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21.04.18 Maurer/Cron (eds.), The Letters of Margaret of Anjou

The Medieval Review

21.04.18 Maurer/Cron (eds.), The Letters of Margaret of Anjou


Margaret of Anjou has fascinated scholars and audiences interested in the Wars of the Roses since at least the time of Shakespeare. This new collection of her letters, compiled by two specialists in the life and history of this queen, may offer less of the villainous "she-wolf," but Helen Maurer and B. M. Cron provide insight into the diverse activities of Margaret's daily and political life. The collection, which originated with Maurer and Cron comparing notes on surviving materials relating to Margaret's life, updates Cecil Monro's 1863 assemblage by re-editing, re-dating, and adding additional sources, as well as providing extensive context and commentary for all letters. In total they have included 122 letters, most of them written by Margaret herself.

A brief introduction offers an overview of Margaret's life and addresses the book's unusual organization, including the authors' choice to divide the book into two parts, each of which are treated differently. Part 1 (Great and Good Queen) consists of letters that reflect the typical interests and activities of a late medieval queen, and the editors divide these letters into thematic chapters. Part 2 (Political Queen) explores Margaret's better-known activities in the political turmoil of the later fifteenth century, and is organized chronologically. In making such organizational decisions, there will always be points of overlap (either because some letters covered in Part 1 might reflect multiple themes or because some letters that fit better into a thematic category of daily life might still reflect political considerations). The authors acknowledge this concern, and their chosen conceptual framework, in my opinion, clarifies Margaret's goals and experiences far more than not.

The themes highlighted in Part 1 reveal Margaret's good ladyship in various ways. Chapter 1 (Matchmaker) highlights her role in arranging marriages for servants or servants' associates, while Chapters 2 and 3 (Holy Orders and Position Wanted) illustrate how she similarly sought advancement opportunities for her clerics and those recommended to her for secular positions. Chapter 4 (Business Interests) shows Margaret looking after her own concerns, such as handling her dower properties and addressing officials under her purview.

Chapter 5 (Protector and Peacemaker), the longest chapter, returns to helping others, showing how the queen resolved disputes and protected her tenants. The editors point out that the larger number of letters on these themes underscores this important role of a queen (or any landlord) in these kinds of activities. They also highlight how Margaret was not always on the side of the dispossessed, because it was her duty to assist her tenants and followers. Chapter 6 (Money Matters) is another long chapter, revealing the letters that lay behind administrative documents that record income, expenditure, customs duties, grants, and debts. Although the chapter touches on Margaret's extensive dower lands, it again considers the queen in the context of good ladyship, assisting servants and associates in their financial matters.

The last two chapters in Part 1 concern Margaret's piety and her leisure time. We learn about Margaret's request for holy water and a relic from Christ Church Canterbury, presumably in hopes of curing Henry VI's illness, and her receipt of three papal indults, absolving Margaret from pilgrimages abroad so long as she offered piety (primarily in the form of money) locally. The chapter on leisure (The Queen's Disport) highlights Margaret's love of hunting through the purchase of horses, the reserving of bucks in hunting parks, and the training of two bloodhounds.

The letters, along with editorial commentary, thus touch on many aspects of daily beliefs, practices, and activities that introduce the novice reader to various facets of Medieval English life. The more expert reader sees many concepts familiar from medieval English history (such as arranged marriages, advowsons, fama, and liveries) situated within Margaret's worldview. Numerous tidbits of daily life make the letters, and medieval life, come alive. For example, in the commentary accompanying a letter about Margaret's wine shipment, we learn that new wine arrived in England in time for Christmas, while the higher quality wine was left in bottles longer and shipped in spring. (69-70) Several letters demonstrate that the phrase "lating you wite" was the fifteenth century equivalent of the often-used phrase "letting you know" in modern correspondence. (90, 113)

The chronological arrangement of the second part of the book features four chapters that cover Margaret's political life during major events such as the war with France and its aftermath, Jack Cade's rebellion, and of course the conflict between York and Lancaster. The editors chose to include certain letters written about Margaret in addition to those written by her, in order to best situate Margaret within fifteenth-century history.

