“She-Wolf of France” Margaret of Anjou’s Reputation (A-Level History)

Margaret of Anjou was described in Shakespeare’s plays as being ‘The She-Wolf of France’. Whilst Shakespeare is writing to a Tudor audience and for dramatic effect, it is a perception that has held to this day. How did it come to pass that this view was taken of the Queen Consort? Was she all bad, or it is as simple as an anti-French sentiment that was endured over the centuries? This lesson explores the actions of Queen Margaret of Anjou and assesses her reputation against evidence from the day.

She-Wolf: a predatory woman

Margaret of Anjou - Reputation
Margaret of Anjou, from the Talbot Illustrated Manuscript (Public Domain)

Discussion points:

  • How was a reputation formed and spread in Medieval England?
  • What evidence do modern historians have of these views?
  • Are there any issues that may affect the accuracy or reliability of views about Margaret of Anjou whilst she was Queen Consort?

Commentary

Reputations are formed by words and deeds. Opinions of these actions lead to positive, negative or indifferent responses. If there is a pattern of behaviour that is prolonged, it results in the reputation being enhanced or diminished accordingly. Society also influences the way that a reputation is formed. England in the 15th century had views and values that are not easily replicated in the modern world. Roles were, in general, expected to fit the norm. None less so than the roles within the Royal household. Expectations were high and Margaret, as Queen Consort, was a focus of much attention: her actions were assessed against the expectations of the day. Societal norms are not the only influence on the way in which a reputation was formed in Medieval England. Bias and prejudices also played a key role in establishing a view of the Queen.

Extant evidence comes in several forms. There is a range of chronicles and histories that were written at the time. Letters remain from key individuals such as the Queen, King, some of the nobility and from several family collections. Diplomatic reports are available that refer to events in the English Court. State papers and Parliamentary records note key events and provide detail of the functions and processes of government. Material Culture is also available, in the form of statues, glasswork and buildings which can provide clues as to the way that the Queen was portrayed at the time.

One problem that is faced when looking at Margaret of Anjou is that there was an inbuilt prejudice against the French at the time. England was at war with France in the first few years of her marriage to Henry. After the French victory over England, this anti-French sentiment would be high in some quarters. There were protests about taxation and the actions of the king’s advisors and councillors. As Queen, Margaret could be identified as being culpable in the eyes of the people who were disgruntled with the socio-economic and political climate of the day.

Discussion points

  • Much of the evidence about Margaret’s reputation at the time comes from Chronicles. Who wrote these and what motives did they have? How would that impact upon the way that they portray her?
  • What was the expected role of a Queen Consort at the time? What does this tell you about the monarchy in the mid 15th century?
  • How might items such as statues, stained glass windows and illuminated manuscripts help us to understand the reputation of Margaret of Anjou?

Commentary

Chronicles come from several sources. English ones were written by monastery communities. Chronicles from some town are available. There are some written by individuals. It is important to remember that Chronicles from other countries are of relevance. Margaret was French, so their chronicles are an interesting contrast to those written in England. Burgundy is another source of Chronicles which are relevant given their involvement in both the French Wars and the Wars of the Roses. There is one major drawback with contemporary chronicles though: non of the extant chronicles are written from a Lancastrian perspective, whereas lots are quite obviously Yorkist in their allegiance.

The role of Queen Consort by tradition was one of patronage to charitable and religious causes. Margaret, for example, was the foundress of Queens College at the University of Cambridge. She gave gifts to many causes and to members of the court. This role was one that in terms of court, was one of playing the hostess. On the whole, Consorts were expected to leave politics and war to the nobles: ie men. This was quite different from the experience that Margaret would have had in France, where women from the nobility quite frequently took on political roles in the absence of or after the death of their husbands.

