Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Disorder and Margaret of Anjou

When reading about this era, what strikes me is the utter lawlessness, and the lack of responsibility demonstrated by most of the nobility, including York. The attitude was almost 'My violence is good violence - yours is deplorable.'

King Henry was still nominally ruling the country, but his efforts were so feeble that one wonders about his health. OK, he had never been an outstanding ruler, but for quite a time he had made a fair fist of the job. Now he seems to be laid back almost to the point of being horizontal.

As mentioned in the last post, Margaret of Anjou was coming increasingly to the fore. As Helen Maurer points out in her outstanding work on the Queen, Margaret did not take up this role until events pretty much forced her to do so. Once she did, however, she triggered a long-standing hostility against female rule that was deeply rooted in English culture. (OK, yes I know about the various powerful women who ruled as dowagers over their estates, or who influenced their husbands and so on, but rule of the state was another matter.)

Margaret has been vilified as a monster for too long. That the men of the time often exhibited sexist attitudes is no real wonder; modern historians have less excuse.

The Queen had little option in the circumstances but to try to influence events. Some of her actions were undoubtedly ill-advised, and she became quite blatantly partisan, instead of sticking to the mediating role that was traditional for queens - and indeed other noblewomen. However she gets a fair bit of blame for things she did not do, and a lot of the hostility generated against her was not so much based on what she did, but on the fact she was a woman doing it.

From her point of view she had a position and a son to protect, and the Duke of York must have looked like a real threat to both. She would have been well aware of his superior hereditary claim to the throne and his widespread support among the people. Given that she obviously distrusted York her hostility to him is understandable.

The problem for the Lancastrian side was that Margaret's strong involvement was a propaganda bonus for the Yorkists, for the plain fact was that a fair proportion of the 'electorate' did not like a 'grete and stronge laboured woman' ruling the country and were only too open to anything that might be said against her. The Yorkists did not call her a witch, but they used the next-favourite weapon in the tool kit for dealing with over-mighty females. They began to question the legitimacy of her son. The rumour went out that the dead Somerset was the real father of the Prince of Wales.

It will remembered that at the time of the Prince's birth Henry had been 'out of it' with mental illness, and his subsequent reaction to the knowledge he had a son was one of bewilderment. This doubtless added flavour to the rumours, but despite Henry's oddities there is no real reason to suppose the Prince was illegitimate. Queens were heavily attended, and for them to commit adultery took some ingenuity. The complicity of a third party would almost certainly have been involved, but no one ever came forward to offer evidence, even in the years after 1461 when such evidence would surely have been richly rewarded.


Alianore said...

Great post setting the record straight, Brian.

Anonymous said...

Would like to second Alianore's view - thank you.
I've seen the theory put forward that Henry VI, like his mother and maternal grandfather, might have been schizophrenic. It seems such a catch-all (ie vague) definition; but might be the best we have so far.
Have very much enjoyed reading your posts, especially as a local friend is a Yorkist & my own knowledge of the period is woefully slight!
Thanks & greetings from Nice - Min.

Lady D. said...

Interesting post. I always like it when traditionally maligned characters are re-examined to find the reality behind why they did what they did. Also, I wish we knew more about the incidence and pathology of mental illness in medieval England. The conditions we know today must have existed, although it is hard to know to what extent.

Brian said...

I suspect mental illness was as widespread as it is today, but generally untreated. The problem is that even experts are wary of retro-diagnosing complex mental ailments on the basis of our limited info, and for historians to do so (as not infrequently they try) is, well - risky.

I think Richard II (for example) had mental problems; but when one considers the people around him, it's no wonder!

Henry VI was seen as having 'issues' even on the basis of the primitive understanding of the day. This means he was likely completely 'out of it' at times, not just 'odd'.

As to Margaret, I simply don't buy the 'monster' verdict. She was doing her best to save a very difficult situation. She may not have had the necessary talents, nor have used the best methods, but I don't think that makes her a 'monster.'

Joansz said...

Brian said, As to Margaret, I simply don't buy the 'monster' verdict. She was doing her best to save a very difficult situation. She may not have had the necessary talents, nor have used the best methods, but I don't think that makes her a 'monster.'

I agree. It's interesting how the notably strong women of that period are handled by many of today's writers. Another woman that I'm thinking of is Elizabeth Woodville. Some writers have tried to undo the damage, but it's a bit like going against the tide.

DanielCure said...

Hi Brian,

Very interesting subject matter for a blog - I hope you'll forgive me for the blatant plug, however I do feel it is relevant. I am currently working on a series of medieval novels set between the years of 1551-1485, which feature Margaret of Anjou in her fight agaionst the leading magnates of the House of York.

The first novel which is already published is called The Silver Knight, featuring the principle character Jack Templeman and there is more information on my website www.danielcure.co.uk.

It is actually quite rare to find someone writing with a clear viewpoint on these matters, which makes a change from the more academic viewpoint.

Anyway, best wishes,


John Foelster said...

Somewhat late in response minniebeaniste, but Queen Katherine was schizophrenic? Charles VI's issues were well documented, see Barbara Tuchman te al, but I had thought that her only problem was fancying handsome Welshmen...

John Foelster said...

Hmmm, yeah. Nothing about it on wiki. Although apparently her mummy was a tourist attraction.

And Samuel Pepys wrote about kissing it.

Which I have to admit disgusts me FAR more than his carrying on with servant girls.

Catherine Hokin said...

I've come to this very late in the discussion but you might like my novel Blood and Roses, published by Yolk in January of this year - it redresses Margaret's story. https://www.catherinehokin.com/ I like your blog!