PRAISE FOR LESLIE CARROLL’S NONFICTION
ALSO BY LESLIE CARROLL
“And love is a thing that can never go wrong; / And I am Marie of Roumania,” the American humorist Dorothy Parker satirically quipped in the Roaring Twenties, when the glamorous sovereign, one of Queen Victoria’s multitudinous grandchildren, was the most famous royal on the planet. The instant recognition of Marie’s name, and her reputation as the victim of an unhappy arranged marriage, have become lost to subsequent generations, but her rocky nuptial road mirrors that of countless royal spouses.
Naturally, their ancient and venerated families expected these unions to be glorious—conferring additional distinction or fame upon their respective dynasties—not to mention “glorious” as in “magnificent” and “grand.” But all too often, the opposite occurred, and the royal marriages that began with such high hopes for the couple and the kingdom became inglorious—bringing shame and dishonor to one or both partners. Their marriages, and by extension their families, were instead disgraced by scandal and reduced to ignominy. Some of the unions profiled in this book were viewed at the time as inglorious because traditional gender roles were reversed, with wives assuming the reins of power. Or because they failed to fulfill their primary contractual duty by remaining childless for years. Or both.
Because these royal unions were intended to be political and dynastic strategic alliances, nearly all of them were arranged, even through the Victorian era and beyond. No one expected the spouses to be in love, or even to love each other, and yet their families and friends would always act surprised when the man and wife barely got along and the marriage failed. A much-anticipated “glorious” life of glamour, wealth, and power was doomed or destroyed, not only by such connubial disasters as adultery or infertility, but by the banalities of real life and the natural emotional reactions to marital neglect. The only reason so many of these unions lasted was because divorce was invariably unthinkable or legally unattainable. The rare royal divorces brought scandal and disgrace on the entire dynasty. As Czar Nicholas II opined—at the end of the nineteenth century—when two of his first cousins horrified the family by calling it a day, the death of a dear loved one would have been preferable to a divorce. One wonders whether Nicholas might have felt differently had he been trapped in a miserable union instead of having the good fortune of wedding his one true love.
Every royal marriage in this volume makes the hit parade of history’s myriad mismatches. And as much as it’s true that some marriages were more terrible than others, it’s hardly surprising that there were so many bad ones; several of the girls were only in their mid-teens when their parents sacrificed them on the altar of matrimony to grooms who were total strangers, barely older than their brides. For centuries, this practice was not considered unusual. Even nowadays, some couples do wed in their late teens. But they usually know each other before they get hitched; and, being commoners, their responsibilities scarcely compare to those of young royals of centuries past.
The idea that these mere adolescents were routinely expected to make the weighty decisions required of governing a kingdom, to lead armies, set policy, and be the arbiters of the nation in fashion and culture is mind-boggling today. Their brains had not yet fully matured; how could they have the requisite judgment to wisely rule? By the time these children—and that’s what they were—had wed at the age of fifteen or sixteen, they had reached their legal, if not emotional, adulthood, and no longer had a regent to do the heavy lifting. Yes, they had ministers, and in some situations there was a parliament, but the monarch had a tremendous amount of authority and, in many cases, the last word.
When you add to the burden of king- or queenship that of parenthood at such a tender age, as well as the fact that there was usually no rapport between the spouses, it’s no wonder so many of these marriages were miserable. But what if there were no children—a different problem altogether? Royal wives had one major duty, even if they were the rulers: to bear an heir for the kingdom. When trouble in the bedroom, for any number of reasons, resulted in childlessness for an extended number of years, or even for the duration of the marriage, it was the wife who was blamed. She could be sent back to her native land in humiliated disgrace or shoved into a convent and forced to become an abbess—the inglorious marriage annulled so that her husband could try again with a more potentially fertile womb. The world would know that she had failed her spouse, her family, and her country.
More often, however, the couples remained together, although some wives might have found one of the prior alternatives preferable to the daily torment they endured within their marriage. Royal women were expected to accept their husband’s behavior, no matter what he did. If he strayed, whether from frustration, disinterest in her, or a hyperactive libido, not only did propriety demand that she remain faithful to him nonetheless, but she was to turn a blind eye to his infidelities. Some wives even had to tolerate the presence of their husband’s paramours at court, or worse, within their households, feigning cordiality in public while dwelling in a private hell they could never reveal. It often mortified them to be gracious to their husband’s mistresses, and sapped their dignity day by day. Imagine the emotional and psychological cost. But part and parcel of the woman’s role was to put up, shut up, and bear an heir—to be the well-dressed womb with no point of view.
And when she crossed the invisible boundaries prescribed for her sex by evincing an interest in affairs of state or any area perceived to be a man’s sphere, including having the temerity to question her husband’s extramarital infidelities, she was cast as hysterical, a harridan, or an unnatural woman. Society was rarely kind to females, but in many ways, royal women enjoyed an even narrower world with fewer choices than commoners. They could not seek employment or professionally practice a craft. They might become patrons of artists, industries, or charities, but could never be entrepreneurs. It was imperative for a royal wife to be charming and gracious, but if she was outspoken or had strong opinions, she was viewed as a meddler. She was supposed to be elegant, but if she was too glamorous or flamboyant, she was derided for behaving like a royal mistress.
Yet many of the queens and other first ladies of their respective realms managed to overcome their marital disappointments in a variety of ways, from taking the reins of power to indulging in adulterous affairs. The aforementioned Marie of Roumania, who was compelled by her mother to wed her jug-eared, shy, unassertive, and boring cousin Ferdinand, became the “face” of her little-known country during the First World War, regaining massive swaths of land during the peace talks at Versailles through her personal charm and what I have dubbed “couture diplomacy”—simply knowing the right thing to wear!
Others became warrior queens like Margaret of Anjou; yoked to the childlike Henry VI of England, whose sudden paralytic illness rendered him incapable of ruling his realm, she raised an army during the Wars of the Roses, hell-bent on saving her husband’s throne.
Some royals were united with men who batted for the other team: For Marie of Roumania’s younger sister Victoria Melita, known as “Ducky,” things didn’t go so swimmingly in the marriage bed. Her first husband, also a first cousin, the Grand Duke of Hesse, preferred footmen and stable boys—which was less of a scandal than Ducky’s subsequent divorce and elopement with another first cousin, a Russian grand duke! The hypocrisy is astounding. Until very recently, divorced persons were personae non grata at the English court and were not even permitted into the Royal Box at Ascot, although for centuries, known adulterers swanned about with impunity within the royal inner circle.
During the seventeenth century, Charles II’s beautiful, high-spirited sister “Minette” wed the younger brother of Louis XIV, her French cousin Philippe d’Orléans, a man who wore more makeup and perfume than she did. Although the duc d’Orléans was able to fulfill his marital duty with Minette, when she died young he didn’t find it as easy to propagate with his second wife, a butch-looking, zaftig German princess. One night, she caught him hanging holy medals about his genitalia, insisting that the hardware enabled him to rise to the necessary level of performance. Philippe’s father, Anne of Austria’s husband, Louis XIII of France, wasn’t particularly interested in women either. It took nearly a quarter century before Anne bore an heir. Although there were a number of miscarriages, absent a live birth she was blamed for the problems in the boudoir, and stigmatized for her barrenness.
In some marriages, the love was hopelessly one-sided. Both England’s Mary I (Henry VIII’s older daughter, known as “Bloody Mary”) and the diminutive Portuguese-born princess Catherine of Braganza were tragically in love with their husbands. But their respective spouses, Philip II of Spain and Charles II, never returned their affection. Nicknamed the “Merry Monarch” for the jubilant and libidinous era inaugurated by his Restoration of the monarchy, Charles went so far as to flaunt his numerous mistresses in front of his love-struck wife for the duration of their twenty-three-year marriage! And Henry VIII’s elder sister Margaret Tudor was the dupe of not one but three husbands who were incapable of fidelity.