Items such as statues, stained glass windows and illuminated manuscripts visualise perceptions of a person at the time. They are contextual examples of how the person portrayed themselves or how they were viewed by others. If contemporary manuscripts include artwork that makes Margaret look good or bad it would add weight to an argument about her reputation at the time

The handing over of Maine and Anjou to France was one of the first times where Margaret exerted political influence in the English Court. The French King, Charles VII and her father, Rene of Anjou, wanted to secure the surrender of the provinces. From an English perspective, this would be yet another continental loss, hard to stomach after the French recovery in the north and another sign that English influence and power on the continent was waning. Margaret’s affiliation as consort ought to have laid with the best interests of the English Crown: that was certainly the view that many would take. Yet it was Margaret who persuaded Henry VI to hand the two provinces over to the French. Our source for this, the King himself:

“Our most dear and most-beloved companion the Queen requested us to do this many times”Quoted in: Letters and Papers Illustrative of the Wars of the English in France during the reign of Henry VI. Joseph Stevenson, ed. Longman. London, 1861

A-Level Lesson: Margaret of Anjou’s Reputation as seen in contemporary sources and more recent interpretations

Margaret of Anjou – Reputation

Margaret of Anjou was a controversial figure within her lifetime. After her death, she was portrayed in all manner of ways. Shakespeare refers to her as being the She-Wolf of France. Historians in the Tudor period tended to lay much of the blame for events on her, a view that went relatively unchallenged for quite some time. Those views have been challenged and revised by more recent historians. Consequently, we have a vast range of historiography on the Queen Consort that is often heavily influenced by a political motive. These tasks are structured to break down the different views of Margaret. It works through it in stages:

  • Actual events. The hard evidence, the what, where and when. This is a sequencing task.
  • Contemporary views. A Matching exercise linking some contemporary views with those events.
  • Initial evaluation. A judgement exercise, giving an indication of how you feel the strength of feeling was about the Queen at each of those points in time.
  • Later views. Adding the words of historians from the Tudor period through to the current day. Assessing how those views compare to contemporary ones.

A Layered Timeline

The task essentially creates a timeline of events that is then added to with layers of historical opinion and interpretation. This layered approach can utilise the graphical method and move the various sources up and down a scale to visualise the student’s assessment of the strength of feeling within the interpretation of Margaret’s actions. By colour coding the periods in which the historians wrote in, they may be able to identify trends in the way that Margaret’s actions have been interpreted over time. This enables them to develop an awareness of historiography that is quite advanced for post-16. It is possible to extend the sources to add breadth which could see students being given a bank of sources from a range of distinct periods. Modern revisionism, for example, could quite easily have a selection of interpretations allocated to it. Initially, however, the sources are ‘limited’ to 26, with the majority being contemporary or near contemporary: see ‘A word of the sources’ below.

Task 1:

A sorting exercise for the students. A copy of the list in chronological order, with dates, is provided after the sources. Arrange the events into chronological order and place them onto a timeline (covering 1450-1471).

Key Events in the Life of Margaret of Anjou and the Wars of the Roses

  • York named as Protector
  • The Parliament of Devils
  • Battle of Wakefield
  • Margaret in Exile
  • The murder of Suffolk
  • The Act of Accord
  • The birth of Prince Edward
  • Battle of Towton
  • Angers Agreement
  • Henry’s 2nd mental breakdown
  • Alliance with Warwick: Barnet and Tewkesbury
  • March on London

Example of timeline

Timeline Margaret of Anjou

Now read through the sources very carefully. Some are quite explicit in stating how Margaret was perceived, others provide hints but require inference to make a judgement. Before you do…

A word on the sources…

…the evidence, as it always has been, is incomplete and unreliable. For a start some narrative accounts (chronicles) are poorly informed, especially if they were written some distance in time and place from the events they describe. They are all, to a lesser or greater degree, biased.

…This is true, too, of the standard narratives of the last years of Henry VI, mostly written or adjusted after 1461 in light of Yorkist characterisations of his reign and the new regimes justifications of its actions. The propaganda was made even more pernicious by a strand of misogynism against his unfortunate queen, Margaret of Anjou. Historians have tended to follow their lead in accounts of the end of the House of Lancaster rather than the counter-propaganda of Lancastrian court circles in 1459-60, which roundly blamed the insubordination and insatiable ambition of York and his supporters for the crisis. Both are loaded. Other accounts are revealed to contain material derived from the camp of one side or the other. Thus, both the London Chronicle known as Bale’s Chronicle and the Burgundian Chronicle known as Waurin’s Chronicle have passages, ‘leaks’ as it were, which clearly derive from associates of Warwick the Kingmaker and give his version of events.

