murdered here by Isabella and Roger's agent, some notorious sources claiming a red-hot poker was inserted into his anus (perhaps a parody of his love for sodomy?) Some suggest that he actually lived until at least 1330.

When all is said and done, there is a strong case for the claim that Edward II is England's worst medieval monarch. His reign was characterised by political favouritism, uncertainty at court, conflicting foreign policy, the alienation of his queen and her supporters, and ultimately, he was forced to abdicate and was murdered by orders of his own wife, thus damaging her reputation permanently. Whether Edward really was 'weak and vicious', he can be criticised for his ineffectual policies, which led to the alienation of courtiers and undermined England's security devastatingly.

Richard II (1367-1400), reigned 1377-1399.

I am currently in the midst of reading a book on Richard II, since there seems to be a current vogue for him at present, perhaps influenced by the showing of The Hollow Crown on the BBC. Was Richard II England's worst king? He was certainly arrogant, suspicious, cruel, cold and ruthless towards his enemies, not stopping to murder his own relatives. Yet he was also glorious, intelligent, a lover of regal splendour and patronage, and he has continued to fascinate and perplex historians and the general public.

The son of the chivalrous and renowned 'Black Prince' Edward and his wife Joan of Kent, Richard was born in 1367, the grandson of the celebrated king Edward III. Tall, good-looking and intelligent, Richard succeeded to the English throne aged merely 10 years old, and it's well known that minority rules are often clouded by political unrest and uncertainty at court and within the kingdom. This case was no different. Widespread opposition to the king's influential uncle, John of Gaunt, characterised much of English politics during the early years of Richard's reign. The king's influential councillors Simon Burley and the Earl of Oxford gained increasing control of royal affairs, causing resentment within the court. Heavy poll taxes in the period 1377-81 weakened English security further, leading to the infamous Peasants' Revolt in 1381, in which the fourteen-year old king was forced to meet the rebels personally and promise them sanctions in an attempt to quash the revolt. Many high-placed governmental officials, including the archbishop of Canterbury and the Lord High Treasurer, were publicly beheaded. Following the revolt, Richard married Anne of Bohemia in 1382, and the two appear to have enjoyed close relations until Anne's death in 1394, although there was no issue from the marriage, which proved to be a momentous and unsettling issue for the king.

The war in France caused further problems at court, with councillors favouring one of two approaches: peace, or aggressive military endeavours. The king turned his attention to Scotland, leading an expedition in 1385, but nothing came of it, while a French invasion of England undoubtedly undermined any notion of England's stability in these years. Factional discontent intensified at court, leading the king's uncle Thomas of Woodstock, duke of Gloucester, the earl of Arundel and the earl of Warwick to bring an appeal of treason against the king's favourites in 1387, including Michael de la Pole, the mayor of London Nicholas Brembre and the Archbishop of York; these nobles known as 'The Appellants' in bringing charges of treason against the royal favourites. Joining forces with Henry earl of Derby (the king's cousin) and the earl of Nottingham, the king was forced to comply with the Appellants' demands, and the royal favourites were removed from power, mostly being executed. Yet the Appellants, as Nigel Saul makes clear, were not popular, and their rule eventually crumbled following failures in foreign policy and court politics. Richard gained increasing authority at court, and promised to restore stability which had not been present in England during his reign.

Following Anne's death, Richard married the 7-year old Isabella of France in 1396, thus strengthening Anglo-French relations. In 1397, what came to be known as the 'tyranny' of Richard II began. Gloucester, Warwick and Arundel were arrested and punished, with Arundel being put to death, Warwick imprisoned, and Gloucester, the king's own uncle, apparently smothered by the king's supporters at his castle of Plushey. New favourites rose to power, including John Beaufort (the king's relative), the earl of Rutland, Thomas le Despenser, and others. But the House of Lancaster, in the form of Henry of Derby, posed a new threat to Richard's weak authority. Henry was disinherited and banished from England following a dispute with the earl of Norfolk, who was also banished. Yet when Richard left in May 1399 for Ireland, Henry famously invaded England and later took the throne, deposing Richard. Richard is thought to have been starved to death, having been imprisoned in Pontefract Castle.

Richard had been widely praised in his youth for his beauty, intelligence, and his development of court culture. He was intelligent, well-read and vivacious. Yet in the latter part of his reign he was increasingly criticised for his perceived arrogance, cruelty, and desire to wreak vengeance upon his political enemies. Shakespeare's play has severely influenced our understanding of Richard, depicting him as cruel and irresponsible, deserving of his fate. Many academic historians have wondered if Richard was actually insane. Yet Nigel Saul is reasonably fair in his assessment of Richard, and recognises the king's real strengths despite his, at  times, political incompetence, cruelty and arrogance. It does not seem that Richard, in comparison with Edward II, can be classified England's worst medieval king, but he had certainly lost the majority of his subjects' respect and devotion by the time of his deposition in 1399, meaning his rule, on the whole, cannot be judged a success.

