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The Women Behind the Wars of the Roses
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The Wars of the Roses, which tore apart the ruling Plantagenet family in fifteenth-century England, was truly a domestic drama, as fraught and intimate as any family feud before or since. But as acclaimed historian Sarah Gristwood reveals, while the events of this turbulent time are usually described in terms of the men who fought and died seeking the throne, a handful of powerful women would prove just as decisive as their kinfolks’ clashing armies. A richly drawn, absorbing epic, Blood Sisters reveals how women helped to end the Wars of the Roses, paving the way for the Tudor age — and the creation of modern England.
O peers of England, shameful is this league,
Fatal this marriage, cancelling your fame
HENRY VI, PART 2, 1.1
It was no way for a queen to enter her new country, unceremoniously carried ashore as though she were a piece of baggage—least of all a queen who planned to make her mark. In her later courage and conviction, her energy and her ruthlessness, Marguerite of Anjou would be in part what the times and the circumstances of her life in England had made her. But no doubt as she first set foot on the English shore on April 9, 1445, her character and ambition were already there to see.
The ship that brought her across the Channel, the Cock John, had been blown off its expected course and so battered by storms as to have lost both its masts. Marguerite arrived, as her new husband, Henry VI, put it in a letter, “sick of ye labour and indisposition of ye sea.” Small wonder that the Marquess of Suffolk, the English peer sent to escort her, had to carry the seasick fifteen-year-old ashore. The people of Porchester, trying gallantly to provide a royal welcome, had heaped carpets on the beach, where the chilly April waves clawed and rattled at the pebbles, but Marguerite’s first shaky steps on English soil took her no farther than a nearby cottage, where she fainted. From there she was carried to a local convent to be nursed, making her first English impressions ones of sickrooms and austerity.
This would be the woman Shakespeare, in Henry VI, Part 3, famously dubbed the “she-wolf” of France, her “tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide.” Italian chronicler Polydore Vergil, by contrast, would look back on her as “imbued with a high courage above the nature of her sex . . . a woman of sufficient forecast, very desirous of renown, full of policy, counsel, comely behaviour, and all manly qualities.” But then Vergil was writing for the Tudor king Henry VII, sprung of Lancastrian stock, and he would naturally try to praise the wife of the last Lancastrian king, the woman who would, in her later years, fight so hard for the Lancastrian cause. Marguerite was, from the beginning, a controversial queen. Few queens of England have so divided opinion; few have suffered more from the propaganda of their enemies.
Marguerite of Anjou was niece by marriage to the French king Charles VII, her own father, René, having been described as a man of many crowns but no kingdoms. He claimed the thrones of Naples, Sicily, Jerusalem, and Hungary as well as the duchy of Anjou in the region of the Loire Valley, titles so empty, however, that early in the 1440s he had settled in France, his brother-in-law’s territory. At the beginning of 1444, the English suggested a truce in the seemingly endless conflict between England and France known as the Hundred Years’ War, the temporary peace to be cemented by a French bride for England’s young king, Henry VI. Unwilling to commit his own daughters, Charles had proffered Marguerite as pledge. Many royal marriages were made to seal a peace with an enemy, the youthful bride as passive a potential victim as any princess of story. But in this case, the deal making was particularly edgy.
In the hopes of finally ending the long hostilities, the mild-mannered Henry VI—so unfitting a son, many thought, to Henry V, the hero of Agincourt—had agreed not only to take his French bride virtually without dowry but also to cede allegiance of the territories Anjou and Maine in France, which the English had long occupied. Suffolk, as England’s negotiator, knew how unpopular this would be, but when he had sent home for instructions after receiving the French demands, Henry had sent word to accept them, a decision with which many of his advisers would disagree. Now, the weather seemed to echo English sentiment about the union. The thunder and lightning that greeted Marguerite’s arrival had been a repeated trope in the arrival of foreign royal brides, a disproportionate number of whom seem to have had a stormy passage across the sea. All the same, it seemed an ominous sign to contemporaries.