Professor A.J. Pollard. The Wars of the Roses (3rd Edition). British History in Perspective. Palgrave Macmillan. (2013)

Sources on Margaret of Anjou

Your task will be making a judgement as to her reputation based on each individual source. Does it state or suggest that she has a good, or bad, reputation? The sources will be plotted onto the timeline to give an indication as to the weight of evidence about her reputation at any given time, or overall. You can add them as you read through the sources the first time or read all of them for an overall picture followed by a one-by-one approach to the sources. When adding the source to the timeline just use the source number. As there are 26 sources in this lesson pack the timeline could get very crowded indeed if you add notes from the outset: you may be able to afterwards.

Example of how the sources might be added to the timeline

Important note: this example is for illustrative purposes, do not take the positioning of source numbers to be an indication of ‘right’ answers.

Contemporary Sources on Margaret of Anjou

(1) I am writing to report what an Englishman told me about the magnificence of the Queen of England…

Milanese State Papers, October 1458

(2) [In October 1456] the king sent for the Earl of Warwick and the Duke of York, who he received with a gracious welcome; however, the queen greatly loathed them both.

Benet’s Chronicle

(3) …the queen has made a bill of five articles, desiring them to be granted, the first of which is that she desires the whole rule of this land; the second is that she may appoint the chancellor, treasurer, keeper of the privy seal, and all other officers of this land, with sheriffs and all the other officers that the king should make; the third is that she may give all the bishoprics of the land, and all other benefices belonging to the kings gift; fourth is that she may have a sufficient livelihood assigned to her for the king, the prince and herself. As for the fifth article I can not yet find out what that is.

John Stodele, in London, to the Duke of Norfolk. 19th January 1454. In the Paston Letters

(4) Almost all the affairs of the realm were conducted according to the queens will, by fair means or foul, as was said by several people. What will be the result of this, God knows.

Thomas Gascoigne. Period but exact date unknown.

(5) [In 1459] the queen, with such as were here affinity, ruled the realm as she liked, gathering riches innumerable. The officers of the realm, especially the Earl of Wiltshire, treasurer of England, to enrich himself, fleeced the poor people, disinherited rightful heirs and did many wrongs. The queen was defamed and denounced.

English Chronicle

(6) “I will either conquer or be conquered with you.” All marvelled at such boldness in a woman, at a man’s courage in a woman’s breast, and at her reasonable arguments. They said that the spirit of the Maid (Joan of Arc) … was renewed in the Queen.

Anecdotal Report: Pope Pius II’s commentaries.

(7) Whereas the late Duke of York, of extreme malice long hid under colours, plotted by many ways and means the destruction of my lords good grace, whom God’s mercy ever preserve, has now of late, on an untrue pretence, feigned a title to my lords crown… disposed to rob you of your goods and property, we desire that you know for certain that none of you shall be robbed, despoiled nor wronged by any person [in our company].

Margaret of Anjou to the citizens of London, 1461.

(8) As scripture says, ‘Woe be to that region
Where is a king unwise or innocent’.
Moreover it is right great perversion
[For] a woman of a land to be a regent –
Queen Margaret, I mean, that ever has meant
To govern all England with might and power,
And to destroy the right line was her intent.

Pro-Yorkist Ballad, 1462

(9) [Upon her arrival in Burgundy in 1463 she was] poor and alone, destitute of all goods and all desolate… Her body was clad in one single robe, with no change of clothing… It was a thing piteous to see, truly, this high princess so cast down and laid low in such great danger, dying of hunger and hardship…

Georges Chastellian, Burgundy

(10) “a grete and strong labourid woman, for she spareth noo peyne to sue hire thinges to an intent and conclusion to hir power.”

(The Paston Letters, February 9, 1456)

(11) “wise and charitable…when the wife of the Duke of Petro a Baylito, the king’s son and all the duchesses speak to the queen, they always go on their knees before her.

Raffaelo De Negra to Bianca Maria Visconti, Duchess of Milan, October 24, 1458

(12) “For the lordys wolde fayne hadde hyr unto Lundon, for they knewe welle that alle the workyngys that were done growe by hyr, for she was more wyttyer then the kynge . . .

Gregory’s Chronicle

(13) the fact that the king, being too greatly influenced by the urgent suggestions of the queen, admitted to his especial favour all the relations of the said queen, as well as those who were in any way connected with her by blood, enriching them with boundless presents and always promoting them to the most dignified offices about his person; while, at the same time, he banished from his presence his own brethren, and his kinsmen sprung from the royal blood, together with the earl of Warwick himself, and the other nobles of the realm who had always proved faithful to him

Croyland Chronicle: Second Continuation

Tudor Sources

(14) This woman, when she perceived the king her husband to nothing of his own head but to rule wholly by Gloucester’s advice, [decided] to take upon herself that charge.

