Book Review: “Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou: A Marriage of Unequals” by Amy Licence

9188WGCCbpLHistorically, royal marriages have been viewed with such interest. A king and a queen who can come from either similar or different backgrounds in order to make their country better, or in some cases, worse. During the Wars of the Roses, there were some legendary relationships that shaped the war between the Yorks and the Lancasters. Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. George Duke of Clarence and Isabel Neville. Richard III and Anne Neville. Henry Tudor and Elizabeth of York. However, these relationships fail in comparison to the impact that the marriage of Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou had on England during this time. Henry VI was seen as a weak, pious ruler; Margaret was seen as too strong for a woman. They have been viewed separately for a long time, never as a couple. That is until Amy Licence wrote her latest biography, “Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou: A Marriage of Unequals”.

I would like to thank Pen and Sword Books for sending me a copy of this lovely book. I have always been fascinated by Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou so this book was a delight to read.

In her introduction, Licence explains how Henry and Margaret have been viewed in the past, separately and as a couple.

Little attention has been given to Henry and Margaret as a pair, in terms of their marriage, their life together and their joint rule. This is partly because less evidence survives about their intimate relationship, leading it to be reduced to a few simple anecdotes about Margaret being already a woman at the time of her marriage and Henry’s reputed prudery…. Contemporary and subsequent historians have exploited a far more subtle relationship dynamic to undermine Henry and Margaret as individuals, as a couple and as rulers, by playing on fifteenth-century gender expectations…. Almost six hundred years after Henry’s birth, the time is right for a reappraisal of their lives and marriage, which has no need to adhere to strict cultural codes about gender, but can use them as a starting point to deconstruct the identities of two atypical individuals. (Licence, x)

Licence starts her biography by exploring the lives of Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou before they became husband and wife. They had very different upbringings. Henry was the son of Henry, the strong warrior King,  and Catherine of Valois. He was declared King of England and France at a very young age since his father died while he was a few months old. Margaret was the daughter of Rene of Anjou, who was a king without a kingdom. Their union seems very unlikely, but it worked rather well, although there were some in England who wasn’t exactly thrilled for the royal couple.

It wasn’t until the conflict known as the Wars of the Roses broke out that we see how strong the relationship between Henry and Margaret truly was. Henry was weaker than his father Henry V and he did suffer from some sort of mental illness, so Margaret had to step in to help take care of him and their son while defending the throne from the Yorkists. They had to make tough choices, but Henry and Margaret did them together. Licence shows the dynamic of this relationship, not only by using English sources but by using reports from foreign ambassadors. Reading these sources allows the reader to understand that Henry and Margaret were more complex individuals than what we see in history books.

Licence presents a fresh new look at this power couple. Henry and Margaret’s story is one of love and heartache, full of both joy and struggles.  Henry might have been a weaker medieval king than his father and Margaret might have been a bit stronger than most medieval women, but that is what makes them so unique. This book packed a lot of wonderful information in it about not only their relationship, but the Wars of the Roses, and the cult of Henry VI which formed after his death. It was an absolute pleasure to read. I did not want to put this book down.  I highly recommend that you have “Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou: A Marriage of Unequals” by Amy Licence in your personal library if you are interested in Henry VI, Margaret of Anjou and the Wars of the Roses.

Biography: Margaret of Anjou

(Born March 23, 1430- Died August 25, 1482). Daughter of Rene, King of Naples and 220px-MargaretAnjouIsabella, Duchess of Lorraine. Married to King Henry VI of England. Mother of Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales. Margaret of Anjou was the strong wife of the weak King Henry VI. She is the one who kept the Lancastrian cause going for the first half of the Wars of the Roses.

Margaret of Anjou was born on March 23, 1430 to her parents Rene King of Naples and Isabella Duchess of Lorraine. Her father was known to be a king with many crowns and yet he did not have the kingdoms. In order to help bring about the end of the Hundred Years’ War, her father arranged her marriage to the son of Henry V, Henry VI. The couple was married on April 23, 1445. Henry VI was technically also declared the King of France and because of this, Charles VII of France only agreed to this marriage if Henry gave France the areas of Maine and Anjou. Henry agreed but he kept this a secret from his people. Margaret was crowned Queen of England on May 30, 1445.  

Henry VI was a weak ruler who had really no desire to be king or an interest in politics. He often left the control of the government in the hands of men who really cared only about their titles than the well being of the kingdom. After the John Cade rebellion of 1450, Henry VI appointed Edmund Beaufort, the duke of Somerset, as his closest advisor. Somerset was a failure when it came to battles in France, but he was an ally of Margaret of Anjou. Somerset’s enemy was Richard Duke of York, who returned to England in August 1450, after being banished after the John Cade rebellion, and demanded that he should have a place on the Council. The council agreed, but Somerset’s  and York’s rivalry continued.