Henry VI (1421-1471), reigned 1422-1461, 1470-1. 

Helen E. Maurer, in her sympathetic study of Henry VI's notorious queen, Margaret of Anjou (see, dismissively wrote of Henry VI that he was perhaps 'the greatest disaster' England was ever to experience. Indeed, many would agree with her that Henry VI was, quite simply, a disaster; England's worst medieval king.

It's perhaps fair to note that it wasn't all Henry's own fault. The son of  the renowned and glorious king Henry V and his consort Catherine of Valois, Henry became king of England nine months old, and we have seen that minority rule never works well. This, of course, did not allow for political stability at court, and the king's uncles John and Humphrey were resented for their overbearing rule and political influence. Nonetheless, in the late 1430s and early 1440s Henry assumed growing authority and power as he became older, and in 1445 a prosperous alliance with France was achieved with his marriage to the 15-year old princess Margaret of Anjou, although this was not universally popular among his subjects. However, the king's failure to produce an heir with his consort caused considerable concern in a politically unstable kingdom. In 1453, when the queen eventually gave birth to their son Edward, many disputed who the father was in view of this.

Henry is often dismissed by historians as being pious and kind, but an entirely unsuitable king. Perhaps this is an unfair assessment, but when the king fell mad, or at least insane, in 1453, it plunged the kingdom into chaos. At a time of increasing unpopular attitudes towards the monarchy, caused largely by the loss of all the lands won by the English in France by Henry V save Calais, a breakdown in law and order, corruption and favouritism at the English court, and a rebellion in 1450 led by 'Jack Cade', the duke of York, the king's relative, became increasingly prominent at court and challenged royal authority. At Christmas 1454, King Henry eventually recovered his senses, but the Wars of the Roses were to be brought about nonetheless in view of these problems. A violent struggle between the competing houses of Lancaster and York took place, the first battle of St Albans occurring in 1455, although York was later killed at Wakefield in 1460. With the king's own incompetence, Queen Margaret was widely believed to be the figurehead of the Lancastrian cause. He was later captured by Edward earl of March in 1465 and imprisoned in the Tower of London, who was now king. Yet Margaret, now exiled, was determined to reclaim what she saw as her rightful place as queen and wife to the king, and schemed with the French king to win her throne back. Affecting an alliance with her former enemy the earl of Warwick, it was agreed that her son by the king would marry the earl's daughter Anne Neville. Warwick returned to England, forcing King Edward into exile, and restored Henry in 1470. Yet his return lasted less than six months, and he was murdered probably on orders of the returned  king Edward, in the Tower in May 1471, following the death of his heir Edward in battle previously, thus undermining the Lancastrian cause seemingly beyond repair.

While Henry has been seen by some as a martyr, a devout and pious king, his reign was a failure, in every sense of the word, ushering in the Wars of the Roses. He was incompetent, beset by factional conflict, utterly unable to control powerful nobles, and dominated by ruthless courtiers. His queen, who sought to preserve both their royal state and the legitimacy of their son, was condemned by contemporaries as being unwomanly  and a 'she-wolf', despite the fact that she was acting in her husband's interests. Although Henry may not have been unlikeable personally, he has a fair claim to being England's worst medieval monarch for what his reign brought about.

Richard III (1452-1483), reigned 1483-1485.

I don't wish to be attacked by the Richard III Society here, but it would be nonsensical to write an article on England's worst medieval king without at least mentioning Richard III, for he was demonised in his lifetime up until the present day, and many would argue that he was, by far, England's worst medieval king.

The son of Richard duke of York (killed at Wakefield during the Wars in 1460) and his wife Cecily Neville, Richard was younger brother to  the king Edward IV. Following that king's premature death in 1471, it is believed that, fearing hostile and cruel behaviour from his sister-in-law Queen Elizabeth Woodville and her family at court, who were believed to be hoping to exclude Richard utterly from power, Richard seized control of the new king, the 12-year old Edward V, and later his brother Richard of York, in an attempt to control the political situation in England at the time. Edward IV's supporters were quickly routed from power; his most famous supporter Hastings being beheaded in June 1483. Elizabeth, in fear and concern, quickly retreated from power, and sought sanctuary with her daughters.

