'Between 1308 and 1485, nine women were married to kings of England. Their status as queen offered them the opportunity to exercise authority in a manner that was denied to other women of the time. This book offers a new study of these nine queens and their queenship in late medieval England.
Isabella of France, wife of Edward II
Philippa of Hainault, wife of Edward III
Anne of Bohemia, wife of Richard II
Isabelle of France, second wife of Richard II
Joan of Navarre, wife of Henry IV
Katherine of Valois, wife of Henry V
Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI
Elizabeth Wydeville, wife of Edward IV
Anne Neville, wife of Richard III
The fourteenth- and fifteenth-centuries were frequently characterised by dynastic uncertainty and political tensions. Scholars have recognised that the kings who ruled during this time were confronted with challenges to their kingship, as new questions emerged about what it meant to be a successful king in late medieval England. This book examines the challenges faced by the queens who ruled at this time. It investigates the relationship between gender and power at the English court, while exploring how queenship responded to, and was informed by, the tensions at the heart of governance.
Ultimately Queenship in England questions whether a new model of queenship emerged from the great upheavals underpinning the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century polity.'
“An interesting and accessible exploration of medieval queenship in relation to gender expectations.” – Amy Licence, author of Catherine of Aragon: An Intimate Life of Henry VIII’s True Wife
“A very readable and thoroughly researched book that looks at the role of late medieval Queens of England in an original way.” – Toni Mount, author of A Year in the Life of Medieval England
In the summer of 1453, the thirty-one year old Henry VI of England suffered a mental breakdown. So serious was this breakdown that the king was unable to show awareness of anything that happened around him for well over a year. The king’s breakdown could not have occurred at a worse point, for the fragility of the English polity continued to be threatened by political tensions occasioned by faction at court and crises in diplomacy. In this difficult context, Henry’s wife, Margaret of Anjou, gave birth to their only son, Edward, on 13 October 1453. What should have been a glorious occasion, celebrated with jousts, banquets and public thanksgiving services across the realm, instead contributed to the outbreak of violence and dynastic rivalry that was to plague England, intermittently, for the next thirty years. Moreover, Henry’s breakdown prevented him from immediately recognising his son as his heir; only at Christmas the following year would he do so. The king’s failure to do so encouraged scurrilous rumours that the queen’s son was not the offspring of the king, but was the product of an adulterous liaison, perhaps with Edmund Beaufort, duke of Somerset. Margaret’s reputation, and the honour of her husband, were not the only issues at stake in the mid-1450s, however. Her son’s inheritance was in danger, for Henry’s breakdown facilitated the ascendancy of Richard, duke of York, Somerset’s enemy and a powerful figure with his own claim to the throne.
Margaret of Anjou’s queenship was controversial in her lifetime and the queen herself a notorious figure both in life and in death. Her tenure as consort, which formally lasted fifteen years, and her political activities as the effective head of the Lancastrian party, which ended only with Henry VI’s final defeat in 1471, exemplifies the tensions between gender and power at the heart of governance. Yet what is often forgotten, or insufficiently recognised, is how conventional Margaret’s queenship was for the first decade or so of her tenure. Like Isabella of France, who has also been depicted as a ‘she-wolf’, Margaret did not actively set out to usurp her husband’s role, nor did she relish the prospect of the conflict that was a consequence of partisan politics. Instead, like Isabella, Margaret largely conformed to contemporary expectations of the queen’s roles and the spheres of activity in which the queen was thought to participate. However, her husband’s breakdown and the diplomatic and political crises of the mid fifteenth-century led to the Wars of the Roses and a crisis of kingship and, perhaps by extension, to a crisis of queenship. This crisis affected not only Margaret but also her successors, Elizabeth Wydeville and Anne Neville, both of whom were consorts of Yorkist kings.
