More sinn’d against than sinning?

Catherine HokinCatherine Hokin is a Glasgow-based author whose fascination with the medieval period began during a History degree which included studies into witchcraft, women and the role of political propaganda. This kick-started an interest in hidden female voices which resulted in her debut novel, Blood and Roses. The novel brings a feminist perspective to the story of Margaret of Anjou (1430-1482, wife of Henry VI) and her pivotal role in the Wars of the Roses, exploring the relationship between Margaret and her son and her part in shaping the course of the bloody political rivalry of the fifteenth century.  Catherine also writes short stories – she was 3rd prize winner in the 2015 West Sussex Writers Short Story Competition and a finalist in the Scottish Arts Club 2015 Short Story Competition. She regularly blogs as Heroine Chic, casting a historical, and often hysterical, eye over women in history, popular culture and life in general. She is profiled in the March 2016 edition of Writing Magazine. For 2016 she has been awarded a place on the Scottish Book Trust Author Mentoring Programme to develop her second novel. 

It is particularly apt to begin an exploration of the dangerous reputation ascribed to Margaret of Anjou (1430-1482) with a quote from Shakespeare. It is in his portrayals (in the Henry VI trilogy and in Richard III) where many people first encounter the woman who would become the wife of the Lancastrian King Henry VI of England and one of the key protagonists in the fifteenth century dynastic conflicts popularly known as the Wars of the Roses.

Does Shakespeare present us with thegrete and strong labourid woman” as described by her contemporary John Boking in 1456? [1] Or the woman recognised in one of the key chronicles of the time to be “more wyttyer then the kynge”? [2]

No. Shakespeare instead uses language steeped in the, far more frightening at the time, threat of witchcraft and presents “a foul wrinkled witch’ and a ‘hateful with’red hag” and attributes a series of malevolent/immoral actions to her including adultery and animalistic cruelty. Margaret is seen in one scene wandering round Court clutching the severed head of her supposed lover the Duke of Suffolk. In another she rubs a cloth soaked in his son’s blood over the Duke of York’s face before placing a paper crown on his head and stabbing him, all the while prophesying evil falling on the House of York like a medieval Cassandra. “I pray him, that none of you may live your natural age, but by some unlook’d accident cut off!” [3]

This demonization of a woman who proved herself capable of leading armies and formulating policy is still rarely countered in popular culture, despite its roots being firmly set in propaganda with little relevance to historical fact. It is also a portrayal that does a complex and driven woman a disservice by reducing her to the limited ‘she-wolf’ dimensions of a stereotypical villainess.

So why has this caricature of a dangerous, unstable and vicious woman stuck?

The Wars of the Roses was a period in which propaganda became recognised as a powerful weapon, by both sides, and a later re-shaping of history to meet the pro-Yorkist demands of Shakespeare’s Tudor masters is to be expected. However, xenophobia and, more particularly misogyny play a key part in creating the myths that have gathered around Margaret.

Margaret’s marriage to Henry VI in 1445 took place as part of one the many peace treaties signed between England and France during the course of The Hundred Years War (1337-1453). The marriage may not have been particularly popular at its start. Margaret was French at a time when nostalgia for England’s past military successes against France, and the power once held there, were being revived in a patriotic wave of ‘Englishness’. Of more significance for her detractors, however, Margaret did not meet the demands of feminine duty placed on medieval queen consorts.

These duties were twofold: maternity and intercession. Providing an heir was a queen’s main role: it took Margaret 8 years to produce a son – possible because her husband was an overly-pious weakling with monastic leanings. Her second role was to act as a vessel for intercession: “a means by which ‘masculine’ authority was diverted by the power of ‘feminine’ mercy.” [4] A queen acting as an intermediary on behalf of individuals who had incurred the royal wrath and pleading for clemency towards them allowed a king to change his mind or soften a decision without being ‘unmanned’. It was a ritualised part of the Queen Consort’s role in medieval England. Intercession, however, requires a strong king and a, publicly-at-least, submissive queen. This situation could not exist under Henry VI: he was frequently incapacitated for long periods by an illness which seems closely linked to narcolepsy and was weak and withdrawn from the business of government during periods of improved health. This symbolic role was made difficult by circumstance for Margaret; it was made doubly difficult by her character and upbringing.

One man’s “grete and strong labourid woman” is another man’s virago needing taming.

This was particularly true in medieval England where rule (including as regent) by a woman was not a well-received concept. Margaret’s French upbringing may not, however, have prepared her for this attitude. Her mother and grandmother both acted as regents for their husbands and the intellectual life of the French Court was far more amenable to discussion of the role of women as valued participants in society. Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies, which defended the achievements of women against a number of contemporary misogynistic tirades, is a work an educated girl such as Margaret would have known well.

Was Margaret dangerous? Yes, to her enemies. When judged by the standards of the incredibly vicious conflict that is sweetened by the title the Wars of the Roses, she was no more dangerous than any of the men around her.

Margaret stepped forward to take the reins of power from her husband when it became clear he could no longer hold them. Her opponents’ propaganda machine sprung into life. Margaret’s chief crime? She was politically astute, fearless and perfectly able to rule in an England that would not countenance her doing so. Her punishment was to be made the scapegoat for her husband’s failings, a not uncommon process of female vilification in the medieval period: “she failed to conform to contemporary expectations of queenly behaviour by involving herself in politics.” [5]

She also suffered by being on the losing side: her enemies built a raft of accusations against her, from deliberately setting crazed Scots armies on a pillaging rampage through England to beheadings and multiple adulteries. History, in Margaret’s case, is very much written by the victors.

The Margaret myths have persisted across centuries as the Shakespeare portrayal and Yorkist propaganda has been regurgitated by male historians. Margaret of Anjou was a complex, difficult and fascinating woman. It is time to leave Shakespeare and the ‘historians’ who mistake him for history behind and reclaim a queen who knew exactly how dangerous to be.


[1] The Paston Letters, February 9, 1456

[2] Gregory’s Chronicle

[3] Richard III (1.3)

[4] Lisa Hilton (Queens Consort)

[5] Diana E.S Dunn –  War and Society in Medieval Britain