Medieval scene in bright colour showing Margaret of Anjou and Henry VI receiving a book from John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury.
A brief introduction to

Margaret of Anjou: Player in a Real Life Game of Thrones

Margaret of Anjou, who Shakespeare later called 'The She-Wolf of France', was one of the major players in the late 15th century Wars of the Roses.

The medieval period was studded with determined women leaders.

Margaret of Anjou, who Shakespeare later called ‘The She-Wolf of France’, was one of the major players in the late 15th century Wars of the Roses. Here we look at the story of her life.

This piece is a part of a series on women leaders, alongside Aethelflaed and The Empress Matilda.

A diplomatic marriage

For Margaret’s story, we move on some three hundred years from Matilda’s day.

At home, England’s prosperity has grown, partly from the wool trade, despite the ravages of the Black Death. Abroad, English armies have fought the Hundred Years War against France. But despite initial conquests, English forces lose much of the territory they have gained. It is time to make peace.

As part of the efforts to make peace between the two realms, Henry VI of England of the House of Lancaster marries Margaret, daughter of the Duke of Anjou, who has connections to French Royalty.

Medieval scene in bright colour showing Margaret of Anjou  and Henry VI receiving a book from John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury.
Henry VI and his queen, Margaret of Anjou, receive a book from John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury. © North Wind Picture Archives / Alamy Stock Photo.

The Wars of the Roses begin

But escaping from one conflict, England falls into another, with armed factions supporting two noble houses with claims to the throne: the Lancastrians and Yorkists.

This period, known later as the Wars of the Roses, has been recently popularized by the TV drama series ‘The White Queen’ (based on Philippa Gregory’s book) and previously in 2016 by the ‘Hollow Crown’.

Deepening the chaos from the 1450s, Henry VI begins to suffer from bouts of what would now be termed poor mental health. Some historians have interpreted this as a form of schizophrenia, though such retrospective diagnoses using modern concepts are problematic.

An artists reconstruction of a medieval battle.
An artist’s reconstruction of an episode in a War of the Roses battle (Blore Heath, 1459) by Peter Dunn. © Historic England Archive. C 012-0002.

‘The She-Wolf’

Margaret of Anjou is left to lead the Lancastrian faction herself. Commentators of her day note Margaret’s supposedly ‘manly’ abilities of determination and leadership. Shakespeare, writing long after the events, calls her “the she-wolf of France”. More recently, historian Helen Castor has played on this nickname and used “She-Wolves’ in the title of her book and TV series on medieval Queens.

Despite the initial Lancastrian success, for example, at the Rout of Ludlow, the Yorkists stage a fight-back. Edward of York seizes power in 1460, capturing Margaret’s husband.

Margaret refuses to give in and raises another army, causing a setback for the Yorkists by defeating them at the Battle of Wakefield. The Yorkists rally and defeat Lancastrian forces trying to join Margaret’s march on London at Mortimers Cross.

Still undeterred, Margaret’s army defeats the Yorkists at the Second Battle of St Albans, securing her husband’s release. However, they are unable to consolidate their power. In March 1461, Edward of York took the throne as Edward IV, backed by Warwick, ‘The Kingmaker’.

That year, the Lancastrians are further heavily defeated at the Battle of Towton, thought to be the bloodiest battle ever on English soil, fought in a terrible snowstorm.

A modern view over a medieval battlefield, partly a cornfield, with a stone memorial cross in the middle ground of the photograph.
The bright summer calm in this view of the battlefield of Towton belies the bloody battle that took place in a snowstorm. © Historic England Archive. K940712.

Margaret, Henry VI and their son called Edward- flee to Scotland. In 1462 she launched an invasion from Scotland, wins the support of some of the northern nobles and temporarily captures Alnwick and Bamburgh castles (but Warwick recaptures these).

Margaret flees to France and tries to build up support for her husband’s return.

Bamburgh Castle set back from the beach.
Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland. © Historic England Archive. PLBN081008.

Enter ‘The White Queen’

Meanwhile, in 1464, the Yorkist Edward IV secretly marries a beautiful ‘commoner’, Elizabeth Woodville, the ‘White Queen’ of the modern novel and TV series.

It seems to be a love–match with no power gain from Edward’s point of view. Elizabeth refuses to be just a mistress and becomes Queen, despite her relatively unimportant family being former Lancastrian supporters.

Margaret’s last role of the dice

However, Margaret of Anjou is not done yet. She gets the disgruntled Earl of Warwick to change sides, marrying her son to his daughter to seal the defection.

In 1470 Warwick makes a military play to topple the Yorkist king but is defeated at the Battle of Barnet the following year. Margaret and her son Prince Edward fight on but go down to final defeat at Tewkesbury, where her son is killed, and she is captured a little later. Her husband is also caught and dies in the Tower of London. The rule of Edward IV is secured.

With no claim to fight for, she lives out the rest of her life in France.

However, the Wars of the Roses continue after the untimely death of Edward IV, culminating at the Battle of Bosworth. This leads to the founding of the Tudor dynasty.

Reenactors dressed a Wars of the Roses billmen in a recreation of a battle.
Re-enactors demonstrate the equipment of War of the Roses infantry armed with the typical English pole-arm known as a ‘bill’. © Historic England Archive. DP066915.

Castles and battlefields
Historic England helps to protect the remains of monuments such as castles. You can find more details about them by searching the National Heritage List for England.

The List also contains records of Registered Battlefields. Not all the battles mentioned in this blog are included in the Register, as this requires their topography to be securely located on the ground.

Further reading

I work in Historic England’s Content Team. I originally come from a corner of Essex rich in history. My previous background was as an archaeologist, having worked around England, Central Europe and the Near East.

1 comment on “Margaret of Anjou: Player in a Real Life Game of Thrones

  1. Dr Muriel Pécastaing-Boissière

    When you write “Margaret, Edward VI and their son –also called Edward- flee to Scotland” : I think you mean Henry VI.

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