“….imbued with high courage above the nature of her sex….a woman of sufficient forecast, very desirous of renown, full of policy, counsel, comely behavior, and all manly qualities”. Polydore Virgil
The marriage between Margaret of Anjou and King Henry VI of England came with high expectations. It was meant to bring peace between England and France who had been at war for over a hundred years and she was expected to give birth to an heir to continue the Lancastrian dynasty of English kings. The marriage in fact brought no peace with France, didn’t help avoid losses of French territory and actually led to intermittent civil war in England.
Margaret was born on March 23 or 24, 1430 either at Port-a-Mousson in France or Nancy in Lorraine. She was the daughter of Rene, Duke of Anjou and Isabelle, daughter and heir of Charles II, Duke of Lorraine. Rene was directly related to the French monarchy although he had little in the way of a patrimony of his own. His sister Marie was the wife of King Charles VII of France. While he inherited many other titles, he had a difficult time holding on to any of them.
While Rene was preoccupied with his rising and falling political fortunes, Margaret remained in the care of her mother and later with her paternal grandmother, Yolande of Aragon. Yolande was a formidable woman, acting as regent in her son Rene’s absence. Margaret received an excellent education and was exposed to literature and the arts as both her grandmother and father were great patrons. Rene was a poet and artist himself. Margaret would learn the foundations of good government from her grandmother. She grew up to be beautiful, highly educated, passionate, energetic, strong-willed and proud with a forceful personality.
Marriages discussed for Margaret included Emperor Frederick II, a son of the Count of St. Pol, Charles, Count of Charolais, the future Duke of Burgundy, and Charles, Count of Nevers. Talks were initiated for a marriage with King Henry VI in 1439 in the hopes of bringing an end to the long and expensive war between England and France. Beginning in 1443, Margaret spent time at the French court under her aunt Queen Marie’s care where she received acclaim for her beauty, accomplishments and character.
Henry sent an embassy to France headed by William de la Pole, earl of Suffolk in 1444. On May 22, a treaty of truce was signed guaranteeing peace for two years. Margaret’s betrothal to Henry was celebrated at the church of St. Martin in Tours. It was attended by the king and queen of France, Margaret’s parents, the Dukes of Calabria, Brittany and Alençon, the Dauphin and the Dauphine Margaret Stewart, the Counts of St. Pol and Vendôme and Margaret’s uncle, Charles Count of Maine. After the ceremony, eight days of celebrations commenced hosted by King Charles VII’s mistress Agnes Sorel. From that point on, Margaret was treated with the status of Queen of England.
Margaret’s dowry was meager. It included the truce, her mother’s empty claim to the kingdom of Majorca and twenty thousand francs. She renounced her claims to her father’s possessions. There was some controversy over whether the county of Maine was to be returned to France or not which caused problems later. Suffolk returned to France in November with a large escort to bring Margaret to England. This expedition and the marriage itself cost over fifty-five hundred pounds which caused resentment among the English people.
From November until April of 1445 there is some confusion about the sequence of events but it appears there was a proxy marriage at Nancy in early March. On March 15, she entered Paris and was welcomed at the Cathedral of Notre Dame the next day where her brother officially delivered her to the Duke of Suffolk. After the ceremonies ended, as Margaret took leave of her father and King Charles, they all wept. Rene was so overcome he could hardly speak.
The Duke of York, with six hundred archers, welcomed her on behalf of King Henry and gave her a palfrey caparisoned with crimson and gold velvet embroidered with gold roses. It was a gift from her husband. York then accompanied Margaret to Rouen where she was York’s guest at two state dinners. Relations between the two parties were nothing but cordial. During this part of the trip, Margaret was short of funds. She had little in the way of trousseau or plate and she had to pawn what modest plate she had to the Duchess of Suffolk to pay the wages of her sailors.
York, Suffolk and several noble ladies accompanied her through Normandy to the coast. Her ship sailed but was buffeted by the wind of a terrible storm during which the ship lost both its masts. Margaret landed at Portchester on April 9, 1445 where the people of the town had planned a great welcome. But Margaret was so exhausted and ill, she could only stagger her way to a small cottage where she promptly fainted. Shortly after her arrival, Henry visited her in disguise, dressed as a squire to deliver a letter he himself had written. He was able to scrutinize her appearance while she read the letter. She dismissed him without acknowledging his identity. Whether she knew it was him or not is impossible to say.
