Anjou: The Last Years of Henry VI’s Queen

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Marguerite of Anjou, consort of Henry VI, dominates England’s history through the first half of the Wars of the Roses and ends abruptly in May 1471. The Battle of Tewkesbury that took place that month brought about the death of some of her greatest supporters, not least of whom was her beloved son, Prince Edward. The House of Lancaster was effectively destroyed – Henry VI was quietly put to death, loyalists fled abroad or pledged allegiance to the House of York and Edward IV reigned safely for the next 12 years.

Her husband and son dead, Marguerite had no further connection to England. Last mentions of her often note that she was held in the Tower of the London and then eventually returned to France, where she died 11 years later. And yet, while her utility to a nation’s history might have evaporated, she did in fact keep living. The last decade plus of her life is made of vaguer stuff than what we have been left from her years in power, but it is still illuminating.

Edward IV indeed relegated Marguerite to the Tower. When she heard the outcome of Tewkesbury, she attempted to flee capture with her daughter-in-law, Anne Neville, but they were apprehended three days later by Sir William Stanley at which point she learned of her son’s death had to be bodily dragged from the priory where she was hiding. Four days after that, she came face to face with Edward IV. She reportedly screamed abuses at him, while he responded mildly that she would be treated honorably. In other words, she had no reason to fear execution.

Instead, she was in the King’s retinue when he entered London victoriously, but as a prisoner. Marguerite had always been loathed by Londoners, and as she was force marched through the city streets she was hurled obscenities while mud and debris were flung at her.

Marguerite was taken to the Tower the next day and informed that her husband had died the night before. She would have well known he had been assassinated, and though she begged to be given custody of his body, it was instead displayed to the public so there could be no question Lancaster had lost, York had won and the war was – for a time, at least – over.

All told, Marguerite’s stay in the Tower was brief – roughly  six weeks. She was quietly moved to Wallingford Castle, then in the custody of Alice Chaucer, Dowager Duchess of Suffolk, which brought about its own irony on myriad fronts. The most obvious was her choice of keeper – Alice was the widow of Marguerite’s one-time most trusted councilor, William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, who had been assassinated some 21 years before during the first blush of the violence that would come during her husband’s reign. Alice had served as her chief lady-in-waiting, and had in fact been appointed to help escort Marguerite when she was a teenage bride back in 1445. (Somewhat poignantly given how much life she had lived by then, Marguerite was only 41 when she was placed under arrest.)

Alice had remained at court after husband’s death, but her attendance was more fleeting and the de la Pole family’s allegiance complicated by the marriage of her son, John de la Pole, to Edward IV’s sister, Elizabeth, in the late 1450s. The timing of that marriage is an interesting one, for Edward IV was not yet on the throne, though the York family was a staunch enemy to the royal family. Whatever John’s political inclinations, he seemed to have an instinct for survival – he remained within the folds of the House of York while his brother-in-law was on the throne, must have overseen the movement of Marguerite to the care of his mother, and yet as we later saw during the events of the 1480s, he was not one to put his neck on the line for either Edward V’s faction or Richard III’s. Unlike nearly every other man of his standing during this period, he survived well into the reign of Henry VII.

By now, Alice was a woman in her 60s and found herself in the inglorious position of guarding her former mistress, a task for which she was paid five marks a week.

The location, too, is notable. Wallingford Castle. Built in the 11th century, the structure has a long – and dark – royal history, having been used intermittently as a prison and once housing Isabelle of France as she launched her invasion to depose her husband, Edward II. More recently, it was a home familiar to Marguerite’s mother-in-law, Katherine of Valois, and in 1438, it briefly housed Katherine’s second husband, Owen Tudor, when, after her death, he was in trouble with the government for having married her.

For the next four years, these two women lived there without disturbance, and unfortunately without having left any clue as to what went on within those walls. Alice died in 1475 and Marguerite’s fortune turned…in theory. Back in the real world, England had decided to launch an invasion of France for reasons that included residual anger at its backing of Marguerite’s cause and the events leading up to Tewkesbury. But England had little appetite for war, even with France, and still less did Edward IV. Older and savvier, he instead negotiated a peace settlement with Louis XI that included the betrothal of Edward’s daughter, Elizabeth of York, with Louis’s son, the future Charles VIII, a generous annuity to England’s coffers and, almost as an afterthought, the return of Marguerite to France in exchange for a ransom.

Marguerite was of no value in England, and she posed no threat to it abroad, so her release meant little to Edward by the summer of 1475. For Marguerite, it meant the chance to return home where her father still lived. Louis, for that matter, was her first cousin – his mother, Marie of Anjou, was sister to Marguerite’s father, Rene. But his reasons weren’t charitable, nor were they familial – Marguerite was still of some value in France.

She landed there in January 1476, and by March, was forced to sign away any inheritance or right she might have to Lorraine through her deceased mother or Anjou, Bar and Provence through her father. In return, she received a pension of 6,000 crowns from her cousin to live on, which provided her with just enough comfort until her death, and Louis with a better shot at absorbing those territories into the crown. Marguerite and her elder sister, Yolande, had outlived all of their brothers, as well as their brother, Jean’s, eldest son, Nicolas, who died in 1473 without an heir.

The duchy of Lorraine, and its title, passed to Yolande in 1473, who duly passed it along to her eldest son, but Marguerite’s actions angered Yolande and the two quarreled, souring what was never a close relationship. Instead, Marguerite turned to her father and wrote to him to request that she be allowed to make her home at his court in Provence. Permission granted, she lived with him and her stepmother, Jeanne de Laval, for the next four years.

Rene passed away in July 1480 – Marguerite was finally and completely without family. Per Louis’s plans, Anjou was absorbed into the crown, while Provence passed to a cousin and Bar to Yolande (who again passed it off to her son). She chose then to return to Anjou, taking up a house – the Chateau de Souzay – owned by Francis de la Vignolles, a man who had faithfully served her father for four decades. There are passing rumors of a romance between the two, but absolutely nothing on which to base them, and while it’s fanciful to want to grant Marguerite some comfort in her last years, it is again the location that sparks interest.

Her choice of Souzay, situated on the south bank of the Loire between Saumur and Chinon is potentially a telling one. It’s never been completely clear where Marguerite spent her childhood – indeed, I once wrote a whole post on the topic. Some say that back in the 1430s, as her parents were caught up in a war over her mother’s claim to Naples, Marguerite lived with her paternal grandmother, the venerable Yolande of Aragon, whose court moved between Angers and Saumur within Anjou. The other theory is that she in fact accompanied her mother into Naples and was caught up in the chaos of her parents’ failed military coup until Yolande of Aragon’s death and their own defeat prompted them to return home. Marguerite’s choice of proximity to Saumur in her last years inclines me to believe she was in fact brought up by her grandmother.

Finally, there is Chinon, a popular site for the French royal court during the reign of her aunt and uncle, Queen Marie and Charles VII. Marguerite lived there with them at court for a period in 1443 and 1444 before her marriage, while Marie and Charles are known to have visited Yolande for an extended stay in 1440. Chinon, too, may have prompted memories of family and happier times for Marguerite.

Her health began to fail shortly after her 52nd birthday in 1482. She wrote her will that August (though she had little to give away) and passed away on the 25th of that month. She was interred in Angers Cathedral alongside her parents. Her remains have subsequently been lost thanks to disturbance during the French Revolution.

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