Women of the White Queen: Marguerite of Anjou

From the beginning Marguerite of Anjou was a controversial queen. Few queens of England have so divided opinion; few have suffered more from the propaganda spread by their enemies.  Historians over the years have portrayed her as vengeful and ambitious.  In Shakespeare’s trilogy, she is the she-wolf of France, vilifying her as an adulteress and warmonger.  In Richard III, she is depicted as a one-woman Greek chorus.  Marguerite’s marriage was supposed to bring peace with France, but instead England dissolved into civil war during her husband’s reign, due to his mental illness and general unfitness to rule.  She acted with the best of all possible motives, to support first her husband, and then her son. Marguerite has borne the brunt of the responsibility for what went wrong during Henry’s reign. Like Matilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine and Isabella, she is seen as an unnatural woman for meddling in affairs of state.

Marguerite was born on March 23, 1430, the daughter of Rene of Anjou and Isabella, Duchess of Lorraine. Her father was called ‘the man of many crowns but no kingdoms,’ because he claimed the thrones of Naples, Sicily, Hungary and Jerusalem but he never ruled over said kingdoms despite his best efforts.  For all of his fancy titles, he had authority over only Anjou and Lorraine. We know very little of what her childhood was like apart from the fact that she was raised by strong women.  Her mother, Isabella, ruled as regent while Rene was abroad attempting to regain his lands in Naples.  Later, Isabella led an army to rescue her husband from the Duke of Burgundy who held him captive for several years. Her grandmother Yolande of Aragon was another formidable woman.  She practically raised the French king Charles VII, who became her son-in-law, and she financed Joan of Arc’s army in 1429.  

By the time Marguerite was born, the tide was turning in France.  Joan of Arc inspired and energized the French to not only to fight to regain the territories it had lost to England during the reign of Henry V but also to anoint the rightful king, Charles VII.  While Henry VI had been crowned King of England and France, he was not the dynamic, charismatic warrior his father had been.  At the beginning of 1444, England sought a truce with France to be cemented by a French bride for the young King of England.   Charles VII offered not one of his daughters but the hand of his niece Marguerite as a bride.  King Henry was not only willing to take his bride with no dowry but offered up Maine and Anjou to France, a move that proved to be unpopular with the English who had long occupied the territories.

At the age of 14, Marguerite was married to Henry by proxy but it took another year before she journeyed to England to meet her husband.  She set out for England, accompanied part of the way by her father, her uncle Charles VII and an escort of 1500 people. Marguerite finally arrived in England on April 9, 1445, but it was an inauspicious arrival.  Her ship had been buffeted by storms so severe that it lost both masts. The poor thing had suffered from such severe seasickness on the crossing that the Earl of Suffolk to carry her ashore to a small cottage where she fainted. From there she was taken to a nearby convent to recover.  Her first impressions of England were sickrooms. But before she could meet her husband, she needed to get rid of her shabby clothes. 

The Earl of Suffolk sent for a London dressmaker to make her a whole new fashionable wardrobe. There is a charming story that when King Henry finally arrived, he disguised himself as a squire, and delivered a letter to his new bride.  This gave him the opportunity to observe her as she read.  Having never seen him before, Marguerite had no idea that the King had played Western Union.  When Marguerite found out, she was no doubt embarrassed at having kept the king waiting on his knees.  They were married again a week later at Titchfield Abbey.  Marguerite at this time was described as beautiful, passionate, proud and strong-willed.

Marguerite’s groom was 23 years old at the time of their marriage. Henry had been King since the age of 9 months but he lacked the temperament of a King.  He was monkish and scholarly as well as easily swayed.  He was more concerned with his pet projects, the founding of King’s College at Cambridge and Eton College (Marguerite herself founded Queen’s College at Cambridge). By all accounts, Margaret and her husband were devoted to each other and she became very protective of him.  He was a gentle and compassionate man, eager to please, and to put his new bride at ease.  Her kinsman, the Duke of Orleans wrote that she seemed as if “formed by Heaven to supply her royal husband the qualities which he required in order to become a great King.” She had little time to adjust to her new position before the question of England ceding Anjou and Maine reared its ugly head. The queen was blamed although Henry had been the one to agree to the decision before the marriage. Yes, Marguerite did badger Henry about the situation but she was under pressure from her family.  She wasn’t the first nor would she be the last Queen to be torn between her loyalties to her new country and her old. Her reputation and popularity soon began to suffer.