At least these women survived to complain about their mistreatment—unlike Lady Jane Grey, wed against her will, and a victim of her parents’ and in-laws’ ambition. Ditto the two gorgeous Medici princesses Isabella Romola de Medici and Eleonora di Garzia di Toledo, who learned the hard way that in Renaissance Italy powerful husbands could behave with impunity—their wives . . . not so much.
Italian men created their own rules, as Marie Antoinette’s elder sister Maria Carolina learned when she wed Ferdinand IV, king of Naples. She had no choice but to feign amusement when he dumped hot pasta on their subjects’ heads at the opera house; and she could only rail at him or wring her hands when he made passes at every signorina in sight. Married to a buffoon, Maria Carolina became the decision maker at a crucial point in Neapolitan history, with Napoleon encroaching from all sides.
An overarching behavioral pattern emerges in many of the unions profiled here. Perhaps it was the fact that these royal couples couldn’t easily extricate themselves from a bad marriage. Consequently, a parabola of matrimonial misery can be drawn, beginning with mutual indifference on the part of the spouses, who in most cases scarcely knew each other, but certainly hadn’t viewed their mates with anything approaching passionate attachment. As the marriage progressed, familiarity did indeed breed contempt, if not utter loathing—often fertile ground for adultery. However, by the end of some of the lengthier marriages, the sparring spouses had become as comfortable together as a pair of bedroom slippers, settling into a benign state of tolerance and acceptance, occasionally sharing a platonic friendship that was solidified by their mutual devotion to their children. By the time death took one of them from the other, the survivor was often surprised by the intensity of his or her grief: It was a poignant realization, but a little too late to do anything about it.
The remarkable real-life stories in Inglorious Royal Marriages are interconnected; among the heroes and heroines of these connubial catastrophes are some of Europe’s most famous monarchs, as well as others whose lives may be less familiar to readers. Providing context and key events of their reigns, including Readeption, Reformation, restorations, and revolutions, this compendium of royal love gone wrong proves that once again, real life is often stranger—and juicier—than fiction!
It is said that history is written by the winners. Given the manner in which both sides of a conflict are often portrayed, this contention is unsurprising. For example, two of the fifteenth century’s biggest losers were England’s unpopular King Henry VI and his French-born wife, Margaret of Anjou. They were on the wrong side of fortune in what was then called the Cousins’ War—a bloody, decades-long dispute that would eventually be known as the Wars of the Roses, after the red and white floral badges adopted by the feuding royal houses of Lancaster and York.
History has not been kind to either spouse. Even Henry’s contemporary chroniclers drew biased portraits, based upon their own partisanship, fear of reprisals, or propaganda generated by years of civil war and multiple shifts in the political landscape, including regime changes.
Henry VI, who ascended the throne at the age of nine months, was the youngest English monarch to wear the crown, and the only one ever to be rightfully acknowledged and crowned as the king of France as well. Nonetheless, he is still perceived as one of the worst, and certainly among the weakest, sovereigns in English history. His reign was thirty-nine long years, and from the time he was a teen, he proved himself to be overly prudish and pious, credulous and malleable. He’s remembered as a failure, the only English king to lose his crown twice, his sovereignty ending in civil war.
Yet where has posterity largely placed the blame for Henry’s catalog of misjudgment and poor governance? On his wife, Margaret of Anjou, “she-wolf of France.”
This slur on Margaret’s character has endured for more than four centuries, and it came from the quill of a dramatist. William Shakespeare’s indelible portrayals of the key figures in the Wars of the Roses have forever shaped the way we view them, and although Shakespeare relied upon contemporary chronicles as a springboard for his history plays, scholars ever since have continued to promulgate his theatrical portrayal of Margaret as fact.
In Henry VI, Part 3, Act I, scene iv, line 110, Shakespeare places the words “She-wolf of France, but worse than wolves of France . . .” into the mouth of Margaret’s greatest enemy, Richard, Duke of York—the father of the man who will one day depose her husband and seize his throne. The “she-wolf” insult, which is utterly in character for the duke, comes at the top of a lengthy diatribe jam-packed with insults against Margaret, blaming her for the death of his teenage son, the Earl of Rutland. Very dramatic in the play, but the real Margaret wasn’t even present when Rutland was slain.
In Act V at line 80 in scene iv, York’s insult will be paralleled when Margaret calls his son, Edward IV, usurper of her husband’s crown, a “wolf.” I’ve yet to come across another analysis of Margaret of Anjou that refers to the other bookend of this lupine metaphor. Instead of recognizing a literary device lifted from a drama, generations of scholars have swallowed the misogynistic invectives spewed in York’s forty-two-line monologue, taking his words at face value. They have reconstructed Margaret’s historical persona based upon an insult uttered by a playwright’s fictional depiction of another historical figure, portrayed in the text as her mortal enemy.
Consequently, based largely on propaganda and dramatizations, we are left with this portrait of Margaret and Henry as a mismatched royal couple: a termagant madly mated to a monk. There are elements of truth to this simplistic synopsis. But the whole story, as one might expect, is much more intriguing and nuanced.
The marriage of Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou is inextricably entwined with the events of the Cousins’ War, the seeds of which were sown before Henry ascended the throne in 1422. While the scope of this chapter is not intended to provide a literal blow-by-blow account of this lengthy conflict, some background information might be helpful.
Flash back in time to the reign of Edward III, which lasted from 1327 to 1377. Edward had thirteen children, five of whom were sons. By making his sons the first English dukes, Edward created a social stratum of royal magnates who wielded significant power and expressed their sibling rivalry in land grabs. Eventually, their fraternal tension would be reduced to two factions: the cousins of the Lancastrian line versus those of the York line, a veritable battle royal for which side of the family had the greater claim to the crown.
The Lancastrians descended from Edward’s third surviving son, John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster, who had inherited that title from his father-in-law. The York branch of the family descended from Edward’s fourth son, Edmund of Langley, Duke of York.
By 1399, Richard II, who was Edward III’s grandson and the son of his eldest boy, Edward, “the Black Prince,” had been on the throne for nearly twenty-two years and had no heir to show for it. That year also marked the death of the powerful John of Gaunt. Gaunt’s son, Henry of Bolingbroke, became the new Duke of Lancaster, and usurped the crown from his cousin Richard, declaring himself King Henry IV.
Henry IV’s grandson was Henry VI, Margaret of Anjou’s husband.
Additionally, because his grandfather had deposed Richard II, many still believed that the Lancastrian Henry VI had no right to wear the crown at all, and they continued to view his whole line as usurpers.
There was a popular saying at the time: “Woe to thee, O land, when thy king is a child.” It was never truer than in the case of tiny Henry VI, whose parents were the English warrior king Henry V and Catherine of Valois, a daughter of the mentally unsound French King Charles VI. In 1420, five years after Henry V vanquished the French in the Battle of Agincourt, the Treaty of Troyes was signed, proclaiming Henry’s offspring the heirs to the French throne, and overlooking Charles’s own son. Charles died on October 11, 1422, less than two months after the infant Henry VI ascended the English throne. Henry VI was then proclaimed king of France as well.
During Henry’s minority, while his uncle Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, acted as his regent and protector of England, France was governed by another regent, his uncle John of Lancaster, the Duke of Bedford. On November 5, 1429, seven-year-old Henry was crowned king of England at Westminster Abbey. On December 16, 1431, he was crowned king of France at Notre Dame—but Bedford had badly miscalculated the mood of the French. Many refused to recognize Henry as their sovereign, and didn’t like being ruled from afar by a little English boy’s regent. They wanted a French grown-up on their own throne, preferring to recognize the dauphin, the son of Charles VI, as King Charles VII of France, despite the fact that the Treaty of Troyes had overlooked him.
In 1435, during renegotiations of the treaty, France completely rejected the pact, Bedford died in the middle of the discussions, and a new concord, the Treaty of Arras, was concluded between former French foes Charles VII and Philip of Burgundy, cutting the Lancastrians out of the picture entirely.