On April 21, Margaret and Henry were married in a private ceremony at Titchfield Abbey officiated by the bishop of Salisbury. She wore a white satin wedding dress embroidered with silver and gold marguerites (daisies). She traveled from the area of Southampton to London, entertained by many lords and welcomed by the mayor and alderman. Large crowds turned out to greet her. She rode with nineteen chariots of ladies and gentlewomen and the conduits of the city ran with red and white wine. As she rode in triumph through the streets, she witnessed eight pageants. She was crowned on May 30 at Westminster followed by three days of feasting and tournaments.
Henry arranged to have the queen’s apartments in his palaces renovated before her arrival. Margaret loved riding and hunting and she and her husband shared a love of horses. He ordered several of them for their first anniversary. Margaret was an able administrator and showed concern for and was generous to her servants. She attended mass regularly and gave to many charities. She worked to increase England’s wool trade by importing skilled craftsmen from Flanders and Lyon. She introduced silk weaving to England by bringing in foreign weavers and encouraging women to take up the trade. She became the patron of the guild called the Sisterhood of Silk Women which was based in Spitalfields. She also financed the building of English merchant ships which sailed to ports in the Mediterranean.
Although in the early years, Margaret and Henry got along well, it probably wasn’t long before she began to realize her pious and peaceful husband was weak and indecisive. The real power behind the throne was the Duke of Suffolk along with other noblemen who exploited the king for authority and to enrich themselves. Margaret herself was close to Suffolk and relied on his advice. But this caused resentment and tension among other nobles at court. On top of all this, Henry’s piety and reliance on the advice of his confessor caused him to avoid sexual relations with Margaret. As a consequence, she didn’t get pregnant for the first eight years of the marriage.
On March 30, 1448, Henry granted a license for the founding of Queen’s College, Cambridge upon Margaret’s request. In 1450, England lost its claim to Normandy which had been conquered by Henry’s father Henry V during the Hundred Years War. The loss was mostly due to the incompetence of Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset. This led directly to the disposition and murder of the Duke of Suffolk. The colossal loss of territory, the debt caused by the war, local grievances and concern for the corruption and perceived abuse of power by the king and his closest advisers led to the breakout of a rebellion. The leader of the rebellion was called Jack Cade or Jack Mortimer.
Cade led about five thousand troops to Blackheath outside London. He entered London and declared himself mayor. Two members of the king’s household were put on trial and executed for treason. The troops rioted causing the Londoners to turn against them. Cade was killed but not before the Duke of York was implicated in the rebellion forcing him to return to England from Ireland to defend himself. He declared his loyalty to King Henry when he attended Parliament later that year.
Margaret’s lack of producing a child had a long lasting adverse effect on Henry’s reign. She must have felt tremendous pressure. In the spring of 1453, she visited Our Lady of Walsingham, a shrine that was supposed to aid women in getting pregnant. Shortly after this visit, she was certain she was with child. But then the unthinkable happened. Henry suffered an acute attack of mental illness and went into a deep catatonic state.
Margaret made her way to Westminster on September 10 for her lying in and she gave birth to a son on October 13. He was named Edward and created Prince of Wales on March 15, 1454. Margaret was in the ascendancy and had some political power but it was based on the premise that she was subordinate to her husband and under his authority. This undermined her ability to exercise any real power.
Margaret and the Duke of Buckingham presented the infant to Henry for his blessing but he was incapable of acknowledging the child. The government of the country was unresolved and many lords were arming themselves for an expected showdown. Margaret petitioned Parliament to be regent with a request of five articles. These included the right to appoint all state officers and sheriffs, the treasurer and the keeper of the Privy Seal, the patronage of the bishoprics and all other benefices belonging to the king and for sufficient funds to be assigned to her for the king, her son and her own livelihood.
Although this was a lot to ask, it was not unprecedented. Henry III had appointed his Queen, Eleanor of Provence as his regent while he was away on the continent. Margaret really had no backing by the lords who would have resented rule by a woman. She failed in her request and the Parliament named the Duke of York as Protector for as long as Henry was incapacitated and the Duke of Somerset became Henry’s adviser. This created conflict with York and he raised men to unseat Somerset. The king and Somerset raised men also. Margaret took refuge in the Tower of London with her son.