Whether or not Richard was really as evil as Shakespeare made him out to be is unlikely, yet he certainly took advantage of the uncertain political and dynastic situation in England at the time. Whether or not the princes in the Tower, as they later became known, were murdered on his own orders is impossible to ever know the answer to, but on a balance of probabilities, it seems the likeliest scenario - they were last seen in the autumn of 1483, and no attempt was made by the king to produce them publicly to counter persistent rumours alleged that he had ordered their deaths. Richard faced numerous rebellions during his short-lived reign, most famously from his former supporter Buckingham in November 1483, resulting in Buckingham's execution. Queen Elizabeth quickly sought an alliance with the Lancastrian Margaret Beaufort, agreeing that her daughter Elizabeth of York would marry Margaret's son Henry Tudor if he managed to wrestle the throne from Richard, seen by many as an unlawful usurper. In view of this, Richard's own dynastic situation must have troubled him severely. His son died in 1484, and it was rumoured, following the death of his queen in 1485, that he had poisoned her in order to marry his own niece Elizabeth, designed to jeopardise Henry Tudor's plans and in order to sire a legitimate son.

By summer 1485, the situation had worsened beyond repair, and Henry and Richard eventually met in battle at Bosworth on 22 August. As everyone knows, Henry was victorious, and Richard was killed, meaning the end of the Yorkist dynasty in a sense. Henry married Elizabeth of York, and ushered in the glorious age of the Tudors. Richard's supposed notorious crimes, first and foremost the belief that he had ordered the deaths of the two princes, his ordering the execution of notable supporters of Edward IV, the belief that he had poisoned Queen Anne, the execution of his supporter the earl of Buckingham, and a host of other rumours blackened his reputation beyond repair, although we need to recognise the fundamental role placed by the Tudors in propaganda, shown most famously in Shakespeare's play Richard III in which Richard is deformed, evil, abhorrent in fact. But it cannot be doubted that many would argue that he has a strong claim to being England's worst ever medieval monarch.

In conclusion....
It's difficult to say who England's worst medieval monarch was, for their situations were so different, the context altered dramatically, and the king's own personality played a fundamental role. Other kings not mentioned here might be recognised by other historians to deserve the title worst king of England in the medieval period - perhaps, for some Henry I, for instance. I think it's impossible to say for certain ... but due to the evidence put forward, I think it comes down to Edward II, Henry VI, and Richard III. These three have strong claims to being England's worst medieval monarch.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Ordinary People and Serfdom in the High Middle Ages

How did ordinary people resist serfdom in 13th and 14th century England?

In thirteenth and fourteenth century England, economic difficulties and social unrest could be seen to account for intensifying conditions of serfdom in villages. Although serfdom existed in England since the early Middle Ages, increasing power of landlords in the thirteenth century and unfavourable social conditions in the fourteenth, largely deriving from the economic devastation resulting from the Black Death, intensified unfree conditions for peasants. However, as will be explored in this essay, ordinary people strongly resisted serfdom due to the heavy working conditions it entailed as well as the unenviable social stigma it carried. Rather than acquiesce to their lords’ demands, peasants resorted to both legal and illegal action to resist serfdom, meaning, as Whittle contends, ‘we now see ordinary people as political actors in their own right [who] found many ways of making their interests and ideas known’.[1] This essay will consider a variety of means by which peasants expressed their dissatisfaction with serfdom and their resistance to it through what can be generally classified as ‘passive resistance’ and direct means illegal in context of medieval England, including violence and flight. Finally, the Peasants’ Revolt (1381) will be discussed in considering the extreme forms resistance to serfdom could take in the central Middle Ages. Social and economic conditions will be considered as central to the nature of, and resistance to, serfdom.

While many ordinary people opposed the conditions under which they worked, Dyer suggests that peasants’ resistance to landlords’ use of coercion should be viewed as being a ‘silent hussle’ whereby ‘latent coercion and grumbling resistance’ characterised lord-tenant relationships in thirteenth and fourteenth century England.[2] Did this mean, therefore, that ordinary people resorted to ‘passive’ forms of resistance, rather than outright action, when opposing the demands made on them by their lords? This issue is complicated since in comparison with the fourteenth century, the thirteenth century saw favourable social conditions from the perspective of ordinary people, in terms of enjoying security of tenure, while economic development saw securer living conditions in rural societies. Why, then, did the thirteenth century see ‘an intensification of pleading and conceptual analysis of the law against a political background of disturbance and reform’?[3]

The evidence suggests that in the thirteenth century ordinary people turned to the legal system in seeking redresses against the demands of serfdom imposed on them by their landlords, rather than utilising violent methods as means of resistance. Harding argued that by the mid-thirteenth century ordinary people became increasingly encouraged to petition the king in opposing the conditions of serfdom under which they lived and used the king’s courts to enlist complaints against their lords.[4] Yet does this mean that, generally speaking, ordinary people across England turned to the legal system to resist serfdom? Dyer believes so, arguing that in the thirteenth century ‘groups of servile tenants and individuals hired lawyers to fight cases in the royal courts against the lord’s assertion of their unfree status’.[5] Dyer’s argument is supported in that ordinary people became aware of the range of courts available to them in the thirteenth century, while some conveyed their hostility to serfdom by taking their lords to court to protest their free conditions and exemptions from serfdom. In 1224 a tenant of the abbot of Battle took his lord to court to resist his lord’s demands made on him as a serf, protesting his free condition.[6] Appeals to the king convey a confident use of the legal system made by ordinary people in the thirteenth century to resist serfdom, as seen in 1280 when the peasants of the manor of Michleover were successful enough to obtain a royal writ freeing them from conditions of serfdom.

