Marguerite of Anjou is, in my opinion, one of the most interesting queen consorts in England’s history. Her marriage, however, started as a glorified insurance policy for her uncle, Charles VII, and resulted in one of the most controversial and dramatic public careers a woman in 15th century Europe ever held. We’ve covered Marguerite on this site a few times, from rumors of her infidelity to her political maneuvers when her husband “went mad” to her mysterious childhood prior to joining French court as a teenager, to name but a few. Today we’re going to get into how it was that she became Henry VI’s wife and the very direct way in which that led to the later civil war that toppled them from their thrones.
Taking a French wife was a long presumed fate for Henry. His own mother, Katherine of Valois, was a French princess whose marriage to his father, Henry V, solidified by the 1420 Treaty of Troyes, created what was essentially an English-run dual empire between the two countries. The glory days of the 1420s were faded by the end of the 1430s thanks to the death of Henry’s uncle, John, the Duke of Bedford, the 1435 Treaty of Arras and a little spurt of history best-summarized as Joan of Arc’s career. Even so, there was still considerable English occupation in “France,” not least of which was Normandy and Aquitaine, and fighting across borders persisted.
Two factions emerged in England, one of which argued for peace with France via a negotiated settlement and the other which argued for continued warfare that insisted on satisfying England’s “rights” in the region. The former was led by Henry’s great-uncle, Cardinal Beaufort, and William de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, while the latter was led by his uncle, Humphrey, the Duke of Gloucester.
After a 15-year minority Henry took control of his government in 1437. By the early 1440s the time had come for him to marry and secure the succession. The Peace Party’s (not an actual name, but what I’m going to call them here for the purposes of clarity) first choice was a daughter of Charles VII, however the name put forth by the French was that of a niece – Marguerite of Anjou. We can safely assume that this was Charles’s way of distancing himself from the alliance since he well-knew that war would continue and placing his own child in the country was too much skin in the game. Marguerite was Charles’s niece by marriage – his wife, Marie of Anjou, was the sister of Marguerite’s father, Rene, titular King of Naples.
The marriage was debated in the parliamentary session of 1443-1444 and fiercely criticized by the Opposition Party. Nevertheless, the Peace Party won out and the Earl of Suffolk was deputized to head an embassy to France in February. The following month the party was formally received in Harfleur and in April, Suffolk and his entourage met Charles and Rene. An offer of marriage was put forth and Rene accepted, though he stated that he was penniless and wouldn’t be able to provide her with a dowry. Instead, France agreed to allow England to keep Normandy and Aquitaine, as well as a handful of landed dukedoms won in the previous reign, while England promised to cede its claim to Maine and Anjou, land belonging to Marquerite’s father.
In short, England received very little as compared with typical royal marriage treaties. They wanted the union more than France, which France well knew. Throughout this, Marguerite received another (lesser) marriage proposal and Rene pretended to entertain it just to hold the English’s feet to the fire.
Throughout the negotiations, Marguerite was at Angers with her mother, Isabelle of Lorraine. They joined Rene in May at Tour. It was there, in the Abbey of Beaumont-les-Tours on May 4 where Marguerite first came face-to-face with the English and Suffolk paid homage to her on behalf of her future people.
Rene wasn’t lying when he said he was penniless, though. To fund Marguerite’s trousseau he appealed to the French clergy requesting a tenth and a half of their revenue. Even so, she was woefully unprepared in materials things compared to her forbears.
The marriage treaty, the Treaty of Tours, was signed on May 22, 1444. Finalized, the English returned home, however the tenets of the treaty, specifically the loss of Maine and Anjou, were withheld from the public. This would eventually be Suffolk’s downfall, but in the short-term he was made a Marquess for his trouble.
The English didn’t return until November, this time including a group of women who made up the leading ladies of Henry’s court, and a few of whom would end up serving the new queen. Their head was Suffolk’s wife, Alice Chaucer, granddaughter of the famous poet, Geoffrey Chaucer.
In February, court moved to Nancy for the proxy wedding. From that point onward, 15-year-old Marguerite was Queen of England, despite having not yet met her husband. Charles took leave of his niece outside of Nancy, while on March 15, 1445 she made her official entry into Paris and received a ceremonial welcome in the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Here, she was officially placed into English custody, changing hands from her brother, Jean, the Duke of Calabria to Suffolk.
