Married to a She-Wolf: Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou

The Verey Gallery at Eton recently hosted the Eton Choirbook and provided the relevant history surrounding it. One of the display cabinets encased an Illumination (below) which included an image of the founder of Eton College, Henry Vl, aged 23 and his bride Margaret of Anjou, only 15 years of age.

Detail of a leaf from Ranulph Higden, Polychronicon, England [Somerset?], 15th century [Eton MS 213]. Find out more about this document and College Chapel in the architectural trail Stories in the Stones: https://collections.etoncollege.com/whats-on/upcoming-events/college-chapel/

Henry Vl, born at Windsor Castle, was heir to the throne at the tender age of nine months when his battle driven father, Henry V, died of battle field dysentery in 1422. A few months later, his mother’s father, King Charles VI of France, died, leaving the French throne to the infant Henry Vl. His life was never going to be conventional.

Henry Vl was a well read individual and any notions of what kind of a ruler he wanted to be largely came from books. He was devoted to his Catholic faith and remained a pious man all his life. At the ages of seven and ten years old, Henry Vl was swept along with his coronation in England and again in France respectively. For a child king, one throne was a large responsibility, but two lands, marred by a history of bloody conflict, for anyone, was always going to be a challenge. The French that were loyal to their Valois kings wanted to restore the Dauphin (Prince) Charles to his rightful inheritance, but the Treaty of Troyes of 1420 declared Henry VI was the legitimate successor of both his father and grandfather. Although inheritance through the maternal line was not uncommon, it was particularly strange that the presumed heir was passed over in preference for a child.

The English made their presence known during the coronation ceremony of the young king. A nation not recognised for their culinary prowess provided the feast, resulting in a bland banquet, traditionally cooked three days before and served cold. Naturally, the trans-channel relationship was not secured and after 1432, the King of Two Crowns never returned to French soil.

In 1445 Henry Vl married Margaret of Anjou, second daughter of ‘Good King Rene’, King of Naples, Duke of Anjou and of Issabella, Duchess of Lorraine. Margaret’s family included several prominent women exercising power in politics. She had many practical and personal experiences in which to draw influences. She was betrothed to Henry Vl by proxy, so a comparatively small monetary dowry, land and a twenty-three month truce with France provided an effort to create a genuine effort at peace. The people of England were putting all their hope on the young princess to secure the two nations. Propaganda made Margaret popular and the future seemed bright.

The marriage of Henry VI with Margaret of Anjou, etching, https://catalogue.etoncollege.com/object-fda-e-637-2013

Popularity waned somewhat as it was a further eight years before an heir was born between them. Henry was the ideal husband in that he was completely monogamous, but also very uncommon for a medieval king. This worked very well for Margaret as she remained unchallenged by mistresses and other potential children that would drain resources and risk the possibility of challenges to the throne further down the line. His ideals proved to be less than productive as a ruler, but as the founder of Eton College, Eton in 1440 and Kings College, Cambridge in 1441, he revealed himself as a generous and intellectually minded monarch, providing free education and religious guidance to 70 under privileged boys, with the intention to go further to Kings College.

Henry VI, King of England, oil on panel, https://catalogue.etoncollege.com/object-fda-p-454-2013

However, his political life was to become problematic as he began to suffer spells of ‘melancholy’ or in modern terms, bouts of ill mental health. When their son, Prince Edward was born in 1453, Henry was incapacitated and oblivious to their new child. The baton was passed to Margaret, as she picked up the pieces to attempt to keep the dream of peace alive. She moved in influential circles in both England and France to drum up support for their king and also to secure Prince Edward’s place as heir. When war became an unavoidable conclusion to the later conflict between the Yorkists and the Lancastrian Henry VI, Margaret wore an armoured breast plate to show military presence and power, even if her husband didn’t have the same passion for warfare. In his mind and heart, he felt battle to be graphic and heart breaking with the horrible cost of life, in so stepping out of his father’s bloody shadow yet his refusal to accept the necessity of conflict left the lasting impression throughout the centuries that he was a weak ruler. Margaret however, was not compliant in court and to advisors. She was not obeying the power structure typical of her station, in which she was expected to keep quiet and do what the men in her life told her to do. But this was a necessity. The risk of losing everything should the rival Yorkist take the throne was too large, so for the sake of her son, her husband and herself, Margaret showed she would fight tooth and nail to keep the crown.

Henry’s throne was vulnerable from infighting between the king’s Lancastrian supporters and Yorkists. Edward Duke of York took the throne as Edward lV in 1461. Meanwhile, Henry sheltered with Lancastrian followers, stowing themselves away in the North of England and Scotland. Henry was captured in 1465 and confined to the Tower of London. In 1470 the Earl of Warwick restored Henry Vl to the throne, by forcing Edward IV to flee to Burgundy. Margaret and Prince Edward were in France, continuing to lead a resistance against Edward IV and returned back to England shortly after the Yorkist rival resumed his fight for the throne with a fresh army. Margaret, fully aware of how important a military mind was for a young prince, took it upon herself to prepare her son for a life of battle and conflict. If she were to have any chance surviving in the English court as Queen, or even Dowager Queen, her son would need to fight for his throne.  

Despite Margaret’s best efforts, to groom him to be the Warrior King that his father failed to be, on May 4th, 1471, Prince Edward, her only child was killed at the Battle of Tewksbury at the age of 17. Tewksbury was a particularly brutal conflict, comparable to the massacre of Somme in 1916. Tragically for Margaret, Edward lV returned to London in triumph, forcing Henry lV off his throne and imprisoning him once more in the Tower. Weeks later, on May 21st, Henry died under suspicious circumstances. The Yorkist court reported that he had died of heartbreak on finding his son had been killed but historians find this to be too much of a convenient solution. Did he succumb to his melancholy or was he murdered?

Margaret had been abandoned. The Queen Consort had lost everything and everyone. She remained in custody in England until the French king Louis Xl ransomed her return in 1475. Margaret was known as having ‘Valiant courage and undaunted spirit’. She returned to Anjou, France where she died in abject poverty.

‘Ay, this is he that took King Henry’s chair   

And this is his he was his adopted heir…

…She-wolf of France, but worse than wolves of France,

Whose tongue more poisons than the adder’s tooth!’

Shakespeare’s Henry Vl, part lll

By Val Young, Gallery Steward

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