Two years later, sixteen-year-old Henry VI declared himself of age and repurposed his regency council. He also fired his tutor, the Earl of Warwick, from whom he had learned all the arts of chivalry and military strategy. When the time came to utilize these lessons, Henry would evince little interest in employing them.
Unfortunately, Henry lacked the experience and skill to manage England’s nobles, so he tried to buy their support with money and lavish land grants, which his treasury could ill afford. His council cautioned him about such profligacy and urged him to conserve his funds. But Henry was not a strong leader and had tremendous difficulty asserting his authority with the same men who had run things for years during his minority.
Henry inherited a nearly bankrupt treasury, a council split into factions, an increasingly powerful aristocracy, and a corrupt legal system. He also inherited an unwinnable conflict—the so-called Hundred Years’ War, begun by Edward III in 1337 for control of the French throne—that continued to drain England’s resources. Most devastating of all, Henry was essentially powerless to curb any of these problems.
Although he had been a natty dresser as a boy, favoring colorful garments in the latest fashions, around the time he turned sixteen he went through a monkish phase, deciding that his former sartorial indulgences had been a display of worldly vanity. He started wearing long tunics and gowns with round hoods. His entire wardrobe was dark gray. Henry’s courtiers were dismayed by the image he projected, complaining that he dressed “like a townsman.”
Even after his marriage, the king continued to show so little regard for finery that in 1459 he gave his best gown to the prior of St. Albans, but then discovered he had nothing else to wear on state occasions and couldn’t afford to buy a new ensemble! Much to Henry’s annoyance, his treasurer bought back his garment from the prior for fifty marks.
The king’s ascetic wardrobe may have gone hand in glove with his religious outlook as well. By this time, Henry was renowned for his piety. Not only did he view himself as the guardian of public morals, but he practiced what he preached. Henry never swore, nor would he tolerate it from others. Spending the lion’s share of his leisure hours reading religious books and moral tracts, he believed that if his subjects did so, too, their character would be improved by it. And he was, at least compared to other men, extremely prudish. He warned the boys at Eton College, Windsor (which he founded), to stay away from the castle, where they might be corrupted by the courtiers’ debauchery. Nudity offended him, and he vented his displeasure at a lord who produced a Christmas pageant featuring topless dancing girls. The king stormed out of the performance, averting his eyes as he cried, “Fie, fie, for shame!”
He “avoided the company of women,” wrote John Blacman, whose memoir chronicled Henry’s reign, adding that the king was “a pupil of chastity—chaste and pure from the beginning of his days and eschewed all licentiousness in word or deed while he was young.” Even four years after his marriage, when he journeyed to Bath in 1449, Henry was horrified to see men and women bathing naked together in the famous spa waters.
A medieval monarch had to be a brave leader in the field, but Henry VI had no wish to fight against his fellow Christians. He was the first English king since the Norman Conquest never to have led an army against a foreign enemy. Although he desired France as much as his predecessors had, he harbored a distaste for the destruction of war and the devastating loss of life.
Couldn’t France be gained through peaceful means instead?
By 1441, Henry VI had developed, in the words of a contemporary chronicler, “an earnest desire to live under the holy sacrament of marriage.” He doubtless knew his duty to sire an heir, and by this point in time he wasn’t so disinterested in women that looks were unimportant in choosing a bride. He demanded portraits of all prospects.
In order to solidify the peace between their realms after 104 years (and counting) of conflict, Henry recognized that his best alliance, regardless of physical appearance, would be with the French. He viewed the field of France as a vast chessboard. So his first choice was the daughter of the comte d’Armagnac, in order to checkmate Armagnac’s rival, the Duke of Burgundy.
Henry’s chief adviser, his cousin Cardinal Beaufort, proposed another girl instead: the niece of King Charles VII by marriage—Margaret of Anjou. However, Henry still wanted to see the goods before he agreed to the purchase. But how to get a portrait of Margaret?
The following anecdote may have been written much later on, and it probably contains a bit of fictional embellishment, but some historians present it as fact, and it’s a marvelous adventure story, right out of a medieval romaunt.
Living on parole in London was a French chevalier from Argon named Champchevrier. This knight had given his word of honor (his “parole”) to remain in London to Sir John Fastolf, the English knight who had taken him prisoner.
Never mind Champchevrier’s promise to Fastolf (a name, albeit spelled a bit differently, that will be familiar to Shakespeare aficionados): King Henry himself needed a Frenchman! He dispatched Champchevrier on a secret diplomatic mission to Anjou to secure a portrait of his potential bride. The chevalier did so, but the irate Fastolf—who had not been told why his prisoner had “escaped” to France—demanded to know why he’d broken his parole. Sir John then insisted, by the laws of chivalry, that his prisoner be returned to him!
What happened next was a veritable comedy of errors.
Believed to have violated his parole to Sir John Fastolf, Champchevrier was arrested in France—with Margaret of Anjou’s portrait on him. This was highly irregular. After the French authorities were willing to grant his desperate request to see the king of France, the chevalier told Charles VII that he was not an escaped parolee, but was on a secret diplomatic mission from Henry VI. He produced the portrait of Charles’s niece and stated the reason for his flight from England. Happy to consider a marriage between Margaret and Henry, Charles released Champchevrier and sent the knight on his merrie way back to olde England.
Receiving the portrait in October 1443, Henry VI apparently became uncharacteristically smitten with the image of “the excellent, magnificent, and very bright Margaret,” who was all of thirteen years old at the time. He contacted the Earl of Suffolk to go ahead and broker his marital alliance.
Unfortunately, the princess, who still bore her childhood nickname, la petite créature, wasn’t that much of a catch. Although her uncle the king was the man who by popular acclaim and diplomatic treaty had nudged Henry off the French throne, her father, the nearly impoverished René, duc d’Anjou, was only the titular king of Naples and Sicily, Jerusalem and Hungary. He didn’t actually wear the crowns of any of those realms, and in the case of Naples he’d been compelled to cede the title to Alfonso of Aragon. Even René’s duchy of Anjou had been occupied by the English when he inherited it in 1434.
Margaret’s mother, Isabelle, was the daughter of the duc de Lorraine, Charles the Bold. The women in her family were not only sophisticated and well educated, but they were accustomed to taking the reins of power and assuming authority when necessity demanded it. Her own mother had been such an object lesson; Isabelle had continued to claim her husband’s rights and wage his battles for him while René was a prisoner of war awaiting ransom. Margaret’s paternal grandmother, Yolande of Aragon, whom she lived with for eight years during her childhood, had ruled as regent for her oldest son, resisting the English at her peril by supporting the disinherited dauphin Charles, even marrying him to her daughter Marie. Yolande’s gamble had paid off. The dauphin came out on top; he was now Charles VII of France and Marie was his queen.
Although Henry VI had chosen a bride who would turn out to be an utter mismatch for him in so many respects, in a way he had inadvertently lucked out, because in the long run he could not have made a better selection. Henry was someone who became literally helpless in a crisis, whereas Margaret had not only the temperament but came from a family of women who knew how to meet a challenge head-on.
The betrothal with Margaret was part and parcel of negotiations for a lasting peace treaty between England and France. By January 1444, a cessation of hostilities seemed to be on the horizon, with a summit organized between both sides at which the peace and the king’s marriage plans would be discussed.
Negotiating on England’s behalf, the Earl of Suffolk discovered that René of Anjou lacked the funds to adequately dower his daughter. René also had the chutzpah to demand the counties of Maine and Anjou in exchange for his blessing. But the blood of countless fathers, husbands, and sons had been shed to conquer these territories for England. René’s terms, plus an impoverished Margaret, would make Henry’s countrymen livid.
But peace at any price was Henry’s goal. So he and his council kept the terms of his marriage negotiations a secret from his subjects. At least England got to retain Normandy in the north and Aquitaine in the south. Henry also agreed to waive his right to Margaret’s dowry and promised to pay for their wedding out of his privy purse.
