Margaret the She-Wolf?

I thoroughly enjoyed Alianore and Rachel’s recent joint post on Isabella, Edward II’s queen. Aside from being very funny, the point it makes is quite valid.

This got me to thinking about Margaret of Anjou, the subject of my novel in progress. 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.

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.

14 thoughts on “Margaret the She-Wolf?”

  1. Propaganda didn't stop with the Tudors either. You won't believe what I've picked up on Sir George Buck.

    As regards Margaret it has to be said she had something of a fearful reputation before Edward IV became king going on the aftermath of the second battle of St Albans. So fearful was the City of London of Margaret and what she might do when she got there that it prevailed upon Jacquette to intervene on their behalf which she did most successfully. Later when she found herself accused of witchraft, the City rose up on her behalf and made things very awkward for Warwick.

    But that wasn't all she saved. Can you guess what else? Even Arlene failed to pick up on this one but it might account for why the Wydevilles were forgiven so quickly.

    May I say something in the matter of propaganda regarding Shakespeare. I don't think Richard III was meant to be a historical play given how much it has in common with other tragedies of the late Elizabethan and Jacobean pderiod, the central character a villian, put upon women and various chracters being bumped off along the way.

    I also think that his other history plays were politically slanted, possibly satirically and that his termagant Maragret is his send-up of Gloriana herself.

  2. Good post Susan. Helen Maurer's analyis is (for me) persuasive. Margaret received disproportionate blame because a) she was a woman acting outside the sphere allowed to women, and b) French. These two things were intolerable to the English at the time, and the bias is repeated even in more modern accounts where the sexism is probably unconscious.

    As to the relative goodness or badness of whatever side, it really comes down to personal bias as objectively there ain't muc to choose. To some extent the 'verdict of history' is kinder to 'winners' tha 'losers'. Henry IV has a murderous record that is scarcely touched upon, and similarly Edward IV tends to get a free pass. The amiable, friendly Edward could be utterly ruthless, and often reminds me of his grandson, Henry VIII.

    To bring in a more recent parallel, both sides did some pretty horrible things in WW2, but the Axis gets 98% of the blame.

  3. But everyone knows that if a woman does it it's more blood-thirsty, right? Wasn't the title "she-wolf of France" originally coined for Margaret, and only later applied to Isabella as well? Although, that said, I imagine there were points in each of their lives when they wouldn't have been too upset to be regarded in that light.

    And I agree, Trish. The Tudor concept of the genre 'history' came directly from the mediaeval, which tended to favour the 'MORALLY true, right? or at least makes a good story?' over any concept of factual. Quite apart from which, of course, he was writing for the stage!

  4. Antonia Woodville

    Good one, Susan, thanks for pointing out all the executions. Now, will all those people who refer to Henry VIII as a tyrant and his 'reign of terror' think again … he was not the only one and he had reasons for all 'his' executions. See forthcoming book which is being edited and revised even as we speak.

  5. Very interesting analysis (and thanks for the link!) Certainly most of the fiction I've read about this has Margaret cackling evilly and gloatingly after Wakefield, so it's good to learn that she wasn't actually there.

  6. Great post! I totally agree with Brian, in that Margaret is attacked for being a strong woman, totally unacceptable in those times, and of course she was French. I can't wait for your new novel!

  7. Sorry Maggie, but cackling evilly doesn't cut it. Queen Isa had breakfast while watching Hugh Despenser being quartered, though I'm not sure she indeed had a piece of his leg, fried in garlic butter.

    And don't anyone tell me she wasn't there, either. 😉

  8. Changes in reigning dynastic houses seems to bring out interesting case studies of political propaganda – and I'm thinking the medievals could teach us a thing or two about it (Julius Caesar certainly was a pro). The stories surrounding popular queens like Margaret of Anjou and Isabella were/are obviously convincing enough that some of us (guilty) simply accept them at face value; even knowing that many are often times maliciously smeared. I'm guessing the only reason Eleanor of Aquitaine escaped relatively unscathed was because she was able to outlive most of her detractors and enemies and was viewed at the time of her death as a Heaven-sent moderating force over King John.

