The Fidelity of Marguerite of Anjou

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Henry VI’s wife, Marguerite of Anjou’s legacy has been tinged with the question mark of infidelity since her own time. Assessing “why” or attempting to suss out the veracity of those accusations is more complicated than simply picking apart her relationships with the various men put forth as contenders, because the charges – whether true or not – are politically motivated. But dismissing them as scurrilous claims by her enemies is also not so easy given the nature of her marriage – or rather, the nature of her husband. Today, most of us look back at the hand of cards Marguerite was dealt and think something along the lines of, “Well, if she did, I don’t blame her.”

So, first, let’s put her marriage in context. Marguerite married Henry VI in May 1445 when she was 15 years old and he was 23. Henry had sat on the throne since he was less than nine months old thanks to the premature death of his father, Henry V, in 1422, an event quickly followed by the death of his maternal grandfather, Charles VI of France. Due to England’s conquest of huge swathes of France and the Treaty of Troyes which had named Henry V his father’s-in-law heir, the young Henry VI became the king of a dual empire before he could walk or talk. By the time he came of age in 1437, the power dynamics of the continent had shifted, France and Burgundy had made peace and England was fighting to keep hold of a more modest expanse of territory.

England was also in no position to continue war, particularly a war it had little chance of winning. This was not, however, a universally endorsed sentiment and the split on that issue directly led to the factionalism that brought on the Wars of the Roses. Those pushing for peace were in favor of Henry marrying a French princess, ensuring some sort of agreement with Charles VII. The ideal match would have been with one of Charles VII’s daughters, however the party line is that Charles hesitated to offer one because he knew full well how tenuous whatever peace hashed out with the English would be. Instead his niece by marriage was proffered – Marguerite was the daughter of Charles VII’s wife’s brother. The marriage contract worked out did little to help the English, who negotiated as though they were on their back foot.

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A critical tenant of the contract was that England gave up Maine and Anjou, two territories that rightfully belonged to Marguerite’s father. Ceding more land after the losses in the 1430s wouldn’t be popular back home, so the terms of the agreement were kept secret, spearheaded by William de la Pole, Marquess of Suffolk (later duke). Even so, Marguerite’s marriage was decried in Parliament as diplomatically worthless by Henry’s uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, and it wasn’t popular with the general public. Marguerite’s symbolic power was further undermined when she arrived to England ill and had to be carried to shore by Suffolk. Suffolk’s role in all of this, his close friendship with Marguerite, his poor relationship with the Duke of York and general dissatisfaction with the government led to his death in early 1450.

Which brings us to the Duke of York. At the time of Marguerite’s marriage, York was serving as the Lieutenant of Normandy and living in Rouen with his wife and children. More importantly, as Henry’s cousin, he was the presumed heir so long as Henry was childless. He was also politically opposed to the two men who would become Marguerite’s closest political allies – Suffolk and Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset. As such, he saw a sudden erosion of his power and influence once Henry married, a situation not helped by the fact Somerset frequently warned Henry and Marguerite that York was trying to take their throne.

By the dawn of the 1450s, Marguerite had still not delivered an heir – indeed, she had yet to even conceive, thus leaving the succession an open question. York was certainly a viable option, however given his increasingly poor relationship with the crown, many wondered whether Somerset would be deemed a more appropriate choice. Somerset had royal blood through grandfather, John of Gaunt, who had been a son of Edward III, however while the Beaufort line was legitimized it was also tinged with bastardy. The other option on the table was Henry’s younger half-brother, Edmund Tudor. In 1453, Edmund and his younger brother, Jasper, both joined Henry’s court, were elevated into the peerage and became trusted members of the council. Indeed, for most of the 1450s they (but particularly Jasper) served as a moderating influence on the growing factionalism, acting as mediators between the royal party and York.

It wasn’t until April 1453, after eight years of marriage, that Marguerite finally announced she was pregnant. Four months after that, Henry went “mad,” descending into a state that left him incapable of ruling. Marguerite and Somerset attempted to control the situation and exclude York from gaining power, but Somerset was forced to summon him to London. Marguerite, seven months’ pregnant, soon entered her confinement and a brief pause fell over the chaos and England waited for the delivery of a child.

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Marguerite’s son, Prince Edward

On October 13, Marguerite gave birth to a son at Westminster. He was duly christened Edward after Henry’s favorite saint, however the King was still too unwell to acknowledge the infant as his own. When she had been properly churched, Marguerite immediately re-entered the political arena and through her hat into the ring as regent up against York. York won. Marguerite was put in her place and sent off to Windsor with Henry and Edward, the clear underlying message being that her true role was wife and mother.

But cracks had already started to appear, for Parliament was unclear on what to do about a prince who hadn’t been acknowledged by his father, even if for understandable reasons. In February 1454, in the lead up to York’s proclamation as regent, his followers tried to broach the subject of Edward’s paternity but the matter was swiftly put down and all were made to pay homage to the child as the Prince of Wales.

Yet while the lords might have been loath to officially consider whether the Queen had committed infidelity, it didn’t stop the rumors from circulating. That factor – that these stories actually began during Marguerite’s lifetime and not after her death – is remarkable. There are three reasons for it that jump out at me at first blush.

