On 30th May 1445, a 15-year-old French girl was crowned Queen of England. Her French name (Margueritte) literally meant ‘daisy’, a flower she took as her personal emblem. By her parents and siblings she was referred to affectionately as La Petite Creature (the little creature). Her English subjects would know her as Queen Margaret of Anjou. However, history (thanks to Shakespeare) would remember her as the She Wolf of France.
No one could have guessed it in 1445, but this fresh-faced teenager was destined to play a critical role in English history. She emerged as one of the key players in the Wars of the Roses. Indeed, without her energetic leadership, it is unlikely the Lancastrian regime would have survived much beyond the First Battle of St Albans in 1455.
But who was this 15-year-old girl the English chose to crown in the spring of 1445?
In this piece, I take a closer look at the young Margaret and her life before she became Queen of England.
The Spring of 1430
In March 1430, Duke René ofAnjou and his wife Isabella had cause to celebrate the birth of a baby daughter. Little Margueritte was born into a fairly large family; indeed, her parents would eventually have ten children together (although only five would survive to adulthood).
She was born in Pont-à-Mousson, in the Duchy of Bar, in eastern France. Her father had a raft of impressive titles. In addition to being Duke of Anjou, he was also King of Naples, King of Jerusalem (in name only) and Count of Provence. He also benefited from close connections with the French King, Charles VII. The House of Anjou itself had a long an illustrious history.
However, despite all this, René would increasingly be seen as a man trading on the past glories of his ancestors. He was never truly King of Jerusalem, except on paper. And he was deposed from the throne of Naples when Margaret was just 12. Despite all his grand titles, his actual wealth was relatively meagre.
Nevertheless, Margaret’s family was well connected. Her aunt Marie was Queen of France and, whilst Charles VII remained king, René benefited from court patronage.
René was a big fan of fine living. His residences were lavishly furnished with fine silks and porcelain imported from China. He was famed for laying on spectacular tournaments and entertainments. He was also a cultured renaissance man, a keen patron of the arts and a gifted musician. Some of these interests rubbed off on his daughter. Margaret would also display a keen interest in the arts and entertainments. Certainly, her court at Eltham was a lot more fun than the spartan piety of her husband’s court.
Unfortunately for young Margaret, she’d have only limited contact with her father during her childhood. His disputes with the Duke of Burgundy saw him imprisoned during 1431-32 and again between 1434 and 1436. Between 1438 and 1441, most of his time would be spent fighting with Alfonso V for the Kingdom of Naples. How much Margaret saw of him during this period is uncertain. She appears to have spent much of her youth at Tarascon in Provence and at Capua near Naples. For most of the time her father was in Naples, she was with her grandmother in France.
As a result, the most important influences on Margaret’s upbringing would prove to be her mother and grandmother rather than her father.
Yolande of Aragon
Margaret’s grandmother, Yolande of Aragon, was a key player in French politics. She was a staunch supporter of the Armagnac faction during the early fifteenth century and, as such, became an influential figure in the court of Charles VII. She also acted as regent of Provence for her son René during his youth. It was due to Yolande’s political manoeuvrings that Margaret’s aunt came to be Queen of France. Indeed, in the aftermath of Agincourt, Yolande did more than most to keep the young Dauphin’s cause alive.
All-in-all, Yolande was probably the most influential woman in fifteenth century French political life and clearly had the king’s ear for most of the 1420s and 30s.
King Charles VII wrote a eulogy to Yolande on her death in 1442:
“The late Yolande, of good memory …. gave us much advice, support and many services using her goods, people and fortresses to help us against the attacks of our adversaries of England and others.”Charles VII
Margaret lived with her grandmother between the ages of 9 and 13. During that time Yolande schooled her in court etiquette, literature and even made sure Margaret knew how to read and audit duchy accounts. No doubt France’s ageing matriarch had a thing or two to teach young Margaret about politics as well!
Isabella, Duchess of Lorraine
Margaret’s mother was no less formidable. Isabella acted as regent during the periods of René’s imprisonment.
In the mid-1430s, Isabella travelled to Naples to take command of the military efforts to retain control of the kingdom. She also successfully oversaw the campaign to secure control of the Duchy of Lorraine from her rival Antoine de Vaudémont in 1441.
Margaret could look to her mother and grandmother for examples of female political leadership. And, if two such role models were not enough, she would spend most of 1443 at the French court, under the wing of her aunt, Queen Marie.
Margaret grew up in a family where female political leadership was normal. Furthermore, she was taught that if a husband was incapacitated, it was a wife’s duty to assume his political and military powers.