During the early years of her marriage, Margaret concerned herself mainly with the interests of her servants, and was especially active in matchmaking. The queen also spent lavishly on gifts for her favourites, but her gift-giving also served a political purpose. The duke and duchess of York, for example, were provided with gifts that served to indicate Margaret’s desire to be on good terms with them. It is a useful reminder that the young queen did not actively seek conflict with a duke that she had allegedly always disliked and feared. Margaret was also reported to be an effective intercessor, and those involved in Cade’s rebellion of 1450 were said to have been pardoned due to the ‘humble and persistent supplications, prayers and requests of our most serene and beloved wife and consort the queen.’
However, Margaret’s marriage was not especially popular among the nobility and commons for several reasons. Firstly, there were complaints that the queen had arrived in England without ‘any peny profite, or foote of posession’, and this led to the view that England had been deliberately ensnared by the wiles of the crafty French, whose corrupt practices were well known. Margaret was also criticised, and has been subsequently, for allegedly favouring the interests of her homeland, in pressuring her husband to cede Maine and Anjou to the French in 1445-6. Given the context of the Hundred Years War, in which ownership of territories on the continent was fiercely contested by both the English and the French, that this claim could seriously damage the queen’s reputation is obvious. However, it has been suggested that Margaret was actually pressured by both her father, Renee of Anjou, and by the king of France to encourage Henry VI’s decision to cede Maine and Anjou, and ultimately it was the king who bore responsibility. That Margaret’s marriage was unpopular, at least in some circles, is demonstrated by a statement from 1447, two years after the queen arrived in England, in which the keeper of Guildford gaol allegedly wished that the queen was drowned and the king hanged, for nothing had gone right since they had married. Over the years, criticisms directed at Margaret only increased, rather than decreased. The following year, a farm labourer was apprehended for questioning Margaret’s claim to be queen of England, given that she had failed to provide her husband with an heir. Contemporaries experienced great anxiety when their queen seemed unable to conceive, and during the uneasy diplomatic and political circumstances of the late 1440s, it is unsurprising that Margaret was ridiculed and criticised on account of her childlessness.
Margaret’s position on the eve of the Wars of the Roses, therefore, was a difficult and ambivalent one. On the one hand, she had admirably conformed to contemporary expectations of queenship, in succeeding in the traditional spheres of intercession, household management and patronage, which was afforded by her apparent closeness with the king. But her childlessness seriously undermined her position and contributed to criticisms of Henry VI’s legitimacy as king. Even when she provided her husband and the wider realm with an heir in the autumn of 1453, it did not greatly strengthen her position or shore up support for Henry’s kingship. This was also affected by the aggressive posturing of the duke of York, who complained that the royal couple and the duke of Somerset had ostracised him. York’s aggressiveness, and the king’s inertia, meant that Margaret was compelled to play a more politically active role than her contemporaries, and perhaps she herself, expected.
In her political actions, however, Margaret was highly circumscribed because, like Isabella of France, her actions had to be seen to be legitimised and sanctioned by her husband. Given Henry VI’s mental deficiencies, however, it was difficult for Margaret to secure the much-needed legitimacy. Any authority that she wielded was entirely dependent on her husband and this authority was significantly diminished in the aftermath of the first Battle of St Albans in 1455 and the establishment of York’s protectorate shortly afterwards. Nonetheless, the queen positioned herself as the head of an anti-Yorkist power base in 1456 and, considering her actions in the context in which they were taken, this ultimately leads to the conclusion that she had very little choice. It is crucial to state that, during these years, Margaret was careful to exercise authority with reference to her husband and son, and she represented herself as concerned with seeking her son’s rightful inheritance to the throne.
Nonetheless, the queen’s actions were misrepresented by hostile Yorkist propaganda that depicted her as a vengeful, aggressive virago content with dominating her victimised husband. She was presented as responsible for the ills befalling the kingdom, while the Yorkists were constructed as the bringers of peace and the much-wronged victims of the Lancastrian government’s tyranny. Margaret’s attempts to exercise legitimate authority were undermined by the effectiveness of the Yorkist propaganda, which was exacerbated further by continuing rumours that her son was the offspring of her adulterous liaison with Somerset. In Lancastrian circles, however, the queen was praised for her fortitude and her loyalty to her son and to her husband. During the years of crisis that ultimately ended with Edward IV’s accession in 1461, Margaret effectively took on the more masculine authority associated with the king, for example, seeking the military assistance of Scotland and promoting a marriage alliance for her son. Ultimately, Margaret’s efforts came to nothing, for in 1471 her husband – who had been under the control of the Yorkists – was murdered in the Tower of London and her son was slain at the Battle of Tewkesbury.
