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Women in the 15th Century – A Tale of Three Margarets

Meieval image of Christine de Pizan

In 1859 Mary Ann Evans published her first novel under the pen name ‘George Elliot’.  She used a pseudonym because she did not believe Victorian society would take women as writers seriously.  In the early C15th the Italian writer Christine de Pizan wrote on a wide variety of themes, including classical philosophy and humanism.  She wrote under her own name and society too her seriously.

Of course, Christine lived in a patriarchal medieval society.  A society in which definite limits applied to the roles appropriate for a woman to play.  But Christine’s example shows that this did not mean that women had no voice or influence of their own. She frequently and openly voiced criticism of male contemporaries for what she saw as superficial and inaccurate portrayals of women.   Indeed, Christine de Pizan was taken more seriously as a female writer in the early C15th than Mary Ann Evans felt women were in 1859.

A Patriarchal society

Although it was theoretically possible for a queen to rule in her own right, this had never really happened in English medieval history since the Norman conquest.  Queen Matilda had come closest, but had never ruled as an undisputed monarch in her own name.  Edward II’s wife Queen Isabella deposed him. While she briefly ruled as regent it was only with her lover Mortimer at her side to handle all the ‘male stuff’.

The thinking at the top of society remained true throughout the lower rungs.  Any official power in C15th politics rested with men.  All the senior government officials were men, as were all the parliamentary representatives.  Civic officials such as Mayors and Alderman were all male.  Men held all senior positions of clerical authority.  And in matters of business, men were also dominant.

The role of a woman was to marry, support her husband, raise a family, and attend to the affairs of the household.  However, the husband was very much the head of that household – and, ultimately, the legal owner of it.

Nevertheless, despite all this, women could still wield considerable power and influence in the public sphere in the C15th. 

Three Margarets

It is tempting to relegate medieval women to entirely passive roles, subordinate to and largely dependent upon the senior men in their lives for governance and direction.  Such a view of women of this time would see them as almost entirely deferential and largely unable to actively influence and shape important events in their own lives.

But this view is clearly untenable as soon as you start to consider the experiences of real women living at that time.

In general, women of the gentry and lesser nobility may not have owned their own households but that does not mean to say they didn’t play a key role in managing them.  One C15th Englishwoman, Margaret Paston, did just this.  Although her husband was legally the head of her household, she nevertheless made key decisions about the commercial affairs of the family estates.  And she did so on numerous occasions without even thinking to ask for her husband’s permission.

Queens in name only?

C15th English queens assumed the role of queen consort.  This meant that they had no real executive power.  Their duties were limited to patronage of certain worthy and religious causes. They could intercede with their husbands for mercy on behalf of his defeated enemies.  But all executive political power sat with the king.

Despite these official limitations one C15th English queen, Margaret of Anjou, went on to wield very considerable political power.  She was able to do so simply because of her own intelligence, energy, and forceful personality.  Even her own enemies recognised her de facto leadership of the Lancastrian faction in the Wars of the Roses.  And she raised armies, brokered alliances and appointed/ dismissed key people without ever having any official power to do any of those things.

A third Margaret, Lady Margaret Beaufort, acted to influence events from behind the scenes to set her own son on the throne of England.  She too brokered alliances, raised finances, and acted as the principal mastermind behind more than one conspiracy to depose Richard III.  This Margaret’s political achievements, in bringing the Tudor dynasty to power, were to prove the most impressive demonstration of female power of the C15th.

In this article we’ll look at the lives of three Margarets. We will consider how, working within the limitations of their times, they came to be mistresses of their own destiny.

Margaret Paston

Photo of St Margaret's church, location of the Paston family tomb
St Margaret’s Church, location of the Paston family tomb

Margaret Paston was born in 1423, the daughter of a wealthy landowner in Norfolk.  Her husband, John, was a lawyer and from another local landowning family.  However, although the Pastons were well off, they were not nobility. They were, rather, fairly typical members of the gentry.

Margaret the soldier

The Pastons lived in turbulent times. In the 1440s, they entered into a land dispute with Lord Moleyns, a powerful magnate.  This dispute looked increasingly like it would become violent. So Margaret set about organising for the defence of the family estates.  She wrote to her husband in 1448 asking him to send her weapons for this purpose: 

“My dear husband, I am again thinking of you. I ask you to get some crossbows and windlasses to fire them with, together with quarrels, because your houses here are so low that no-one can shoot out with a longbow, though we really need them.