Chapter 9 (En Famille) highlights the marriage negotiations between Henry VI and Margaret, and illuminates how Margaret crafted (largely unsuccessful) diplomatic letters to her uncle, Charles VII of France, over the sticking point of the cession of the county of Maine to the French crown. The successive chapters divide Margaret's life into her early years as queen consort (Chapter 10), the early years of the War of the Roses (Chapter 11), and the period of Margaret's exile in France (Chapter 12). There are, sadly, no letters surviving from Margaret's last decade when, after the death of Henry VI and their son Edward of Lancaster, Margaret lived first as prisoner of Edward IV and then in pecuniary straits at her father's manor of Reculée until her death in 1482.

Chapter 10 (Queen Consort) includes letters about Cade's rebellion, the queen's pilgrimage to Walsingham (discussed by Cecily, Duchess of York, in a letter to Margaret requesting that the queen bestow favor upon the duke), Henry VI's medical problems and York's resulting protectorates, and the birth of Edward and his investiture as Prince of Wales. Chapter 11 (Lancastrian Queen) illuminates the escalation of Lancastrian-Yorkist hostilities and Margaret's role as Lancastrian leader as she both reacted to and shaped policy and propaganda campaigns. Here the editors highlight Margaret's negotiations with Charles VII for financial and military support. In the last chapter (Queen Beyond the Sea) the editors track Margaret's attempts to win back the throne from her position of exile in France, continuing (this time more successfully) to negotiate for French assistance from the new King of France, Louis XI, and also hoping to enlist support from both Portugal and Hansa merchants. The final chapter also provides a brief, three-paragraph ending to the book that details the final Lancastrian defeat, the deaths of Henry VI and Prince Edward, and Margaret's final years as captive and pensioner. Perhaps because the editors provide such extensive detail and useful commentary throughout the book, one is left expecting more in the conclusion, which ends the volume abruptly.

Each chapter begins with a short introduction to offer context. All letters include significant commentary after the transcription that identifies the individuals mentioned (when possible), provides background, and elucidates resolution (if known). The authors reveal impressive research into the lives of well-known figures such as the dukes of York and Somerset as well as the minor power players of the era such as courtiers and royal and regional administrative officials. The way in which they also openly contemplate the difficulties of attempting to identify certain people of middle-rank (clerics, female household members), especially those with common surnames, educates students about the opportunities and challenges of such research.

The editors of this letter collection retain Middle English spelling apart from modernizing letters i/j and u/v and replacing obsolete thorn with "th" spelling. That editorial choice allows students and scholars to appreciate the flavor of the English language as written in the middle of the fifteenth century, without making it unreadable to non-specialists. Letters written originally in French or Latin are included with modern English translation following. In some cases the editors have re-dated letters previously published or discussed, with some that remain uncertain given a range and a question mark. In two interesting cases (Letters 107 and 108) the editors disagreed and included both potential dates and rationales (although they do not disclose which editor argued for each interpretation).

Maurer and Cron offer historiographical arguments throughout, for example when making points about correctly identifying individuals or the dating of letters. Thus, Monro had believed that Letter 76 was written to either the duchess of Suffolk or Somerset but Maurer and Cron make a strong case that the recipient was Lady Fiennes, whom Margaret asked to intervene with her husband Sir James about wages owed by the Duke of Gloucester to Margaret's servant (James Fiennes was one of Gloucester's executors). More significantly, the editors also hope that the collection of documents will help continue the refinement of history's impression of Margaret. Whereas those writing about her with a nineteenth-century mindset, such as Monro and T. F. Tout, blamed Margaret for unwomanly meddling and nepotism, the editors instead argue that such patronage was expected of high ranking individuals--male or female--in late medieval England.

Readers of Margaret's letters will find some hints of Margaret's personality. For example, frustration appears in her statement that "we have now lately written unto you at various times." (36) Her intellectual choices when strategizing during the conflict with Neville and York also shine through. Conversely, but no less usefully, readers also get a good sense of the formulae used in medieval correspondence. The methods and goals of diplomatic language are clarified when seeing them set within the concrete examples of Margaret's experiences.

This collection of letters is a valuable addition to libraries serving students or scholars researching fifteenth-century England. Instructors might consider using excerpts in class, since the way the editors situate each letter and follow them with extended commentary illuminates primary sources and what can be gleaned from them. A timeline of major historical events would have been a helpful addition, particularly for non-experts in fifteenth-century English history who might not know the date or victor of various battles in the conflict. This small criticism notwithstanding, this book serves scholars interested in broadly in late medieval political conflict, diplomacy, or royal and aristocratic life, and provides essential primary source material for studying the Wars of the Roses.