Other examples of ‘passive’ resistance support the argument that peaceful methods of opposition or methods involving a lack of violence were utilised in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries in resisting serfdom. Several historians have recognised the prominence of appeals of manumission which evolved later in the thirteenth and the fourteenth centuries, as well as the use of appeals to Domesday Book in order to prove that a particular area was of “ancient demesne” and so its tenants were free from serfdom. Hilton documented the use of the Domesday Book in allowing peasants to claim exemptions from villeinage, which had been occurring in England since the 1270s.[7] Yet it should be considered whether this method was commonly utilised by ordinary people across the country as a means of resisting serfdom. Kent, for instance, did not experience the harsh conditions of serfdom in the central Middle Ages and so never saw appeals made by its tenants to Domesday Book to resist serfdom, thus Whittle and Rigby’s claim that ‘the usual way of attempting to prove [freedom] was to appeal to the Domesday Book’ is doubtful since it appears to have only been in certain areas where the use of the Domesday Book was used to obtain freedom from serfdom.[8] Müller’s evidence for the argument of “ancient demesne” in early-fourteenth century Wiltshire indicates that this particular method of resistance to serfdom was remarkable in that resistance of this type occurred frequently in certain areas rather than being a widespread phenomenon.[9]

By contrast, in the early and later fourteenth century direct action, which could involve violence, developed as a concentrated means by ordinary people in resisting serfdom. A consideration of how social and economic conditions intensified conditions of serfdom in the fourteenth century will be instructive in discussing how opposition to serfdom plausibly changed. War, weather, and disease ‘brought a long period of expansion to a close’ while severe deflation in the period 1336-42 and widespread plague later in the century led to increasing tension. Population growth earlier in the century and extra labour intensified conditions of hardship for ordinary people.[10] Lords tightened their grip on their tenants, demanding extra labour and increasing coercive powers over tenants. Due to harder conditions, it does not seem surprising that many tenants turned to flight as a means of resisting serfdom in the fourteenth century. In Suffolk in 1361 workers went outside their “vill” to escape their hostile conditions and to obtain higher wages.[11] As Schofield argues, the use of flight increased in the later fourteenth century due to population decline and improved wage-labour opportunities elsewhere.[12] Furthermore, Dyer’s claim that ‘it was often the small demands, rather than such major payments as entry fines, which provoked peasant agitations’ is challenged in that on the contrary, violent confrontations seem to have been utilised when demands were viewed as being especially heavy.[13] The abbot of Halesowen’s exploitation of the financial side of his seigneurial rights over his tenants in the later fourteenth century led to ‘an orgy of plundering of the abbey property’ by peasants while the abbey’s servants and officials were assaulted and abused.[14]

Yet forms of direct action which did not involve violence also escalated in the fourteenth century. Poor performance of labour services, withholding money and rent, non-attendance at court and failure to act as suitors were widespread methods involved in resisting serfdom across England. Indeed, it seems questionable to conclude that violent methods of opposition completely replaced ‘passive’ resistance in the fourteenth century. As Schofield recognises, ‘passive’ resistance continued as a common method of opposing serfdom in this later period. Yet in considering the nature of the Peasants’ Revolt, the more direct nature of resistance in making off with charters and goods in Harmondsworth, for instance, and invoking threats implies that resistance to serfdom evolved into utilising more direct methods and, occasionally, violence.[15]

The Peasants’ Revolt shows the most extreme form of resistance to serfdom which could be taken in fourteenth century England. While a revolt of this magnitude can in no way be seen as typical, it does indicate the increasing resentment towards serfdom pervading rural society. The actual nature of these violent acts shows the intensifying desire for freedom from serfdom. The repeated burning of manorial court records occurred, for instance in Essex, while the release from gaol of Robert Belling, a serf, symbolically indicates the rebels’ intent to abolish serfdom and attain widespread freedom.[16] ‘The experience of at least a century and a half of local struggles’ between tenants and lords played a pivotal role in causing the revolt.[17] Yet did the rebellion influence the weakening, or decline, of serfdom? Whittle’s suggestion that it did in that it helped to ensure that serfdom disappeared in the fifteenth century is debateable, since in the sixteenth century serfdom continued, for instance in Norfolk.[18] However it cannot be denied that the revolt severely undermined landlords’ authority. While revolt was not often used to resist serfdom in this period, the Peasants’ Revolt indicates increasingly violent resistance among the peasantry to serfdom and a determination to obtain freedom. The involvement of four counties in this revolt and the burning of manorial rolls in all four suggest that serfdom was both widespread and opposed, although the nature of serfdom ultimately differed depending on location.