I suppose you could get such things from Sir John Fastalf if you asked him. I would also like you to get two or three short poleaxes to keep by the doors, and as many quilted jackets as you can.

Partridge and his comrades are really afraid that they will be attacked again, and they have many weapons within the house, I have been told. They have put bars across the doors, and have made openings on every quarter of the house to shoot out of, both with bows and with handguns. The five holes made for handguns are scarcely knee-high from the floor. No-one can shoot out of them with a longbow.”

Margaret Paston, Letter to John Paston, 1449

In the same letter, as an afterthought, she asks John to also buy a pound of sugar, a pound of almonds and some cloth for children’s clothes.  A most eclectic shopping list!

A warning

Her efforts were ultimately in vain. Moleyn’s men eventually expelled Margaret and her retainers from the disputed property.  Later that year she wrote to her husband, warning him to beware of Moleyns:

“I do beg you to beware of Lord Moleyns and men; however fair they speak to you, do not trust them. Do not eat or drink with them, for they are so false that you cannot trust them.”

Margaret Paston, Letter to John Paston, 1449

A time of war

As the events of the Wars of the Roses played out around them, the Pastons inevitably found themselves embroiled in the conflict from time to time.  In 1469 Margaret had to martial the family resources once again to resist armed enemies. She wrote to one of her sons, to instruct him to come to his brother’s aid:

“…your brother and his fellowship stand in great jeopardy at Caister, and lack vitual . . . and the place is sore broken by the guns of the other party; so that, unless they have hasty help, they are like to lose both their lives and the place, to the greatest rebuke to you that ever came to any gentleman, for every man in this country marvels greatly that you suffer them to be so long in such great jeopardy without help or other remedy.”

Margaret Paston, Letter to her son John Paston, September 12 1469

The matriarch

When her eldest son fell out with her husband, Margaret did not simply follow her husband’s lead. Instead she wrote to him to urge him to make up with his son.

She also actively involved herself in the marriage plans of her children.  Margaret worked to find her son a prospective bride. She also threatened her daughter with being turned out of the house after discovering the girl had entered an engagement without her knowledge.

Actively involving herself in local business transactions, she conducted and concluded negotiations on her husband’s behalf.  Often, she writes to her husband only to inform him of the outcome of these affairs.  In most cases her husband apparently trusted her to arrive at an agreement on his behalf without his being directly involved.

Margaret Paston was certainly no passive partner in her marriage. She was very much an active agent in taking key decisions about her family’s affairs.  Furthermore, it is clear that her husband was quite happy for her to play such a role. This suggests there was nothing especially unusual about such a partnership.

Margaret of Anjou

Medieval portrait of Margaret of Anjou and her women
Queen Margeret of Anjou

One of the most remarkable women of the C15th was Margaret of Anjou.  At the age of just 15 she was married off to King Henry VI of England.  On the positive side, the marriage saw her elevated from one of the younger daughters of a relatively impoverished duke to the queen of England.  On the negative side, all was far from well at the English court.

Even before Margaret set foot in England, she found herself in the middle of a storm of controversy.  The marriage alliance had been brokered as a part of a truce between France and England in the Hundred Years’ War.  However, the detailed terms of the truce also included England handing over territory to the French – a move that was far from popular.

Things went from bad to worse.  Henry VI proved to be an ineffective King, often detached from the details of state affairs, and lacking a firm hand in the government of England. 

The English royal treasury saw itself running up increasingly staggering debts.  Ineffective fiscal policy was the main cause. But a combination of corruption and Henry’s poor decisions exacerbated this. 

To make matters worse, renewed fighting in the Hundred Years’ War brought with it catastrophic defeat for the English at the hands of Margaret’s uncle, the King of France.

The unrest that followed saw a chaotic rebellion in the early 1450s, and serious disputes break out between the senior nobility.  The dispute between the king’s favourite minister, the Duke of Somerset and the king’s cousin, the Duke of York, became especially toxic.

A horrible year

1453 was a horrible year for Margaret.  It had started out well enough as Margaret discovered she was pregnant with her first child.  However, as the year wore on the English suffered a humiliating decisive defeat in France and, shortly afterwards, her husband suffered a complete mental breakdown.

Henry’s mental breakdown was so severe that he was virtually catatonic.  He was unable to respond to anyone, even his own wife.  He was not even able to recognise or respond to his own new-born son.  It was clear that a regency of some kind would be necessary. The Duke of York, as the senior lord of the land, looked like the obvious candidate.