Marguerite had been ill since she set out from Paris several weeks before, progressing slowly toward the coast while distributing Lenten alms, making propitiatory offerings at each church where she heard mass, dining with dignitaries, and saying good-bye one by one to her relations along the way. Slowly, though, in the days after her arrival in England, she recovered her health in a series of Sussex convents, amid the sounds and scents of the church’s rituals, with all their reassuring familiarity. On April 10, the records of the royal finances show a payment of 69s 2d* to one “Master Francisco, the Queen’s physician,” who provided “divers aromatic confections, particularly and specially purchased by him, and privately made into medicine for the preservation of the health of the said lady.”
If Suffolk’s first concern had been to find a convent where Marguerite could be nursed, his second was to summon a London dressmaker to attend to her, before the English nobility caught sight of her shabby clothes. Again, the financial records tell the tale: 20s, on April 15, to one Margaret Chamberlayne, dressmaker, or “tyre maker,” as it was then phrased. Among the various complaints the English were preparing to make of their new queen, one would be her poverty.**
Before Marguerite’s party set out toward the capital, there was time for something a little more courtly, if one Italian contemporary, writing to the Duchess of Milan three years later, was to be believed. An Englishman had told him that when the queen landed in England, the king had secretly taken Marguerite a letter, having first dressed himself as a squire. “While the queen read the letter the king took stock of her,” the correspondent wrote, “saying that a woman may be seen very well when she reads a letter, and the queen never found out it was the king because she was so engrossed in reading the letter, and she never looked at the king in his squire’s dress, who remained on his knees all the time.”
It was the same trick Henry VIII would play on Anne of Cleves almost a century later, a game from the Continental tradition of chivalry. But this time it ended more happily. When Marguerite, afterward, was told of the pretense, she was vexed at having paid the supposed squire no attention. But she must at least have reflected that there was nothing noticeably repulsive about her twenty-three-year-old bridegroom, and nothing intimidating, either. And Henry VI, if the Milanese writer is to be believed, saw “a most handsome woman, though somewhat dark”—and not, the Milanese tactfully assured his duchess, “so beautiful as your Serenity.” (The Englishman, he reported, “told me that his mistress was wise and charitable, and your Serenity has the reputation of being equally wise and more charitable. He said that his queen had an income of 80,000 gold crowns.”)
At the French court Marguerite had already acquitted herself well enough to win an admirer in the courtly tradition, Pierre de Brézé, to carry her colors at the joust and to move the Burgundian chronicler Barante to write that she “was already renowned in France for her beauty and wit and her lofty spirit of courage.” The beauty conventionally attributed to queens features in the scene when Shakespeare’s Marguerite first meets Henry VI; the lofty spirit, on the other hand, was to prove a difficulty in the years ahead. Vergil too wrote that Marguerite exceeded others of her time “as well in beauty as wisdom,” and though it is usually hard to guess real looks from medieval portraiture, it is hard not to read determination and self-will in the swelling brow and prominent nose of the medallion of Marguerite of Anjou by Pietro di Milano.
The royal couple officially met five days after Marguerite had landed and had their marriage formalized just over a week later in Titchfield Abbey. The first meeting failed to reveal either the dangerous milkiness in the man or the capacity for violence in the young woman, traits that would eventually shape their respective lives and legacies. But the first of the problems they would face was—as Marguerite moved toward London—spelled out in the very festivities.
Marguerite’s queenship would be dogged by problems of faction within the English court and by her own controversial relationship with France, and both were reflected in the ceremonies that ushered her into London. Her impoverished father had at least persuaded the clergy of Anjou to provide for a white satin wedding dress embroidered with silver and gold marguerites and to buy violet and crimson cloth of gold and 120 pelts of white fur to edge her robes. As she approached the city, she was met outside London on Blackheath by Henry’s uncle Humfrey, the Duke of Gloucester, with five hundred of his retainers and conducted to his Greenwich Palace of Placentia—a reception doubtless the more effulgent for the fact that he had opposed the marriage, seeing no advantage for England in it.
