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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Margaret of Anjou: Queen of England, She-wolf of France

It’s hard not to love Margaret of Anjou. First of all, she has some of the greatest lines in the entire tetralogy. For example, in Henry VI, Part III after her spineless husband has agreed to make Richard of York his heir, she tells him that

Had I been there, which am a seely woman,
The soldiers should have tossed me on their pikes
Before I would have granted to that act.
But thou preferr’st thy life before thine honor.
And seeing thou dost, I here divorce myself
Both from thy table, Henry, and thy bed” (1.2.245-249)

Descriptions of Margaret tell us that she was “intelligent and energetic,” “charming and attractive,” and the complete opposite of her “gentle” husband (Wagner 158, Gillingham 58, Luminarium). In Henry VI, Part III, Richard of York challenged her womanhood, calling her “stern, obdurate, flinty, rough, remourseless,” with a “tiger’s heart wrapped in woman’s hide" (Shakespeare HVI3 1.4.143, 138). Even her own son calls her a woman of “valiant spirit” who would infuse the breast of a coward with magnanimity (HVi3 5.5.39). But who exactly was this “she-wolf of France?” (HVI3 1.4.112).

Margaret of Anjou was born 23 March 1430. Her father was René of Anjou, but more importantly, she was the niece of king Charles VII. This made her the perfect candidate for a political marriage and when an Anglo-French treaty was negotiated by William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, Margaret sealed the deal. Her marriage to Henry VI was settled when she was just fourteen years old, and she was brought to England in 1445 by a fleet of fifty-six ships where she was crowned at Westminster Abbey. She was given a large procession from the Tower to St. Paul’s weraing white damask and powdered gold with her hair about her shoulders, while the “city conduits ran with red and white wine” (Gillingham 58). She remained close to Suffolk and his faction at court and did her duty, ensuring that England returned the region of Maine to France, until England lost Normandy and Suffolk in turn fell from power. Margaret was not a very popular Queen, since she brought no dowry and sapped England of several French territories. Of course, it would be her husband who lost all of France but Calais during his rule, not to mention he was deposed on multiple occasions.

The Marriage of Margaret.

Margaret was pregnant only once, despite the fact that women were pregnant relatively often in this time period, and gave birth to Edward on October 13, 1453. However, it is probably not surprising when one considers that Henry VI was apparently not very big on sex, was counseled “not to ‘come nigh’” his wife, and collapsed into a psychological breakdown when she finally did become pregnant after ten years of marriage (Gillingham 80). Even so, Margaret had a fierce loyalty to her son, which she pursued from the moment she seized power at court during her husband’s absence. On February 1454, she issued a “bill of five articles…whereof the first is that she desireth to have the whole rule of this land” (Gillingham 80). Although York would eventually successfully instigate two protectorates, after Henry put down the second after just three months in1456, she was described as “a great and intensely active woman, for she spares no pains to pursue her business towards an end…favourable to her power” (Gillingham 99). While Margaret put up with Henry’s Love-Day reconciliation in 1458, walking arm-in-arm with York to St. Paul’s, she more or less stayed in control. She knew how to manipulate politics, put her own supporters in power while stripping her enemies of their lands, and keep her husband under her watch away from London in the Midlands.

Margaret was also highly proficient in war. In fact, John Talbot, the English hero of his day, gave her a copy of Christine de Pisan’s Le livre des faiz darmes as a wedding present, another celebrated female authority on war. Margaret knew what she was doing in battle and was a very cunning leader, employing false reports to throw off the enemy, advance troupes of soldiers, and all her skills negotiating control over land to win supporters. It was Margaret who raised an army and defeated the Yorks at the Battle of Ludlow Bridge in 1459, and again in 1460 when she refused to let her son Prince Edward be disinherited by his own father. At the Battle of Wakefield, Margaret’s armies slaughtered York and his supporters, and then went on to restore Henry to the throne at the second Battle of St. Albans in 1461. In Shakespeare’s play, this is the moment when she places a paper-crown upon York’s head just before she stabs him in front his own sons, sending his body off to be beheaded and his head displayed on the gates of York.

Margaret at court with Henry VI.

Unfortunately, it was her unruly northern armies that had wreaked havoc on the southern countryside that made London weary of her forces and ultimately forced her to retreat only to let Warwick and Edward, on of York’s principle supporters and his son, enter the capital and claim the crown. But she didn’t give up. Margaret petitioned for more forces from the French king and continued her campaign, although she was ultimately defeated. She later teamed up with Warwick, who sought her out in France to form a surprising alliance against Edward IV. Supposedly, Warwick had to beg on his knees for her forgiveness and trust, and would not allow the alliance between her son and his daughter, Anne, to be solemnized until they had won. Although Warwick restored Henry VI from his five-year imprisonment in the Tower in 1470, he died the same day Margaret and Prince Edward arrived back in England. She kept fighting, and was finally defeated at the Battle of Tewkesbury and captured and brought to London three days later. Henry VI was murdered and she was locked up for four years until Louis XI ransomed her as part of a treaty, a sort of tragic replica of her start in England. She died at the age of fifty-two and was buried in the Angers Cathedral.


Gillingham, John. Wars of the Roses: Peace and Conflict in 15th Century England. Phoenix Press. 2005. Print.

Hallam, Elizabeth. The Wars of the Roses: From Richard II to the Fall of Richard III at Bosworth Field—Seen Through the Eyes of Their Contemporaries. NY: Weidenfeild and Micholson. 1988. Print.

Shakespeare, William. Henry VI, Part III.

Wagner, John A. Encyclopedia of the Wars of the Roses. CA: ABC-CLIO, Inc. 2001. Print.

“Wars of the Roses.” Luminarium Encyclopedia Project. 2009. Web. Accessed 2-22-10.

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