Margaret was very well educated, even for a woman of her class. She was multi-lingual, fluent in several European languages. Her letters show that she had mastered English from early on in her reign. She was also well versed in renaissance literature and owned several works by Boccaccio, one of the great early renaissance humanists.
Amongst the works that Margaret owned was Boccaccio’s “Concerning Famous Women”. It was the first significant work in European history to be devoted exclusively to biographies of famous women from classical times.
She was also well educated in court etiquette. Given the examples of her mother and grandmother, she would have been unusually familiar with politics for a woman of her time. Naturally, there were limits to her knowledge. Crucially, her political and cultural education was French, not English. For all her education and intelligence, she would have known very little about the English way doing things when she first arrived in 1445.
Margaret had a keen interest in literature. In addition to more intellectual and religious works, she was fond of the more light-hearted (and somewhat racy) romances of her time. She also enjoyed court social events and dancing. Her court at Eltham acquired quite a lively reputation.
However, Margaret was (like most of the nobility of her age) quite a religious person. She may not have been the model of piety that we see in her husband, Henry VI, but she actively involved herself in the religious affairs of her kingdom.
Margaret was enamoured by the culture of chivalry, valiant knights and displays of valour. She frequently attended tournaments and forged a lifelong friendship with a French knight by the name of Pierre de Brézé. Pierre often carried Margaret’s colours at tournaments and referred to himself as her ‘Chevalier Servant’.
Margaret’s own letters (what few survive) show that she was very passionate about hunting, dogs, and horses. Clearly, given the opportunity, Margaret loved the great outdoors. She was, by all accounts, a skilled huntress and no mean archer.
With her love of dancing, jousting, and hunting, Margaret was clearly an athletic woman with a very active lifestyle.
Margaret’s personality, even as a young girl, can perhaps best be described as larger than life. Her letters (admittedly written later, in her twenties) reveal a confident, forthright, extrovert.
This was a woman who opened a letter to the Duke of Somerset with the following greeting:
“Right trusty and right entirely beloved Cousin, we grete you full hertly and often tymes well.”Margaret of Anjou, to the Duke of Somerset
Margaret used the expression ‘hertly’ a fair bit. One gets the impression Margaret did most things in life ‘full hertly’.
Descriptions of Margaret from the period must be taken with a pinch of salt. Many were written by people who were reporting opinions of her they had heard second hand. Given the partisan nature of her times, many of these descriptions are almost certainly biased. Some, doubtless, reflect general stereotypes that male writers of the period applied to most women of Margaret’s rank. However, there were certain things most commentators were able to agree on. Margaret was widely acknowledged as an intelligent, energetic woman with a strong personality.
Her personal bravery was considered unusual for a woman. Polydore Vergil, for example, claimed that she was “…imbued with high courage beyond the nature of her sex…” and Sir John Bocking famously described Margaret as a “Great and strong laboured woman…”
We have limited information about Margaret’s appearance. Very few contemporary images of Margaret survive. Even the few that exist are problematic, since we don’t know for sure if the artist ever actually met Margaret.
The most accurate image we have is a profile engraving that was made for a medallion commissioned when Margaret was in her early thirties. The artist, Pietro da Milano, was known for his lifelike images and had the benefit of meeting Margaret in person.
The fact that Margaret was affectionately known as la petit creature in her youth suggests that she was a short woman. However, we also know that must have been quite an athletic woman, given her love of hunting and dancing.
The few descriptions of her that survive agree that she was considered a beauty in her time. The Milanese ambassador reported that he had been told that Margaret was “a most handsome woman”. He informed his mistress, the Duchess of Milan, that Margaret was somewhat darker (presumably in complexion or hair colour) than she was. Unfortunately, that is not very helpful, since the Duchess was very fair indeed. A portrait of Margaret’s father shows him with very light brown hair. It’s not unreasonable to speculate that Margaret’s hair was of a similar colour.
Sense of Duty and Rank
Like many nobles of her time, Margaret regarded social rank as fundamentally important and expected traditional formalities and terms of address to be observed. This was especially the case on official occasions.
She also regarded duty and personal loyalty as critical qualities and, as far as that was concerned, she practiced what she preached. It is true that she expected unstinting loyalty and obedience from her subjects. However, she also believed that she had a personal duty to look after her people. In short, if you were loyal to Margaret, she would be absolutely loyal to you. She made every effort to look after people who came within her orbit if they fell on hard times. For example, she personally intervened on behalf of a destitute chorister who’d been stricken by leprosy to get him shelter in a hospice. Indeed, the Milanese Ambassador wrote that one of Margaret’s servants described her as being charitable by nature.