Her entry into London on May 28, having rested the night before at the Tower of London, was all it should be: nineteen chariots of ladies and their gentlewomen to accompany her, the conduits running with wine white and red, and a coronal of “gold rich pearls and precious stones” on the bride’s head. The livery companies of the City turned out to meet her resplendent in blue robes, with a red hood, and the council had ordered the inspection of roofs along the way, anticipating that the crowds would climb onto them to see the new queen pass by. The surviving documentation details a truly royal provision of luxury goods for Marguerite’s welcome. A letter from the king to his treasurer orders up “such things as our right entirely Well-beloved Wife the Queen must necessarily have for the Solemnity of her Coronation,” including a pectoral of gold garnished with rubies, pearls, and diamonds; safe conduct for two Scotsmen and their sixteen servants, “with their gold and silver in bars and wallets”; a present of ten pounds each to five minstrels of the king of Sicily (the nominal title of Marguerite’s father) “who lately came to England to witness the state and grand solemnity on the day of the Queen’s coronation”; and twenty marks’ reward to one William Flour of London, goldsmith, “because the said Lord the King stayed in the house of the said William on the day that Queen Margaret, his consort, set out from the Tower.”
The cost of the marriage was reckoned at an exorbitant fifty-five hundred pounds. All the same, Marguerite had had to pawn her silver plate at Rouen, to pay her sailors’ wages, and as details of the marriage deal began to leak out, the English would feel justified in complaining they had bought “a queen not worth ten marks.” In the years ahead, they would discover something more: that they had a queen who—for better or worse—would try to rewrite the rules, and indeed the whole royal story.
As Marguerite rode into her new capital of London, the pageantry with which she was greeted spelled out her duty. In the first pageant that greeted her, to the south side of London Bridge, the actor impersonating the figure Peace prophesied hopefully that, through Marguerite’s “grace and high benignity,”
Twixt the realms two, England and France
Peace shall approach, rest and unite,
Mars set aside, with all his cruelty.
This was a weight of expectation placed on many a foreign royal bride. Earlier in the century, the famous Frenchwoman Christine de Pizan had written in The Treasury [or Treasure] of the City of Ladies that women, being by nature “more gentle and circumspect,” could be the best means of pacifying men: “Queens and princesses have greatly benefitted this world by bringing about peace between enemies, between princes and their barons, or between rebellious subjects and their lords,” just as, after all, the queen of heaven, Mary, interceded for sinners. Marguerite would be neither the first nor the last such princess to find herself uncomfortably placed between the needs of her adopted and her natal countries. The Hundred Years’ War had been a conflict of extraordinary bitterness, which Marguerite, by her very presence as a living symbol, was supposed to soothe. It would have been a position of terrifying responsibility.
Luckily—or perhaps unluckily—for Marguerite, she responded eagerly (if sometimes misguidedly) to such demands. Her kinsman the Duke of Orléans wrote that Marguerite seemed as if “formed by Heaven to supply her royal husband the qualities which he required in order to become a great king.” But the English expectations of a queen were not necessarily those of a Frenchman. Marguerite’s female forebears had taken an active role in governing; her mother, Isabelle of Lorraine, had run the family affairs while René of Anjou spent long years away on military operations or in captivity. Her grandmother Yolande of Aragon, in whose care she spent many of her formative years, had acted as regent for her eldest son, Marguerite’s uncle, and been one of the chief promoters of Joan of Arc, who had helped sweep the French Dauphin, the heir apparent, to victory against the English in their long war against the French. (“I have not raised this [child] . . . for you to let him die . . . to send him mad . . . or to make him English,” Yolande had written, when the Dauphin’s own mother tried to regain possession of the boy.) The English, by contrast, expected their queens to take a more passive role. Uncomfortable memories still lingered of Edward II’s wife, Isabella, little more than a century before, that other “she-wolf of France” (as she was later dubbed, and as Marguerite too would become known), who was accused of having murdered her husband to take power with her lover.
