This is a guest article by Catherine Hokin.
Catherine Hokin Bio
Catherine is a Glasgow-based author whose fascination with the medieval period began during a History degree which included studies into witchcraft, women and the role of political propaganda. This sparked an interest in hidden female voices resulting in her debut novel, Blood and Roses which brings a feminist perspective to the story of Margaret of Anjou (1430-1482, wife of Henry VI) and her pivotal role in the Wars of the Roses. Catherine also writes short stories – she was a finalist in the Scottish Arts Club 2015 Short Story Competition and has been published by iScot magazine – and blogs monthly for The History Girls. She is represented by Tina Betts of the Andrew Mann Literary Agency.
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I was in two minds about whether to begin an exploration of the dangerous reputation ascribed to Margaret of Anjou (1430-1482) with a quote from Shakespeare. On the one hand, it is in his portrayals (in the Henry VI trilogy and in Richard III) where many people first encounter the woman who would become the wife of the Lancastrian King Henry VI of England and one of the key protagonists in the fifteenth century dynastic conflicts popularly known as the Wars of the Roses. On the other, it is from Shakespeare that so many of the problems with Margaret’s reputation stem.
There is contemporary evidence for Margaret’s character which paints a very positive picture of a bright, astute woman whose abilities won respect. John Boking, in 1456, for example describes her as a “grete and strong labourid woman”. Gregory’s Chronicle, 1461-69, states quite clearly during the ongoing conflicts that “the lordys wolde fayne hadde hyr unto London, for they knew welle that alle the workyngys that were done growe by hyr, for she was more wyttyr than the kynge…”
Move forward 150 years to Shakespeare, however, and we meet an entirely different woman. His Margaret is “a foul wrinkled witch’ and a ‘hateful with’red hag”. He attributes a series of malevolent actions to her including adultery and animalistic cruelty, none of which fits the facts. Margaret is seen in one scene wandering round Court clutching the severed head of her supposed lover the Duke of Suffolk. In another she rubs a cloth soaked in his son’s blood over the Duke of York’s face before placing a paper crown on his head and stabbing him, all the while prophesying evil falling on the House of York like a medieval Cassandra. “I pray him, that none of you may live your natural age, but by some unlook’d accident cut off!
This demonization of a woman who proved herself capable of leading armies and formulating policy and who won admiration from ambassadors and courtiers, is still rarely countered, despite its roots being firmly set in propaganda with little relevance to historical fact. It is also a portrayal that does a complex woman a disservice by reducing her to the limited ‘she-wolf’ dimensions of a stereotypical villainess.
So how has this caricature of a dangerous, unstable and vicious woman stuck?
The Wars of the Roses (a name that really gives no sense of how brutal this conflict was) was a period in which propaganda became recognised as a powerful weapon, by both sides, and a later re-shaping of history to meet the pro-Yorkist demands of Shakespeare’s Tudor masters is to be expected. However, xenophobia and, more particularly, misogyny also play a key part in creating the myths that have gathered around Margaret.
Margaret’s marriage to Henry VI in 1445 took place as part of one the many peace treaties signed between England and France during the course of The Hundred Years War (1337-1453). The marriage was unpopular from the start: she brought no dowry, in fact lands the English claimed ownership of were returned to France as part of the treaty and this was at a time when nostalgia for England’s past military successes against France, and the power once held there, were being revived in a patriotic wave of ‘Englishness’. Of more significance for her detractors, however, Margaret did not meet the demands of feminine duty placed on medieval queen consorts.
These duties were twofold: maternity and intercession. Becoming pregnant and providing an heir was a queen’s main role. It took Margaret 8 years to produce a son, a delay it becomes easier to understand in the light of Henry VI’s medical condition: he was frequently incapacitated for long periods by an illness which seems closely linked to narcolepsy, producing a catatonic state which could continue for as long as 18 months. He was also known to be a weak and deeply pious man during periods of improved health. Hardly conducive to pregnancy, hardly Margaret’s fault. Her second role was to act as a vessel for intercession, in other words using mercy (seen as feminine) to soften authority (seen as masculine). A queen acting as an intermediary on behalf of individuals who had incurred the royal wrath and pleading for clemency towards them allowed a king to change his mind or soften a decision without being ‘unmanned’. It was a ritualised part of the Queen Consort’s role in medieval England. Intercession, however, requires a strong king which Henry clearly was not and a, publicly-at-least, submissive queen. This symbolic role was hard enough but then Margaret stepped further over the line.
Margaret stepped forward to take the reins of power from her husband when it became clear he could no longer hold them. Not because she was some early suffragette but because her crown was under serious threat from the Yorkists, her husband the King was incapable, she had a son to fight for and her character and upbringing made action her only choice. Any form of rule (including as regent) by a woman was not a well-received concept in medieval England. Margaret’s French upbringing may not, however, have prepared her for this attitude. Her mother and grandmother acted as regents in Naples and Provence and were used to playing a leading role in military struggles (her grandmother financed Joan of Arc’s army). The intellectual life of the French Court was also far more amenable to discussion of the role of women as valued participants in society. Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies, which defended the achievements of women against a number of contemporary misogynistic tirades, is a work an educated girl such as Margaret would have known well.
She stepped forward, failing to conform to expectations of queenly behaviour in doing so, and her opponents’ propaganda machine sprung into life. Margaret was politically astute, fearless and perfectly able to rule in an England that would not countenance her doing so. Her punishment was to be made the scapegoat for her husband’s failings. One man’s “grete and strong labourid woman” is another’s crazed virago needing to be tamed.
Margaret also suffered by being on the losing side: her enemies built a raft of accusations against her, from deliberately setting crazed Scots armies on a pillaging rampage through England to beheadings and multiple adulteries. History, in Margaret’s case, is very much written by the victors.
Margaret of Anjou was no saint. She was complex, driven and capable of bad-decisions such as the ‘take no prisoners’ order at the Battle of Towton which left that to this day as the bloodiest conflict ever fought in England. She was no saint but neither was she a demon. The Margaret myths have persisted across centuries as the Shakespeare portrayal and Yorkist propaganda has been regurgitated by male historians. Margaret of Anjou has been called dangerous: she was, to the men who tried to take her son’s throne, whose ‘dangerous’ actions were praised. It is time to leave Shakespeare and the ‘historians’ who mistake him for history behind and reclaim a queen who knew exactly how dangerous to be. That, at least, is my novel’s intention.