Sunday, May 11, 2008

Some Mother's Day Sympathy for Margaret of Anjou

Of all the mothers in the Wars of the Roses, Margaret of Anjou, queen to the unfortunate Henry VI, has surely been the most maligned. She's regularly portrayed as an adulteress and a vengeful harpy. One historical novel even has her repeatedly trying to murder her daughter-in-law, Anne Neville, though I never quite figured out why. (I'm not sure the author knew either.)

Derived from Shakespeare, a set piece in many a Wars of the Roses novel, even some recent ones where the authors should have known better, involves cruel Margaret ordering immediately after the Battle of Wakefield that the severed heads of the Duke of York and his teenage son, the Earl of Rutland, be displayed and the Duke's head bedecked with a paper crown. In fact, Margaret was not at the Battle of Wakefield; she was in Scotland at the time. There's even been considerable doubt cast as to the extent of the atrocities supposedly committed by her troops.

Margaret's position is surely deserving of more sympathy than she has received. Criticized at first for her failure to conceive a child, when she finally did become pregnant, her enemies accused her of adultery. (There's simply no proof that she had sexual relations with any man but her husband.) During her pregnancy, her husband lost his reason; eventually, the loss of his crown followed. Believing that the throne of England was her son's birthright, she fought for it until his death at the Battle of Tewkesbury. She was brought to London as a prisoner, only to have her husband murdered the night of her arrival. No longer regarded as a threat by the Yorkists, only as a financial burden, she was finally sent back to France, where she died in obscurity.

Margaret is frequently compared to an earlier French-born Queen of England, Isabella of France, and the traditionally negative portrayal of each of them has often been ascribed to misogyny and xenophobia. Both women, indeed, have recently benefited from recent interest in medieval women and medieval queens and have attracted some sympathy from historians, female and male alike. Yet popular culture has lagged behind, for while Isabella has been portrayed sympathetically by a number of novelists, especially female ones, Margaret of Anjou has met a quite different fate at their hands. She's frequently little more than a cardboard villain, and even when she's given some semblance of depth, the myths such as her presence at the Battle of Wakefield are trotted out. (Ironically, this portrayal of Margaret, which owes so much to Shakespeare, is often perpetuated by the very same novelists who decry the Bard's portrayal of Richard III.)

Strangely, Isabella, an adulteress who was disloyal to her husband and even to her own son, has attracted defenders because of those very facts. They attribute her adultery as being the natural reaction of a wronged wife and her deposition of her husband as being a commendable reaction against royal tyranny. Yet the loyalty of Margaret to her husband and to her son is depicted as the power-mad reaction of a vengeful woman. Evidently even her modern-day detractors feel that she should have settled back and worked on tapestries while her son was being deprived of his crown.

So this Mother's Day, why not spare Margaret of Anjou a little kindness for a change? She might well have hoped to have been a traditional queen, smiling at her husband's side, doing good works, and procuring favors for her subjects. Instead, with an incapacitated husband and competing claims to the throne, she found herself thrust into a situation that had no easy solutions, either for the men involved or for Margaret. Novelists have recognized the complexity of the situation these men faced; it's time they did the same for Margaret.

5 comments:

judy said...

Thank you, Susan. I always thought Margaret made the best of a bad situation. Henry VI accepted their son as his, so all of the rumors of adultery were probably spurious. She is one of my heroines, actually, and I believe, as you say, that she received short shrift in Shakespeare as did Richard III.

Henry VII's attempts to have Henry VI canonized may have called for the image of Margaret to be negative as well. Just a thought.

Alianore said...

Very interesting post, especially the comparison between recent portrayals of Margaret and Isabella.

I read a comment by a Ricardian recently, saying that Margaret's son Edward of Lancaster should be renamed 'Edward of Somerset' to reflect his real paternity. Sigh.

Susan Higginbotham said...

Thanks, ladies! Alianore, I remember that comment. What a jerk!

I have a copy of The Wars of the Roses: The Soldiers' Experience by Anthony Goodman where the jacket flap says that Goodman is working on a biography of Margaret. Should be interesting!

It would be interesting to see some writings on Margaret from a French perspective. I'm reading a biography of Marie-Therese, Marie-Antoinette's daughter, and at one point Marie-Therese, who was resisting Napoleon's forces at the time, was compared to Margaret of Anjou by a contemporary writer--the comparison was meant as a compliment to both. Evidently she received much better press in France!

Brian said...

Some people seem to think propaganda started with Dr Goebbels, when it was certainly alive and well in late medieval England.

The two routine attacks on powerful women were a) dodgy sexual morality and b) witchcraft. In addition you have to allow for English xenophobia. Foreign queens were almost always unpopular (unless and until they became honorary English) and French queens were in a special class of their own.

So yes, I think there is a need to review Margaret of Anjou's reputation. I am all for getting away from lazy stereotypes.

Anonymous said...

Glad to see a something that is pro-Marguerite d'Anjou! Personally, I think she was a marvelous woman. I do hope to one day find a biography or something that has something positive to say about her, not drape her with old Yorkist and Shakespearean slander. I am curious though as to why the Tudors would dislike her and encourage the bad rumours about her, if she was the one, though she was a woman, who had upheld the Lancastrian cause for so long?