Had Marguerite’s new husband been a strong king, the memories might never have surfaced—but Henry showed neither inclination nor ability for the role he was called to play. Henry VI had been crowned while in his cradle and had grown up a titular king under the influence of his elderly male relatives. Perhaps that had taught him, oddly, to equate kingship with passivity. As Henry matured in years, he still, at twenty-three, showed no aptitude for taking the reins of government himself.
There was and is considerable debate over what, if anything, was actually wrong with Henry. Some contemporaries (the reports differ wildly) described him as both personable and scholarly; others suggest he may have been simple-minded or inherited a streak of insanity. He was certainly notably pious and prudish—a papal envoy described him as more like a monk than a king—and seemed reluctant to make any kind of decision or take any lead. He was the last man on earth, in other words, who should rule what was already a turbulent country. Shakespeare, at the end of Henry VI, Part 2, vividly dramatizes the moment at which the new Henry V, this Henry’s father, moves from irresponsible princedom to the harsh realities of kingship. There was, however, no sign of Henry VI’s reaching a similar maturity—a situation that left Marguerite herself to confront the challenges of monarchy.
It can be difficult to get a picture of Marguerite, or her husband, in the first few years of their marriage. Anything written about them later is colored by hindsight, and the early days of Marguerite’s career—any picture of her daily life—tend to be lost in the urgent clamor of events just ahead. There is no reason to doubt, however, that when she entered London, she had expected to enjoy a normal queenship, albeit one cast in perhaps slightly more active a mode than the English were wont to see. Though her husband’s finances may have been depleted, though English manners might not compare to those across the Channel, her life must at first have been one of pleasant indulgence.
Christine de Pizan in her Treasury gives a vivid picture of life for a lady at the top end of the social tree in a morality tale of an idle and prideful lady: “The princess or great lady awaking in the morning from sleep finds herself lying in her bed between soft, smooth sheets, surrounded by rich luxury, with every possible bodily comfort, and ladies and maids-in-waiting at hand to run to her if she sighs ever so slightly, ready on bended knee to provide service or obey orders at her word.” Marguerite surely enjoyed the same comforts, and more. The list of estates granted to her as part of her dower entitlement lasts for pages, an evocative litany:
To be had, held and kept of the said Consort of Henry, all the appointed Castles, Honours, Towns, Domains, Manors, Wapentaches, Bales, county estates, sites of France, carriages, landed farms, renewed yearly, the lands, houses, possessions and other things promised, with all their members and dependencies, together with the lands of the Military, Ecclesiastic advocacies, Abbotcies, Priories, Deaneries, Colleges, Capellaries, singing academies, Hospitals, and of other religious houses, by wards, marriages, reliefs, food, iron, merchandize, liberties, free customs, franchise, royalties, fees of honour . . . forests, chaises, parks, woods, meadows, fields, pastures, warrens, vivaries, ponds, fish waters, mills, mulberry trees, fig trees.
It is the same genial picture of a queen’s life that can be seen in a tapestry that may have been commissioned for Marguerite’s wedding. There are Ms woven into the horses’ bridles and marguerites (daisies), her personal symbol, sported by some of the ladies. It depicts a hunting scene bedecked with flowers and foliage, the ladies in their furred gowns, hawk on wrist, with the characteristic headdress, a roll of jeweled and decorated fabric peeking down over the brow and rising behind the head. Hunting along with “boating on the river,” dancing, and “meandering” in the garden were all recreations allowed by Christine de Pizan in a day otherwise devoted to the tasks of governance (if relevant), to religious duties, and to charity. Visiting the poor and sick, “touching them and gently comforting them,” as de Pizan wrote, sounds much like the comportment of modern royalty, “for the poor feel especially comforted and prefer the kind word, the visit, and the attention of the great and powerful personage over anything else.” Letters written by Marguerite show her asking the archbishop of Canterbury to treat a poor widow with “tenderness and favour” and seeking alms for two other paupers, “poor creatures and of virtuous conversation.”
