So What Did Margaret of Anjou Look Like?


Though contemporaries had a great deal to say about Margaret of Anjou, complimentary and otherwise, scarcely anyone troubled to write about such a mundane detail as her personal appearance. The most detailed description is a secondhand one, which appears in a letter from Raffaelo De Negra to Bianca Maria Visconti, Duchess of Milan, dated October 24, 1458: “The Englishman told me that the queen is a most handsome woman, though somewhat dark and not so beautiful as your Serenity.”

Flattery aside, what exactly does “somewhat dark” mean? Did it mean that Margaret was a brunette? Did it mean that she was a dark blonde? Did it refer merely to her complexion in general? For the record, I know next to nothing about the Duchess of Milan, but it appears from her portraits that she had very fair hair and a very light complexion, so compared to her, many if not most women might have looked “somewhat dark.”

Despite this one description of Margaret as “somewhat dark” the contemporary illustrations of her that show her hair color depict her as a blonde. The most famous is the one shown at the beginning of this post, from the manuscript presented to Margaret upon her marriage by John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury. (It depicts Henry VI as having dark hair, which seems to be the way he’s depicted in all of his portraits.)

A less well known portrait of Margaret is from Margaret’s prayer roll, which is kept at the Bodleian Library as Jesus College Oxford MS 124. A black-and-white reproduction of Margaret’s portrait, from which the image below is taken, was reprinted in 1851 in The Archaeological Journal:

I haven’t been able to find a book that reproduces the illustration in color. According to The Archaelogical Journal, Margaret’s hair in the prayer roll is auburn; according to Joanna Laynesmith in The Last Medieval Queens, it’s blond. The color of the hair in the illustrations may not be indicative of how the real Margaret looked, in any case, for as Laynesmith notes, it was conventional to depict queens with blond hair.

With the less than helpful description of Margaret as being “somewhat dark” and the manuscript illustrations that may owe more to convention than to reality, it’s anyone’s guess what Margaret looked like. I chose to depict her in my own novel as a blonde, on the theory that the Earl of Shrewsbury when having his manuscript illustrated for presentation would have chosen to have Margaret depicted reasonably close to her appearance in reality. At least I do feel safe portraying Margaret as an attractive woman, for as Margaret Kekewich in her book about Rene of Anjou notes, no one in England ever complained about Margaret’s appearance.

Edit: I should have added that there is a medal of Margaret of Anjou by Pietro da Milano, which was made in 1463-1464 during Margaret’s exile in France. This (taken from L. Forrer, A Biographical Dictionary of Medallists, vol. 4, 1909) may well be the most authentic image of Margaret–but it doesn’t answer the all-important question of hair color or complexion. It does, however, show that Margaret, who was then in her early thirties, was an attractive woman.

5 thoughts on “So What Did Margaret of Anjou Look Like?”

  1. Ragged Staff

    Nice pics, Susan. I've also allowed Margaret to be physically attractive, though I haven't given her a hair colour. At one point, I even have fair Ciss, the Rose of Raby, feel her position as Most Beautiful Woman in England slightly threatened by the younger, pretty queen. Blonde women and grey eyed men seem to have been an aesthetic ideal at the time, so it can be quite tough sorting it all out.

  2. trish wilson

    Cheer up Sue. It could be worse. You could have only those Victorian horrors of horrors to contend with.

    According to the BL catalogue JJ Bagley's 1948 edition contains plates and a portrait. Have you tried JJB yet? I also picked up on Chris Corbett's Marguerite published 2002.

    Or what about the French authors such as Philippe Erlanger, Abbe Prevost or Michel Baudier. The French may provide more specific descriptions.

    MoA seems to have also been a favourite with some Regency & Victorian poets. I'm gagging to know what Margaret Holford's ten canto epic contains.

  3. trish wilson

    Sue

    I've just remembered that the Spanish described Elizabeth of York's hair most commonly described as golden tresses as red-gold which might account for the auburn look of MoA.

    Whatever nice rich colour.

    Apropos the Bodleian I know it does a photocopy service as does the BL. Have you tried your luck there?

    I'm hoping to go up to Bodley later on this year. It's been on the agenda since Christmas but for various reasons it's had to be deferred and now it's the season of the Examination Schools I'm thinking of leaving it to the Grand Vac which ain't so far off. Only problem with the GV – tourists!!!

  4. Susan Higginbotham

    Thanks, Ragged Staff! Interesting about the grey-eyed men.

    Trish, I have Bagley–he does include some black and white plates that show Margaret with light hair, but their authenticity has been questioned. There's also a drawing of a stained-glass window that used to be at Angers that's reproduced in a couple of sources, and it also seems to show a blond Margaret–I've only seen it in black and white.

    I haven't seen Prevost, but I've heard it's heavily fictionalized, so I haven't been in a hurry to look it up. The Erlanger I have seen in English translation, and it is very heavily fictionalized. There are descriptions of Margaret in Chastelain, I believe, but they're rather vague.

    Thanks, I may try the photocopy services!

  5. trish wilson

    Well you know me. Once this hound gets a sniff of the fox I'm up and running.

    And a very multi-lingual hound at that,Dutch,French, German, Greek, Italian, Latin – both Classical and Medieval- Portuguese and Spanish. Also cognisant not only with Middle and Early Modern English but medieval French, German and Italian as well.

    An advantage you might say. I prefer to call it a historical irony. Over the last year it seems to have been one case of historical irony after another.

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