    I appreciate your outlining of who was executed and by whom because it all gets so confusing with so many power struggles going on in a relatively short period of time. This may seem a stupid question, but what really gave Earl of Warwick the power to order those executions? Was it his own sense of superiority (which comes down through the ages as almost maniacal) or did he actually have the authority to do so?

    I am glad to have found your blog and cannot wait to read your next book!

  9. For sheer unadulterated victor bias on a very personal level you can't do better or should that be worse than Caesar and his military campaigns such as 'De Bello Gallico'

    Nothing is mentioned, however, of the fact that two million people perished because of it and it was done for his own glory.

    As for those Ancient Romans they had spin down to a 'T'; they called it the 'Art of Oratory'

    Of course they stole it from the Ancient Greeks; they stole everything from the AGs including their works of art. Lord Elgin had nothing on them!

    There's a theory going round that the AG word 'demokratia' was coined by enemies of democratic rule who didn't care for the proles getting bumptious and it means 'mob rule' or ' dictatorship of the proletariat. Good grief could it be that Marx was right all along?

    Joking apart many of the proles' revolts did lead to much needed social reform. The Peasants' Revolt of 1381 wasn't the only one that happened in Europe at the time.

    Let's not forget Margaret also had to face a prole revolt that of Jack Cade, same reason, unfair taxes, corruption and damaging losses as a result of wars. Oh what perfect spin fodder for the opposition who didn't even have to 'cherchez la femme'.

    And when one considers today doesn't it all have too familiar a ring? Stealth (unfair) taxes, MPs' expenses (corruption) and damaging losses from wars (Afghanistan)?

    As the cynical Frenchman said 'Plus ca change'.

  10. Excellent post. There's usually plenty of wrong on both sides in a war, and the War of the Roses wasn't an exception. I think Brian has the rights of it when he points out that Margaret got an especially bad press because she was French and a woman. The idea of the World Turned Upside Down, when women wore the trousers and the men did the domestic drudgery, was a popular nightmare in the medieval period, and I wonder if some of the chroniclers were drawing on that, consciously or otherwise.

  11. And such a nightmare it led – according to some – to the 'Malleus Maleficarum' (The Hammer of Witches')ostensibly a treatise on witchcraft but in reality a thinly-veiled attack on women as a whole. Talk about bad press!

    The clue is in the title – Maleficarum is the genitive plural of the Latin word 'malefica' = witch (f) and only relates to a woman where as 'maleficus (m) in its plural can refer to both sexes.

    Here is one quote from it 'All witchcraft comes from carnal lust which in women is insatiable' Funny I thought it was men who had the problem.

    Even funnier still the next Pope was some guy called Borgia.

    What is not so funny is how many women died as a result of this treatise ever seeing the light of day.

    Margaret and Jacquette were lucky that they both died before publication.

  12. Susan Higginbotham

    Trish, I think Shakespeare's plays reflect the historical sources available to him–largely, as I recall, Holinshed. I think his main purpose was to tell a damn good story.

    Brian, thanks! I think Margaret's nationality and gender had a lot to do with the way she was portrayed by contemporaries.

    Ceirsearch, "she-wolf" was invented for Margaret.

    Antonia, looking forward to it!

    Alianore, thanks!

    Anjere, hope you'll enjoy it!

    Lady D, I think we could take some lessons in spin!

    Gabriele, Margaret could have learned a thing or two from Isabella and her preferences in mealtime entertainment.

    Elizabeth, thanks! As far as I know, Warwick had the authority through Edward to order the executions in 1460, but the 1469 ones were entirely illegal.

    Carla, good point.

    I didn't mention in the post, by the way, that Warwick's younger brother John ordered no fewer than 30 executions after the battle of Hexham (and was rewarded with an earldom shortly thereafter by Edward IV). Yet in one novel, he's portrayed as a pacifist! I do think that in modern fiction, there's a decided pro-Yorkist bias that treats every execution by a Lancastrian as an atrocity and every execution by a Yorkist as an act of unfortunate necessity.

  13. Susan Higginbotham

    Whoops, should have said that in 1460 Warwick was acting on behalf of the Duke of York! The 1460 executions still seem illegal, though, since York and Warwick still recognized Henry VI as king at the time and the dead men were acting on behalf of that king.

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