Only a temporary truce was concluded through these negotiations, but the union of Henry and Margaret was viewed as a first step down the path to peace. The terms of the royal marriage were cemented by the Treaty of Tours, signed on May 22, 1422.
In order to save his future son-in-law some face (and money), at the eleventh hour the father of the bride appealed to the clergy of Anjou to kick in a few sous toward his daughter’s nuptials. They spent 10.5 percent of their revenues to purchase a trousseau for Margaret and to pay for her betrothal celebration on French soil. Two days after the treaty was signed, Margaret and Henry were formally betrothed in Tours, amid tremendous pomp and ceremony, with Suffolk representing Henry.
Margaret’s proxy wedding to Henry didn’t take place until March 1445, when the French court, itinerant as most medieval courts were, had moved to Nancy. Once again, the Earl of Suffolk stood in for Henry at the altar. Margaret was gowned in white satin embroidered with gold and silver marguerites (the French word for daisies), her personal emblem. Marguerites were also embroidered on banners and hangings and on the bride’s other garments.
An opulent banquet followed the ceremony, inaugurating a week of celebratory feasting and tournaments—presided over not by Margaret’s aunt, queen Marie, but by Charles VII’s glamorous blond mistress, Agnès Sorel. (Charles’s love affair with Agnès is profiled in another volume in this series, Royal Romances.)
Although Henry’s treasury was threadbare, he never stinted on gifts for his wife, even before their wedding. One was a hackney, “splendidly equipped, with an empty saddle,” which he had sent to Rouen, where Margaret was enjoying some of the proxy wedding festivities prior to her departure for England.
On March 15, 1445, Margaret entered Paris. On Henry’s behalf, she was welcomed by the thirty-three-year-old Richard, Duke of York, and a parade of six hundred archers. York presented Margaret with another one of Henry’s wedding gifts: a palfrey handsomely caparisoned in crimson and gold velvet embellished with golden roses.
As the church bells pealed, Margaret’s entourage promenaded through the streets of the capital. From there, her party continued to make its way toward the coast. She was York’s guest at Pontoise, where he hosted two state dinners in her honor. At the time, their relationship was perfectly civil—although some two decades later, the pair would become mortal enemies.
England’s Parliament had voted Henry VI more than £5,129 to bring his bride across the Channel, but expenses had skyrocketed, with delays due to weather, and the cost of transporting an entourage of hundreds of noblemen and women in fifty-six ships.
The Earl of Suffolk coached Margaret on her new role as queen of England prior to her departure from France. Although she spoke no English, she would turn out to be a quick student of her new tongue. Aware of the young queen’s impoverished state—not merely her lack of a dowry, but her unglamorous attire—the earl was concerned that despite the contribution from her local clergy, fifteen-year-old Margaret was being sent abroad looking more like a pauper than a princess. The trousseau was paltry, although a merchant of Angers had contributed eleven ells of violet and crimson cloth of gold at thirty crowns per ell, plus a thousand small pieces of fur, and another furrier had furnished 120 pelts of white fur edging to embellish her robes.
Her arrival came on the heels of an embarrassing scandal. Margaret was so poor that she had to pawn some of her silver plate to pay her sailors’ wages, and was compelled to purchase secondhand plate to replace it when she arrived at Rouen. Already there was grumbling in England that René of Anjou had “too short a purse to send his daughter honourably to the King, her spouse.” An early foe of the royal marriage was Henry’s uncle and former regent, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, who complained that Parliament had “bought a queen not worth ten marks.”
Despite the massive cost overruns in bringing his bride to England, Henry wanted to see her well bestowed, authorizing the treasurer of his exchequer to deliver a number of jewelry items, including “Rubees, Perles,” diamonds, and “greet Saphurs” (great sapphires) to “oure right entierly Welbeloved Wyf the Queene.”
Meanwhile, Margaret’s bridegroom so anxiously awaited her arrival that he disguised himself as a squire so that he could deliver a letter to her. As she perused it, he observed her. According to the Milanese ambassador, Henry was convinced that “a woman may be seen over well when she reads a letter.”
Some scholars claim that Margaret became so absorbed in the correspondence that she scarcely noticed the messenger; nor did she appreciate Henry’s trick. The Milanese ambassador reported that “the Queen was vexed at not having known it, because she had kept him on his knees.” However, “Afterwards the King wrote to her, and they made great triumphs.”
This messenger-with-a-letter charade was straight out of the playbook of courtly love. Margaret’s father was France’s most renowned poet and troubadour, and she was raised in sophisticated courts. It’s more likely that she knew the game and was playing her part—the innocent damsel caught unawares who is “shocked” when the messenger reveals himself to be her swain.
So, now that the twenty-three-year-old Henry, long in the tooth for a royal bridegroom of his era, finally had the chance to see his queen in person, what did Margaret really look like?
She was only fifteen, which was not unusual for royal brides of the Middle Ages. Beyond that, it is difficult to separate her actual physical characteristics from the usual hyperbolic descriptions of medieval queens and the generic depictions in the fine art of the era. The nineteenth-century historian Georges Chastellain described her as “all that is majestic” in woman, believing her to be one of the most beautiful in the world. “She was indeed a very fair lady, altogether well worth the looking at, and of high bearing withal.” Chastellain’s portrayal of Margaret as “fair” corresponds to the depictions of her as honey haired, because queens of her day were portrayed as earthly representations of the Virgin and generally idealized as blondes, the era’s belle idéale. And most artists who made portraits of Margaret likely never saw her. But it contradicts the Milanese ambassador’s description to his boss’s wife, Bianca Maria Sforza, that the queen of England was “a most handsome woman, though somewhat dark and not so beautiful as your serenity.” So perhaps Margaret had a sallow, if not dusky complexion, and she may have been a brunette.
A contemporary French chronicler, Thomas Basin, described Margaret as “a good-looking and well-developed girl, who was then mature and ripe for marriage.” From this description, which nonetheless remains in the eye of the beholder, one might conjecture that by the age of fifteen, Margaret had the body of a nubile young lady, rather than that of a coltish girl. But we still lack verifiable details on her hair and eye color, or her height and weight. Her personality and temperament, however, were described by Charles, duc d’Orléans, who observed that “this woman excelled all others, as well in beauty as in wit, and was of stomach and courage more like to a man than a woman.”
Margaret would prove to be mercurial, too, known to change her mind “like a weathercock”—a complaint voiced by her male contemporaries. And she could be terribly vindictive to those who crossed her. But she was also fiercely loyal, and chiefly so to her husband, even when his ineffectiveness as a ruler and military leader exasperated her.
Margaret of Anjou had likely been told little about her husband before they met. So what did she see when she first laid eyes on the king of England after her arrival at Southampton on April 9, 1445?
Remarkably, no contemporary physical description of Henry VI survives, other than the observation that he had a childlike face. In 1910, after his skeleton was exhumed, it revealed that he had been well built and about five foot ten, which was considered quite tall for the day, with a fairly small head covered with brown hair. With respect to his personality, fifteenth-century chronicler Philippe de Commynes, who wasn’t born until two years after Henry’s marriage, ungenerously described the king as “a very ignorant and almost simple man,” the word “simple” meaning “gullible” or “guileless” at the time.
Officiated by the king’s confessor, Master William Ayscough, Bishop of Salisbury, the royal wedding took place on April 22, at Titchfield Abbey. Unlike the proxy wedding on French soil, the English ceremony was a quiet affair. Henry had pawned the crown jewels to pay for the event, only to realize that he needed them for the ceremony! So he redeemed the glittering treasures, placing some of his personal jewelry and plate into hock instead. Handsomely reset for her, Margaret’s wedding band was a “ryng of gold, garnished with a fayr rubie” that Henry’s cousin, Cardinal Beaufort, had given to him at his coronation. Clearly clueless regarding the etiquette about bringing wedding gifts to the church, an anonymous admirer gave Margaret a unique present—a pet lion—that was actually brought to the abbey. The king of the beasts was promptly sent to the royal menagerie, located at the Tower of London.