But Henry came out of his stupor at Christmas. The prince was presented to Henry and he rejoiced in his birth. York was dismissed as Protector. York was not pleased as he was opportunistic, self-righteous and easily affronted. He continued to insist the king was surrounded by bad advisers and flaunted his troops to assert his rights.
The First Battle of St. Albans was fought on May 22, 1455. Margaret was in Greenwich with her ladies for safety. The Duke of Somerset was killed along with other Lancastrian nobles, Henry was wounded and York was victorious. By July, York was constable again and the king was constrained from raising his own forces. Margaret’s income was reduced to ten thousand marks and she was deprived of the power to bequeath the revenues she received from the Duchy of Lancaster. She realized at this point she could not put her faith in her husband. She could count on no one for the security of her husband or her son. She certainly would have felt anxiety over York’s pretensions. She would need to find ways to gain authority for herself.
York and his adherents were proclaiming their loyalty to Henry but working to undermine his authority at every turn. It was at this point that the House of Commons of Parliament were asking the king to take back grants he had rewarded during his reign in an effort to regain solvency for the crown. York supported this idea but many of the nobles objected as they had the most to lose unless they could obtain an exemption. The discussion moved on to restricting the king’s authority to give exemptions. By doing this they were undermining the king’s authority. If the king’s authority could be restricted, the holder of that authority could be replaced.
Margaret would work to resist the resumption of grants and also to resist the Protectorate of York. It was about this time the rumors started about Margaret’s infidelity and the possibility that the Prince of Wales was illegitimate. York may have started the rumors to press his own case to be heir to the throne. There is no concrete evidence Margaret ever took a lover. Henry acted in every way as though the child was his.
During the Parliament of February 1456, York brought armed men thinking he may be discharged. The lords of Parliament were not pleased and Henry dismissed York from his position of Protector with the consent of the Lords. At this point, Margaret left London for the Midlands where Henry joined her that summer. She worked for the next two years to consolidate what power she had available to her as the queen.
In 1458, York was granted conditional forgiveness and acceptance. On March 25, a Loveday was celebrated. The king, the queen and all parties subject to the settlement made their way in a public procession to St. Paul’s Cathedral in thanks to God for reaching an accord. It was probably made at the king’s insistence. First in line came Somerset, Salisbury, Exeter and Warwick. Then the king walked alone in his robes. He was followed by Margaret, holding York’s hand. York swore an oath to keep the peace, raise no troops and obey the king’s command. This display acted as a reminder of the Queen’s reinforced power but in reality it was a sham.
In 1459, York raised troops against the king again. The royal army, which was superior in number, approached Ludlow where York was stationed. Realizing they were outnumbered, the Yorkist lords fled in confusion to Ireland. Parliament attainted them. In the summer of 1460, York returned to England, quickly raising an army and entering London with a drawn sword before him indicating royalty. He was signaling a challenge to the king and asserting his right to the throne.. Henry was at Coventry and advanced with his troops taking position on the banks of the Nene River close to Northampton. The Yorkists attacked them there and the Lancastrians were completely routed.
The king was taken prisoner and Margaret emerged as the leader of a Lancastrian faction. She refused to acknowledge York as the supreme power in England. As she headed toward Wales, one of her servants robbed her of all she had along the way and even threatened to kill her and the prince. While the servant was searching through her luggage, she managed to escape and made her way to Jasper Tudor and Harlech Castle where she and the prince were warmly welcomed. In the meantime, York made a bid at the palace of Westminster to take the throne. He did not receive a positive reception. In fact, many of the nobles were offended by his audacity. He did get an agreement stating he was Henry’s heir, thereby disinheriting Prince Edward.
Margaret did not take kindly to this insult to her son. She managed to get a ship and took refuge at the court of Scotland where Mary of Guelders was regent for her young son, James III. Margaret raised an army in the north and met York and his men at Wakefield on December 31, 1460. York and his son Edmund were killed.
Margaret took advantage of her victory and with an army comprised of Scottish supporters and men from the north of England, the Lancastrians met Yorkist forces under the Earl of Warwick at St. Albans on February 17, 1461. Her army was victorious and she regained control of her husband. She headed for London and tried to gain entrance with her troops but was unable to do so.