But Marguerite had been reared in an idea of queenship that went beyond simple luxury and Christian charity. Not only were there the examples set by her mother and grandmother, but her father, René, was also one of the century’s leading exponents of the chivalric tradition. He was more besotted even than the majority of his contemporaries with that great fantasy of the age, the Arthurian stories, and his example surely influenced his daughter. (Indeed, when Thomas Malory wrote his English version of the tales, the Morte d’Arthur, completed in 1470, his portrayal of Queen Guenivere may have been influenced by Marguerite to some degree.) It may have been on the occasion of Marguerite’s betrothal that René organized a tournament with knights dressed up as Round Table heroes and a wooden castle named after Sir Lancelot’s castle of Joyeuse Garde. A bound volume of Arthurian romances was presented to the bride.
René was the author not only of a widely translated book on the perfect management of the tournament, but also of the achingly romantic Livre du coeur d’amour épris (Book of the heart as love’s captive). René may also have been the illustrator, and the book’s images of the figure of Hope—who repeatedly saves the hero—were possibly modeled on Marguerite. Queens in the Arthurian and other chivalric legends were active and sometimes ambiguous creatures. Ceremonious consorts and arbiters of behavior, they were also capable of dramatic and sometimes destructive action; it was Guenivere, after all, who brought down Camelot.
The two visions of queenship came together in the Shrewsbury [or Talbot] Book presented to Marguerite on the occasion of her marriage by John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury. Talbot was one of England’s most renowned military commanders, though he would play comparatively little part in the political tussles ahead. On the book’s illuminated title page, Henry and Marguerite are seated crowned and hand in hand, her purple cloak fastened with bands of gold and jewels, the blue ceiling painted with gold stars behind her. At her feet kneels Talbot, presenting his book, which she graciously accepts, the faintest hint of a smile lurking under her red-gold hair. All around are exquisite depictions of the daisy, Marguerite’s personal symbol. The image is at once benign and stately, an idealized picture of monarchy; the facing page, more controversially, traces Henry VI’s genealogical claim to be king of France as well as of England. An anthology of Arthurian and other romances, poems, and manuals of chivalry, the book also includes Christine de Pizan’s treatise on the art of warfare and one on the art of government—a textbook, if you like, not only on how to conduct your emotional life, but on how to run a country as well.
Despite the heavy responsibilities weighing on Marguerite, her daily life was lived in the lap of luxury. Henry had had his palaces revamped for his bride—the queen’s apartments must have fallen out of use before he came of age. Marguerite employed a large household and paid them handsomely, exploiting all the financial opportunities open to a queen in order to allow her to do so. Regulations for a queen’s household drawn up in the year of her arrival listed 66 positions, from a countess as senior lady with her own staff down to two launderers, from a chamberlain down to three chaplains, three carvers, and a secretary. She had a personal gardener, pages of the beds and of the bakery, and of course squires. Less than ten years later, the council had to suggest that the queen’s household be cut down to 120.
Marguerite’s personal staff was extensive, composed largely of Englishmen and -women. She had brought no relations and few French attendants with her, something that eliminated one potential source of controversy. (There had been trouble two hundred years before, for example, when too many of the followers of Eleanor of Provence, queen consort of King Henry III, were given generous pensions and her uncles given too much prominence in the country.) But what at first looked like a blessing meant only that she would attach herself to new English advisers, ardently and unwisely.