Although several Queens of England had been French, many of the English nobility were now Francophobes after the long years of war with France.   Marguerite was soon accused of flirting and spending too much time with William de la Pole, later Duke of Suffolk who was almost thirty years older than she was.  Margaret had become friends with de la Pole and his wife when they escorted her to England. When the rumors were brought to her attention, she dismissed them.  Marguerite was loyal to her friends almost to a fault. When the Duke was killed in 1450, Marguerite refused to eat for three days which added fuel to the rumors about them.  Both the King and Marguerite put their faith in not just the Duke of Suffolk but also Edmund Beaufort, the Duke of Somerset.  Beaufort and the King were both descended from John of Gaunt, although Beaufort was descended from Gaunt and his mistress, later wife, Katherine Swynford.  Her preference for the Beaufort/Suffolk faction also made her unpopular. Unlike in France where it was common for the King to favor one faction over another, royals in Britain were supposed to be above politics. The Duke of Somerset was sent to France as England’s military commander where he proved ineffectual.  Soon all of the English territories in France apart from Calais were lost.  Again Marguerite was blamed, not only for her support of Somerset but also the news that her father had been part of the French army that conquered Rouen.

Marguerite was also seen to have failed in her most important duty, bearing an heir to throne.  In Marguerite’s case, the fault didn’t lie solely with her.  She was saddled with a husband who was not only pious but prudish as well.  It was 8 long years before Marguerite had her first and only child, a boy named Edward since he was born on the feast day of St. Edward the Confessor.  Rumors soon flew that Henry was not the father of her child, but Edmund Beaufort, the Duke of Somerset.  Personally, I don’t believe that Marguerite would have risked having a physical affair until she had given birth to an heir to the throne.  No one will ever know the truth, but there could have been a number of factors for why it took so long for Marguerite to conceive, the biggest reason being that her husband was not exactly an earthy dude.

Unfortunately, at the time that the baby was born, Henry VI had gone into a catatonic state.  Again, no one knows precisely what was wrong with the King.  Some historians speculate that he might have had a stroke, others that he inherited the mental illness of his grandfather Charles VI.  The birth of Marguerite's son was the catalyst for her to become more involved with affairs of the realm.  She had not only her husband’s interests to protect but those of her son as well.  The first thing she did was try to become regent during her husband’s illness, but the idea was rejected.  Not even Catherine of Valois had been included in matters of state as it pertained to ruling England during her son’s minority. The English expected their Queens to be more passive. They still had memories of another French princess, Isabella, wife of Edward II, who had deposed her husband and ruled with her lover.  Instead the Duke of York was chosen as Protector of the Realm. He immediately had the Duke of Somerset set to the Tower for criminal mismanagement of affairs in France.

Henry didn’t snap out of his catatonic state until his son Edward was almost two years old.  When Henry returned to his senses at the end of 1454, he relieved York of the Protectorate and released the Duke of Somerset from the Tower.  A Great Council was called at Leicester from which the Yorkists were excluded. York began raising troops, and in May of 1455 he attacked Henry on his way to Leicester at St. Albans.  It was the first battle in what we now call the War of the Roses.  The Duke of Somerset was skilled and the King was now York’s prisoner.  Marguerite had had no quarrel with York until he took up arms against her husband.  Now he was her enemy.  She began to suspect that the Duke of York had designs on becoming King, and she made it her mission to protect the throne, not only for her husband but also for her son.  However, the more that Henry was seen to be marginalized by her, the weaker his position became. 

York’s nephew, the Earl of Warwick, accused Marguerite of trying to poison him. Warwick fled to Calais where he began raising troops whilst his father, the Earl of Salisbury, began raising an army in the North and York in Wales. Alarmed, Marguerite began to raise troops in her son’s name.  By 1459, Marguerite was acknowledged as the leader of the House of Lancaster. By October, she had a sizeable army, outnumbering York’s.  York fled to Ireland and Warwick and Salisbury to Calais. Marguerite was jubilant, confident that her cause would succeed. However in 1460, York and Salisbury defeated the Lancastrians and Northampton.  Hearing of their defeat, Marguerite and her son fled to Harlech Castle. In October 1460, York formally claimed the crown, stating that he had more of a right then Henry. He was descended from Edward III’s fourth son through his father but through his mother, Anne Mortimer, he was descended from the second son as well.