Polydore Virgil

(15) [In 1459] the queen, for diligence, circumspection and speedy execution of causes.. believed for certain that [there were plans] whereby the Duke of York attain the sovereignty. Wherefore this wise woman called together the council to provide remedy for the disordered state of things…

Polydore Virgil

(16) This woman excelled all other, as well in beauty and favour, as in wit and policy, and was of stomach and courage, more like to a man, than a woman

Edward Hall

(17) ’twas the foulest deed to slay that babe…
… She-wolf of France, but worse than wolves of France,
Whose tongue more poisons than the adder’s tooth!

Shakespeare, Henry VI part 3 (Battle of Wakefield, referencing Rutland’s execution, then general comment)

Sources and interpretations from c1600 to modern-day

(18) “in the context of civil-war a foreign-born queen might readily be condemned for her malign influence over her husband” and her gender – “she failed to conform to contemporary expectations of queenly behaviour by involving herself in politics.”

Diana E.S. Dunn, War and Society in Medieval Britain

(19) Being on the losing side, on the wrong side of history, they are represented in the surviving chronicles as being deeply flawed; Henry weak and ineffectual and Margaret ambitious and warlike, while their son has been reduced to a blood-thirsty stereotype. Thank goodness, breathed the writers of the York-ruled 1460s and 70s, that the Lancastrians had been prevented from dominating England and establishing their line. It was not until the advent of the Tudors and the reign of Henry’s half-nephew, Henry VII, that a reappraisal of Henry VI began, but Margaret would have to wait significantly longer. As a woman taking an active part in a bloody conflict that threatened the throne of her husband and son, Margaret was a convenient scapegoat of contemporary, and subsequent, chroniclers who did not want to place blame for the next phase of war directly on the shoulders of an anointed king.

Amy Licence, Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou

(20) Queen Margaret proposed a grand meeting of all the lords and nobles on both sides, to agree upon some terms of pacification by which the intestine feud which divided and distracted the country might be healed, and the way prepared for turning their united strength against the foe.

Margaret of Anjou. Jacob Abbot, 1902

(21) It was at this point that the queen emerged as the leader of the Somerset faction. She grasped the fundamentally weak position of York with the Lords and in January 1454 demanded to have the government of the realm in her hands.

EF Jacob, The Fifteenth Century> The Oxford History of England. 1961

(22) As has already been said, the general sentiment of the nobles and of the people was strongly against the match when it was first proposed. They opposed it, not because they had any personal objection to Margaret herself, but because, in order to prepare the way for it, it was necessary to make peace with France, and in making peace, to grant certain concessions which they thought would weaken the power of the English on the Continent, and, at any rate, greatly interfere with the farther extension of their power there. But when the people came to see and know the queen, they all admired and loved her.

Margaret of Anjou. Jacob Abbot, 1902

(23) [On Loveday] The queens primary, insurmountable problem was her gender. A strong woman defending her incapacitated husband and infant child might well have been applauded in another time. In Margaret’s day it was terrifying. A woman was not supposed to behave like a man, but Margaret could not rule without doing just that… a woman wishing to rule was incomprehensible to medieval English society.

Matthew Lewis, The Wars of the Roses: The Key Players in the Struggle for Supremacy p81 2015

(24) Margaret was the more easily persuaded to acquiesce in these arrangements from believing, as she did, that the state of things to which they gave rise would be of short duration. She fully believed that her husband would recover, and then the regency of the Duke of York would cease, and the king—that is, the king in name, but she herself in reality—would come into power again. So she determined to bide her time.

Margaret of Anjou. Jacob Abbot, 1902

(25) Margaret’s heart was filled with the wildest exultation and joy when she heard that her inveterate and hated foe at last was dead. She could scarcely restrain her excitement. One of the nobles of her party, Lord Clifford, whose father had been killed in a previous battle under circumstances of great atrocity, cut off the duke’s head from his body, and carried it to Margaret on the end of a pike. She was for a moment horror-stricken at the ghastly spectacle, and turned her face away; but she finally ordered the head to be set up upon a pole on the walls of York, in view of all beholders.