Yorkist forces under Edward, Earl of March, the son of Richard Duke of York were bearing down and Margaret was forced to withdraw to the north. The bloody Battle of Towton on March 29, 1461 was a significant defeat for the Lancastrians. Margaret, the king and the prince were forced to flee to Scotland. Edward, Earl of March was crowned King Edward IV on June 28. Margaret was attainted before Parliament for intending the destruction of the realm with the aid of northerners, the Scots and the French. (The attainder against her would be reversed by the Tudor/Lancastrian King Henry VII in 1485).
During their exile in Scotland, Margaret tried unsuccessfully to get aid from King Charles VII of France and later King Louis XI of France. In October of 1462, she arrived at Bamburgh with about eight hundred troops paid for by Pierre de Brezé of France. But after getting word that Edward and the Earl of Warwick were on their way, she fled to her ships at sea. Her fleet got caught in bad weather and she and the prince barely made it to shore in a small boat. Most of her troops drowned or were captured.
After this disastrous adventure to Scotland she returned to France where she lived in penury. She had little clothing and sometimes no food. She was down to a coterie of seven women. She tried to rally support from the courts of France, Burgundy, Brittany, Germany and Portugal. Eventually she had to retreat to her father’s estate of St Michel-sur-Bar where she lived on a scanty pension from him. In 1465, she appealed for help from Louis XI again but he only mocked her due to her weak position.
Henry was exceptionally adept in being hidden, hiding and escaping. He was attended by only two or three devoted servants and lived a miserable existence until he was captured in Lancashire in July of 1465. His feet were tied to the stirrups of his horse and he was escorted to London where he was kept in gentle custody in the Tower of London for the next five years.
King Louis negotiated a truce with King Edward, agreeing not to support the Lancastrians. In 1470, the Earl of Warwick was disenchanted with King Edward IV and defected to the Lancastrian cause. King Louis, in an effort to gain an alliance with England against Burgundy, used all his powers of persuasion with Margaret to convince her to make an alliance with Warwick to release Henry from the Tower and gain back the throne. As a condition of the alliance, she made Warwick beg on his knees for forgiveness. Warwick’s daughter Anne Neville was married to Margaret’s son Edward over her strong objections.
Warwick managed to oust Edward IV and Henry VI was back on the throne from October 1470 to April 1471. Margaret hesitated to sail to England but she and her son did eventually return. When she arrived, she was devastated to learn of the defeat of the Lancastrians at the battle of Barnet and the death of the Earl of Warwick in the fight.
Edward captured Henry and returned him to the Tower. But Margaret rallied her troops and on May 4, 1471 at the Battle of Tewkesbury, the Lancastrians were defeated and Margaret’s son Edward was killed. She was found a few days later hiding in a religious house with her daughter-in-law and brought to London. She was put on display as she processed through the streets seated in a chariot. On that night, May 21, King Henry VI was murdered in the Tower on the orders of King Edward.
At first she was a prisoner in apartments in Windsor Castle and then in the Tower. Later she was sent to Wallingford Castle in the care of Alice Chaucer, dowager Duchess of Suffolk for four years. In 1475 she became the subject of terms in the Treaty of Picquigny between Edward IV and Louis XI. Louis agreed to a ransom of fifty thousand crowns to King Edward IV. She was forced to renounce all her claims to the throne. She returned to France and was forced to renounce all her rights to her inheritance of both parents’ lands. Louis paid her a pension and she died at the château de Morains at Dampierre-sur-Loire near Saumur on August 25, 1482 and was buried in Angers Cathedral. Upon hearing of her death, Louis XI demanded all of her dogs.
Further reading: “Margaret of Anjou: Queenship and Power in Late Medieval England” by Helen E. Mauer, “Richard the Third” by Paul Murray Kendall, “Queen’s Consort” by Lisa Hilton, “Blood Sisters: The Hidden Lives of the Women Behind the Wars of the Roses” by Sarah Gristwood, “She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth” by Helen Castor, “The Last Medieval Queens” by J.L. Laynesmith, “The Wars of the Roses” by Alison Weir, Louis XI: The Spider King” by Paul Murray Kendall, entry on Margaret of Anjou in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography written by Diana E.S. Dunn, “Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou: A Marriage of Unequals” by Amy Licence