But then, much to the surprise of many, Margaret put herself forward to become regent.  This was her first overt public political act.  In the context of English politics, it was an audacious move.  However, for Margaret, it probably seemed like a natural and sensible one.  After all, her own mother had acted as regent during her father’s absence and her grandmother, the formidable Yolande of Aragon, had been regent of Provence.  

Parliament eventually appointed Richard of York as Protector with limited powers.  Margaret stayed to look after her husband, whilst York took the opportunity to imprison his rival Somerset and to appoint his own people to key positions in government. 

Defeat

Then, just as suddenly as he had fallen ill, Henry VI recovered.  He dismissed Richard of York and released Somerset.  However, by this time the level of suspicion and bad blood between the two factions quickly spilled over into open war.  At the first battle of Saint Albans, Richard emerged victorious. His arch-rival Somerset and many of Somerset’s key allies died.

A triumphant Richard then embarked on a second Protectorate, keen to consolidate his position.  With Somerset gone it must have seemed to many that nothing now stood in Richard’s way.  The Protectorate looked likely to bring with it a Yorkist government with Henry as little more than a figurehead.

Things did not look good for the House of Lancaster.  Richard of York had a strong claim to the throne in his own right, perhaps stronger than Henry’s.  Past experiences of monarchs who had lost executive power in England – Edward II and Richard II – suggested that things might not end well for Henry in the long run.

Once Richard had managed to establish a firm enough powerbase, perhaps he might go so far as to claim the throne for himself?  Or perhaps he might have Henry name him as his heir and disinherit the young Prince Edward?

At any other time in the Middle Ages, with any other queen on the throne of England, it may well have all ended there in 1455.

But Margaret was not just ‘any other queen’. 

A strong-laboured woman

The events of the early 1450s appear to have galvanised Margaret into action.  She no longer wanted to take a back seat and let others determine her destiny. From 1456 onwards, she became much more actively engaged in politics and, eventually, war.

She stubbornly refused accept any possibility of a Richard of York regency and absolutely would not stand by to see her son disinherited.  And so she chose to fight. 

Her energy and determination stood in stark contrast to her husband’s passivity and inertia.  She set about brokering political alliances, raising armies, and directing military strategy during what would later become known as the Wars of the Roses.  And she did all this without having any official executive power to do any of it.  But men followed her lead, nonetheless.  And they did so because she proved to be a capable and effective leader.

Her leadership sometimes astonished her male contemporaries.   This was not how things were supposed to be.  But there was no denying Margaret’s obvious ability and determination, as one contemporary wrote of her:

“The queen is a great and strong-laboured woman, for she spareth no pain to sue her things to an intent and conclusion to her power”

Paston Letters, i. 378

In the end, Margaret kept the Lancastrian cause alive until she was finally defeated in 1471, fully sixteen years after the first battle of Saint Albans.  The fact that the Lancastrian cause had lasted that long was almost entirely down to her efforts (admittedly helped, in no small part, by internecine in-fighting within the Yorkist camp).

Double Standards

Today, history remembers Margaret as a formidable and courageous leader.  But not in quite the same way as some of her male contemporaries (such as Warwick or Edward IV). 

These men were every bit as ruthless and ambitious as Margaret, probably even more so. Yet their behaviour is often presented as somehow more acceptable and reasonable than Margaret’s.  This stems from certain double-standards in how history has chosen to remember people like Edward IV, Warwick and Margaret.

Shakespeare is perhaps the best example of this double-standard.  In Henry VI, part 3, the bard has one of his characters describe Margaret’s personality.  In this description he compares Margaret to a tiger:

“‘Tis beauty that doth oft make women proud;

But, God he knows, thy share thereof is small:

‘Tis virtue that doth make them most admired;

The contrary doth make thee wonder’d at:

‘Tis government that makes them seem divine;

The want thereof makes thee abominable:

O tiger’s heart wrapt in a woman’s hide!

Women are soft, mild, pitiful and flexible;

Thou stern, obdurate, flinty, rough, remorseless.”

Henry VI, Part 3, Act 1, Scene 4

Positive male imagery

In a different play, he also uses the comparison of a tiger.  However, this time he is writing about men.  In a speech given by Henry V to his soldiers, a comparison to a tiger, for a man, is entirely positive:

“In peace, there’s nothing so becomes a man,
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood.Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect”

Henry V, Act 3, Scene 1]

The message is clear enough – ruthless, warlike behaviour in men is to be encouraged but the same behaviour in a woman is ‘abominable’. 