Because the treasury was so low on funds, Margaret would not receive the customary dower for fifteenth-century English queens until eleven months after her wedding. Her dower (the portion of her husband’s property allotted for her use and enjoyment during her widowhood) amounted to ten thousand marks per annum, estates in the midlands worth two thousand pounds per annum, and additional lands in other parts of the kingdom.
On May 28, 1445, Margaret made her state entrance by barge into London, where for the next three days she was feted with numerous pageants and allegorical tableaux emphasizing her role as the bringer of peace and plenty. Lyrical poetry compared her to the Virgin Mary.
The streets of London were abundantly decorated with marguerites, both actual and figurative. But her parade met with a mixed reception. While some cheered her and sported marguerites in their caps, others scowled and grumbled, still smarting over the lack of a dowry from her father.
Nevertheless, Margaret looked positively bridal in a white damask gown, her golden coronet studded with precious gems. A pair of white palfreys whose caparisons matched her ensemble drew her carriage along the route to Westminster Abbey, where she was crowned on May 30, 1445. Three more days of celebration followed.
The royal honeymoon had begun at Titchfield Abbey, but according to one report that has been handed down through history, the newlyweds may not have had much fun, because the bishop had cautioned the groom against self-indulgence. When it came to having his “sport” with his new bride, Ayscough had put the fear of damnation into his protégé, warning Henry not to “come nigh her” any more often than absolutely required for procreative purposes. This admonition makes little sense, however. The bishop understood the importance of siring an heir for the health, security, and stability of the realm. It would, however, take Margaret eight years to conceive, so Henry might not have tried very often after all.
At least he was faithful to her, unlike many a royal husband. Henry also treated Margaret generously and kindly, and according to John Blacman’s memoir, the king “kept his marriage vow wholly and sincerely, even in the absences of the lady,” which “were sometimes very long.” Nor “when they lived together did he use his wife unseemly, but with all honesty and gravity.”
Yet the pair were hardly well mated, despite their mutual respect. Temperamentally, Margaret and Henry were polar opposites, with divergent interests in their leisure activities. Henry preferred to pore over scripture and other pious tracts, while Margaret liked the light and lascivious writings of Boccaccio.
At the outset, these differences didn’t seem to cause much of a problem. During their first several years of marriage, Henry and Margaret spent considerable time together, evidently enjoying each other’s company. At that time, she was no more than a traditional consort, acting as an intercessor and mediator for subjects and servants who sought the king’s ear or his aid. She made philanthropic gifts, distributed patronage, and devoted her energies to the welfare of husband and household. And Margaret performed all her duties well. The one thing that was atypical of her was her failure to provide an heir.
Yet even though she was careful to tread softly, the English resented Margaret from the get-go. She was poor, she was French, and, where one issue was concerned, she was politically active. When it became known that the price of peace between England and France was the forfeiture of the hard-won territories of Maine and Anjou, Margaret was viewed as a meddler, sticking her female nose into the masculine sphere of government when she should have been making babies instead.
In December 1445, when the queen was still a newlywed, she wrote to Charles VII of France, agreeing to do her best to advance the peace process by delivering Maine. Clearly this topic had been a frequent source of discussion between husband and wife. Henry alluded to as much in his subsequent letter to Charles, written on December 22, in which he agreed to surrender Maine to him by April 30, 1446, not only because he desired peace, but “favouring also our most dear and well-beloved companion the queen, who has requested us to do this many times. . . .”
Contrary to the contention put forth by Margaret’s enemies—that the teenage queen nagged her much older husband into such a major foreign policy decision—Henry had already promised the forfeiture of Anjou and Maine as the price of a lasting peace. The correspondence at the end of 1445 was just another step toward transforming words into deeds. And although Margaret was a good daughter and a loyal niece, after she married Henry—and particularly in later years, after the birth of their only son—her primary allegiance was to her husband, and her unceasing aim was to keep the English throne secure for their heir. In acting to return the two provinces to France, she was being less pro-French than pro-Henry. Margaret’s biographer Helen Maurer suggests that she might have been well versed in Christine de Pisan’s Treasure of the City of Ladies, a popular handbook and survival guide for medieval noblewomen that stressed, among other necessary skills and virtues, those of the mediator, playing the yin to her husband’s yang.
Etiquette at the English court was rigid, and Margaret expected to be treated with the same respect and obeisance from her inferiors that they accorded to her husband. Her fans might view this behavior as fair enough, but her enemies saw it as arrogance. The mayor of Coventry was particularly chagrined when Margaret demanded that he carry his mace of office when he was escorting her from his city, even in the king’s absence, and every supplicant seeking aid or redress from her—from the lowliest tradesman to a duchess or prince of the blood—was expected to approach her throne on their knees.
Having grown up poor, for a princess, Margaret soon learned to turn her power and authority as queen into personal financial advantage. Soon after her marriage, she obtained a license to export wool and tin, enabling her to evade customs duties and pocket the profits.
Margaret also introduced France’s art of silk weaving to England, becoming patroness of a guild comprised solely of women, the Sisterhood of Silk Women, located in Spitalfields in the East End of London. Spitalfields silk remained internationally renowned through the nineteenth century. In the furtherance of England’s interests in the textile market, Margaret also paid for the outfitting of merchant ships bound for Mediterranean ports.
Her own wardrobe was fairly modest for a queen. She did wear Venetian silk and cloth of gold, as well as jewelry, but her purchases were not unduly extravagant. However, during the first year of their marriage, Henry ordered extensive, and expensive, renovations to her rooms at Eltham Palace, which boasted their own kitchen and scullery as well as halls for entertaining—and Margaret did love to throw parties. It was common knowledge that her satellite court was much livelier than her husband’s. Henry’s focus was on religion and education instead, founding Eton College and King’s College, Cambridge, although shortly after Henry’s 1448 foundation of the latter institution, Margaret was inspired to found Queens’ College, Cambridge. Henry, however, was actively involved in his educational projects, whereas Margaret does not appear to have taken any further personal interest in her own foundation.
By July 27, 1447, the terms were concluded for Henry to quit delaying and turn over Maine by November 1. On the following day, he nominated commissioners to transfer both Maine and Anjou to Charles VII. The English blamed Margaret for this surrender.
By this time, two of Henry’s most powerful mentors—the Duke of Gloucester and Cardinal Beaufort—had died, and Margaret’s influence on her husband increased. Every time Henry wrote a letter to someone, his queen followed up with a similar missive, demanding that she, too, be kept apprised of events and political matters, particularly if negotiations with France were involved. She also insisted on being kept in the loop with regard to financial and military affairs. All official papers were to be submitted to her for inspection, and even the highest-ranking government officials, including Suffolk, lacked the authority to act without her approval. At the time, she was only eighteen years old!
By the end of 1447, the court party, headed by Margaret and the earls of Suffolk and Somerset, controlled the king and government. However, the queen’s insistence on micromanaging may not have been an effort to meddle or usurp Henry’s authority at all. If the situation were viewed without the lens of a misogynist Francophobic medieval chronicler, it could be argued that Margaret knew her husband and his weaknesses better than anyone, and may have been acting in his best interests by keeping tabs on everything that was going on, making sure that no one else had a chance to control him or try to take over the government and possibly usurp the throne.
The Duke of York, who viewed Somerset as his greatest rival at court, then took it upon himself to campaign for government reform. York saw himself as a loyalist to Henry for wanting to rid the court of corruption. But the opposition, comprised of anyone excluded from the court party, looked to York to lead their faction. That led to Henry removing him from the center of power by appointing him Lord Lieutenant of Ireland for ten years.
By February 1448, when Henry had still not handed over Anjou and Maine, Charles VII took matters into his own hands and besieged the city of Le Mans in Maine. The English forces were unable to hold the city, and on March 16, Henry agreed to formally surrender, but only if the truce between France and England would extend until April 1450.
