Of all the mothers in the Wars of the Roses, Margaret of Anjou, queen to the unfortunate Henry VI, has surely been the most maligned. She’s regularly portrayed as an adulteress and a vengeful harpy. One historical novel even has her repeatedly trying to murder her daughter-in-law, Anne Neville, though I never quite figured out why. (I’m not sure the author knew either.)
Derived from Shakespeare, a set piece in many a Wars of the Roses novel, even some recent ones where the authors should have known better, involves cruel Margaret ordering immediately after the Battle of Wakefield that the severed heads of the Duke of York and his teenage son, the Earl of Rutland, be displayed and the Duke’s head bedecked with a paper crown. In fact, Margaret was not at the Battle of Wakefield; she was in Scotland at the time. There’s even been considerable doubt cast as to the extent of the atrocities supposedly committed by her troops.
Margaret’s position is surely deserving of more sympathy than she has received. Criticized at first for her failure to conceive a child, when she finally did become pregnant, her enemies accused her of adultery. (There’s simply no proof that she had sexual relations with any man but her husband.) During her pregnancy, her husband lost his reason; eventually, the loss of his crown followed. Believing that the throne of England was her son’s birthright, she fought for it until his death at the Battle of Tewkesbury. She was brought to London as a prisoner, only to have her husband murdered the night of her arrival. No longer regarded as a threat by the Yorkists, only as a financial burden, she was finally sent back to France, where she died in obscurity.
Margaret is frequently compared to an earlier French-born Queen of England, Isabella of France, and the traditionally negative portrayal of each of them has often been ascribed to misogyny and xenophobia. Both women, indeed, have recently benefited from recent interest in medieval women and medieval queens and have attracted some sympathy from historians, female and male alike. Yet popular culture has lagged behind, for while Isabella has been portrayed sympathetically by a number of novelists, especially female ones, Margaret of Anjou has met a quite different fate at their hands. She’s frequently little more than a cardboard villain, and even when she’s given some semblance of depth, the myths such as her presence at the Battle of Wakefield are trotted out. (Ironically, this portrayal of Margaret, which owes so much to Shakespeare, is often perpetuated by the very same novelists who decry the Bard’s portrayal of Richard III.)
Strangely, Isabella, an adulteress who was disloyal to her husband and even to her own son, has attracted defenders because of those very facts. They attribute her adultery as being the natural reaction of a wronged wife and her deposition of her husband as being a commendable reaction against royal tyranny. Yet the loyalty of Margaret to her husband and to her son is depicted as the power-mad reaction of a vengeful woman. Evidently even her modern-day detractors feel that she should have settled back and worked on tapestries while her son was being deprived of his crown.
So this Mother’s Day, why not spare Margaret of Anjou a little kindness for a change? She might well have hoped to have been a traditional queen, smiling at her husband’s side, doing good works, and procuring favors for her subjects. Instead, with an incapacitated husband and competing claims to the throne, she found herself thrust into a situation that had no easy solutions, either for the men involved or for Margaret. Novelists have recognized the complexity of the situation these men faced; it’s time they did the same for Margaret.