This essay has suggested that resistance to serfdom in thirteenth and fourteenth century England did not simply involve violence and rebellion against landlords, but depended significantly on the nature of the demands imposed on ordinary people by their lords, social and economic conditions, and geographical location. ‘Passive’ resistance emerges as a common form of resistance to serfdom, particularly earlier on in this period, including appeals to the legal system and appeals to the Domesday Book, although in some areas more direct action was utilised. Opposition to serfdom appears to have been widespread but was more intense in areas such as East Anglia, whereas areas such as Kent enjoyed comparatively free conditions for ordinary people. Yet the increasing use of direct action by ordinary people in the late fourteenth century reveals intent to abolish serfdom. While individual success was not widespread, by the fifteenth century greater confidence among peasants and favourable social conditions meant that the nature of serfdom was weakened, if not fully eradicated, in rural societies. The underlying means of resistance to serfdom, according to contemporary evidence, was passive in most societies; although scholars should recognise that, even this form of resistance, could involve fierce opposition in the forms of desertion or appeals to the monarch. When unfavourable social and economic conditions intensified, it cannot but be doubted that more violent action was readily utilised, culminating in the outbreak of revolt in 1381. This essay hopefully provides some impetus to social historians to reconsider the nature of serfdom in the late medieval period, and how ordinary people sought to resist an institution many of them clearly found to be intolerable.

[1] J. Whittle and S. H. Rigby, ‘England: Popular Politics and Social Conflict’, in S.H. Rigby (eds.) A Companion to Britain in the Later Middle Ages (Blackwell, 2008), p. 83.
[2] C. Dyer, ‘The Ineffectiveness of Lordship in England, 1200-1400’, Past & Present, Vol. 195, Issue suppl. 2, 2007
[3] P. Hyams, Kings, Lords and Peasants in Medieval England: The Common Law of Villeinage in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries (Clarendon Press, 1980), p. 266.
[4] A. Harding, England in the thirteenth century (Cambridge University Press, 1993)
[5] C. Dyer, Standards of Living in the later Middle Ages: Social change in England c1200-1520 (Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 137.
[6] S. H. Rigby, ‘Agrarian Class Structure and the Forces for Change II’ in English Society in the Later Middle Ages (Macmillan, 1995)
[7] R. H. Hilton, ‘Peasant Movements in England Before 1381’, The Economic History Review, Vol. 2, No. 2, 1949
[8] J. Whittle and S. H. Rigby, ‘England: Popular Politics and Social Conflict’, in S.H. Rigby (eds.) A Companion to Britain in the Later Middle Ages (Blackwell, 2008), p. 76.
[9] M. Müller, ‘The Aims and Organisation of a Peasant Revolt in Early Fourteenth-Century Wiltshire,’ Rural History, Vol. 14, Issue 01, April 2003
[10] S. L. Waugh, England in the reign of Edward III (Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp. 21-22
[11] E. B. Fryde and N. Fryde, The agrarian history of England and Wales: Vol.3: 1348-1500 (Cambridge University Press, 1991)
[12] P. Schofield, Peasants and Community in Medieval England 1200-1500 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002)
[13] C. Dyer, ‘The Ineffectiveness of Lordship in England, 1200-1400’, Past & Present, Vol. 195, Issue suppl. 2, 2007
[14] Z. Razi, ‘Family, Land and the Village Community’ in T. H. Aston (eds.) Landlords, Peasants and Politics in Medieval England (Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 392.
[15] R.H. Hilton, ‘Peasant Movements in England Before 1381’, The Economic History Review, Vol. 2, No. 2, 1949
[16] N. Brooks, ‘The organization and achievements of the peasants of Kent and Essex in 1381’,  in R.I. Moore and H. Mayr-Harting, Studies in medieval history: presented to R.H.C Davis (London, 1985), p. 256.
[17] R. H. Hilton and H. Fagan, The English Rising of 1381 (London, 1950), p.32.
[18] J. Whittle, ‘Peasant Politics and Class Consciousness: The Norfolk Rebellions of 1381 and 1549 Compared’, Past & Present, Vol. 195, Issue suppl. 2, 2007

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Margaret of Anjou - "She-Wolf"?

