Open a historical novel about the Wars of the Roses, and chances are that you’ll find Margaret of Anjou portrayed the same way in nine out of ten of them: as a sexually promiscuous, power-crazed, sadistic harpy. The topic of how Margaret has been portrayed over the centuries, and why, could be the subject of a doctoral dissertation in itself, so for this post, I’ll stick to a more modest agenda. Why does Margaret get such a bad rap in historical fiction? Here are five sources that I believe heavily influence modern novelists in their depiction of Margaret as a she-wolf:
1. Yorkist propaganda. The Wars of the Roses were fought on two fronts: on the battlefield and on the field of popular opinion. Margaret lost on both fronts. Two Yorkist claims in particular have sullied Margaret’s reputation: the allegation that her son was illegitimate and the claims that the Lancastrian army raped, pillaged, and razed its way across the country. Both have been questioned by modern historians: Helen Maurer has discussed the origins of the claims of Edward of Lancaster’s illegitimacy and their use in Yorkist propaganda, while B.M. Cron has examined the atrocity stories and concluded that they were wildly exaggerated. Rumors die hard, however, and these same stories are still regurgitated wholesale today.
2. The executions of Thomas Kyriell and Lord Bonville after the second Battle of St. Albans, supposedly after they had been promised protection by Henry VI. There are a number of different accounts of these executions, some of which implicate Margaret, some of which do not; the most damning claim is that Margaret forced her young son to order the executions. Yet even if Margaret did this, and even if the men had been promised clemency, Margaret was hardly the only person during the Wars of the Roses to order executions or to break a promise. In terms of executions, the Yorkist leaders had a much higher body count on their hands, and Edward IV is said to have promised the Lancastrian leaders sheltering in Tewkesbury Abbey their lives, only to execute them later. Few, however, condemn these men for their actions.
3. Edward Hall. In his Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre & Yorke, written in the sixteenth century, Edward Hall painted a pathetic picture of Edmund, Duke of Rutland, the second son of Richard, Duke of York, being slain in cold blood by Lord Clifford, a supporter of Margaret, following the Battle of Wakefield. Hall presents the boy as being twelve at the time; in fact, he was seventeen, old enough to fight (and to die) by medieval standards. Moreover, contemporary accounts of Rutland’s death, unlike Hall’s later account, are dispassionate and matter-of-fact: they simply state that the young man was slain in the rout. Hall adds further spice to his story by having Clifford present the lad’s severed head to Margaret. In fact, Margaret was in Scotland when the battle was fought.
4. Paul Murray Kendall. Kendall wrote several books dealing with the Wars of the Roses. One in particular, his very readable biography Richard the Third, remains popular today and indeed is the basis for many historical novels set during this period. Unfortunately, Kendall, an English professor, tended to view historical figures as literary archetypes, and to Margaret of Anjou (along with Elizabeth Woodville) he allotted the role of the Evil Queen, who from the day she arrives in England crushes the hapless and helpless Henry VI under her thumb. Described as “savage,” “primitive,” and “harsh,” Margaret gets no quarter from Kendall, who never pauses to consider her perspective on events or to consider that the Yorkists might not have been entirely devoid of ambition or a desire for power. Kendall quotes sources selectively when dealing with Margaret, reporting the rumor that Edward of Lancaster was said to be sired by the Holy Ghost but not bothering to note that the ambassador who passed on the rumor doubted it himself. Given the opportunity to choose between conflicting accounts of the same event, Kendall invariably chooses the one that reflects most unfavorably upon Margaret, even when it means picking a later source (such as Hall) over a contemporary one.
5. Other novels. Most historical novels set during the Wars of the Roses, particularly those sympathetic to Richard III, depict Margaret at her Kendallian worst, menacing poor little Richard as he huddles beside his brave mother at the market cross at Ludlow (a scene based entirely on Kendall’s conjecture) or combining with her vicious son to terrify her daughter-in-law Anne, Richard’s future bride. Over the years, these fictional portrayals of Margaret have combined to assume virtually the status of historical fact, causing many novelists to fall into the trap of assuming that portraying Margaret as nasty and depraved is the only historically permissible option.
This list of influences isn’t meant to say that all novelists blindly rely upon them. Indeed, it is entirely possible for two novelists, looking at the identical sources and each doing careful research, to arrive at very different conceptions of the same historical figure. Still, we novelists owe it to our readers—and to the historical figures who shape our stories—to look at our sources with critical eyes, and to avoid writing about a historical person in a certain manner just because it’s always been done that way.
(I want to say many thanks to Susan for gracing my blog with an informative post today. I look forward to more books in the future!)