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Marguerite’s sister, Yolande of Anjou

The first is the eight-year gap between Marguerite’s wedding and Edward’s conception. In a time without reliable birth control and when producing an heir as quickly as possible was the goal, it’s strange that it took so long. It’s further odd that within those eight years there was no sign of any other pregnancy, yet when Marguerite did produce a child he was healthy and easily delivered. In the years after Edward’s birth, when Marguerite and Henry were still living together, there were no further pregnancies. Some have pointed to the fertility of Marguerite’s sister, Yolande, as a useful barometer in measuring Marguerite’s, noting there was a six-year gap between Yolande’s wedding and the birth of her son, Rene. However, there’s not very much known about Yolande’s six children, including a firm birth order or birth dates. Rene might have been the first child, or he might have followed other children who are known to have died in infancy.

A more compelling comparison is actually between Marguerite and York’s wife, Cecily Neville, despite the fact they’re not related. An exact wedding date between York and Cecily isn’t known, but likely occurred around 1429. Their first living child wasn’t born until 1439. There is some evidence that Cecily suffered a miscarriage in 1434 and some of that delay can be attributed to York’s time in France between 1430 – 1432. Even so, for a woman who went on to produce a child every 1-2 years for well over a decade, it’s intriguing as to how York and Cecily could have cohabited for a collective seven years without conceiving when that they didn’t suffer from overarching fertility issues. We don’t know, but the point is, in the absence of firm evidence, Marguerite’s situation certainly wasn’t unprecedented.

The second is that Marguerite showed extreme political favoritism – notable even in a period when the Royal Family wasn’t held to neutrality. She favored York’s opponents, namely Suffolk, Somerset and the Earl of Wiltshire. Because Henry was an ineffective king, Marguerite played a more active role than many other queen consorts, including her deceased mother-in-law, Katherine of Valois. It was a role that she had seen her mother and her grandmother play before her and, given that her marriage was premised on peace with France, was a position she took seriously. As time went on her authority became more pronounced, but she certainly wasn’t a wallflower even in the early days. The reality of that meant she was working with men, corresponding with them, promoting them and protecting them – while necessary, it was also a liability.

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Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset

The third is slightly related and speaks to a larger issue that I think is worth covering in its own post at some point: the House of York regularly used the denigration of women to further their own ambitions. Now, they were hardly the only ones to do this (the House of Lancaster did it too, on occasion), but because of their success, their actions are more potent. In subsequent decades, when the House turned on itself, Cecily Neville would be accused of adultery by her own sons to undermine Edward IV. But in the early 1450s, Marguerite was one of their first victims and she didn’t have much of a defense.  She was French, mostly infertile and playing with politics – she either had to win or she had to be prepared to have her reputation decimated. In Marguerite’s case, she lost.

So, who were the men who were rumored to be Edward’s father? In her own lifetime, there were whispers about Somerset’s son, Henry Beaufort (another Duke of Somerset). He was a few years younger than Marguerite, unmarried and a rising star in his father’s own lifetime. When Edmund was killed in 1455, Henry became the duke and picked up his father’s cause. He led the Lancastrian army through the later 1450s, saw to the death of York in 1460 and followed Marguerite into exile when Henry VI was deposed in 1461. There is an anecdote of this Somerset bragging about his close relationship with Marguerite to Louis XI in France (Marguerite’s first cousin), certainly indicating that something was amiss. Yet this theory is complicated, though not eradicated, by the fact that when Somerset was captured by Yorkists in 1462 he temporarily defected before sneaking back to France in 1463 to rejoin Lancaster. He died at the Battle of Hexham in 1464 and was executed by Edward IV.

But as of 1453 it wasn’t Henry, but Edmund, who led the Beaufort family and it was the latter who was York’s true enemy. Whispers and gossip (though not re: an affair) about Marguerite and Edmund had existed since 1450 when Edmund returned to England from France after heavy losses and Marguerite protected him from punishment. Indeed, the two grew incredibly close in the dire political situation of the early 1450s, including working together when Henry first went mad to hide him and then protect themselves in the fallout. To be clear, Edmund was about 25 years older than Marguerite and had also been rumored to have had a romance with Katherine of Valois – if he did have an affair with Marguerite, then he was 2/2 with queens of England.

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Marguerite of Anjou

The other critical point to consider is that by 1462, Marguerite was living in France with her son, essentially alone. Even so, there weren’t any rumors about her having taken up with one of the Lancastrian lords who followed her abroad, underlining that the rumors were politically motivated. In other words, when she was on the throne, she was worth slandering, but when the Yorkists held power she wasn’t. Her own actions and the company she kept clearly weren’t enough to organically produce whispers about her personal life, making a compelling a case that she likely wasn’t cheating on her husband in full view of their court when they were in power.

Even so, the question remains, is it possible? Sure. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Marguerite had an affair. It’s not completely out of the question that Prince Edward was a bastard. But then again, that’s like saying there’s a chance she was given to worshipping Satan and making virgin sacrifices – it’s almost impossible to prove the negative. Marguerite is not the only woman to have her good name slandered in the midst of political mud slinging, but she is one of the only ones to still have the debate warrant a defense centuries later. The reason for that, frankly, has less to do with the credibility of the claims and more to do with the fact that we have a bit more sympathy looking back on her situation through a post-feminist lens.

But Marguerite didn’t live in the 21st century; she lived in the 15th. And it’s a pretty safe bet that she was faithful to Henry VI during their marriage.

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