Stupidly, I've recently gone crazy with buying books - I currently have about 30 which need reading, 6 of which I'm trying to get through from the university library. As a history student, unfortunately, I get so passionate about wanting to discover the past that I feel I have to read constantly, and I've got this notion into my head that I need to know about every period and nation, not just early modern England. Anyway, I thought I'd post on someone who's fascinated me for a long time now, Margaret of Anjou, the subject of one of those said books I've taken out from the library.

Studying A Level Tudor History, with one module on the Wars of the Roses during the period 1450-1485, was incredible to me in allowing me to discover some of the most extraordinary women who lived in that period: Elizabeth Woodville, Margaret Beaufort, and of course, Margaret queen of England herself. Taking for this blog's post the book Margaret of Anjou: Queenship and Power in Late Medieval England by Helen E. Maurer, this post will explore Margaret's controversial but remarkable life as wife of the notoriously inept Henry VI of England. Was she the 'she-wolf' immortalised by Shakespeare's compelling lines? Or was she a powerful political player who genuinely sought to bring a measure of stability to a faction-ridden and corrupt English court?

Maurer makes the very true point when starting her book that the likes of Shakespeare have influenced our understandings of Margaret as 'a vengeful and a violent woman', 'a bitch, an adulterous she-wolf who mocks her captive enemy, Richard, duke of York, before killing him in cold blood'.[1] More to the point, Maurer insists that since Shakespeare, most modern historians have generally agreed with his verdict of Margaret, though recognising the inaccuracies and exaggerations which plague his play. Maurer laments that serious academics have spoken of ‘the queen’s harsh determination’, her ‘unforgiving severity’ towards the Yorkists.[2] One cannot but agree with Maurer when she notes somewhat ironically that this fails to take into consideration Margaret’s incredible leadership and political abilities at an unstable court. But there is a likely reason for such harsh judgments persisting in relation to this late medieval queen: ‘until quite recently all western history was male-centered as a matter of course. The problem that this poses for the inclusion and study of anachronistically prominent women is that they have had to be fitted into male standards and constructs, present as well as past. The result too often has been judgment rather than analysis’.[3]

This, of course, is true in relation to other queens of this period. Retha M. Warnicke critically notes that, writing of Anne Boleyn, ‘in histories that treat men as three-dimensional and complex personalities, the women shine forth in universal stereotypes: the shrew, the whore, the tease, the shy virgin, or the blessed mother’.[4] Similarly, Katherine Howard, who supposedly deviated from notions of the ideal woman in early modern England, was condemned as a whore and traitoress and suffered execution for it.[5] In view of this, Maurer’s insistence that we utilise gender as a central historical category of analysis is compelling: ‘just as the addition of gender helps to make the political story clearer, so the chaotic political history of the Wars of the Roses cast the gender issues into high relief’.[6]
In view of this, this article will attempt to survey the events (diplomatic, political, social, factional) of Margaret’s life through a gendered framework, paying critical attention to the difference her sex made and notions of the female sex. This is essential since ‘in order to move beyond the traditional picture of Margaret’s activities (ie. which eventually condemn her as an adulteress, a shrew and a she-wolf), the very real issue of gender must be engaged’.[7]

Born in March 1430 to René, duke of Anjou and his wife Isabelle daughter and heir of Charles II duke of Lorraine, Margaret was born into a prominent European royal family during this period and thus, in the words of Diana E. S. Dunn, ‘destined her from birth to be a pawn in the complexities of European diplomacy’.[8] European politics governed Margaret’s course of life, which must be considered from both French and an English perspective. In terms of England, Henry VI had acceded to the throne in 1422 aged just nine months following the death of his renowned father Henry V, who had brought prestige and glory to the English crown through his military victories abroad and his claims to the crown of France. This, however, provided a situation of conflict, crisis and factional discontent, a common occurrence when a minor acceded to the crown. Henry, having reached his majority, sought a bride in the early 1440s; an essential element of kingship was the fathering of a male heir who could then succeed his father peacefully following his father’s death. It is not surprising that Henry sought a French princess as his bride – the majority of queens since the Norman Conquest in 1066 had been of the French royal house.[9] Yet this did occur at a time when English dominance in France was slowly fading, since the French had managed to recover some English-held territory while attempts to achieve a settlement between the powers failed.

In terms of Margaret’s perspective, the marriage alliance with England represented a prestigious match for Margaret’s father, while it also brought a fundamental source of influence at the English court to the French monarch Charles VII. Margaret was able to bring important links with parts of the French kingdom, including the duchies of Lorraine and Bar, although her dowry was ‘meagre’.[10] Yet the English desire to effect an alliance with France probably dispelled any annoyance at the prospective queen’s unremarkable dowry.

