Monday, 23 March 2015

23 March 1430: The Birth of Margaret of Anjou, Queen of England

Above: Queen Margaret of Anjou. 

On this day in history, 23 March 1430, Margaret of Anjou was born at Pont-a-Mousson in Lorraine to Rene of Anjou and his wife Isabella, duchess of Lorraine. Rene was titular king of Naples, Jerusalem, and Aragon, and duke of Anjou, Bar, Lorraine, count of Provence and count of Piedmont. Despite his claims to many kingdoms, Rene was unfavourably known as 'a man of many crowns but no kingdoms'. Margaret was the couple's fourth child and second daughter, and spent her childhood at the beautiful castle of Tarascon in southern France and in the old royal palace at Capua, near Naples. Contemporary observers described her in her youth as beautiful, dignified and graceful. 

In April 1445, at the age of fifteen, Margaret married Henry VI of England and became England's queen. The marriage sought to achieve peace between the warring kingdoms of England and France, with the hope being to bring to a conclusion the brutal conflict known as the Hundred Years War. Although Margaret symbolised hopes of peace and prosperity, the marriage was not popular in England, for the bride brought no dowry, while the cessation of Anjou and Maine to Margaret's father and the king of France caused outrage and dismay. Margaret has traditionally been interpreted by historians as a cunning and avaricious meddler in politics, responsible for urging her husband to cede the kingdoms to the French, but Helen Maurer's careful research has called into question this view. Given that Margaret was only in her teenage years, in a strange land, when Anjou and Maine were ceded, it does seem unlikely that she was responsible for what took place.

Margaret's position would have been secured early on had she given birth to a son with which to secure the succession, but this was only accomplished eight years after her marriage, when her son Edward was born in October 1453. His birth could not have occurred at a worse time: several months earlier, Henry VI suffered a complete breakdown and was thought to have gone insane. He may have been suffering from a form of schizophrenia. Margaret's position became uncertain as the government fell into crisis. She did not become regent and, contrary to popular belief, did not espouse an aggressive stance towards the duke of York, who became Protector at this time. Indeed, she appears to have been content to cooperate with him and was on good terms with his wife, Cecily Neville.

King Henry VI from NPG (2).jpg
Above: Henry VI.

Margaret has tended to be characterised negatively as a vengeful, aggressive, merciless and cruel woman who was responsible for the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses by virtue of her partisan favour of the earl of Suffolk and the Duke of Somerset. She is often interpreted as the leader of a court party that was corrupt, decadent and wasteful, causing damage to the kingdom and tensions in society at large. This unfair portrayal of the queen has been encouraged by Shakespeare's portrayal of her as a she-wolf. The real Margaret of Anjou was almost certainly not the evil villain of legend. She was a pragmatic, intelligent and courageous woman who fought ardently to protect her son's inheritance and to safeguard her husband's position as king. It was hardly her fault that she was married to a weak and inept king unable to control factional discontent or rule with a steady hand. Margaret's attempt to provide strong governance caused anger and dismay, given that her role in English politics threatened to unsettle the established gender order. However, with the benefit of hindsight, we can appreciate the impossible situation Margaret found herself in, and admire her brave attempts to restore her deposed husband to the throne. She was not a she-wolf, but neither was she a saint. Rather, she is someone to be admired, respected and appreciated for her courage, pragmatism and devotion to her husband and son.

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