Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Monday, March 23, 2015

Margaret of Anjou: A "Tiger's Heart Wrapped in a Woman's Hide"?

Margaret of Anjou (born 23 March 1430)

Margaret of Anjou has been endlessly vilified, most famously by Shakespeare in his memorable descriptions of her as the "she-wolf of France" and, as quoted in the headline to this post, a "tiger's heart wrapp'd in a woman's hide."* But, despite that vilification, Margaret of Anjou has been an inspirational figure for many women--and I include myself among them.

Margaret of Anjou,
from a manuscript image, c. 1445
Married to Henvy VI of England in 1445, when she was fifteen, Margaret initially failed in her most important duty as queen, the production of a male heir. To make matters worse, when the ineffectual king was incapacitated by some kind of mental breakdown in July of 1453, the void he had left was filled by his wife.

And so contemporary opinion justified the opposition of Richard of York, who was credited with having perceived that "the king was no ruler:" "the whole burden of the realm," according to York, had come "to rest in the direction of the queen."

When Margaret of Anjou finally did manage to produce a son and heir a few months later, in October 1453, her "success" became just one more failure; as one historian has recently commented, the birth of her son "served to . . . bring the queen into politics as a ruthless, even fanatical, supporter of Prince Edward of Lancaster's right to succeed his father."

In an effort to protect her son's rights during her husband's illness, Margaret attempted to secure the regency for herself, a newsletter circulated in January of 1454 reporting that she had "made a bill of five articles" which, if granted by Parliament, would have had the effect of giving her "the whole rule of this land."

Although Henry recovered in January of 1455, when he fell ill again in October, York was made protector, and the result was civil war. Margaret of Anjou's subsequent efforts to preserve the English crown for her son--her establishment of what amounted to her own court, her leadership of this court party, her negotiations with Scotland and France for support, her ultimate role on the battlefields of the War of the Roses--resulted in the deterioration of her own reputation. 

She became, in one contemporary judgment, "a great and strong labored woman" who "spareth no pain to sue her things to an intent and conclusion to her power." She was judged to be "inexorable" and arrogant: "All marveled at such boldness in a woman, at a man's courage in a woman's breast."

For Edward Hall, writing during Henry VIII's reign, Margaret was a "manly woman using to rule and not to be ruled"; deciding "to take upon her the rule and regiment," she fought not for her son but for herself, "desirous of glory and covetous of honor."

By the time the Elizabethan chronicler Ralph Holinshed described her, she had become the archetypal virago: 
a woman of great wit, and yet of no greater wit than of haute [high] stomach . . . desirous of glory and covetous of honor, and of reason, policy, counsel, and other gifts and talents of nature belonging to a man; full and flowing of wit and wiliness she lacked nothing, nor of diligence, study, and business she was not unexpert; but yet she had one point of a very woman, for oftentime, when she was vehement and fully bent in a matter, she was suddenly like a weathercock, mutable and turning.
She was widely reported to be sexually promiscuous, her enemies claiming that Edward was not Henry's son at all but the child of Margaret and one of her lovers, most likely Edmund Beaufort, duke of Somerset. Such hostile representations of Margaret of Anjou depict her as unnatural and her actions as a violation of woman's nature. 

And yet, in an interesting way, Margaret of Anjou's role in England was not only a response to the political crisis in that country; the role she assumed as queen and mother had been shaped by the political circumstances of her own childhood and by her own experience of women's abilities and capacities. As Margaret's biographer J. J. Bagley notes, "Politics, war, and administration seemed to be the natural vocations of women in her family."

A manuscript illustration of the marriage of
Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou,
from Vigiles of Charles VII, 1484
Margaret of Anjou was the daughter of Isabelle of Lorraine, who both fought for her husband René of Anjou in Sicily and served as his regent there.

While her mother was engaged in pursuing and defending René of Anjou's interests in Sicily, Margaret spent eight years with her grandmother, Yolande of Aragon, who was regent of Anjou for her oldest son, Louis III.

After Louis' death, Yolande remained active in politics and in her family's fortunes, marrying her daughter Marie to the French dauphin and encouraging him in his efforts to recover his throne.

Margaret of Anjou had been shaped by the example of these active and powerful foremothers.

England neither offered such powerful, independent exemplars for women, nor accepted them. Indeed, it was Margaret of Anjou herself who became a powerful exemplar for women--an example of the dangers of the determined woman who, ignoring "proper and permissible feminine activity," behaved, or tried to behave, like "ruling princes."

In the end, Margaret could not keep her husband on the throne or ensure her son's succession to that throne. Henry VI was deposed in 1461, briefly restored in 1470, then deposed again and imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he died on 21 May 1471. Margaret campaigned endlessly after Henry's initial deposition, and it was due to her tireless efforts that he was restored in 1470. She fought to defeat her Yorkist opponents, but she was defeated at the battle of Tewkesbury on 4 May 1471, her son Edward, fighting with her, killed on the field. (Margaret's son Edward was married to Anne Neville, whom we have already met.)

After the battle, Margaret was taken captive and held prisoner, but she was ultimately ransomed by her cousin, Louis XI of France. She lived in poverty and obscurity until her death, in Anjou, in 1482. She was buried in Anjers Cathedral with her parents, but as a final insult, her remains were scattered and lost during the French Revolution.

Margaret of Anjou has been the subject of several recent historical novels, and a character in others, most notably Philippa Gregory's Cousins' War series. But her life is too rich to need fictionalizing. She is included in Helen Castor's She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England before Elizabeth, its title a nod to Shakespeare's description of Margaret of Anjou, and in Lisa Hilton's Queens Consort: England's Medieval Queens from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Elizabeth of York. But I recommend Helen Maurer's excellent full-length biography, Margaret of Anjou: Queenship and Power in Late Medieval England.

*This post has been adapted from The Monstrous Regiment of Women: Female Rulers in Early Modern Europe (Palgrave Macmillan).