Margaret of Anjou: the 'she-wolf' queen who wouldn’t go quietly
Margaret of Anjou was a foreigner and a woman: two facts that should have sunk her bid to regain the English throne for her husband, Henry VI, in the Wars of the Roses. Yet, writes Joanna Arman, when it came to fighting her family’s corner, the 'she-wolf' of Shakespeare simply didn’t know when she was beaten
Margaret of Anjou crossed swords with some of 15th-century England’s most formidable warriors. But it was a playwright born eight decades after her death who inflicted the most damage on the queen’s reputation. When William Shakespeare had Richard, Duke of York describe Margaret as the “She-wolf of France, but worse than wolves of France,” in Henry VI Part III, he helped secure the queen a place in historical infamy.
For 500 years, Margaret – wife of Henry VI, and towering figure in the Wars of the Roses – has been labelled an unfaithful wife, a foreign enemy within, a Machiavellian schemer and a bloodthirsty monster who delighted in exacting terrible vengeance on her enemies. Even in modern times, some say Margaret was the inspiration for Game of Thrones’ notoriously manipulative monarch Cersei Lannister.
The truth is, inevitably, far more nuanced – and compelling – than the stereotype. Margaret was neither the unscrupulous ogre of Shakespeare’s portrayal, nor the innocent bystander that some historians have presented in recent years.
She was a woman who fought with no little skill and tenacity on behalf of her husband, her son Edward of Westminster – and, of course, herself – in the maelstrom of one of England’s most protracted and vicious civil wars. She suffered setbacks and endured abuse (much of it a result of her gender) that would have broken many of her contemporaries.
And yet she so nearly realised her aim of securing her son the English throne. That in itself makes her one of the most fascinating figures of the 15th century.
Margaret of Anjou’s route to power
Margaret was born in 1430, probably in Lorraine in modern-day France. Her parents were Isabella, Duchess of Lorraine and René of Anjou, brother-in-law of King Charles VII of France. With René a prisoner of war for much of Margaret’s childhood, and Isabella called away to the Italian peninsula to oversee her husband’s lands, Margaret lived with her grandmother Yolande of Aragon until she was 12.
War had cast a long shadow over Margaret’s early years, but it was an attempt to negotiate peace that would turn her life on its head. In 1445, at the age of just 15, she was married to Henry VI, king of England, as part of negotiations to bring to an end decades of conflict between England and France.
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Her future now lay in a foreign and unfamiliar land. Margaret’s time as queen of England can be divided into two phases: the first being from 1445–53, when she largely stayed out of the great affairs of state.
First phase of her time as queen
Little of her correspondence survives from that first period, and most relates only to her hobbies or the administration of her lands. One of her early letters shows her intervening on behalf of one of her tenants, who faced prosecution for cutting down trees; another shows her involvement in a marriage case.
Then, in 1453, everything changed. And the catalyst was the birth of a son, Edward of Westminster.
Second phase: rise of a political powerhouse
This marked the start of the second period of her tenure (1453–61) in which she became a major player in the political chaos and internecine conflict that increasingly consumed the kingdom. By giving her husband a long-awaited heir, Margaret had bolstered her status; she had solidified her role as queen.
She now clearly felt emboldened to actively protect and advance her family’s interests. This new-found confidence would change the course of Margaret’s life.
Shortly before she gave birth, Henry had been laid low by illness – a form of mental instability that prevented him from fulfilling his duties as king. In early 1454, with parliament having been summoned to decide who would run the country in this time of crisis, Margaret did something unprecedented: she tried to claim the regency for herself.
“Desires the whole rule of this land”
The Paston letters (written by a Norfolk gentry family from 1422–1509) present us with a reasonably reliable contemporary account of what took place. Margaret presented a bill with five articles, “the first of which is that she desires the whole rule of this land; the second is that she may appoint the chancellor, treasurer… and all other officers of this land”.
Margaret’s bid to rule in her husband’s stead drew a storm of opprobrium from her contemporaries, and has been heavily criticised by historians since.
Margaret did something unprecedented: she tried to claim the regency for herself
One of the chief charges levelled at her was that her gambit was nothing more than a naked power grab. Yet her intent was, it’s likely, not to take over the government for her own selfish ends, but to protect her son’s interests while her husband was ill, and to try to create a unified government to rise above the factionalism plaguing Henry’s regime.
Margaret genuinely believed that, as queen and now mother to the heir, she was the right person to perform this role. This takes us to the second main source of the criticism: Margaret’s gender.