On her way to Pontoise in the next leg of her journey, Marguerite was met by Richard, Duke of York, then Lieutenant of Normandy. This marked the first meeting between the future foes, however at this point in their relationship all was quiet on the [Norman] front and he gifted her a palfrey decorated in silver and gold. On March 17, the Duke of Orleans, famous for his dispute in the Burgundian-Armagnac civil war and later imprisonment in England after the Battle of Agincourt, rode with the English to Pontoise. From there, York escorted the Queen to Rouen, England’s capitol for its conquered land.
In Rouen, Marguerite then met York’s wife, Cecily Neville, and may well have been introduced to their young children. The future Edward IV had been born in Rouen in 1442, followed by Edmund in 1443 and Elizabeth in 1444. It’s unclear whether the eldest York child, Anne, born in 1439, had accompanied her parents abroad.
The Channel crossing from France to England likely marked the first time that Suffolk and Marguerite had much “alone” time to the extent they ever did, but it’s interesting to contemplate when and how their friendship grew. Certainly by the summer of 1445 the two were so close that Marguerite was parroting his political views, so it’s tempting to consider at which point he began to share with her the political tension in England, namely Gloucester’s opposition to her and her marriage, which she took personally. Suffolk is sometimes criticized for leading Marguerite astray and making her too partisan, but that’s a bit unfair. Suffolk’s policies – and that of the broader Peace Party – were a natural fit for a girl born and raised in France who likely saw it as her duty to help facilitate friendship between the two countries.
It should also be noted that even if Suffolk gained from Marguerite’s favoritism of him – and he did – she would have been influenced from her own experiences at her uncle’s court. The French monarch was expected to be partisan in a way the English monarch, even in the 15th century, was better-served to steer clear of. Had it not been Suffolk then it would have been the Cardinal (and it was, to a lesser extent) and his nephew, Edmund Beaufort, then Earl of Somerset.
Anyway, Marguerite was violently ill on the Channel crossing – indeed, she was so unwell that when they arrived in England Suffolk had to carry her off the ship when they beached at Porchester on April 9. There was a thunderstorm going on, so no crowds had ventured out to greet her. Instead, the Mayor had ordered piles of carpet laid down and it was to this drear scene that Marguerite made her English debut. When they reached the small cottage at which they spent the night, she fainted and had to be physically put to bed.
The next morning, feeling a bit better, she made her official entry into Southampton. There, she was visited by a squire who handed her a letter. Thinking nothing of it, she kept the squire on his knee while she read its contents and dismissed him. The squire was in fact King Henry, though he apparently didn’t hold the matter against her. We don’t know anything of what the two first thought of the other, but it was then that he introduced her to Cardinal Beaufort and Gloucester. She was warm to the Cardinal and markedly cooler towards Gloucester, thus lending credence to the belief Suffolk had well-briefed her ahead of the audience. The change in tone was not lost on Gloucester.
Henry and Marguerite were married in Titchfield Abbey on April 23. Royal weddings were private affairs in those days, ceremonies often taking place quietly or within private residences. Henry gifted his bride a ring set with rubies, which had been given to him by the Cardinal during his coronation in 1432, however the most notable gift was that of a lion quickly dispatched to the grounds of the Tower of London.
Five days later, Marguerite traveled to Blackheath where she was greeted by the Lord Mayor of London, and from then to Placentria (Greenwhich Palace), which was owned by Gloucester. On May 29, she made her state entry into London, traveling by barge to Southwark and entering via London Bridge. This, not the wedding, was the to-do – the people threw daisies in the air (known as “marguerites” in French), while the fountains spouted wine and ale. The Queen wore a gown of white damask and a coronet set with jewels and rode in a chariot pulled by two white horses.
The next day, she was crowned queen in Westminster, a ceremony followed a banquet within the Palace and three days of jousting and feasting.
And all of that was well and good, but the day of reckoning was coming – England still owed France Maine and Anjou. On July 13, a French embassy arrived in London. They immediately demanded that England cede what was owed, and though Henry and Council swore they would do so, no action was taken. Charles himself wrote to both Henry and Marguerite urging them to honor their promises. In the background, Gloucester made his criticism known, maligning both the treaty and the Queen in which it resulted. So seriously did the royal couple take his derision that Henry took the rare step of publicly putting his uncle down, a bold political statement for him to make against the man who had effectively run his government during his youth.