Predictably, the surrender went over poorly in England. In an effort to smooth things over, Margaret urged Henry to promise compensation to the English landowners who had been dispossessed in Maine and were now returning, landless, to England. Henry pledged, but never paid up, engendering further ill will against the crown.
In the spring of 1448, to reward the leaders of the court party for their service, Henry elevated Somerset from earl to duke. William de la Pole, the Earl of Suffolk, was also made a duke—the first time ducal rank was conferred on anyone other than a member of the royal family. Somerset and Suffolk now shared the same rank as York, who began using the surname Plantagenet, a resounding slap in the face to Henry VI, whose grandfather had snuffed out the last of that line, Richard II, and usurped Richard’s throne.
York saw Somerset’s elevation to a dukedom as a deliberate attempt by the king to block his own dynastic and political ambitions, as well as a prelude to naming Somerset as his heir in the continued absence of offspring. After three years of marriage, the combination of the royal couple’s still-childless state, widespread dislike of Margaret, and Henry’s ineffectiveness as a ruler made fertile ground for the seedlings of civil war. The enmity between York and Somerset now hardened into a deadly rivalry with clear factions. By March 1449, pressures to do something about the situation across the Channel were such that the peace-loving Henry broke the truce with France, authorizing his troops in Breton to attack Fougères. In June, he launched a full-scale attack on Normandy. Charles VII retaliated by formally declaring war against England.
The English scapegoated their sovereigns for these catastrophes. Rumors were spread that Margaret was illegitimate, and therefore unfit to be queen. Parliament called for a Resumption Act, whereby the crown would reclaim the lands Henry had given away to his cronies, but, predictably, the magnates who had received such largesse balked, preventing the act from becoming law. Henry’s response was to dissolve Parliament.
According to a contemporary chronicler, by the 1450s “the realm of England was out of all good governance, for the King was simple [naive] and led by covetous counsel, and owed more than he was worth. His debts increased daily, but payment there was none. Such impositions [taxes] as were put to the people were spended in vain, for he kept no household nor maintained no wars.”
In May 1450, the gentry of Kent rose up in revolt, led by Jack Cade, a prosperous gentleman who had penned a manifesto of grievances against the government. Cade’s objections to its corruption were shared by Parliament, as well as several members of the nobility. Running with an age-old lie that the lately murdered Duke of Suffolk had been Margaret’s lover, Cade frightened the citizens of Kent into believing that the queen intended to obtain vengeance by invading the county and burning their homes to the ground.
Although Cade’s Rebellion began in the southeast of England, it swiftly gained momentum and was not restricted to the underclasses. Protestors included sheriffs, local officials, and two members of Parliament. Their concerns were universal. The violence soon spread to London. The king led his troops through the streets of the capital, but then bungled the city’s defense by splitting his army in two; the result was a bloodbath, with the rebels getting the better of the royalist troops. Henry’s soldiers mutinied. The madness continued into the summer. On June 29, the Bishop of Salisbury, who had officiated at Henry and Margaret’s wedding, and who some believe had cautioned the king to abstain from recreational sex with his wife, was torn to pieces by a frenzied mob, killed, in the opinion of Judge Gascoigne, “because he was the confessor of Henry VI and did not remedy the defects around the King nor depart from the King because these were not remedied.”
On July 2, Cade led his followers across London Bridge and was presented with the keys to the city. But rioting and looting subsequently erupted throughout London. When Cade himself participated in the pillaging, his supporters accused him of hypocrisy and the tide began to turn for the royal army.
At the height of the rebellion, the royal spouses parted ways. Resisting pleas from London’s Lord Mayor to remain in the city, Henry fled the capital instead, first to Greenwich, then west to the castle of Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire, and then to Kenilworth Castle in the Midlands. Margaret stayed behind at Greenwich throughout the rioting. It was she who was instrumental in putting an end to the mayhem by lending her name as guarantor of a general pardon to the rebels, although Cade was ultimately captured and stabbed in a standoff.
Cade’s Rebellion was unsuccessful in that neither his manifesto nor the violence changed the way Henry ruled. But it did prove how easy it was to foment civil war, and was only a taste of the strife that Margaret and Henry would face for the next eleven years. Additionally, it exposed Henry’s weakness and Margaret’s strength: He had panicked in a crisis, returning to London only after his council had restored law and order, while Margaret stayed put. In her consort’s role as mediator, acting not on her own behalf, but always in her husband’s interests, she saw the calamity through to a resolution that would mitigate the damage.
Meanwhile in France, Somerset surrendered Caen to the French. By the end of August 1450, England’s only remaining possessions in France were Aquitaine and the tiny strip of land surrounding Calais. The reputations of Henry and Margaret were permanently tarnished by the humiliating defeats their armies had suffered across the Channel.
Somerset’s ignominious losses on behalf of the crown so infuriated York that he returned from Ireland without Henry’s permission, determined to lead an opposition party that demanded good governance and the sacking of Henry’s advisers.
On November 6, 1450, when Henry opened Parliament at Westminster, some of the most powerful magnates arrived with armed forces behind them. Every day, a skirmish between the troops of Lancaster and York was expected; the antagonistic relationship between the dukes of York and Somerset was a powder keg waiting for a match. Riots did break out in the streets during this period, the first recorded occasion of “a great division between York and Lancaster,” according to a chronicle of the times.
In May 1451, the subject of the royal couple’s childless state after six years of wedlock reared its head again when Thomas Young, an MP for Bristol and a York supporter, was thrown into the Tower of London for daring to suggest that “because the king had no offspring, it would be for the security of the kingdom that it should be openly known who should be heir apparent and named the Duke of York.”
On August 23, English forces surrendered Aquitaine to King Charles VII. By the autumn of 1451, it was clear that despite the rising tensions between the Lancastrian party and the Yorkists, the king had no intention of instituting any governmental reforms, although nothing Henry had done was a success. He had lost France. His kingdom was controlled by the fifteenth-century equivalent of special interest groups. His treasury was deeply mired in debt. And he had no heir.
Margaret’s own spies informed her that York was mustering an army, and she urged her husband to do the same. Henry balked. Margaret then appealed to his chivalry and affection for her. If Henry should be killed by York’s men, what would happen to her? Finally, but with great reluctance, the king agreed to take the necessary steps to raise an army.
York issued a manifesto that openly blamed Somerset for ruining the country and giving the king advice that was disastrous to the realm. By February 16, 1452, civil war was imminent. Margaret and Henry, at the head of his army, marched toward Coventry, hoping to head York off as he moved toward the capital. By many accounts, the opposing armies were almost evenly matched in terms of numbers: twenty-four thousand troops under the king and twenty thousand under York.
The forces met up in Kent, but it was Margaret, not her husband, who formed part of the party that was dispatched to negotiate a peaceful denouement; at that point, neither side was keen on actually coming to blows. However, York would return his allegiance to Henry only if the king punished the Duke of Somerset.
Henry ordered Somerset’s arrest, on the proviso that York disbanded his troops—but no one was permitted to tell Margaret about it! Yet when the queen saw Somerset being force-marched out of his tent the following day, the sovereigns had a royal blowup. York arrived midargument to offer his obeisance to Henry, then realized he had walked in on a furious marital row. York also wondered why Somerset and the queen were present, because his deal with the king had been negotiated in secret. Then all four of them began to quarrel. Margaret shouted for York’s arrest, but her husband refused to comply. However, perhaps to appease her, Henry rescinded his order for Somerset’s arrest.
In a calculated move to ensure more adherents at a time of impending crisis, in 1452, Henry elevated to the peerage his half brothers Edmund and Jasper. They were his mother’s sons from her second marriage to the Welshman Owen ap Maredudd ap Tewdwr; the Anglicized spelling, “Tudor,” was not adopted until 1459. Edmund was made Earl of Richmond, and Jasper, Earl of Pembroke. Henry was extremely generous to his half brothers, with gifts of land, material goods, and opportunities for political influence. In return the Tudors would always remain loyal to the Lancastrian cause.