Plight of the medieval queen
In France and other parts of Europe, there was a long-established precedent for female regents. These included Margaret’s own mother, Isabella of Lorraine, upon whom Duke René “bestowed full executive and military authority”, and Joan of Navarre, who had been regent for her young son, John V, Duke of Brittany.
Unfortunately, no such precedent existed in England. Here, there was an ancient animosity to female rule going back to the 12th century and Empress Matilda’s attempt to wrest the throne from Stephen in the so-called Anarchy. And so both parliament and Margaret’s political rivals were appalled by the prospect of a woman operating the levers of power.
It is surely no coincidence that it is from 1453 that many of the scurrilous rumours about Margaret having extramarital affairs, or being utterly obsessed with power, began to emerge. She had transgressed the social expectations of her society – and that was unforgivable.
A ballad, written a number of years after the event, demonstrates how some people tried to frame Margaret’s actions in 1454: “It is a right great perversion a woman of a land to be a regent / Queen Margaret, I mean, that ever has meant / To govern all England with might and power / And to destroy the right line was her intent… ”
Margaret and the Wars of the Roses
Margaret’s bid to rule as regent – and her opponents’ reaction to it – would have enormous consequences. This deteriorating relationship helped plunge England into the Wars of the Roses, which would see the houses of York (initially headed by Richard, Duke of York) and Lancaster (with Margaret to the fore) engaged in a brutal, three-decades-long struggle for the throne.
Margaret and Richard, Duke of York first clashed during Henry VI’s initial bout of illness, when York attempted to have a key ally of Margaret’s executed, as well as using his power to deny her funds. This caused Margaret to see him as a threat to her position, and that of her son.
Her fears were confirmed in 1455, when escalating tensions exploded into armed conflict. In May that year, the houses of Lancaster and York came to blows at St Albans, the opening battle of the Wars of the Roses.
For the following six years, the forces of York and Lancaster were engaged in a struggle for supremacy in which Margaret’s fortunes ebbed and flowed wildly. A low point arrived in July 1460 when her husband was captured and taken into captivity following defeat at the battle of Northampton.
Margaret of Anjou’s changing fortunes
In December that same year, the Lancastrians gained some degree of revenge with victory at the battle of Wakefield, a clash that would result in the death of Margaret’s nemesis, Richard, Duke of York.
A myth quickly developed that the queen was at the battle, where she tormented the defeated duke, thus giving birth to the violent, vindictive and unnatural tyrant of Shakespeare’s imagination. However, in more recent years historians have established (with the help of her correspondence) that, as the battle raged at Wakefield, Margaret was in Scotland, attempting to raise troops.
Margaret did indeed get her army and was able to wrest her husband out of enemy hands in early 1461. But, as she attempted to enter London, her fortunes plunged again. With rumours swirling that she was plotting to murder Henry and marry her alleged lover, the Duke of Somerset, the people of London baulked at the idea of allowing the “evil” queen and her army of “barbaric” Scots within the city walls.
Lancastrians defeated, and a new leader emerges
In March 1461, as Margaret was embroiled in negotiations with the people of London, Richard, Duke of York’s son seized the initiative and had himself crowned Edward IV. Edward sealed his triumph by defeating the Lancastrians at the battle of Towton, possibly the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil.
The people of London baulked at the idea of allowing the 'evil' queen and her army of 'barbaric' Scots within the city walls
The royal family was driven into exile and Henry formally deposed. After this point, Margaret became the true leader of the Lancastrian cause, not least because so many devoted Lancastrian nobles had been killed in the previous years.
She spent the next two years on the run with Edward of Westminster, in Wales, Scotland and France. But her dreams of securing her son’s rightful inheritance, the English crown, weren’t entirely dashed yet.
In October 1462, with the backing of the new French king, Louis XI, Margaret landed back in England at the head of an army of 800 soldiers. They made landfall in Northumberland, and secured Bamburgh and Alnwick castles. Yet they were soon driven out of their new gains and, in August 1463, Margaret and Edward were forced to sail back to France.
Victory over her Yorkist enemies must now have seemed as distant as ever. But in the summer of 1470, after seven more years in France entertaining exiled Lancastrian lords, Margaret’s fortunes changed again. She would have one final shot at victory.
Timeline: the life of the 'She-wolf of France'
23/24 March 1430
Margaret of Anjou is born to Isabella, Duchess of Lorraine and René of Anjou, brother-in-law of King Charles VII of France.
