She-wolves and crossbows: a tale of three Margarets

In my last post I promised to give you some examples of interesting medieval women, whose experiences pushed beyond the misogynistic limitations they were theoretically subject to in a patriarchal society. As I’m a specialist in the fifteenth century, and I teach a third year undergraduate module on the Wars of the Roses, I thought I would share a few snippets about women from this tumultuous period of English history.

In broad terms, the Wars of the Roses were a series of civil conflicts between the noble houses of Lancaster and York in the period traditionally framed as 1450-1485, though I think there’s a good case to be made to cover the period the 1440s through to nearly 1500 due to the long build up to, and continuing ripples of disorder after, the main periods of open warfare.

While it’s mostly the men of this period – dashing Edward IV, weak Henry VI, dastardly (or misunderstood) Richard III, calculating Henry VII – who get the attention, authors like Philippa Gregory (and the subsequent TV adaptations!) have helped raise the profile of the women of the Wars.

Margaret of Anjou in a detail from the Talbot Shrewsbury Book, British Library, Royal 15 E VI, f. 2v.

In this image from the Talbot Shrewsbury Book, Queen Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI, is depicted as a stereotypical medieval beauty – young, pale, rosy-lipped and with flowing blonde locks. The visual representation has a good deal in common with depictions of the Virgin Mary and saints and may be more about the qualities being ascribed to her – virtue and femininity – rather than intended as an accurate portrait. But Margaret was anything but a stereotypical quiet maiden, sitting embroidering in a tower. Described by chronicler Polydore Vergil not long after her lifetime as “A woman of sufficient forecast, very desirous of renown, full of policy, council, comely behaviour, and all manly qualities”, she would later be immortalised by Shakespeare as “She-wolf of France, but worse than wolves of France”. A victim of francophobia and misogyny both in her own time and afterward, Margaret was excoriated for behaviour that probably would have been praised, or at least understood, in a nobleman. During Henry VI’s mental collapse and afterward, Margaret increasingly took the political reins in the volatile environment of the 1450s and ’60s. After the removal of Henry VI from the throne and then his death, she saw out the rest of her life as a poor pensioner of the King of France: a sad ending for a queen! You can read more about her life here.

Crown of Margaret of York, Aachen Cathedral Treasury

Under a July sun in 1468, twenty-two-year-old Margaret of York’s golden litter must have sparkled as she was carried into the city of Bruges. The air was heady with perfume as she crossed over bridges garlanded with flowers and past fountains pouring wine in honour of her marriage to the dashing and formidable Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. Crowned with gold and pearls, Margaret and her husband were received into Bruges in celebrations so magnificent that the city re-enacts them every five years to the present day.

Margaret was daughter of Richard, Duke of York, and thus sister of two English kings – Edward IV and Richard III. Following her marriage Margaret became an important political player, often negotiating on her husband’s behalf, and following his death was a staunch advocate in protecting his stepdaughter Mary’s interests. She was also a patron of the arts and of the church. You can read more about her here.

Extract from one of Margaret Paston’s letters.

Somewhat lower down the social ladder, Margaret Paston is a good example of how it wasn’t only great ladies who showed iron wills and ambition. Margaret was born Margaret Mautby, and married Norfolk gentleman John Paston in 1440. The Paston letter collection is one of our best sources of information about life in the fifteenth century, and Margaret was the author of many of them. Like most aristocratic women of her time, Margaret would have been raised to run a household, which in a late medieval context was a difficult job! French author Christine de Pizan gave a comprehensive description of what would be expected of such women in their roles as wives:

Because barons and still more commonly knights and squires and gentlemen travel and go off to the wars, their wives should be wise and sound administrators and manage their affairs well, because most of the time they stay at home without their husbands, who are at court or abroad. They should have all the responsibility of the administration and know how to make use of their revenues and possessions. Every lady of such rank (if she is sensible) ought to know how much her annual income is and how much the revenue of her land is worth. This wise lady ought to persuade her husband if she can by kind words and sensible admonitions to agree to discuss their finances together and try to keep to such a standard of living as their income can provide and not so far above it that at the end of the year they find themselves in debt to their own people or other creditors. … It is proper for such a lady or young woman to be thoroughly knowledgeable about the laws related to fiefs, sub-fiefs, quit rents, champarts (in feudal law, field rent paid in kind to the lord), taxes for various causes, and all those sorts of things that are within the jurisdiction of the lordship, according to the customs of the region, so that no one can deceive her about them.

Christine de Pizan, The Treasure of the City of Ladies, Trans.: Sarah Lawson. N. Y.: Penguin, 1985, pp. 130-133, translated from French

At the same time, such women were expected to also carry out a range of domestic and social responsibilities as mothers, hostesses and patrons. Margaret Paston’s letter to her husband in 1449, when their house was besieged by Lord Moleyns and his men, dramatically illustrates the range of roles a gentry wife might have to fulfil:

“My dear husband, I am again thinking of you. I ask you to get some crossbows and windlasses to fire them with, together with quarrels, because your houses here are so low that no-one can shoot out with a longbow, though we really need them. … Please promise to buy for me 1lb of almonds and 1lb of sugar, and some woollen cloth for your children’s gowns. I am told you have the cheapest and best choice from Hay’s wife. Also please buy a yard of broad black cloth for a hood for me at 44d or 4s a yard, for there is no good cloth of any kind in this town. As for the children’s gowns, if I have the cloth I can make them.”

Margaret Paston to John Paston, January 1449 – see here for the modern English translation, as well as the original text.

Today I’ve shared three fascinating women, who were all devoted (step)mothers as well as women not to be crossed. You might have noticed they all share the same first name. St Margaret was a very popular saint in the Middle Ages. The mythical Margaret of Antioch was famed as a great intellectual as well as a great beauty, and was famed for enduring many trials, most notably battling Satan in the form of a dragon. I think the three Margarets I describe here might have found inspiration from their saintly namesake!

Detail of a miniature of St Margaret emerging from the fire-breathing dragon, from the Dunois Hours, France (Paris), c. 1339 – c. 1450, British Library Yates Thompson MS 3, f. 282v.

Dr Rachel Moss is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Northampton.

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