Parliament however was not too keen on replacing Henry with York so a compromise was made.  Henry could still rule but York and then his sons would succeed after his death effectively disinheriting Marguerite’s son. Marguerite was fit to be tied at this news.  She immediately began raising another army.  In December, the two armies met at the battle of Wakefield.  York was defeated, killed on the field along with his son Edmund.  Marguerite had York and Salisbury’s heads set on poles on over the gates of York as a message. York’s was wearing a paper crown. The Lancastrians won the 2nd battle of St. Albans.  However the war hadn’t been won.  York’s son, Edward, Earl of March now took up the mantle.

Marguerite now marched to London.  Along the way, her army who had yet to be paid pillaged the villages along the way. Marguerite did nothing to stop them which damaged her cause in the South.  News spread of a blood-thirsty army raping and pillaging its way towards London.  A delegation led by the Dowager Duchess of Bedford, the Duchess of Buckingham, and Lady Scales asked her to spare the city. Marguerite said yes, taking her army back up north.  It was a decision that she would live to regret. A few days later, Edward, the new Duke of York after his father’s death, marched into London where he was proclaimed King. There was still one more battle to be fought, this time at Towton on March 29, 1461 where Marguerite was decisively defeated.

Marguerite fled with her son first to Wales and then to Scotland where she convinced the regent Mary of Guelders to back to her cause.  It meant giving up Berwick to the Scots but there was no price too small to pay to regain the throne.  Bringing a foreign army into England wasn’t going to win her any fans, but Margaret was determined to restore her husband, and her son’s rights to the throne.  She was able to mount small scale raids but nothing substantial.  By 1465, Marguerite was living in poverty at the castle of Keur in Alsace.  She had endured being robbed not once but twice during the war, now she was forced to go hat in hand begging for help from the crowns of Europe.  In exchange for France’s help, Marguerite promised Louis (nicknamed the Spider King and one of the inspirations for Machiavelli’s The Prince), Calais, if he came to her aid. But it was the rift between the Earl of Warwick, and King Edward IV that turned the Wheel of Fortune briefly back in Marguerite’s favor.   The Earl of Warwick and the Duke of Clarence fled to France after being denied access to Calais. King Louis XI brokered reconciliation between the Earl and Marguerite.  It was a bitter pill to swallow for Marguerite, this man who had been her enemy, was now her ally, her only if she wanted to regain the throne for her son. Still very much a Queen even in exile, Marguerite made Warwick kneel for fifteen minutes in front of her, before she accepted his help.  As part of the reconciliation, Marguerite’s son, Edward, the Princes of Wales married Warwick’s daughter Anne. Warwick was initially successful restoring Henry to the throne. 

Edward was forced to flee to the Netherlands, where he hoped for help from his brother-in-law, the Duke of Burgundy.  Things might have turned out differently if the King of France hadn’t pressured the Earl of Warwick to wage war against France’s enemy the Duke of Burgundy, in exchange for Marguerite of Anjou and her forces being allowed to journey to England.  In retaliation, Burgundy decided to supply his brother-in-law Edward IV with ships, men, and money.  Once Edward arrived in England, Warwick delayed in confronting Edward and his army.  This gave Edward time to woo his brother, George, back over to his side. Marguerite, meanwhile, had been delayed by storms from leaving France.  By the time Marguerite landed in England, Warwick was dead, killed at the battle of Barnet.  Her son, Edward, the Prince of Wales was killed at the battle of Tewkesbury on May 4 1471, ending the Lancastrian hopes.
With both her only child and her husband dead, Marguerite’s spirit was broken.  Edward decided to be lenient with his old enemy.  After a brief spell in the tower, Marguerite was released to the custody of her friend, the Duchess of Suffolk.  Marguerite was finally ransomed to her cousin Louis IX of France in 1475, with the proviso that she give up all rights to her lands in France.  She lived in penury until her death at the age of 52. She was buried next to her parents in Angers Cathedral.


Helen Castor – She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England before Elizabeth, Faber & Faber 2010
Sarah Gristwood – Blood Sisters:  The Women behind the Wars of the Roses, Basic Books, 2013
David Baldwin, Philippa Gregory & Michael Jones – The Women of the Cousins' War: The Duchess, the Queen, and the King's Mother, Touchstone, 2011
Elizabeth Norton - She Wolves: The Notorious Queens of Medieval England, the History Press, 2010


Frances Bevan said…
A fascinating account of the life of Marguerite, which has added so much to my understanding of the part she played in The White Queen. Many thanks.
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