Shakespeare also imputes Margaret’s virtue and criticises her looks – the kind of personal criticism that you rarely see directed at men.   He comments that when it comes to beauty ‘thy share thereof is small’.  This attack on her virtue and looks no doubt intends to make Margaret appear more ‘abominable’. 

However, Margaret was actually considered a real beauty in her time.  Furthermore, there is no credible evidence beyond Yorkist rumours (dismissed outside England as the propaganda of ‘fanatics’) that Margaret was anything other than virtuous.

Margaret’s Legacy

Margaret of Anjou’s story shows that it was certainly possible for a woman to wield real political power in C15th England.  However, Margaret was clearly exceptional and the way history remembers her shows there is a price to pay for smashing glass ceilings. 

Despite her formidable efforts, Margaret was ultimately defeated.  Once her husband and son were killed it was all over. It had only ever been possible for her to wield power in the name of her husband or her son.  In the absence of any male ‘figurehead’ through which she could act, Margaret, despite her fearsome ability, was a spent force politically.  This fact, perhaps more than anything else, highlights the limitations placed on female power in the C15th most vividly.

However, where one Lancastrian Margaret would fail, another would go on to enjoy spectacular success.

Lady Margaret Beaufort

Portrait of Margaret Beaufort
Margaret Beaufort

Margaret Beaufort was the great grand-daughter of John of Gaunt via his third wife, Katherine Swynford.  As such she was a distant cousin of the Lancastrian King Henry VI and the niece of Henry’s principal Minister Edmund, Duke of Somerset.

Margaret was married off to Edmund Tudor at the tender age of 12 in 1455.  So keen was Edmund to ensure he had a son and heir that Margaret found herself pregnant very soon afterwards.  Whilst it is true that medieval concepts of age of consent were radically different from ours, Edmund’s treatment of Margaret was still viewed negatively by his contemporaries.  Most people felt that Edmund was cruel to put a young girl through pregnancy before she was physically mature.

However, the young Margaret had to face childbirth without her husband.  With the Wars of the Roses breaking out, Edmund Tudor found himself taken prisoner by the Yorkists.   Not long afterwards he died of plague in captivity in the autumn of 1456.

Margaret gave birth to her one and only son, Henry Tudor, in January 1457.  It was a traumatic birth as Margaret was not yet physically mature.  Miraculously both she and her son survived, although she was unable to have any further children.  At just 13 Margaret was both a new mother and a widow.

The Wars of the Roses

Margaret’s allegiance to the House of Lancaster meant that the Wars of the Roses were dangerous times for her and her son.  She re-married in 1458 to Sir Henry Stafford, another Lancastrian lord. 

Henry fought for the Lancastrians at the battle of Towton, where Edward IV decisively defeated them.  Despite being on the losing side, Stafford somehow managed to reconcile to the Yorkist King shortly afterwards.  The Tudor family were not so readily forgiven, however.  Henry Tudor’s uncle, Jasper, had to flee to France. And young Henry was made ward of Sir William Herbert, one of Edward IV’s trusted supporters.

In 1471 Lancastrian fortunes were briefly restored but it was not to last long. Edward IV ultimately triumphed.  It was a disaster for Margaret.  Her husband was killed at the battle of Barnet and her son fled to Europe in the care of his uncle, Jasper.  Margaret would not see her son again for 14 years.

Fortunes Restored

However, in 1472 Margaret married Thomas Stanley, a man who managed to manoeuvre his way back into Edward IV’s good books despite having provided some support for Warwick and the Lancastrians in 1471.

Margaret made use of her husband’s connections to get a position at court and worked her way into Elizabeth Woodville’s favour.  Her efforts to win the queen over were clearly successful, as Elizabeth chose her to be godmother to her daughter.

Edward IV’s death in 1483 brought renewed turmoil and uncertainty to England.  The old king’s brother seized the throne, becoming Richard III, and the Woodvilles and their supporters were suddenly out of favour.

Despite this dramatic shift in the political landscape the ever-adaptable Margaret soon worked her way back into the inner circles of power and the service of the new queen, Anne Neville.

The disappearance of the princes

As time went on, Richard III’s regime became increasingly unstable.  Richard seized the throne from his own nephews and had them confined to the Tower of London.  After a time, the young princes disappeared under highly suspicious circumstances and rumours of rebellion were soon in the air.