The following month Henry recalled York as Lieutenant of Normandy, summoning him home. This move has long been marked as one at the behest of Marguerite herself, who had been persuaded to pressure her husband by the Earl of Somerset. Somerset, an ally of the Cardinal and Suffolk, soon became another of Marguerite’s favorite – they grew so close that when Marguerite’s son was born in 1453 he was tagged as the secret father. In fact, this was the first shot across the bow from Lancaster to York in what would eventually build into the Wars of the Roses.
Three months after the envoys left, Rene wrote to his son-in-law asking him to cede Maine and Anjou. A second embassy arrived in London following Henry’s request for an extension of the truce. By then, Marguerite was receiving pressure from all of her French relations. Her lobbying of her husband grew less subtle – at time she threw temper tantrums, at others she met his presence with silence. In short, the matter was undermining the very marriage on which the treaty was premised. Luckily for her (and unfortunately for England), Henry wasn’t the sort of man to be offended by his wife exerting some authority. On December 22 he wrote to Charles and promised to cede the lands on April 30 of the following year.
He (sort of) followed through on this promise. When the due date arrived, Henry sent orders that the English evacuate, however the English Governor defied the order and the citizens celebrated. Afraid of an outright riot that would be even more embarrassing, Henry did nothing. Though Marguerite, Charles and Rene all pressured him to act, no further action was taken. Despite this, an angry Charles agreed to extend the truce until January 1448.
Desperate to maintain ties with her home country and keep good relations, Marguerite proposed a marriage between York’s eldest son, Edward, and Charles’s daughter, Princess Madeleine. Nothing came of it, but given that the boy would eventually depose Henry and marry the infamous Elizabeth Woodville, it’s a hypothetical that is still fascinating to contemplate.
In the meantime, Suffolk was carrying on his own negotiations at the behest of Henry and Marguerite regarding Maine and Anjou. The problem was that he wasn’t actually allowed to do this without the approval of Council or Parliament. Gloucester found out and, disgusted by the entire affair, once again began publicly badmouthing the Peace Party. As for Marguerite, she began to be viewed as the figurehead for a hated policy and her popularity plummeted – within this were rumors that she had taken Suffolk as her lover. Alarmed, Suffolk, Somerset and the Cardinal convinced Henry and Marguerite that Gloucester’s end goal was to seize the throne (debatable).
In February 1447, Parliament met at Bury St Edmunds. Notably, the King and Queen arrived at the head of an army, which was hardly the norm. Gloucester arrived a day later and was summoned into the royal presence. There, he was greeted coldly by his nephew and Suffolk, confidant he had the King on his side, accused him of treason against the crown. Gloucester began to deny the claim and was cut off by the 16-year-old Queen who said, “The King knows your merits, my lord.” He was told to retire to his lodgings while they decided his fate. Once secured there, he was charged with high treason and placed under house arrest.
He remained in that state for 12 days until he was proclaimed dead. Rumors abounded that he had been poisoned or strangled, however given that he was in fact in a coma for three days before he expired the likelier explanation is that he died of a stroke brought on by stress. It’s unclear whether Henry would have gone through with having his uncle executed – of the royal blood, it would have been scandal if he had taken that step and the likelier scenario is that he would have been relegated to live out his days under lock and key.
As for Marguerite, she was given his beloved home of Placentria, on which she quickly began expensive renovations that included having her emblem, the “marguerite,” emblazoned everywhere. In her first political face-off, she had emerged the victor.
That, however, was only the short-term. York, recalled from Normandy against his will, succeeded Gloucester as the head of the rival faction. By the late 1440s he had declared all out political warfare on the Beaufort family, which turned into physical warfare by 1455.
Before that, Suffolk was charged with treason and banished in 1450, in large part due to his secret machinations surrounding the negotiation of Maine and Anjou. On his way out of the country his ship was overtaken and he was murdered.
As for the French lands themselves, Charles finally grew fed up with Henry’s inaction. In February 1448, he led an army and took them by force. Hostility between the two nations was then fully back in swing. By 1453, England had lost all of his French territory save Calais – it was stress over this which is believed to have caused Henry’s descent into insanity that summer.
And Marguerite – well, she would remain wildly unpopular with the English throughout her husband’s reign, particularly in London. Though she fought doggedly on behalf of her son in later years, it’s hard not to think that there might not have been some peace that came from her eventual return to France, broken and penniless, in 1476. She would die in Anjou (a bit ironic, no?) in the summer of 1482.