We’re picking up where we left off in our coverage of the Wars of the Roses’ first half. You can catch up on 1455 here.
Picking up where we left off on Tuesday, let’s move into 1453 and the events leading into the first half of the “Wars of the Roses.” For a broader analysis of this period, you can read an earlier piece on Henry VI’s mental health and the struggle for the regency here.
Two weeks ago we took a look at the assassination of William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, noting that his unpopularity was wrapped up in the humiliating losses in Normandy under the command of Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset. His death in March 1450 was swiftly followed by the first serious rebellion in Henry VI’s reign – that of a man under the moniker “Jack Cade,” who led an uprising that swept the countryside that summer. It was suppressed and its participants put to death, but an uneasy pallor settled over Henry’s court.
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.”
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 moving towards the Wars of the Roses.
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.
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.