Lady Margaret saw her opportunity and began to secretly conspire with Elizabeth Woodville to get rid of Richard.  With Richard gone the way would be clear for Margaret’s son Henry to seize the throne.  Henry would then marry Elizabeth’s daughter and unify the two households.  Such an alliance would benefit from the support of both Lancastrians and those Yorkists sympathetic to the Woodville faction and Edward IV’s children.

The initial rebellion was led by the Duke of Buckingham in the autumn of 1483.  The plan was for Buckingham to raise an army in Wales and to then link up with Henry, who would sail across the channel with forces from France.  However, Henry’s ships were delayed by storms and Buckingham’s forces mostly deserted him when Richard III’s army approached.  The rebellion ended in disastrous failure.

Margaret in danger

Margaret now found herself in a dangerous position.  She had clearly acted to instigate and finance the insurrection and there would be no escaping the king’s justice.  In the end Richard III punished her by stripping her of her titles and estates, although he stopped short of executing her or making her subject to a full attainder.

Richard placed Margaret under effective house arrest, under the charge of her husband Lord Stanley.  Margaret had had a fortunate escape.

However, with the benefit of hindsight, it is hard not to conclude that Richard III seriously underestimated just how dangerous Margaret truly was.  Perhaps the fact that she was a woman made him partially blind to the danger.  That said, Margaret’s husband’s apparent political loyalty to Richard almost certainly helped.  Richard was not in such a strong position that he could afford to risk alienating people like Lord Stanley.

Yet, despite all these setbacks and the obvious risks involved, Margaret continued to plot against Richard. 

Margaret Triumphant

Despite Richard’s triumph over the Buckingham revolt, his problems continued to multiply.  And, sensing his weakness, Margaret continued to work hard behind the scenes, to raise support for her son in England.  Finally, in 1485 the time was deemed right, and Henry Tudor landed in Pembrokeshire to claim the throne.

When Henry engaged Richard III’s army at Bosworth on 22nd August 1485, it seemed like Richard would win.  Richard had the larger army, at least on paper.  However, Margaret’s schemes ran far deeper than Richard had realised.  He still believed that the Stanleys were loyal to him.  Indeed, Margaret’s husband and her brother-in-law, Sir William Stanley, raised a significant number of troops to Richard’s cause and took the field on Richard’s side at Bosworth.

But then, at a crucial stage of the battle, the Stanleys betrayed Richard and changed sides.  It proved decisive.  Richard was defeated and killed – it was a stab in the back that Machiavelli himself would have been proud of – all masterminded by Margaret.

Painting of Henry VII crowned on Bosworth field
Henry VII takes the crown on Bosworth field

As the dust settled, it was Margaret’s son, Henry Tudor, who placed the crown of England on his head.  It was the dawn of the Tudor age, and it had all been made possible because of Margaret’s political manoeuvrings.

Margaret Beaufort shaped the political landscape of England for the next century or more.  Rarely, has anyone had such a dramatic and far-reaching effect on the course of English history.

A woman’s lot

The women who lived through the C15th found themselves living in a society that, without question, placed many restrictions around the roles they were allotted in life.  However, the story of the three Margarets show that this did not prevent individual women from playing an active role in influencing the affairs of their families and the people around them.  And, in the case of one of these Margarets, it was ultimately because of her actions that the entire course of English history was irrevocably changed.

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References & further reading 

The Paston Letters (online library)

Henry VI, Margaret of Anjou and the Wars of the Roses: From Contemporary Chronicles, Letters and Records – Keith Dockrey, 2015, Fonthill Media

The Paston Letters A Selection in Modern Spelling (Oxford World’s Classics)  – Norman Davis, 2008

Susan Higginbotham – The Parentage of Edward of Lancaster

Mother of the Tudor Dynasty – Elizabeth Norton, 2011, Amberley Publishing

Wikipedia – Lady Margaret Beaufort

Wikipedia – Margaret of Anjou

Images

Illustration of Christine de Pizan – Cathedra, wiki commons

St Margaret’s Church photo by Marcus de Figueiredo, wiki commons 

Margaret of Anjou – Unknown C15th artist, wiki commons

Painting of Margaret Beaufortby Rowland Lockley, wiki commons

Henry VII at Bosworth –Illustration by an unknown artist, wiki commons

1 thought on “Women in the 15th Century – A Tale of Three Margarets”

  1. Thanks for these really useful summaries. I’ve recently “discovered” the Middle Ages, and thanks due mainly to my reading about Isabella, I’ve also been learning about the hidden women. Hopefully, as time progresses a more balanced picture will come to be written.

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