How Margaret felt about her prospective bridegroom, Henry VI, we cannot tell. She may have held a negative opinion about his father, Henry V, gained from stories of his exploits in France and his undermining of the French kingdom during the early fifteenth century. Nonetheless, the opportunity to become queen of England was a significant and exciting one, and probably the best match she was ever likely to make. In 1445, aged fifteen – this youthful age was not seen as representing particular problems; Isabella of France had wed Richard II aged twelve, while Katherine Howard may have been only around fifteen at marriage – Margaret arrived in England and in May the king presented her with jewels fit for a queen, before marrying Henry at Titchfield Abbey and being crowned on 30 May in Westminster Abbey. [11] Margaret was later described as being ‘a most handsome woman, though somewhat dark and not so beautiful’ as Bianca Maria Visconti, duchess of Milan, although she had very long hair worn loose at her coronation.[12] Margaret was well aware of the duties she was expected to fulfil as queen: namely, produce a male heir in order to ensure the continuation of the Lancastrian dynasty, and to bring political and social stability to a faction-ridden and economically unstable kingdom. It is unsurprising, in view of this, that there was considerable hope and expectation at the royal wedding.

Margaret was granted 10,000 marks per annum as the new queen of England by parliament in March 1446, and estates worth £2000 per annum were settled on her from the duchy of Lancaster.[13] As has been noted in relation to Anne Boleyn, Margaret’s elevated status had meant she became a woman of considerable economic power as a landowner and a source of patronage in the English court.[14] Margaret’s marriage was initially successful, and she was a strong queen consort. However, her inability in the early years of her marriage to Henry VI to produce a son must have caused considerable concern at the court. Whether or not this was Margaret’s fault is impossible to discern. Viewing her life through a gendered framework, it is plausible to argue that, by virtue of their sex, failures in pregnancy were attributed to queens, as seen in the case of Henry VIII’s queens. Despite this, she was a strong figure, ‘a determined and effective distributor of patronage, and a woman concerned for the welfare of her household servants’.[15] Evidence of her patronage exists in her founding Queen’s College, Cambridge in 1448, shortly after her husband’s foundation of King’s College. Her excellent upbringing as a princess of the royal house of France undoubtedly benefited her, allowing her to act in her role with dignity, compassion and political sense. Yet unsettling events in her adopted country were soon to threaten Margaret’s stability as queen.

In April 1453, famously, Henry VI collapsed with a very serious physical and mental illness, commonly believed by historians to have been schizophrenia. This was highly unfortunate, for Margaret had fallen pregnant that year, and when in March 1454 her son Edward was born, the king was unable to recognise him. In view of both her son’s birth and her husband’s mental collapse, Margaret ‘was forced into the centre of the political arena, as control of her husband and son became the focus of competing groups among the nobility’.[16] We therefore must reconsider our interpretation of Margaret’s character and behaviour in view of these events. The argument that she was a cold and ruthless ‘she-wolf’ who ambitiously sought power and political advantage for both herself and her ‘party’ at court is nonsensical in view of the events which occurred in 1453-4. By stepping into the centre of power, Margaret was acting logically and common sensically, determined to preserve her lineage and ensure the position of her husband the king was not undermined further. We should recognise these actions as courageous and representative of a strong woman acting on her own in a ruthless court which viewed ruling women in a hostile manner. Of course, contemporary gender beliefs among courtiers did not lead to this view, and beginning with these events, Margaret became increasingly unpopular. Her bid for the regency failed, and Richard duke of York, later her enemy, filled that position instead.

Margaret probably viewed York as a very serious threat to her son’s position, for royal blood flowed in the veins of York and his family. Yet it is unlikely that there had been long-standing hostility and hatred between the two, as Dunn makes clear. Of course, factional discontent intensified following York’s appointment, culminating in the first Battle of St Albans in 1455 whereby Margaret’s ally, the duke of Somerset, was murdered, and York’s party emerged triumphant. However, York was forced to resign the protectorate in 1456, allowing Margaret to regain a sense of political authority within the English court. She and Edward departed from London to take up residence in Kenilworth, before being joined in August by the king, who later recovered miraculously from his illness. Margaret played a strong and active role in her son’s household, controlling appointments to his council and ensuring that her supporters within the Lancastrian monarchy filled vital roles. A reconciliation between the Yorkists and Lancastrians was sought by King Henry in 1458, known as the ‘Loveday’, where the queen was to walk with her enemy York hand-in-hand in a procession in the streets of London. However, it was nothing but a sham, and factional discontent had worsened by spring 1459.

