Susan Higginbotham is the author of five historical novels set in medieval and Tudor England, including “The Queen of Last Hopes,” a novel about Margaret of Anjou. Her first nonfiction book, “The Woodvilles,” about Edward IV’s queen and her family, was published this month. You can read more about her work at her website and her blog. This post is a part of “The Women Behind the Fictions” blog series.
In the recent series The White Queen, based on the novels of Philippa Gregory, Margaret of Anjou, queen to the unfortunate Henry VI, makes only a brief appearance. It’s an odd omission in a series that focuses on the women of this period, chiefly Elizabeth Woodville, Margaret Beaufort, and Anne Neville. If the scriptwriters were looking for a formidable woman, surely Margaret, who struggled ceaselessly over the years to uphold her husband’s and her son’s right to the throne, deserved top billing.
But perhaps it’s just as well that Margaret didn’t have more of a prominent role in the series, for Margaret has fared rather badly in historical fiction. She’s regularly shown as an adulteress and a vengeful harpy—and that reflects the more balanced portrayals of her. One historical novel has her repeatedly trying to murder her daughter-in-law, Anne Neville, while another has her committing incest with her son.
A set piece in many a Wars of the Roses novel 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 be garnished 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.
Of England’s queens, Margaret is by far one of the most unlucky. 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. Had she survived just three more years, she would have seen her husband’s nephew, Henry Tudor come to the throne as the representative of the Lancastrian cause for which Margaret had struggled for so long.
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 as a result have received more balanced appraisals 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, who was disloyal to her husband (Edward II) and even to her own son, and who was possibly an adulteress, has attracted defenders because of those very facts. They treat her alleged adultery as 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.
So why not spare Margaret of Anjou a little kindness for a change? When she arrived in England as a seasick fifteen-year-old in 1445, 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.