Kings and queens can seem very distant from us – medieval kings and queens even more so. With few portraits and little or no personal writing, our medieval monarchs often meld in our imagination into one vague mush of crowns and beards. I am currently researching a biography of one of these (mostly unbearded) medieval kings: Henry VI.
Unlike his famous royal namesake (and great nephew) Henry VIII, the name ‘King Henry VI’ probably doesn’t conjure up a mental image for you. I recently had a conversation that went along these lines:
‘So who was Henry VI?’
‘He started the Wars of the Roses.’
‘Oh, was he a Yorkist?’
‘Was he Henry VII’s father?’
‘He became king as a baby? Went mad? Lost the Hundred Years War? Murdered in the Tower?’
‘Is he one of those with a famous wife?’
Because unusually among medieval kings, Henry VI was overshadowed both in life and long after his death by his wife: Margaret of Anjou.
As with other unfortunate fifteenth century figures – roll up, Richard III – Margaret’s fame is largely down to Shakespeare. In his plays, Margaret becomes a ‘she-wolf’, a vitriolic ball of hatred and vengeance who prowls about threatening people and controlling her saintly husband. In reality, Margaret was a far more complex woman. Indeed, when she first became queen we would hardly consider her a ‘woman’ at all. At her betrothal to Henry she was 14 – he was 23 – and by the time she met her husband and was crowned queen of England, she was still only 15.
Now if an adult medieval monarch seems distant, a teenage one is even more peculiar. Of course, by fifteenth century standards Margaret and Henry’s age at marriage was only unusual in that they were both a bit past it. While most of their subjects waited until they were in their twenties to wed, the nobility and royals got hitched in their nurseries – even occasionally while still in their cradles.
So far, so distant. But while undertaking research for Go Medieval at the Tower this May bank holiday (29 April – 1 May), which recreates the festivities and fun of Margaret of Anjou’s coronation in 1445, I learnt some fascinating tidbits about these unfamiliar medieval figures. Things that made both Margaret and Henry seem altogether more human, more relatable – much closer to us.
For instance, throughout her journey from her native lands in France, Margaret suffered from an all-too-understandable illness that saw her place in the ceremonial entry into English-controlled Rouen being taken by one of her more experienced attendants. By the time she reached England she had broken out in a ‘pox’ and had to be nursed back to health before proceeding to her wedding and journey to London. It is obvious that the stress of leaving her family and most of her friends behind in Anjou, and taking on the new mantle of wife and queen, was deeply felt by Margaret.
Throughout Margaret’s journey to England, Henry had done everything possible to show honour and respect to his queen: she was attended with a vast entourage of noblemen and women, at crippling expense to the English treasury. Having learnt that his bride enjoyed riding, Henry sent her a magnificent horse and saddle. In the English Channel, Genoese musicians entertained her aboard ship. On arrival in England, Margaret was given jewels, new clothes, ruby-studded collars – even a lion, which was rehoused in the menagerie at the Tower.
In what has to be the most charming meet-cute in history, Henry first met his bride disguised as a squire, bearing ‘a message from the king’ and humbly kneeling in her presence. Not realizing – or perhaps, playing along and pretending not to realize – the true identity of her servant, Margaret kept the king on his knees throughout the entire duration of his visit.
When she reached the capital, Margaret’s arrival was celebrated with days of ceremony and performance in London. A delegation of citizens and nobles met Margaret on Blackheath, accompanying her through the city to the Tower and then from there to Westminster for her coronation. Along the route she was presented with a number of pageants – plays performed with accompanying text, on religious and pacific themes.
Also along the route, hidden within the walls of a goldsmith’s shop, was King Henry. He probably chose a position with a good view of one of the pageants near Cheapside, and watched Margaret process through the streets to the adoring shouts of her new subjects. We might expect that medieval Londoners would be cool towards their foreign-born queen, who was after all a close relative of their enemy in the Hundred Years War. In fact, the English were delighted at her arrival. ‘Welcome, welcome, welcome!’ one verse cried. The pageants presented Margaret herself as a symbol of peace and returning English prosperity: ‘Causer of wealth, joy, and abundance’. With her as their queen, war would finally be at honourable end.
Unfortunately, the truth was to be quite the reverse. In their twenty-five years of marriage Margaret and Henry suffered more than their fair share of turmoil, warfare and tragedy. Henry ended his days a prisoner in the Tower and Margaret an exile in her French relative’s lands. Their only child was killed in battle.
But frozen in time, in those happy early days of 1445, Margaret and Henry seem like a honeymoon couple from any period of history. Showered with gifts, affection and optimistic hopes for their shared future. Not so very unfamiliar after all.