The bloody ‘She-Wolf’ queen Shakespeare turned into a panto villain

·5-min read
An illustration to the 1444-5 'Shrewsbury Book' showing Margaret of Anjou receiving the book itself - British Library
An illustration to the 1444-5 'Shrewsbury Book' showing Margaret of Anjou receiving the book itself - British Library

Margaret of Anjou is famous for gloating after her victory at the Battle of Wakefield by forcing the defeated Richard of York to balance on a molehill. She places a paper crown on his head and hands him a handkerchief, stained with the blood of his murdered 12-year-old son, before stabbing him and ordering his corpse to be beheaded.

It makes for grim viewing on stage, and is by far the cruellest moment in the four plays that Shakespeare wrote about the Wars of the Roses. It is also, as Joanna Arman rightly points out, largely a fabrication. Even if Richard did survive the battle to be mistreated by his captors, Henry VI’s queen consort played no direct part. At the time, she was in Scotland, trying to drum up support for her cause. In her new biography, Margaret of Anjou: She-Wolf of France, Twice Queen of England, Arman argues that the last Lancastrian queen would be better remembered not as a pantomime villain but as a victim of sexist propaganda, who rose to difficult circumstances after being “caught between the machinations and rivalries of powerful men”.

Margaret’s tale starts across the channel, with her 1445 marriage to a militarily weak and mentally infirm Henry. She was an embarrassingly minor noble to be married off to a king, a symbol of all that had gone wrong for England in the last stage of the Hundred Years’ War. A Milanese ambassador wrote home incredulously that Henry “took her without any dowry, and even restored some lands which he held to her father”. The return of Maine marked the beginning of the end for English interests in France; by 1453, they had been expelled from all their territories save Calais. Things would only get worse later that year, when Henry had a mental breakdown that left him catatonic. It’s easy to see how his dearly-bought French queen became a scapegoat for all that had gone wrong, and all that was about to.

Arman’s account of the many players circling the weak king and his court is vivid and accessible, and she clearly has a deep sympathy for the position in which Margaret found herself. The best chapter is a defence of what is generally seen as one of Margaret’s biggest missteps, her attempt to secure the regency of England in 1454. This would have given her husband and son considerable security – their Lord Protector, Richard of York, had already tried to rebel on two occasions – but her claim was soundly rebuffed. Arman insinuates that this was because of her gender, but only offers counter-evidence: Henry II and Stephen had elected their wives as regents, and it was a common practice in France for women to take command when their husbands were incapacitated. Indeed, Margaret’s own mother had spent three years as ruler of the Kingdom of Naples while her husband was imprisoned. This does little to challenge the established view that she fell foul of a Plantagenet power-grab, though it does set up the second “phase” of her life as an embattled defender of her family’s interests.

There’s obviously a market for popular history reappraising the many maligned women of history, and we’ve seen some impressive recent books about Henrietta Maria, or the real women behind Chaucer’s Wife of Bath. Despite a sound premise, though, Arman’s work lacks the bedrock of scholarly discipline that made those stand out. There are constant typos and errors, factual mistakes and fudges. The bloody-handkerchief exchange is incorrectly ascribed to the second part of Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy (it’s from the third), while the argument that handing over Maine was more of a “give and take” than is commonly realised cites, as its only evidence, an unrelated discussion of English local government. This all comes together in a product that feels rushed-out, and scores more points for its concise rendition of the well-known events of the Wars of the Roses than it does for its constant attempts to transform Margaret into “an English answer to Joan of Arc”.

Joely Richardson as Margaret in The Wars of the Roses, at Kingston Theatre in 2015 - Mark Douet
Joely Richardson as Margaret in The Wars of the Roses, at Kingston Theatre in 2015 - Mark Douet

Still there’s energy in how Margaret is shown to turn into a vengeful “warrior-queen”, and the tumult of the Wars is conveyed well in descriptions of battles and court intrigue. If it weren’t for all the blood that had been already spilled in her name, you would feel dreadful reading about the aftermath of the 1471 Battle of Tewkesbury, when Margaret’s ambitions of re-taking the throne were shattered forever by the death of her son, Edward of Westminster.

There are glimmers of a fascinating story here, one of a person motivated by a desperate but understandable need to preserve her family’s legacy. Yet the book is consistently too “tell, don’t show” to bear the premise out. I had the sense that it would have landed better as overt historical fiction. As it stands, we’re left with a muddled attempt to reform the legacy of a deposed queen whose “only real ‘crimes’ were those against English national pride and occasionally national interest”. Precisely the crimes of which a bad queen would be guilty, then.

Margaret of Anjou : She-Wolf of France, Twice Queen of England is published by Amberley at £20. To order your copy for £16.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books