Margaret of Anjou (1430-1482) was the last Lancastrian queen, wife of Henry VI. She arrived in England in 1445, at the age of 15, and bore her only son, Edward of Westminster, in 1453. Until that point her queenship seems to have been conventional and there is no evidence of the partisan politics later imputed to her. In the mid 1450s she became the focus for those opposed to the Duke of York and after the Lancastrian defeat at the Battle of Northampton she took the initiative for trying to save her son’s inheritance by seeking an alliance with Scotland. In the aftermath of Edward IV’s accession she travelled to France in search of support and reluctantly made common cause with Richard Neville, earl of Warwick in 1470, to achieve Henry VI’s readeption. She arrived back in England to news of Warwick’s defeat at Barnet and became a prisoner of Edward IV after his victory at Tewkesbury. She was eventually ransomed in 1475 and spent her final years in Provence and Anjou.
Most histories have depicted Margaret as a powerful, transgressive and disruptive queen, blamed for losses in France and provoking Richard Duke of York into war. It is sometimes even alleged that Henry VI was not the father of her son. Recently scholars have suggested new approaches. Some argue she was far less powerful than once imagined and that the stories of her influence were Yorkist propaganda designed to make Henry VI look weaker. Others maintain that she was forced into a position of power by her husband’s weakness, but scrupulously followed expectations of queenship, so her negative reputation was largely Yorkist mythmaking.
Margaret was born 23 or 24 March 1430, daughter of René count of Anjou and Isabelle, heiress to the duke of Lorraine. René was a prisoner of the duke of Burgundy 1431-37, during which time Duchess Isabelle ruled as his regent. It is usually asserted that Margaret spent much of her childhood at Saumur in the cultured court of her grandmother, Yolande of Aragon, who had been a crucial supporter of Charles VII of France (Yolande’s son-in-law). However, Anthony Gross has recently argued for an earlier tradition in which Margaret remained with her mother, Isabelle, who was in southern Italy, eventually joined by René, fighting for his claim to the kingdom of Naples.
On 24 May 1444 Margaret was betrothed to Henry VI. William de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk stood as proxy for the king in this ceremony at Tours. Her dowry of 20,000 francs was less than the cost of the flamboyant expedition to bring her to England. On 22 April 1445 Henry VI’s confessor, William Aiscough, bishop of Salisbury, conducted their actual wedding at Titchfield Abbey and she was crowned at Westminster just over a month later. In the continuing negotiations for a peace with France she sent supportive letters to Charles VII. Henry VI later wrote that she had encouraged him to surrender Maine, but this may have been no more than conventional diplomatic language – queens were meant to encourage their husbands to conciliate.
Her copious surviving letters indicate her concern to fulfil her duties as queen, supporting her servants, responding to requests for her influence, managing her estates, helping arrange diplomatic marriages and promoting religious devotions. In 1448 she was involved in founding Queens’ College, Cambridge.
As early as 1448 there were complaints that Margaret was failing to fulfil her primary duty as queen by providing an heir. Her only child, Edward of Westminster (& Lancaster), was finally born on 13 October 1453 while Henry was in a catatonic stupor. In January 1454 one source reported that Margaret had asked to be made regent during Henry’s illness. Instead Richard Duke of York was made Protector that March. Margaret’s relations with York up to this point appear to have been cordial, although records of gifts and payments suggest that Edmund Beaufort Duke of Somerset and his wife were closer to the queen. It is in the aftermath of Somerset’s death at St Albans that the earliest clear indications of animosity between Margaret and York appear. By early 1456 she had become the head of anti-Yorkist interests at court. She spent much time at Coventry, at the heart of her estates. On one occasion she was welcomed with pageants which, it has been argued, were designed to justify her active queenship.
Much of Margaret’s authority derived from her influence over her young son’s household as Prince of Wales. In June 1457 one of her father’s men led a raid on the English port of Sandwich which reinforced earlier negative attitudes to her French origins. Efforts to make peace between the victors of the First Battle of St Albans and the families of their victims culminated in the Loveday Procession on 25 March 1458. While the king walked alone in this procession, Margaret was hand in hand with the Duke of York.
One Yorkist source described the royal forces at the Battle of Blore Heath as ‘the queen’s gallants’, suggesting they were not the king’s men. Margaret was at Coventry when Henry VI was captured after the Battle of Northampton. She fled to Wales and then Scotland to seek support. She was not at the Battle of Wakefield (as depicted by Shakespeare). The predominance of Scottish and northern men in the army she then brought south provoked particular alarm in London, but Bonita Cron argues that the tales of their depredations en route were exaggerated. The Londoners sent the widowed duchesses of Buckingham and Bedford, and Lady Scales to negotiate with Margaret after her forces’ victory at the second Battle of St Albans.
Margaret escaped to Scotland with the king and her son after the Battle of Towton. In 1462 she and Prince Edward sailed to the Continent where she spent years trying to muster support to reinstate Henry VI. Her court in exile at the castle of Koeur, near St Mihiel-en-Bar, became a focus for men disaffected by the Yorkist regime. In May 1470 Richard Neville Earl of Warwick and George Duke of Clarence arrived at Honfleur after the failure of the Lincolnshire Rebellion. It took fifteen days to persuade Margaret to join with these former enemies in order to reinstate Henry VI. She refused to allow her son to travel to England until the throne had been secured. She was then delayed by bad weather so that when she arrived at Weymouth on 14 April 1471 Warwick had already been killed at Barnet. Drawing additional support from Lancastrians who had never trusted Warwick, she tried to join forces with Jasper Tudor in Wales but was cut off at Tewkesbury. She stayed at a nearby religious house where she learned of the disastrous Lancastrian defeat and the death of her only child on the battlefield.
Edward IV had her brought back to London on his triumphal return and put her in the custody of the widowed Duchess of Suffolk (whose son had married Edward’s sister). As part of the Treaty of Picquigny in 1475, Louis XI paid a ransom so that she could return to France. He required her to hand over her inheritance from her parents in recompense. She died at the château of Dampierre, near Saumur, in Anjou on 25 August 1482 and was buried at Angers cathedral.
The text of the pageants for her arrival in London for her coronation can be found here.
A sumptuously illustrated manuscript that she received as a wedding present has been digitised here.
You can view an illustrated prayer roll that belonged to Margaret here.
An edition of her letters can be found here.