In August 1453, Henry VI had his first bout of mental illness. He had what some describe as a mental breakdown and was unresponsive for many months. During this time, Margaret was very pregnant and on October 13, 1453, she gave birth to the couple’s only child Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales. However, even though Edward was the king’s son, Henry VI did not acknowledge him and said that the boy was the son of the Holy Ghost. Margaret thought that the perfect  Lord Protector for the king during this time would be her ally Somerset, however the person that became the Lord Protector was Richard Duke of York. York quickly arrested Somerset, but when the king recovered in 1454, Somerset was released and York was dismissed. This was the last straw for York.

During this time, Margaret had retired to Greenwich with her son, but she saw how powerful York had become and how weak her husband was, and she began to take an interest in politics. At the First Battle of St. Albans, on May 22, 1455, Edmund Beaufort, duke of Somerset was killed and the king was captured by the Yorkists, led by Richard duke of York. Henry wanted to reconcile with York, but then Henry had another bout of mental illness and York was made Lord Protector again in November 1455; he was dismissed in February 1456. Margaret decided that she had to defend her husband’s cause and so she raised an army to face off against York and she encouraged Henry Beaufort, the new duke of Somerset to fight with her. The Yorkists were led by Richard duke of York, Richard Neville earl of Salisbury and his son Richard Neville earl of Warwick. The Lancastrians were under Henry VI, but led by Margaret of Anjou, Somerset, and Henry Percy, third earl of Northumberland.

At the battle of Northampton, Warwick had captured the King and York came back to England.  In September 1460, Richard duke of York officially placed his claim to the throne to Parliament. In order to avoid more conflict, York was declared the heir to the throne, in place of Prince Edward. Margaret was not about to let this stand so she led her army to attack York at the battle of Wakefield on December 30, 1460. The Duke, Salisbury and York’s second son, the seventeen year old Edmund, Earl of Rutland, were killed, their cries for mercy were ignored.  The Queen had their heads impaled on spikes on the city walls of York. Margaret then faced against Warwick’s army at the Second Battle of St. Albans in 1461 and her army was able to defeat him, which forced Warwick to flee.

Warwick was not done. He raised an army with the son of Richard duke of York, Edward earl of March. They faced off against the Lancastrians at the battle of Towton, the bloodiest battle during the Wars of the Roses, where the Lancastrians were defeated; Margaret and her son Edward fled into Scotland, Edward earl of March became Edward IV, and Henry VI was taken prisoner. However, things would quickly sour between Edward and Warwick when  Edward IV married Elizabeth Woodville, not exactly the person that Warwick wanted the king to marry. Warwick was soon joined by the king’s brother George Duke of Clarence, who was Warwick’s son in law as he married Warwick’s daughter Isabel, in their rebellion against the king. Edward IV defeated Warwick and Clarence and so the two men fled to France. Meanwhile, Margaret made her way back to France where she seeked the aid of her cousin King Louis XI, also known as “the Spider”, of France.  

Louis XI had an idea that Margaret and Warwick should reconcile and join forces against Edward IV. This wasn’t an easy task as they hated each other, but they did agree to join forces. In order to show Warwick’s good will towards his new ally, Warwick’s daughter Anne Neville was betrothed to Edward of Westminster Prince of Wales. Warwick invaded England in 1470 in the name of King Henry VI, which forced Edward IV to flee and Henry VI was reinstated as king. Edward IV would come back and kill Warwick at the Battle of Barnet on April 14, 1471, the same day that Margaret and Edward of Westminster returned to England. Margaret wanted to return to France, but her son Edward of Westminster wanted to stay. Margaret reluctantly agreed and with her army, faced off against Edward IV one last time at Tewkesbury on May 4, 1471. Her 17 year old son Edward of Westminster was killed. This broke Margaret’s spirit and she was taken captive by William Stanley under the orders of Edward IV. She was first sent to Wallingford Castle and then she was imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Her husband Henry VI was also in the Tower where he died on May 21, 1471, the cause of death is unknown but it is suspected to have been a regicide. In 1472, a broken Margaret was placed in the custody of her former lady-in-waiting Alice Chaucer, Duchess of Suffolk. She remained in the custody of the Duchess of Suffolk until she was ransomed by Louis XI in 1475 through Treaty of Picquigny. Margaret returned to France where she was hosted by Francis de Vignolles and died in his castle of Dampierre-sur-Loire. She died on August 25, 1482 at the age of 52.