On May 27, 1444 an Englishman named John Beaufort, Duke of Somerset died at the age of 40. Ever since then, the question has been raised whether or not his death was a suicide. While it’s impossible to answer the question in complete confidence, it’s significant that the notion was initially floated by contemporaries and the events leading up to it played a considerable role in the political ecosystem leading up to the Wars of the Roses.
In the usurpation of Richard II’s throne in 1399 and the establishment of the House of Lancaster, much credit is given to Henry IV (obviously) and his father, John of Gaunt. But it’s worth recognizing that without the wealth and inheritance of Blanche of Lancaster, neither would have been as well-positioned to challenge their Plantagenet cousins.
Blanche was born in March 1347 to Henry of Grosmont, Duke of Lancaster and Isabel de Beaumont. She was the youngest of two daughters, her elder sister, Maud, having been born in 1339. Given the gap between the two girls’ birth and the lack of subsequent children, including a male heir, it’s clear that the couple suffered from fertility issues, a situation that led to their daughters growing up to be extremely desirable heiresses on the English marriage market.
The pairing of John, Duke of Bedford and Jacquetta of Luxembourg is one which never fails to jar me in hindsight. What are the odds that the Duke’s second wife would go on to become the mother of a queen of England via her own second marriage, particularly given the outrageousness of each match? Well, they’re nil. Much like how it can still be difficult to fathom that the marriage of Katherine of Valois’s that became most dynastically significant was hers to Owen Tudor and not Henry V.
Today in 1471 the Battle of Barnet was fought in England between the House of York’s Edward IV and the House of Lancaster’s Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. The battle resulted in Lancaster’s defeat and Warwick, the “Kingmaker,” was killed while attempting to escape the field. At the time of the battle, Edward IV had recently been deposed thanks to Warwick’s betrayal when he defected to the Lancastrian cause, turning his back on the House and family on which he had built his career.
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.
In the long list of things that made Marguerite of Anjou’s life tragic is the fact that after waiting eight years for any sign of a much-needed heir, her husband, Henry VI, would go “mad” when she was seven months pregnant, turning what should have been a time of genuine celebration into a period of incredible stress and political uncertainty.
By 1453 Henry desperately needed a son. He was a weak king, controlled by a coterie of unpopular men with varying degrees of skill, and married to a Frenchwoman who many saw as a tangible symbol of England giving up its right in France. That the marriage was fruitless certainly didn’t help matters, particularly when Henry’s closest heirs were his half-brothers, Edmund and Jasper Tudor, born from his mother’s second marriage to a Welshman in her household, or his cousin, Richard, Duke of York, who was older than him by a decade and politically opposed to nearly all of his government’s policies.
But Marguerite was no traditional queen consort and it would be this period of time which mobilized her into a woman who made no pretense about actively politicking on behalf of her family’s interests.
Katherine of Valois was only queen for 26 months before Henry V died unexpectedly in France and she was suddenly tasked with the lofty job of mothering the king of England and France, staying out of the way and lending her hand as Christendom’s greatest ornament, as needed. Don’t be jealous.
Needless to say, in that short window of time, Katherine didn’t have much opportunity to play at being the king’s wife, but her coronation did provide an opportunity for her to carry out a traditional act of queen consort: Pleading for mercy on behalf of her husband’s prisoners.
In the midst of England’s Hundred Years’ War with France, it secured a shockingly long-lasting alliance with Portugal that would begin in the 14th century and last until the Napoleonic Wars of the 19th. At its center was the marriage of Philippa of Lancaster, granddaughter of England’s King Edward III, to Portugal’s King Juan I. Their children would become known as the “Illustrious Generation” and lead the country into one of its most profitable and historically significant eras.
On this day in 1403 Henry IV, King of England married Jeanne of Navarre, Dowager Duchess of Brittany at Winchester Cathedral. A little less than three weeks later she would make her formal entry into London and be crowned queen at Westminster Abbey. Henry’s new wife received mix reviews: Popular enough within the family, Jeanne had the misfortune of arriving in England in the midst of a surge of nationalism, which made the public wary of her Breton entourage and French family ties.
It was a second marriage for them both. Henry’s first wife, Mary de Bohun, had died in 1394, before he ascended the throne. From their marriage he had six children ranging from the ages of nine to 17 – a significant consideration in Henry taking a second wife was less in securing more children, as he had already four sons, but in providing his court with a feminine presence. Jeanne, for her part, had been married to Jean IV, Duke of Brittany for 13 years, a union which provided nine children.
When Jean IV died on November 1, 1399, her eldest son was only 10 and it fell to Jeanne to act as regent for him until he came of age. It was this same year that Henry IV became king, “usurping” the throne from his cousin, the last Plantagenet monarch, Richard II. Once crowned, and once Jeanne had been widowed, Henry proposed marriage and was well-received. Indeed, the couple already knew each other, since prior to becoming king, Henry had been banished from England by Richard II and spent some time at the Breton court. Notably, this match is often referred to as a marriage of preference, as opposed to diplomatic necessity.
I almost started this post with “Poor Henry VI,” but that’s debatable, isn’t it? Even today, historians question whether Henry was hapless, pious, unlucky or all three. In any event, he wasn’t a very good king, which is remarkable only because he never knew another existence. He would ascend the English throne on August 31, 1422 when his father, one of England’s most famous and beloved kings, Henry V, died in France at the age of 36. Henry was eight months old, having been born the previous winter at Windsor Castle to his mother, Katherine of Valois.
But fate wasn’t done with the infant king yet: Two months later, on October 22, 1422, his maternal grandfather, King Charles VI of France, died as well. Under the Treaty of Troyes, which had been signed by England, France and Burgundy in June 1420 – and contracted his parents into marriage – Henry also inherited the French throne, now ruling over a dual empire constructed by a father not around to execute it.
What’s remarkable about this period of time is to understand the magnitude of the political situation the men of Henry VI’s early government faced and how extraordinary it is that they were largely able to peacefully transfer its reins to the King when he came of age. It’s testament to their commitment to crown and country, particularly when compared to the minority governments of other young kings before and after Henry. In fact, it was nothing short of a stunning display of patriotism.