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 RenĂ©, 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. 


  1. hi - very interesting piece - I think Margaret is one of the most fascinating character of the WotR period - the number of times she bounced back from being effectively shipwrecked, robbed, left with the clothes she was standing up etc (albeit that I realise that many of the stories of derring do were recounted by her) illustrates (my comment notwithstanding)a remarkably determined and strong woman (I am also a Lancastrian essentially so of course will tend to sympathise with her and her long suffering if inept husband). Its interesting to contrast history's treatment of her with a Queen of 100 years later in Elizabeth 1 - both in many ways I think very similar human beings, albeit that Elizabeth's success vs Margaret's 'failure' means that historians and memory is far kinder to the latter

  2. This is just what I was looking for! I'm writing my personal statement at the moment and I'm really interested in mentioning the varying opinions that historians have of Margaret of Anjou. I'm reading Alison Weir's 'Lancaster and York: The Wars of the Roses' currently (I would certainly recommend it, if you haven't already read it); I feel that Weir's view of Margaret of Anjou may bear some resemblance to Shakespeare's portrayal of M. as a 'she wolf', in contrast to the idea of Margaret as a woman who wished to bring order to England. Also, do you have the option to take modules on the Wars of the Roses at Exeter? I'm going to the open day in a couple of weeks and I'm definitely interested in applying to Exeter.
    I thoroughly enjoyed this article :)

  3. Nicole, thank you for your kind comment. Margaret is such a controversial figure - like any powerful and authoritative woman existing at the time, she aroused hostility and admiration. I haven't read that book but I'd recommend either Sarah Gristwood's "Blood Sisters" or Helen Maurer's scholarly biography of Margaret, if you're more interested in reading more about her. Did you watch "The White Queen" - it portrayed Margaret quite negatively too. Unfortunately at the minute there is no module concerning the Wars of the Roses at Exeter; but you can probably study it for your dissertation. I love medieval history but sadly Exeter specialises more in modern history... where else are you looking, as I'd recommend York if you like this sort of thing. Thanks again!

  4. You should definitely read it. I've got Sarah Gristwood's 'Blood Sisters' - I'm writing my EPQ next year on the role of women in the outbreak and outcomes of the Wars of the Roses. I only watched some of it, I kept forgetting it was on, so missed most episodes.
    Is Exeter likely to suit me if I'm mostly interested in focusing on medieval/early modern? I really liked York and I'm also looking at Bristol, Southampton, Durham and Manchester. What grades did you need for Exeter?

  5. Good luck! Yes there are quite a few modules on the Tudors, Elizabeth I, Medieval Paris etc. Well the standard offer is A*AA, same as it is for Durham. I know that Durham are also quite strict regarding GCSE grades, but Exeter are more liberal.