At long last, after nearly eight years of marriage, in April 1453, Margaret realized she was pregnant, and visited the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham—where women often made pilgrimages in the hope of conceiving. There, she left an offering of pax, or thanks, for the long-awaited baby she was carrying. Yet rather than rush off to Henry with the terrific news that an heir was finally on the way, the queen confided her condition obliquely, through his chamberlain, Richard Tunstall, to tell, as Henry later wrote, “the first comfortable relation and notice that our most dearly beloved wife the Queen was enceinte, to our most singular consolation and to all true liege people’s great joy and comfort.”
Regardless of the roundabout manner in which he learned of his wife’s pregnancy, Henry was so thrilled that he granted Tunstall an annuity of forty marks. Then he spent a whopping two hundred pounds on a commission with the royal jeweler, John Wynne of London, to create a “demi-cent” and to deliver it “unto our most dear and most entirely beloved wife, the Queen.”
Meanwhile, in France, Charles VII triumphantly took Bordeaux on October 19, 1453. Three hundred years of British rule in Aquitaine had come to an end. Calais was now all that remained of the once-sizable English possessions on the Continent. In the eyes of his subjects, Henry VI was a disgrace to the memory of his father. York was perhaps the most livid of all, having personally spent years of his life and huge, unreimbursed sums from his own purse to maintain Henry V’s conquests in France.
The king was now suffering from more than humiliation. During the first few days of August he was clearly ailing, showing signs of stress from the past several months of civil tension. On August 15, Henry was having dinner at Clarendon, his hunting lodge near Salisbury, when he complained of feeling inordinately sleepy. The next morning he had symptoms one might associate with a stroke: His head was lolling, he was paralytic, and he had lost the power of speech.
According to the Paston Letters—a collection of fifteenth-century correspondence between members of the Paston family, as well as letters written to others—Henry had sustained a “sudden and thoughtless fright.”
No one knows what precipitated the event. His army’s defeat in Bordeaux had shocked him, but did it send him into shock? Various medical speculations on the nature of Henry’s illness have been made, from depressive stupor to catatonic schizophrenia. But whatever caused his state is less important than its impact on history.
When Henry showed no signs of improvement after several days, concern turned to panic. The queen conveyed her husband back to Westminster, continuing to conceal his condition from the public—something that could never happen today, with social media and a twenty-four-hour news cycle. Margaret most feared the Duke of York’s discovering the situation, as he might take the opportunity to stage a coup. But when it proved too difficult to keep Henry’s secret at Westminster, the queen removed him from the hub of government and brought him to Windsor.
Seven months pregnant, Margaret of Anjou became the de facto ruler of England.
Henry had suffered a complete breakdown of some kind, the manifestations of which were beyond mental or emotional incapacity. John Whethamstead in his Registrum, which chronicled the era, describes the episode as “a disease and disorder of such a sort . . . that he lost his wits and memory for a time, and nearly all his body was so unco-ordinated and out of control that he could neither walk nor hold his head up, nor easily move from where he sat,” adding that the king had become “as mute as a calf.” Henry was monitored around the clock by several pages and grooms, fed by these attendants, and supported by two of them whenever he was required to move from room to room.
Describing his condition as non compos mentis, a term that doctors applied at the time to madmen whose mental illness revealed itself later in life, the king’s physicians tried all manner of cordials, ointments, laxatives, suppositories, and baths. They continued to assure Margaret that her husband would eventually recover, even though they had no firm diagnosis to give her. Perhaps, they theorized, he was possessed by devils. Henry’s council authorized the physicians to bleed him as often as possible in order to purge him of the evil humors that were undoubtedly responsible for his loss of faculties.
With Henry utterly incapacitated and his unpopular wife, who displayed a tin ear for English politics, running the show, there was now no hope for unifying the court’s squabbling factions.
At ten a.m. on October 13, 1453, Margaret gave birth to a son. Finally, after eight long years, the House of Lancaster had its heir. The queen named the boy after his father’s favorite saint, Edward the Confessor, whose feast day was also being celebrated on the date of the prince’s birth. But back at Windsor, Henry remained oblivious to the blessed event.
The infant’s birth meant that York and Somerset could no longer squabble over the right to be named Henry’s heir, but it created a new set of problems: While Henry remained incapacitated, who would govern the realm during his heir’s minority? And if the king should die while his son was a baby, England would be in for a lengthy regency, just as it had been when he was an infant.
Later that month, swaddled in an embroidered chrisom-cloth and russet-colored cloth of gold, Edward was baptized in an opulent ceremony at Westminster. Neither of his parents attended the christening—the king’s illness precluded his presence, and the queen could not appear in public until she had been churched, the ritual conducted forty days after childbirth to once again welcome a mother into the bosom of the Church.
It was necessary for Edward to be formally acknowledged by a council of magnates as heir to England’s throne. And when York’s name was deliberately omitted from the list, the duke took revenge through a convenient loophole: He reminded the other nobles that in accordance with established protocol, until the prince was presented to the king himself and acknowledged by him as his son, the succession could not be established. And, of course, Henry remained “uncurious and unconscious,” in the words of a contemporary chronicler, despite several efforts to rouse him and make him bless the infant.
Because the public was unaware of their sovereign’s condition, all they learned, as word began to spread, was that he had failed to acknowledge Margaret’s son—only a partial truth—so rumors circulated, particularly during the winter of 1453 to 1454, that Edward was Somerset’s bastard, or that the child was a changeling smuggled into Margaret’s bed after she had given birth to a stillborn. This propaganda was all too credible, given Henry’s well-known prudish views on sex, his pious habits, and the fact that the royal couple had never before conceived during their first seven years of marriage.
Meanwhile, York accumulated allies, including Henry’s childhood tutor, one of England’s wealthiest landowners, the Earl of Warwick, Richard Neville. Warwick had been a supporter of the Lancastrians until Henry confiscated one of his vast Welsh estates and gave it to Somerset. Charismatic and a smooth operator, the earl went about publicly proclaiming that Edward was not Henry’s son, and therefore the king would never acknowledge the child. York cagily kept his mouth shut, but by his not defending Margaret’s honor, his silence spoke volumes.
Margaret never allowed these rumors of her adultery to crush her pride. On November 18, 1453, she was churched, quite grandly, at Westminster. Her robe was trimmed with 540 sable pelts. In her train were seven baronesses, eight countesses, and a half dozen duchesses, including the wives of both Somerset and York. The prince’s birth consolidated Margaret’s power rather than weakened it. From that moment on, the queen intended to dominate the political stage. Her aim was to protect Edward’s inheritance—the throne of England—at all costs, and her chief ambition was to crush the Duke of York. Because the king remained incoherent, Margaret of Anjou became the duke’s greatest adversary and the primary obstacle between him and the crown.
As York gained support, Margaret, too, continued to further her aim. In January 1454, after another, last-ditch attempt was made to get Henry to recognize his son, according to the Paston Letters, the queen, “being a manly woman, using [being used to] rule and not being ruled,” and unaware of when, or if, the king might ever awaken from his stupor, made a pitch to become Edward’s regent. But because she was hampered by her gender as well as her French origins, her efforts didn’t go over too well. However, Margaret’s biographer Helen Maurer points out that Margaret could not have become regent anyway, because in the Middle Ages a wife was legally her husband’s property, viewed by the law as an extension of himself. She could act as her husband’s representative and agent, provided her actions expressed his will and had his authority, but on a legal technicality the king could not grant away any aspect of his decision-making capacity to Margaret as an independent person. Henry would only have been deeding such authority right back to himself, because a man and wife were viewed by the law as one and the same being. Additionally, during this era a regent was expected to lead the army and be the first man in the king’s council, which was a boys-only clubhouse.
