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Margaret the She-Wolf?



Margaret is usually depicted in historical fiction as a vengeful and half-mad harpy, intent on destroying anyone who gets in her path. But how does her body count compare to those of male commanders during the Wars of
the Roses?

Not very well, it turns out.

Margaret is said to have ordered the executions of three men, Thomas Kyriell, Lord Bonville, and William Gower, after the second Battle of St. Albans, by having her young son, Edward, pass judgment upon them. The men had been guarding her husband, Henry VI, who was then in Yorkist captivity. Some versions claim that the men had been promised their lives by Henry VI; others claim that Margaret and the prince simply watched the executions and that others gave the orders. Edward IV’s 1461 Parliament mentions only Henry VI in connection with the executions. Having rather disingenuously condemned the hapless Henry for failing at St. Albans to “join his person and blood to the defence, protection and salvation of the same lords and persons coming to assist him by his authority and command [i.e., the Yorkists], like a victorious and a noble captain, but like a deceitful coward,” Parliament goes on to complain that Henry:

wilfully allowed those worthy and good knights, William, Lord Bonville, and Sir Thomas Kiryell, called to the order of the Garter
for the knightly prowess they had demonstrated, and William Gower, esquire, the bearer of one of his banners, to whom he had given faith and assurance on the word of a king, by his own lips, that he would keep and defend them there from all harm, danger and peril, to be murdered and after that tyrannously beheaded, with great violence, without process of law or any pity, contrary to his said faith and promise, abominable in the hearing of all Christian princes.

Notably, at St. Albans, as Helen Maurer points out, three other Yorkist prisoners, including John Neville, the Earl of Warwick’s younger brother, were spared execution—an odd act if Margaret was indeed the vengeful she-wolf of popular imagination.

The best-known deaths attributed to Margaret, though, are those of the Duke of York, his son Edmund, and Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury, at the Battle of Wakefield. Few historical novels set during this time fail to depict Margaret cackling in glee over their displayed heads after the three are executed in cold blood. There are several problems with such scenes, though. First, Margaret was not at Wakefield to cackle; she was in Scotland at the time of the battle. Second, although one report does indicate that the Duke of York survived the battle long enough to be jeered at by his Lancastrian captors before being executed, most reports indicate that he died in battle. Likewise, it seems more likely that young Edmund died while fighting in the rout instead of being murdered while a helpless captive. As for Richard Neville, although he was captured alive, he was lynched by a mob at Pontefract before his head was put on display.

In fact, the Yorkists, generally depicted by novelists as a chivalrous lot, have a rather higher body count to their credit than does Margaret. Following the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross, the future Edward IV executed the sixty-year Owen Tudor, Henry VI’s stepfather, along with at least several others (the lists of those executed vary and in some cases have been shown to be inaccurate). After the Battle of Tewkesbury, Edward IV executed no fewer than a dozen men, having first broken sanctuary to do so.

Following the Yorkist victory at Northampton in 1460, where Henry VI fell into Yorkist hands, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, succeeded in forcing the defenders of the Tower to surrender it to him. Thomas Browne and six people associated with the Duke of Exeter, the Tower’s constable, were executed at Tyburn, charged with treason against the very king they were supporting, Henry VI. Later, in 1469, Warwick, while nominally still supporting Edward IV as king, executed the elder Richard Woodville, his son John Woodville, and William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke—executions that had no legal justification whatsoever, as all of the men were loyal to Edward IV.

Exeter himself had ten men put to death at Sandwich in 1460 for sending supplies to Warwick. After Warwick had turned Lancastrian, the Yorkist John Tiptoft hung, drew, and quartered several of Warwick’s men.

John Neville, the Earl of Warwick's younger brother—whom Margaret had the chance to execute but spared—ordered no fewer than 30 executions after the Yorkist victory at the Battle of Hexham (and was rewarded with an earldom shortly thereafter by Edward IV).

So to Margaret personally, we can ascribe at most three executions--assuming that she, rather than her commanders or her husband, authorized them. The lives of those three men should not be viewed as unimportant, but assuming that the executions were indeed a breach of a promise made by Henry VI, they were no more unjust than those ordered by Edward IV after Tewkesbury and by Warwick in 1460 and 1469, and no more brutal than those ordered by Tiptoft. (It’s not quite fair to pick on Richard III here, but because for some reason the same novelists who portray Margaret of Anjou as a crazed she-wolf generally also depict Richard as a virtual saint, it should be pointed out that within a twelve-day period, he executed William Hastings, Anthony Woodville, Richard Grey, and Thomas Vaughan without trial, or with only the semblance of a trial, on charges that were never proven. Bonville and Kyrielle, by contrast, at the very least were guilty of deserting the Lancastrian cause for that of the Yorkist one.)

Much of Margaret’s bloody-minded reputation, of course, comes from the chronicles that describe the devastation inflicted by her troops following the Battle of Wakefield. B. M. Cron, however, has analyzed the evidence supporting these accounts and found it markedly lacking. Both she and John Gillingham cast doubts on the accounts of the Croyland Chronicler and Abbot John Whethamstede: Gillingham writes that Croyland’s account does not specify any places that were actually pillaged, but rather “is couched in the vague and emotional rhetoric of unsubstantiated atrocity stories.” Cron concludes that there would have certainly been “pillaging, petty theft, and unpaid foraging” by Margaret’s troops, marching in mid-winter, but that the army “did not indulge in systematic devastation of the countryside, either on its own account or at the behest of the queen.”

Propaganda, it’s too often forgotten, did not begin with the Tudors. Just as it served the Yorkist purpose to paint Margaret as an adulteress, thereby casting doubts on the legitimacy of her son, it also served the Yorkist purpose to depict her and her army as singularly vengeful and cruel. Just because such propaganda served a purpose in the fifteenth century, however, is no reason for us to blindly perpetuate it today.


B. M. Cron, “Margaret of Anjou and the Lancastrian March on London, 1461.” The Ricardian, December 1999.

John Gillingham, The Wars of the Roses. Louisiana State University Press, 1981.

C. Given-Wilson et al., eds., The Parliament Rolls of Medieval England. (CD-ROM version).

Helen Maurer, Margaret of Anjou: Queenship and Power in Late Medieval England. Boydell Press, 2003.

A. J. Pollard, Warwick the Kingmaker. Hambledon, 2007.



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