However, perceived disloyalty was something that Margaret greatly resented. Margaret’s sense of personal loyalty inspired her to acts of charity and kindness when those she knew faced hard times. But it also incited her to confrontation when she encountered dissent (and hence perceived disloyalty) from the likes of Richard of York.
Relations with Women
Margaret had great faith in the abilities of women. She served as patron to the Sisterhood of Silk Women, an all-female silk weavers’ gild. As such she (and the women of that gild) played an important role in the introduction of the silk industry to England. And, of course, she owned a book celebrating the great deeds of women in history.
Much of her political power in the late 1450s flowed from her ability to network with other noblewomen and use these friendships to influence their husbands. One of the Paston letters describes an audience between Margaret and Elizabeth Clere (a relative of the Paston family). Elizabeth found Margaret warm and friendly, taking a keen interest in her affairs.
The Margaret that Elizabeth Claire encountered appears not only friendly and enthusiastic but even overfamiliar. Enquiring after Elizabeth’s marital status and then volunteering to find her a good husband must have been a little overwhelming! One gets the impression that Margaret in full flow was something of a force of nature.
However, Margaret’s ability to win over other women came in handy after her final defeat in 1471. For it was then that Elizabeth Woodville intervened to plead for mercy on Margaret’s behalf with her husband Edward IV.
Before the teenage Margaret had even set foot in England, she had been the cause of controversy. Her marriage to Henry VI had been arranged as part of a controversial truce with France. It had been intended as the first step towards a permanent peace settlement, but it was far from an ideal arrangement.
For one thing it was not a permanent peace, merely a truce. For another, England had been forced to surrender Anjou and Maine to seal the deal. From a French viewpoint it was also problematic. Henry VI had still not renounced his claim to the French throne – a key French demand.
Even the marriage alliance itself was a compromise. Margaret may have come from an illustrious line, but her house was impoverished. Many in England felt that any marriage alliance should at least have been with one of Charles VII’s daughters. But France had gone down that road before and it had not ended well. Charles was not about to make the same mistake again and so England would have to make do with his niece.
Unfortunately, there were many in England who felt they’d been duped into accepting a bad deal.
The Old Goat and the Wolf Cub
Principle amongst the critics of the marriage alliance (and the entire treaty for that matter) was Duke Humphrey of Gloucester. Now in his mid-fifties, he was Henry VI’s uncle and the last surviving brother of Henry V.
Gloucester had long had a reputation as a hawk and something of a hothead. He, more than anyone else, continued to champion his dead brother’s dreams of glory and continental empire. Any thought of compromise with France was an anathema.
In a series of vitriolic attacks, he whipped up popular sentiment against the truce, against the Duke of Suffolk (who’d brokered it) and against young Margaret. Who was this impoverished girl, whose father could not even afford a suitable dowry? A princess with no kingdom, whose father had been kicked out of Naples. Margaret, Gloucester protested, was “a queen not worth ten marks!”
We can only imagine what a 15-year-old girl would have felt about that.
Margaret met Gloucester before her coronation. He apparently assured her that his criticisms had been directed against the treaty and not her personally. Margaret, for her part, greeted him coldly but courteously. Gloucester would not have to wait that long for the young wolf cub to respond to his insults by baring her teeth. But, during the period leading up to her coronation, Margaret let it ride.
The Girl in White Damask
The Brut Chronicle tells us that Margaret went to her coronation riding in a magnificent horse-drawn bier, dressed in white damask, powdered with gold. Her hair, we are told, was combed down about her shoulders and she wore a coronel of gold, pearls, and precious stones.
On that day in May 1445, Margaret was crowned Queen of England. The day was celebrated with free wine for anyone who wished to drink. Among other things it was heralded as the dawn of a new age of peace between France and England. On that day England welcomed Margaret the peace-bringer.
Of course, it was not to be. But no one in 1445, and certainly not Margaret herself, could have had any idea of the troubles that lay ahead.
Keep up to date with our stories…
If you like reading our work and would like to keep up to date with the latest stories and news from our blog page, you can follow us on Facebook. We always announce any news and promote new stories as they are published here:
If you would like to read my articles on the reigns of other medieval English kings…
References and further reading
Illustration of Margaret of Anjou by Antoine Francois Seregent-Marceau 1787 (British Museum)
Yolande Aragon Vierge Enfant Juratoire et livre des fondations de la chapelle royale du Gué-de-Maulny dans le Maine, Bibliothèque municipale, Le Mans. (via wiki commons)
Medallion displaying Margaret of Anjou in profile 1463 by Pietro da Milano (via wiki commons)