The politically active role taken on by Margaret of Anjou overshadowed the conventionality of her first decade as England’s queen, in which she effectively conformed to contemporary expectations of queenship and how its incumbent should behave and act. Her husband’s breakdown and the toxic combination of political and diplomatic tensions at court, however, compelled the queen to actively wield authority as the head of the Lancastrian party, but it is worth stressing that this authority was legitimised by publicly declaring that her concerns were for the restoration of her husband to the throne and for her son to succeed him as king. Like Isabella of France, Margaret may have initially been successful in her actions as a result, but the effectiveness of Yorkist propaganda and the gradual destabilisation of the Lancastrian party contributed to increasing criticisms of the queen and the Lancastrians more generally. Whether we can speak of a crisis of queenship during the late 1450s and early 1460s, it is apparent that Margaret’s successor and rival, Elizabeth Wydeville, was faced with difficult questions when she became queen following her marriage to the first Yorkist king, Edward IV.
Elizabeth’s husband had usurped the throne of England and it was, therefore, important for her to play an active role in legitimising Edward’s status as king. Margaret of Anjou had been criticised for her political actions and for her alleged partisan activities. As a result it was crucial for her successor to distance herself, consciously or otherwise, from Margaret’s controversial model of queenship. To do so, and to legitimise her husband’s claim to the throne, Elizabeth presented herself as traditionalist and as the ideal.
As a case in point, Elizabeth enjoyed a more modest income than her predecessor as part of Edward IV’s reforms to the royal household. Her expenditure was also more restrained than Margaret’s had been; the Lancastrian queen, as mentioned earlier, had spent lavishly on gifts for those in her favour. The queen was also effective in her household management and was determined to ensure that her rights and prerogatives were not threatened. Therefore, when she learned that Sir William Stonor was usurping her rights in the forest of Bernwood, she warned him to desist immediately. In reproaching Stonor, Elizabeth demonstrated her concern to ensure that her own interests were not threatened, while displaying a concern for the security of her tenants residing in the area.
Both Elizabeth and her family, traditionally, have been identified as scheming and avaricious. However, it was not Elizabeth’s fault that she had so many siblings, and contemporaries expected that one should seek to advance the interests of one’s kin where possible; it was something of a moral obligation. Dislike and resentment of the Wydevilles among the nobility has probably been exaggerated, because there is no evidence, aside from the earl of Warwick, that the Yorkist nobility resented marriages between their families and that of the queen’s. Wider criticisms of the Wydevilles have also more specifically led to accusations that Elizabeth was cold, greedy and arrogant; even her appearance has been attacked. However, her contemporaries generally praised Elizabeth’s conduct. In 1472, William Alyngton, speaker of the House of Commons, lauded the queen’s ‘womanly behaveur’ and ‘greate constance’ during a time of trouble. This praise contrasted markedly with contemporary criticisms of the ‘strong-laboured’ and ‘manly’ Margaret of Anjou.
Elizabeth was praised mainly because of her successes in motherhood, thus contributing to the legitimisation of her husband’s claim to the throne and, by extension, confirming the rightfulness of Yorkist rule. In 1470, while Edward was in exile following the Lancastrian restoration, the queen gave birth to a son, Edward, at Westminster. Two more sons, Richard and George, followed. Elizabeth also gave birth to several daughters, the eldest of whom, Elizabeth of York, would become queen of England as the wife of Henry VII. However, it was not solely in her motherhood that Elizabeth Wydeville enjoyed lasting success as queen. Her intercessory activities also conformed to contemporary ideals of how the queen should exercise authority. She assisted the Merchant Adventurers in their bid to obtain a rebate of part of the £2000 demanded by Edward IV when their payments of tunnage and poundage had fallen into arrears.