On the journey from France, Marguerite had learned to trust her escort, Suffolk, the preeminent noble that Burgundian chronicler Georges Chastellain called England’s “second king.” She never saw any reason to change her mind—or to hide her feelings of affection for the older man. Suffolk, for his part, perhaps from a mixture of genuine admiration and policy, flattered and encouraged the young queen, even writing courtly verses playing on her name, the marguerite, or daisy:
For wit thee well, it is a paradise
To see this flower when it begins to spread
With colours fresh enewed, white and red.
Although by the standards of courtly love poetry this was tame stuff, there were inevitably those who suggested there was something more than friendliness between the girl in her teens and the man in his late forties—and those who saw in the ostensible betrayal of England’s king the betrayal of England as a country. More than a century later, the scandalous rumors were still sufficiently in currency that Shakespeare has Suffolk, on their first meeting in France, falling for Marguerite’s beauty before he learns her identity. But even Shakespeare’s Suffolk mixes self-interest with sexual attraction, hoping to rule the king through Marguerite, and in reality the queen had become notably close not only to the duke but also to his wife the duchess (born Alice Chaucer, granddaughter of the poet), which surely argues against an affair.
Suffolk had not been the only man among the king’s advisers to support the French marriage. It also had the support of Cardinal Beaufort, the king’s great-uncle and one of the men who had governed the country before he came of age. Beaufort shared Suffolk’s personal regard for Marguerite, and she also enjoyed the support of the cardinal’s relatives, including the more immediate family of another soon-to-be-prominent Lancastrian, the young Margaret Beaufort.
Other powerful figures, however, had been against the marriage—notably the Duke of Gloucester, the king’s uncle, who had welcomed Marguerite so lavishly along her route to London. In many ways, his was the voice of the Francophobe English people.
All too soon, within weeks of Marguerite’s arrival and coronation, the question of England’s ceding Maine and Anjou in France came to a head. As word of Henry’s secret, and as yet unfulfilled, promise leaked out, angry talk centered on the rumor that Henry had been persuaded to cede the territories at “the request of his wife.” As one angry reporter, Dr. Thomas Gascoigne, put it later, “That aforesaid queen of ours begged the King of England that [the lands] so be given to her father at the urging of William [de la] Pole, duke of Suffolk, and his wife”—Alice Chaucer again—“who earlier had promised to request it.” Partisan though Gascoigne may have been, his was but one voice among many railing against the new queen.
In a sense, Gascoigne was right; Marguerite does seem to have agitated for the English withdrawal. In a letter written before the end of 1445 to the king of France, her uncle, Marguerite promised, “And as to the deliverance which you desire to have of the Comte of Maine, and other matters contained in your said letters, we understand that my said lord has written to you at considerable length about this: and yet herein we will do for your pleasure the best that we can do.” A letter of Henry’s own volunteers to give up territory in Maine, at least partly because of “our dear and well-beloved companion the queen, who has requested us to do this many times.” But Marguerite’s efforts need not be read as a betrayal of her new kingdom, for wasn’t reconciliation, urging the peace, what a queen was supposed to do? Even the pageants had said so.
- "Arguing persuasively for the existence of a 'female network,'... Gristwood details the paths of seven royal women who transcended their roles as diplomatic pawns and heir producers."—The New Yorker
- "Gristwood's sensitive approach marks out Blood Sisters as much more than the narrative of an age.... It is an exploration of what it meant to be a medieval queen.... A compelling portrait of this bloody age, complete with the heartbreak and triumphs that went with it."—The Spectator
- "A new and welcome perspective on the Wars of the Roses."—Sunday Times (London)
- "Entertaining and vividly drawn."—Literary Review
- "A revolutionary approach. For too long, history has been the purview of men, of kings and their battles, wars, conquests, murders and thirst for power.... Gristwood's perspective and lively writing are refreshing."—Toronto Star
- On Sale
- Mar 4, 2014
- Page Count
- 432 pages
- Basic Books