Margaret of Anjou. Jacob Abbot, 1902

(26) Margaret of Anjou shared her favourites unpopularity; and when she reached the age of twenty, the crown which had been placed upon her head to much applause became a crown of thorns. Exasperated at their loss of their continental conquests, Englishmen recalled to mind that she was a kinswoman and protégée of the King of France; and when it was known that, to secure her hand to their sovereign, Maine and Anjou had been surrendered, sturdy patriots described her as the cause of a humiliating peace, and, with bitter emphasis, denounced her as “The Foreign Woman.”

The Wars of the Roses: Stories of the Struggle of York and Lancaster John George Edgar. Pub Library of Alexandria 2016

Events with dates

  • The murder of Suffolk (May 1450)
  • Henry’s mental breakdown (August 1453)
  • The birth of Prince Edward (October 1453)
  • York named as Protector (March 1454)
  • The Parliament of Devils (November 1459)
  • The Act of Accord (October 1460)
  • Battle of Wakefield (December 1460)
  • March on London (January-February 1461)
  • Battle of Towton (March 1461)
  • Exile (March 1461-1471)
  • Angers Agreement (July 1470)
  • Alliance with Warwick: Barnet and Tewkesbury (April 1471 / May 1471)

Discussion points

  • How did Margaret of Anjou gain a negative reputation?
  • Is the reputation of being “The she-wolf of France” a fair one?
  • What problems do historians face when attempting to make an assessment of the reputation of Margaret of Anjou?

Teachers’ Notes

Whilst there are many sources included within the activity they are short enough and pointed enough to not overwhelm an A-Level class. It is possible to break the sources down through classification exercises to make the activity more accessible. This could be sorting them into pro-anti Margaret; sorting into periods to enable assessment of how she was viewed at different times or sorted into origins of the sources (ie Yorkist, Lancastrian, Overseas).

Links

Queens College, Cambridge. Margaret of Anjou foundress

Lee, Patricia-Ann. “Reflections of Power: Margaret of Anjou and the Dark Side of Queenship.” Renaissance Quarterly, vol. 39, no. 2, 1986, pp. 183–217.

Margaret of Anjou: Tradition and Revision. Thesis on the various views chronicles and historians have of Margaret of Anjou. Incredibly useful for A-Level students.

Margaret of Anjou: Queenship and Power in Late Medieval England. Academic book review noting historiography.

Margaret of Anjou, Queen of England. The Freelance History Writer.

Margaret in the Ascendancy. The Ferrers Household.

The Talbot Shrewsbury Book. A gift from John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury, to Margaret upon her betrothal. British Library.

National Portrait Gallery. Selection of portraits of Margaret of Anjou. They are largely from the 17th and 18th centuries but reflect the way in which she was viewed at those points in time.

Causes of the Wars of the RosesCourse of the War of the RosesEvents of the War of the Roses – Women of the Wars of the RosesBattle of the Wars of the Roses

Battles in the Wars of the Roses

First Battle of St. Albans Battle of Blore HeathBattle of Ludford BridgeBattle of NorthamptonBattle of WakefieldBattle of Mortimer’s CrossSecond Battle of St. AlbansBattle of FerrybridgeBattle of TowtonBattle of Hedgeley MoorBattle of HexhamBattle of Edgecote MoorBattle of Losecote FieldBattle of BarnetBattle of TewkesburyBattle of BosworthBattle of Stoke Field

Documents, Maps and Evidence

The Rous RollsPaston LettersEdward IV RollPrimary and Secondary Sources on the Wars of the Roses

People and periods

British HistoryThe Wars of the RosesThe PlantagenetsThe TudorsKing Henry IVKing Henry VKing Henry VIKing Edward IVKing Edward VKing Richard IIIKing Henry VIIMargaret of Anjou

Schoolshistoryteaching resources for Key Stage 3, GCSE and A Level history

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The Plantagenets
Henry IIRichard IKing John
Henry IIIEdward IEdward II
Edward IIIRichard II
House of Lancaster
Henry IVHenry VHenry VI
House of York
Edward IVEdward VRichard III
Events
Murder of Thomas BecketMagna CartaTen Facts about the Black Death
Edward I’s Conquest of WalesMadog ap LlywelynCauses of the Peasants Revolt
Timeline of the Peasants Revolt
Sources and Interpretations
Paston LettersJohn Rous
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