Further battles, in what became known as the Wars of the Roses, occurred shortly afterwards, which Margaret was to play a prominent role in – allegedly, she watched the battle of Bloreheath from Mucklestone church tower, a story which Dunn dismisses as false.[17] Nonetheless, it does indicate that Margaret had taken over the reins of the Lancastrian government in this period of time following her husband’s intermittent illnesses and his ever-present political weaknesses and ineptitude. Following Henry’s capture at Northampton in 1460, Margaret and her son fled to Scotland, and following the Yorkists’ victory at Towton in 1461, which culminated in the accession of Edward IV, the Lancastrian royal family again fled to Scotland for safety.

The next 10 years saw Margaret attempting to regain the crown, which she saw as rightfully hers. Contemporaries, who resented powerful women in prominent government positions, characterised her as scheming and ruthless, but a more nuanced position allows us to view her efforts as commendable, in a way similar to those of Katherine of Aragon’s some seventy years later although in an entirely different context: she believed that she and her husband were the rightful king and queen of England, and she was determined to preserve her family’s inheritance. While prominent nobles, such as Somerset, Exeter and Pembroke remained loyal to the Lancastrians, a lack of money and committed political backing severely hampered Margaret’s efforts to regain the crown.

In 1462, Margaret and her son departed for France, perhaps hoping for more effective aid there. A meeting with the French king Louis XI was fairly successful: Margaret promised to renounce Calais to the French in return for a loan of 20,000 francs. A mutual friendship was later signed. Yet the period 1463-1468 was a dismal failure for Margaret, as Louis renounced his promises and the weakening of the Lancastrian cause. However, the growing disaffection of Margaret’s enemy York’s son Warwick, known as ‘the Kingmaker’, with the English king meant a new development in Margaret’s condition. Although Margaret initially refused to listen to Warwick when he journeyed to France, she was later encouraged to listen to his promises, agreeing to the marriage of her son Edward to Warwick’s daughter Anne Neville. Later sailing to England, Margaret’s cause fell irrevocably apart in 1471 following the brief return of her husband to the kingship. Margaret was informed of her son’s death in battle, something which must have meant her world fell apart. She was later brought in a carriage as a prisoner through the streets of London, followed by King Edward in his triumphant procession through London. Henry VI, her husband, was probably murdered that night in May 1471 in the Tower. The fact that both her husband and heir had died completely changed Margaret’s position, and the grief and shock she must have experienced is unimaginable.

Not much is known about Margaret’s final decade, but she died in August 1482, a tragic and obscure ending to an initially glittering career and eventual failure. She was buried in Angers Cathedral, neglected by her family, forced to renounce her claims to the Angevin inheritance by King Louis. Yet, as Dunn concludes, ‘of all medieval queens consort, Margaret has received some of the harshest criticism from both contemporary commentators and later historians’, which Maurer of course exemplifies through criticising conceptions of Margaret as a ‘bitch’ and ‘she-wolf’.[18] Dunn’s conclusion is compelling: ‘... she was subsequently forced, by political circumstance and the weakness of her husband, to take on a much more active role in politics in order to protect both her own position and that of her son’.[19] Yet, to most people, like Isabella queen of Edward II and Anne Boleyn, Margaret remains a ‘she-wolf’, an unnaturally ruthless and powerful queen consort who meddled in politics enthusiastically, a place not fit for a medieval woman. Surely we should alter our views of her and recognise her for what she was: a strong, intelligent, pragmatic woman who sought to preserve her family’s inheritance and retain stability within the English monarchy. Her husband’s madness and the factional discontent and corruption pervading the court can hardly be blamed on her. It is time to reappraise our views of this mysterious, but notorious, queen of England.

[1] H. E. Maurer, Margaret of Anjou: Queenship and Power in Late Medieval England (The Boydell Press, 2003), p. 1.
[2] R. A. Griffiths, The Reign of Henry VI (Berkeley, 1981), quoted in Maurer, Margaret of Anjou, p. 2.
[3] Maurer, Margaret of Anjou, p. 3.
[4] R. M. Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn: Family politics at the court of Henry VIII (Cambridge, 1989), p. 57.
[5] C. Byrne, ‘Katherine Howard and the Importance of Gender History’, The Historian 2 (March 2013), 58-62; also available on
[6] Maurer, Margaret of Anjou, pp. 4-5.
[7] Ibid., p. 4. See also my article on Katherine Howard for similar points.
[8] Diana E. S. Dunn, ‘Margaret [Margaret of Anjou] (1430-1482), queen of England, consort of Henry VI’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004).
[9] Maurer, Margaret of Anjou, p. 17.
[10] Dunn, ‘Margaret, queen of England’. 
[11] Dunn, ‘Margaret queen of England’.
[12] CSP, Milan, p. 19, quoted in Maurer, Margaret of Anjou, p. 23.
[13] Dunn, ‘Margaret queen of England’.
[14] Warnicke, Anne Boleyn.
[15] Dunn, ‘Margaret queen of England’.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid, Maurer.
[19] Ibid.