22 April 1445
Margaret weds Henry VI, king of England, as part of a peace treaty between England and France.
13 October 1453
Margaret gives birth to Edward of Westminster. The following year, Edward is invested as Prince of Wales.
With Henry VI incapacitated by mental instability, Margaret bids, unsuccessfully, to rule England as regent.
22 May 1455
Some of Margaret’s key allies are killed at the battle of St Albans, the opening clash of the Wars of the Roses. Later that year, her enemy Richard, Duke of York, is appointed protector of the realm.
29 March 1461
Edward IV wins a crushing victory at Towton. Henry VI is now formally deposed and Margaret and her son driven into exile.
Margaret lands in Northumberland with the aim of seizing the throne from Edward IV. She is soon forced to sail back to exile in France.
3 October 1470
An invasion headed by Margaret’s ally, Warwick the Kingmaker, forces Edward IV into exile.
4 May 1471
Seventeen-year-old Edward of Westminster is killed by Edward IV’s forces at the battle of Tewkesbury. Henry VI dies soon after.
25 August 1482
Having lived the final years of her life in exile, Margaret of Anjou dies in her father’s lands in France.
Margaret and the Kingmaker
That change of fortune would come from an unlikely source: Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, also known as Warwick the Kingmaker. Warwick had previously been a close political ally of Edward IV but the two had fallen out, and now he had arrived in France with a plan to restore Henry VI to the throne.
One of Warwick’s conditions was that his 14-year-old daughter, Anne Neville, be married to the young Edward of Westminster, by then aged 16. Following a complex round of negotiations, Margaret agreed to throw her weight behind Warwick’s plan.
But she and her son wouldn’t be allowed to depart for England just yet. Louis XI would not give them permission to sail until Warwick upheld his side of their deal: to attack the French king’s Burgundian enemies after he’d put Henry VI back on the English throne. Warwick fulfilled his part of the bargain, forcing Edward IV into exile in the autumn of 1470.
Her moment had come and gone
Bad weather then delayed Margaret’s crossing even longer. Everything was working against her: perhaps she should have taken it as a sign. For, by the time she did finally land at Weymouth on 14 April 1471, with an army consisting largely of French mercenaries and Lancastrian lords, her moment to strike had come and gone.
While Margaret and her son had languished in France, Edward IV had returned from exile at the head of an army, hellbent on regaining the throne from Henry VI. By a cruel twist of fate, on the very day that Margaret landed at Weymouth, Edward IV defeated and killed the Earl of Warwick at the battle of Barnet and returned victorious to London.
Battle of Tewkesbury: fall of the Lancastrians
When Margaret heard the news, her first instinct was to flee back to France with her son. The Duke of Somerset and others, though, persuaded her to stay and meet up with the forces of Jasper Tudor (Henry’s half-brother) in Wales.
Together their combined army could still beat Edward. It wasn’t to be. Edward intercepted the Lancastrian army at the battle of Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire on 4 May. Although the battle was initially hard-fought, the Yorkists emerged victorious, decimating their enemies and killing Edward of Westminster.
When Margaret heard the news of the defeat at Barnet, her first instinct was to flee back to France with her son. The Duke of Somerset and others, though, persuaded her to stay
There is some doubt over precisely what happened to him: most say he was killed in the battle or just afterwards, but one or two contemporary sources suggest that Margaret’s beloved son was brought before Edward IV alive after the battle and murdered.
Regardless of what actually happened, Edward IV would never have let his Lancastrian rival live. Margaret was taken from Tewkesbury back to London, reportedly conveyed in a cart, staring blankly ahead. She was, finally, a broken woman. Although she was taken to the Tower of London, she and Henry were kept apart and he died in suspicious circumstances two weeks after the battle.
As for Margaret, she was eventually sold back to France in 1475 as part of a treaty, spending the last seven years of her life living in relative poverty on her father’s lands in France until her death in August 1482.
Margaret of Anjou’s legacy: what if...
In the five centuries since her demise, Margaret of Anjou’s reputation has taken a battering. Yet look beyond the stereotypes at the hard evidence and there can be little doubt that she was a formidable, accomplished leader who didn’t know when she was beaten.
In fact, if Margaret had been able to act of her own volition and raise troops without Louis’ conditions, that last throw of the dice at the end of 1470 may well have ended in triumph. If that had happened, we might view her very differently: as a heroic warrior-queen who emerged victorious against the odds.
This article was first published in the June 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine
Joanna Arman is a historian specialising in women’s history
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