In almost every respect, Elizabeth Wydeville was the ideal late medieval queen, and her conduct was generally praised by her contemporaries. She consciously distanced herself from the controversial model of queenship espoused by her predecessor, and instead followed a more traditionalist, and idealised, version of queenship that restored an element of stability to the disordered realm and contributed to perceptions of Edward IV’s legitimist rule. However, her husband’s death in 1483 made Elizabeth’s life difficult. In a demonstration of pragmatism, she reached an accommodation with his brother and successor, Richard III, who had usurped the throne in place of her son, Edward. Ultimately, Elizabeth went on to see her daughter become queen of England as the wife of the first Tudor king. Edward IV’s consort had become queen as the wife of a usurper; her queenship likewise closed with a usurpation.
Elizabeth’s successor, Anne Neville, was also the wife of a usurper. Her position, however, was the more difficult of the two, because Elizabeth’s husband had been widely accepted as king when he seized the throne in 1461. Richard III was not, and his reign was undermined by political dissent and intermittent rebellion. Elizabeth’s successes in childbirth, moreover, confirmed divine approval of Edward’s seizure of the throne and evidenced the prosperity of the House of York. Anne Neville had given birth to a son, Edward, several years before she became queen, but the prince’s death in 1484 and the queen’s subsequent childlessness contributed to wider concerns that Richard’s exercise of rule was not lawful.
There is little surviving evidence of Anne’s queenship, but it appears that her model of queenship was also traditional. Unlike her two predecessors, Anne did not exercise authority either formally or informally; instead, she remains a shadowy figure. She dispensed patronage at Queen’s College, Cambridge and appears to have been interested in St. Winifred; it is possible that Anne acted as patron for William Caxton, who published a life of the saint. In her piety, Anne was entirely traditional. There is very little evidence of Anne’s household management or her activities as either intercessor or patron. Possibly, this is due to her increasing marginalisation at court, which was exacerbated by the death of Prince Edward and Richard’s concerns that his wife’s barrenness undermined his position as king. Rumours circulated that Richard intended to marry his niece, Elizabeth; Joanna of Portugal was also a mooted bride.
Anne Neville’s inability to exercise authority as queen was largely due to the circumstances in which she and her husband had come to the throne. Richard’s reign was one of the shortest in post-Conquest history, and Anne predeceased him by five months. The brevity of her tenure, therefore, did not allow Anne to develop her own lasting model of queenship. Richard’s reign was undermined by political dissent and rebellion, thus making it highly important for Anne to produce heirs with which to legitimise her husband’s rule. Her failure to do so only contributed to his weakening position. In the eyes of her contemporaries, Anne’s barrenness rendered her insignificant. Although other consorts, such as Anne of Bohemia, could make up for their childlessness with successes in other areas, such as intercession, there is little evidence that Anne Neville did so. She appears to have been a loyal helpmeet and consort to her husband, but in other areas her influence was highly limited.
The queenships of Margaret of Anjou, Elizabeth Wydeville and Anne Neville differed markedly from one another, in part due to the contrasting fortunes of the monarchs they married during the political and dynastic turbulence of the Wars of the Roses. Margaret was compelled to actively wield authority as a result of her husband’s incapacity, but increasing criticisms of her actions demonstrated the fraught relationship between gender and power during the late fifteenth-century. Her successor, Elizabeth, consciously distanced herself from Margaret’s militant model of queenship, and instead conformed to traditional expectations of queenship by contributing to her husband’s legitimist rule, in bearing children and in enjoying success as an intercessor, patron and lord. Anne Neville’s queenship is shadowy, partly due to the brevity of her tenure and partly due to the lack of evidence. She did not enjoy the successes of her predecessor and, unlike either Margaret or Elizabeth, was not an effective political actor.
Conor Byrne studied History at the University of Exeter. He is the author of Katherine Howard: A New History and Queenship in England, both published by MadeGlobal. Since 2012 he has run a historical blog and was formerly editor of Tudor Life Magazine. His research to date specialises in late medieval and early modern European history, with a focus on gender, sexuality and the monarchy.
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