Biography of Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI's Queen

Margaret of Anjou and her court, from a costume book by Henry Shaw, 1843

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Margaret of Anjou (March 23, 1429–August 25, 1482) was the queen consort of Henry VI of England and a leader of the Lancastrian side in the Wars of the Roses (1455–1485), a series of battles for the English throne between the houses of York and Lancaster, both of which descended from Edward III. Her marriage to the ineffectual, mentally unbalanced Henry VI was arranged as part of a truce in another conflict, the Hundred Years’ War between France and England. Margaret appears many times in William Shakespeare's history plays.

Fast Facts: Margaret of Anjou

  • Known For: Henry VI's queen and a fierce partisan
  • Also Known As: Queen Margaret
  • Born: March 23, 1429, probably in Pont-à-Mousson, France
  • Parents: René I, Count of Anjou; Isabella, duchess of Lorraine
  • Died: Aug. 25, 1482 in Anjou province, France
  • Spouse: Henry VI
  • Child: Edward

Early Life

Margaret of Anjou was born on March 23, 1429, probably in Pont-à-Mousson, France, in the Lorraine region. She was raised in the chaos of a family feud between her father and her father's uncle in which her father, René I, Count of Anjou and King of Naples and Sicily, was imprisoned for some years.

Her mother Isabella, duchess of Lorraine in her own right, was well educated for her time. Because Margaret spent much of her childhood in the company of her mother and her father's mother, Yolande of Aragon, Margaret was well educated as well.

Marriage to Henry VI

On April 23, 1445, Margaret married Henry VI of England. Her marriage to Henry was arranged by William de la Pole, later duke of Suffolk, part of the Lancastrian party in the Wars of the Roses. The marriage defeated plans by the House of York, the opposing side, to find a bride for Henry. The wars were named many years afterward from the symbols of the contending parties: the white rose of York and the red of Lancaster.

The king of France negotiated Margaret's marriage as part of the Truce of Tours, which gave control of Anjou back to France and provided for peace between England and France, temporarily suspending the fighting known later as the Hundred Years' War. Margaret was crowned at Westminster Abbey.

Henry had inherited his crown when he was an infant, becoming king of England and claiming kingship of France. The French dauphin Charles was crowned as Charles VII with the aid of Joan of Arc in 1429, and Henry had lost most of France by 1453. During Henry's youth, he had been educated and raised by Lancastrians while the duke of York, Henry's uncle, held the power as protector.

Margaret played a significant role in her husband's reign, responsible for raising taxes and for match-making among the aristocracy. In 1448, she founded Queen's College, Cambridge.

Birth of an Heir

In 1453, Henry was taken ill with what has usually been described as a bout of insanity; Richard, duke of York, again became protector. But Margaret of Anjou gave birth to a son, Edward, on Oct. 13, 1451, and the duke of York was no longer heir to the throne.

Rumors later surfaced—useful to the Yorkists—that Henry was unable to father a child and that Margaret's son must be illegitimate.

Wars of the Roses Begin

After Henry recovered in 1454, Margaret became involved in Lancastrian politics, defending her son's claim as the rightful heir. Between different claims to succession and the scandal of Margaret's active role in leadership, the Wars of the Roses began at the battle of St. Albans in 1455.

Margaret took an active role in the struggle. She outlawed the Yorkist leaders in 1459, refusing recognition of York as Henry's heir. In 1460, York was killed. His son Edward, then duke of York and later Edward IV, allied with Richard Neville, earl of Warwick, as leaders of the Yorkist party.

In 1461, the Lancastrians were defeated at Towton. Edward, son of the late duke of York, became king. Margaret, Henry, and their son went to Scotland; Margaret then went to France and helped arrange French support for an invasion of England, but the forces failed in 1463. Henry was captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1465.

Warwick, called "Kingmaker," helped Edward IV in his initial victory over Henry VI. After a falling out with Edward, Warwick changed sides and supported Margaret in her cause to restore Henry VI to the throne, which they succeeded in doing in 1470.

Warwick's daughter Isabella Neville was married to George, duke of Clarence, son of the late Richard, duke of York. Clarence was the brother of Edward IV and also brother of the next king, Richard III. In 1470, Warwick married (or perhaps formally betrothed) his second daughter Anne Neville to Edward, prince of Wales, son of Margaret and Henry VI, so both Warwick's bases were covered.

Defeat and Death

Margaret returned to England on April 14, 1471, and on the same day, Warwick was killed at Barnet. In May 1471, Margaret and her supporters were defeated at the battle of Tewkesbury, where Margaret was taken prisoner and her son Edward was killed. Soon afterward her husband, Henry VI, died in the Tower of London, presumably murdered.

Margaret was imprisoned in England for five years. In 1476, the king of France paid a ransom to England for her, and she returned to France, where she lived in poverty until her death on Aug. 25, 1482, in Anjou.

Legacy

As Margaret and later Queen Margaret, Margaret of Anjou has played major roles in various fictional accounts of the tumultuous era. She is a character in four of William Shakespeare's plays, all three "Henry VI" plays and "Richard III." Shakespeare compressed and changed events, either because his sources were incorrect or for the sake of the literary plot, so Margaret's representations in Shakespeare are more iconic than historical.

The queen, a fierce fighter for her son, her husband, and the House of Lancaster, was described as such in Shakespeare's "The Third Part of King Henry VI":

"She-wolf of France, but worse than wolves of France,
Whose tongue more poisons than the adder's tooth"

Always strong-willed and ambitious, Margaret was relentless in her efforts to secure the crown for her son, but she ultimately failed. Her fierce partisanship embittered her enemies, and the Yorkists didn't hesitate to allege that her son was a bastard.

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