This past Wednesday (March 23rd) marked the anniversary of Marguerite of Anjou’s birthday. Wife of Henry VI and pivotal figure in the so-called Wars of the Roses, Marguerite enjoyed a fair amount of notoriety in life, and has seen her reputation molded to reflect the ethos of the time. Today, when there is greater room, and perhaps almost a demand for stronger women, one version of Marguerite has been allowed to emerge: the politico, the matriarch, the leader asserting herself in the masculine world of a Medieval court.
We know more about Marguerite than we do about many of her peers, including her predecessor and successor, Katherine of Valois and Elizabeth Woodville, respectively. Her activity was well-documented and she was active enough that there was enough to record. You can glean a great deal from those actions – what she chose to do speaks to her thought process, but it doesn’t tell the complete story. And, indeed, what’s missing from the story of Marguerite is that we have no idea how much she wanted to take on the role that she did. We know only that when push came to shove, she chose to protect her son’s birthright, and before that she chose to stand up for her husband in the best way she knew how.
Was she effective? Debatable, but the fact of the matter is Marguerite was French through and through and she never understood the emotional current of English politics.
But it wasn’t Marguerite’s nationality which prompted her to ride out before armies or fundraise or barter, it was her upbringing. More specifically, it was the example set for her by her mother, Isabelle of Lorraine, and her paternal grandmother, Yolande of Aragon. Both women were put in the position of protecting their children’s inheritance in the wake of absent husbands; both women occupied roles that were classically considered to be masculine. Thus, for all that Marguerite raised eyebrows throughout Christendom at the time, to her, she was likely taking steps that didn’t seem wholly unnatural to her.
Her grandmother, Yolande, was widowed in 1417 and left in the position of managing her husband’s territories on behalf of her still-minor son, Louis III. Her daughter was married as a child to Charles of Valois, youngest son of King Charles VI of France and Isabeau of Bavaria (and brother to Katherine of Valois, Marguerite’s future mother-in-law). In 1417 he became the dauphin, and in 1422 he, in theory, inherited the French throne – in theory, because by the Treaty of Troyes that married his sister, Katherine, to King Henry V of England he was disinherited in the culmination of England’s “reverse conquest.” But Yolande was having none of it; she housed Charles and counselled him while he bided his time until the English had exhausted and impoverished themselves and was by his side when he finally took back his birthright. (Joan of Arc helped a bit too.)
Isabelle’s experience was slightly less lofty. Her husband, Rene of Anjou, was captured in battle in 1431 and she spent the 1430s fighting to establish her claim to the throne of Naples with him only occasionally by her side. Their war would end in defeat, which was perhaps just as well for Rene as he was a better politician than soldier, but for Isabelle it was a crushing defeat. She rode out before armies, sold her jewelry and plate to pay for weapons and soldiers and had a shrewd enough mind that she likely would have made a decent ruler on her own. In theory, of course, for it’s equally as likely she was much like her daughter.
So, these women were Marguerite’s templates, but the question is: Which one molded her directly? Yolande died on December 14, 1442 in Anjou when Marguerite was 12 years old, while in the decade leading up to that, Isabelle would have been living in southern France and Italy. Thus, neither woman lived together and it’s unclear who actually raised Marguerite.
Indeed, it’s only been fairly recently that a birth year was fully nailed down for Henry VI’s consort. Traditionally it had been given as March 23, 1429, but more recent scholarship has placed it a year later on March 23, 1430. It’s not a particularly significant jump, but it does underscore her youth when she was in England – married at 15, a mother at 23, exiled from England by 31. She would die, impoverished, forgotten and alone in 1482, at just 52 years of age.
So, what did the beginning look like? It’s unclear where Marguerite spent her childhood. She was born in Ponte-a-Mousson in Lorraine in her parents’ household, a year before her father was captured. She joined three, possibly four, older siblings, all of whom would live until at least adolescence. But Marguerite would be the last child of her parents who lived; younger siblings who were born between 1431 and c. 1437 would all die before leaving the nursery. And thanks to Rene’s captivity, any sense of domesticity that might have existed before Marguerite’s birth was dashed within months. Her older sister, Yolande, was betrothed as a child to Ferry de Vaudemont, son of the man attempting to wrestle Isabelle’s birthright from her, in an attempt to negotiate for Rene’s freedom. Her older brothers, Jean and Louis, would similarly take their place alongside, and in the stead of, their father as he sought to barter his way out of Burgundian captivity.
There is a theory that in all of this chaos, Isabelle sent Marguerite away in the hopes of keeping her safe and ensuring she had a stable upbringing and education. However, instead of a convent – the sort to which Katherine of Valois was sent for similar reasons a generation before – Isabelle sent her to Yolande. It’s a tempting theory, placing two of the most famous female figures of the 15th century under one roof, allowing one to draw the conclusion that Marguerite honed her political instincts, intellect and independence at the foot of her estimable grandmother. But is it true?
It’s actually entirely possible. After all, it makes a certain amount of sense. Even after Rene left Burgundy a free man he made a long stop in Anjou before meeting his wife in Naples – he had good reason to do this beyond family, however, for while captive his childless older brother died and he had inherited all of his land and titles. But it’s certainly compelling to think it gave him an opportunity to not only see his mother, but his daughter, if she had already been moved there. And once he returned to Naples, he and Isabelle were in the throes of a military campaign in what was essentially a foreign city, for all that it was “theirs.” A young child, particularly a girl, would have been, frankly, an inconvenience.
But it’s also entirely possible that Marguerite was bounced around Naples for a few years in her youth. And perhaps it’s that experience in her formative years that steeled her for a very similar experience in adulthood once civil war broke out in England in the 1450s. Certainly she exhibited many of the same traits as her mother when she found herself in the position of having to carry the House of Lancaster, at least nominally.
Some of what has rooted her to Anjou has been the fact that marriage negotiations were considered by Yolande, but much of that was connected to Rene’s captivity, in which Yolande was closely involved. The negotiations that weren’t – the future Frederick III, Holy Roman Emperor, for example – could also have been managed by Yolande without necessarily indicating Marguerite was under her roof. Certainly with Rene and Isabelle gone, Yolande was essentially still serving as the family’s figurehead in France. She would have taken a more than passing interest in the marriage alliance her son’s only unmarried daughter represented.
The only thing we know for certain is that by 1443 the Naples campaign had come to a close, Yolande was dead and Marguerite joined the court of her aunt and uncle, Queen Marie of Anjou and King Charles VII. It was there that she became acquainted with the deceased King James I’s daughter, Margaret Stewart, the dauphine. And her cousin, Louis, the dauphin, the future King Louis XI, who would play such an important role in her life in the 1460s and 1470s. Within a year at court, she would be betrothed to King Henry VI of England and make a more illustrious match than Yolande or Isabelle could have foretold.
Illustrious, and perhaps also dubious, given how both women likely felt about England. Reportedly Marguerite was bestowed the honor of marrying England despite her lack of dowry and relatively minor parentage (for a future queen consort) because Charles wasn’t willing to gamble one of his own daughters. A niece by marriage he could spare, and Marguerite’s parents certainly weren’t going to be able to do better for her. That it turned into such a disaster couldn’t have been known, and certainly not from across the Channel. But as Marguerite would prove, whatever her upbringing had been, she was more than capable of handling the challenge.