Finally, when Parliament convened on February 14, the Lords confirmed Edward’s title as heir apparent, and York was compelled to assent to their decision. On March 15, the boy was made Prince of Wales, Earl of Chester, and a Knight of the Garter. Twelve days later, it was York whom the Lords named as Regent, awarding him the title Protector of the Realm.
On April 3, York commanded that Margaret and the prince be removed from Westminster to Windsor, ostensibly to be with the king, but it was a clear message that he wanted the queen far from the seat of government. A consort’s place was in the home. But there was something sinister at work. Margaret was essentially under house arrest! When she found out that she was not permitted to quit Windsor, she became more convinced than ever that the nobles intended to make York the king of England.
And then suddenly, after sixteen and a half months of catatonia . . . there was a Christmas miracle!
On December 25, 1454, “by the grace of God the King recovered his health,” described by one observer, “as a man who wakes after a long dream.” He had absolutely no memory of anything that had transpired during the entire period of his illness. As soon as his powers of speech were restored, Henry ordered a Mass of thanksgiving, sending emissaries with offerings to Canterbury, as well as to the shrine of Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey.
On December 28, according to the Paston Letters, “the Queen came to him and brought my lord Prince with her. And then he asked what the Prince’s name was, and the Queen told him Edward, and then he held up his hands and thanked God therefor. And he asked who were the godfathers, and the Queen told him, and he was well pleased.”
On January 9, 1455, Edmund Clere, an esquire of the king’s household, wrote to John Paston of the king’s remarkable recovery. Henry had spoken to two clerics on January 7 “. . . as well as he ever did, and when they came out, they wept for joy.”
Henry’s recovery did not, however, mean that his throne was secure. By the spring of 1455, Somerset was still spreading rumors that York intended to depose the king. Margaret and Somerset had convinced Henry of York’s plans as well.
Although Henry had declared that anyone who raised an army against him was a traitor, the respective royal houses finally came to blows on May 22, 1455, at St. Albans. The king nominally led his own army into battle, as the Duke of Buckingham was the actual commander of his forces. Henry sat astride his warhorse while arrows rained down around him. By the end of the day, Somerset was dead, Buckingham taken prisoner, and Henry had been pierced in the neck by an arrow. Inexplicably, he granted forgiveness to the Duke of York and his adherents.
The duke took possession of Henry’s wounded body, and although the king still wore his crown, it had become clear that thenceforth the Yorkists would control the government. By the autumn of 1455, York was king in all but name. It is possible that the king suffered another neurological episode around this time, because Margaret’s request to care for him was granted and York sent Henry to Margaret at Greenwich. The queen’s intention was to get her husband into her protection so that she could influence him as well as look after his welfare. The Paston Letters report on October 28, 1455, that “summe men ar a-aferd that he is seek ageyn.”
Nevertheless, Henry rallied enough to appear in Parliament and reassert his authority, revoking York’s appointment in February 1456. However, by this time, Londoners in particular were fed up with Lancastrian mismanagement. Yet rather than blame the misrule on the king, his wife became the target of their ire.
But if Londoners didn’t like the queen, the feeling was mutual. Margaret quit the capital and began to drum up support for her husband from the safety of Kenilworth. Unfortunately, this separation from the king meant that Henry was left under York’s influence back in London.
To alleviate the threat, that summer Margaret convinced Henry to remove his court to the Lancastrian bastion of Coventry in the Midlands. Henry gave her chancellor, Laurence Booth, the privy seal, and with that imprimatur in her possession she had total power over the administrative nuts and bolts of her husband’s government.
The queen then embarked on an effort of good public relations, appearing in public with her son, promoting English trade and industry, founding schools and hospitals, and shoring up the people’s goodwill. Yet while Margaret focused on consolidating her power, there were riots in London. The queen began to stockpile arms as she continued to endure the rampant gossip that would plague her for the next several years: that the Prince of Wales was a love child. More than one court favorite was cited as the boy’s father.
In December 1457, taking a more active role than her husband in their efforts to secure his throne, Margaret introduced military conscription to ensure that the Lancastrians would have enough soldiers to defend the crown. Although conscription had been used in France, the English had never before availed themselves of the system, and the queen’s new measures were extremely unpopular. As Margaret drummed up support in the event of another inevitable skirmish with the Yorkists, Henry, ever determined to broker peace, was quoting biblical passages, citing Saint Matthew: “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation.”
While Yorkist propaganda successfully claimed that the king had been led astray by evil counselors, including his wife, that he had placed himself above the law, and banished “all righteousness and justice” from the kingdom, Margaret harbored the overwhelming fear that the Prince of Wales would never succeed her husband. In one of the Paston Letters dated February 9, 1456, John Bocking wrote to John Fastolf, “The Quene is a grete and strong labourid woman, for she spareth noo peyne to sue hire thinges to an intent and conclusion to hir power.” In other words, by the early part of 1459, Margaret had become commander in chief of the royal forces.
Unfortunately for her, the Yorkists achieved another resounding victory in July 1460 at the Battle of Northampton. Henry was captured by a Yorkist archer who brought the king to his tent, where the Earl of Warwick and York’s son the Earl of March (the future Edward IV) swore fealty to Henry, but refused to free him.
Margaret, who had been at Eccleshall Castle during the battle, was devastated by the news of her husband’s capture. She took flight with their son, heading through Cheshire toward Wales, but was robbed of her jewels and the other luxury goods she carried by one of her own servants, John Cleger. Cleger even threatened to kill the queen and her son—at which point, rather than defend their mistress, several of Margaret’s entourage deserted her. Margaret and Edward managed to escape while the covetous Cleger rifled through her baggage.
Temporarily frightened, but ultimately undeterred, the queen then made a clever political feint, spreading the word that she’d gone to France to enlist troops there. In fact, she traveled in the other direction, going only as far as Denbigh, a market town in Wales. She began what would be a quest for any and every kind of aid (troops, money, alliances) that would take her from England to Scotland to France, while Henry remained under York’s watchful eye.
On October 7, 1460, Henry attended the opening day of Parliament, but after that, he stayed in the queen’s apartments in Westminster Palace. York entered London with great pageantry and arrogantly asserted his claim to the throne, expecting a warm reception. Instead, he was greeted with an embarrassed silence from the Lords. Weak though he was, and despite his rampant misgovernment, Henry had been king for thirty-eight years, and the Lords saw no reason for him to be deposed.
After considerable negotiation between Henry and York, an Act of Accord was announced on October 31. The decision made by Parliament formalized the new order of succession. Henry VI would remain on the throne for the duration of his lifetime, but Edward of Lancaster, Prince of Wales, was effectively disinherited in favor of the Duke of York, who was now proclaimed Henry’s heir apparent.
Henry dispatched a messenger to Margaret, asking her to bring their son to London. If she failed to do so, she would be declared a rebel.
From this point on, the power struggle between the houses of Lancaster and York was no longer about governmental reform. It was for the crown itself. And, as demonstrated by the outcomes of the various Wars of the Roses, might would make right.
With York proclaimed heir to the throne and Protector of England for the second time, he now ruled the realm in Henry’s name. Margaret was at Hull when she learned of their son’s dispossession. Naturally she became even more determined to recruit men who would stand up for the Lancastrian cause, mustering twenty thousand by the time she reached the city of York. She made a formal public protest against the Act of Accord and announced her intention to lead her forces into London and free her husband from his enemies.
Before she could do so, on December 30, York was killed at the Battle of Wakefield—a skirmish between his troops and Margaret’s forces. The duke’s corpse was beheaded, and further humiliated when a paper crown was placed upon his decapitated head. York’s seventeen-year-old son, the Earl of Rutland, was killed and beheaded as well.
After Wakefield the fight for the English throne became even more violent. The most popular Yorkist talking point was that the Lancastrians were usurpers, their dynasty founded upon a regicide—the murder of Richard II. The Lancastrians contended that they had held the throne for the past three generations, and with even more right to it.