Was Margaret of Anjou as bad as Shakespeare said she was?

Shakespeare called her the “she-wolf of France” and a “hateful withered hag” but was Margaret of Anjou really as bad as that? I’d argue not and that it is time to reassess the misogynistic, xenophobic views that have led to her presentation as a stereotypical villain.

Margaret was married to Henry VI of England and was a key player in the Wars of the Roses as a leader of the Lancastrian forces.

In 1445 Margaret had been married to Henry when she was 15 and he was 23. The marriage was unpopular especially because Margaret was French and at the time England was going through a revival of patriotic ‘Englishness’, thus many were hostile towards her from the start. It was eight years before she gave birth to a son, Edward Duke of Wales, leading some to question whether the child was even Henry’s. As a result, she was presented as an adulteress in both contemporary propaganda and Shakespeare’s plays. However, it is more likely that this was just an effort to discredit her at a time when she was attempting to assert her power after her husband’s mental collapse of 1453.

Henry was captured by Yorkist forces in 1455 after the 1st Battle of St Albans and it was after this that Margaret showed her true determination and spirit, leading the Lancastrian army at Wakefield where her key adversary the Duke of York was killed. After this though things started to go wrong for Margaret as the Lancastrians were defeated first at the 2nd Battle of St Albans and then Towton by the Yorkists led by Edward Earl of March, York’s son, who was subsequently crowned king Edward IV.

Forced into exile in France, Margaret continued to plan her return to England determined to protect her son’s claim to the throne. In 1470 Margaret’s erstwhile enemy now ally the Duke of Warwick attacked England on her behalf freeing Henry VI and reinstating him as a puppet king.

This was not the end though as in 1471 Edward IV returned backed by the Duke of Burgundy and defeated Warwick at the Battle of Barnet. By this time Margaret and her son Edward had just arrived in England aiming to meet the Lancastrian forces of Jasper Tudor but on the way they were intercepted by Edward IV at Tewkesbury. Margaret’s son Edward was killed during the battle and she was taken captive.

Margaret of Anjou died in 1482, impoverished, in the castle of Dampierre-sur-Loire, near Anjou where she was being hosted by Francis de Vignolles.

Since her death Margaret has suffered from negative portrayals particularly in Shakespeare’s history plays but this villainising also took place during her own lifetime. The Yorkists had a very sophisticated propaganda machine which Margaret was frequently the victims of, such as with the accusation that she committed adultery.

There are several reasons why she was vilified one of which was xenophobia towards for her French heritage, the other, and most important, was the fact that she was a woman who didn’t conform to the expectations of her gender and role as a queen.

The ideal of a Medieval queen was to be submissive and although this was not always the case, for example Eleanor of Aquitaine had been a powerful and involved queen even acting as a military leader during the Second Crusade, a queen having a large involvement in politics was still frowned upon. Therefore, Margaret’s involvement in both political and military matters is a key reason for her negative portrayal, which was made worse by the fact that she was on the losing side.

There are few contemporary sources about Margaret which makes it difficult to assess her true character, but I would argue we can certainly dismiss the Shakespearean presentation of her as a power-hungry stereotypical villain. Margaret was certainly ambitious and determined to preserve her son’s right to the throne, but this is by no means makes her the villainous character Shakespeare and others since have presented her to be. Importantly, Edward IV who was pursuing the same aims as her at the same time has not been presented in such a negative way. Thus, it is time to look past the misogynism and xenophobia that has ruined her reputation and judge Margaret of Anjou by her actions, as a determined political actor who had a huge influence on the politics of her time and the country, while paving the way for women to become queens in their own right in the future

Featured image: ‘Crown’ by Jason Train on flickr with license

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