In my last post, I promised to give some examples of interesting medieval women whose experiences transcended the misogynistic restrictions they were theoretically subject to in a patriarchal society. Since I am a Fifteenth Century specialist and teach in my third year an undergraduate module on the Wars of the Rose and the Rose, I thought I’d share a few passages about women from this turbulent period in English history.
In general terms, the Wars of the Scarlet and White Roses were a series of civil conflicts between the noble houses of Lancaster and York during the period traditionally defined as 1450-1485, although I think there is good reason to cover the period from the 1440s to almost 1500 due to for long preparations and continued unrest after major periods of open warfare.
While the main people of this period – the dashing Edward IV, the weak Henry VI, the dastardly (or misunderstood) Richard III, the calculating Henry VII – attract attention, writers such as Philippa Gregory (and subsequent television adaptations!) helped raise the profile of the women of war.
In this image from The Talbot Book of Shrewsbury, Queen Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI, is depicted as a stereotypical medieval beauty—young, pale, with ruddy lips and flowing blond curls. The visual representation has much in common with depictions of the Virgin Mary and saints, and may have more to do with the qualities attributed to her—virtue and femininity—rather than an accurate portrait. But Margaret was anything but the stereotypical quiet girl sitting and embroidering in a tower. Described by the chronicler Polydorus Virgil shortly after her life as “A woman of ample prognosis, very desirous of fame, full of politics, advice, comeliness and all masculine qualities”, she was later immortalized by Shakespeare as “The She-Wolf”. France, but worse than the wolves of France.” A victim of Francophobia and misogyny both in her own time and later, Margaret was heavily criticized for behavior that would likely have been praised or at least understood by a nobleman. During and after Henry VI’s mental breakdown, Margaret increasingly assumed political reins in the unstable environment of the 1450s and 60s. After the removal of Henry VI from the throne, and then his death, she lived the rest of her life as a poor pensioner of the King of France: a sad end for the queen! You can read more about her life Here.
Under the July sun of 1468, twenty-two-year-old Margaret of York’s golden litters must have sparkled as she was carried to the city of Bruges. The air was drunk with spirits as she walked over bridges adorned with flowers and past fountains pouring wine in honor 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 in Bruges in such magnificent celebrations that the city reproduces them every five years to this day.
Margaret was the daughter of Richard, Duke of York and thus the sister of two English kings, Edward IV and Richard III. After her marriage, Margaret became an important political player, often negotiating on her husband’s behalf, and after his death was a staunch advocate for her stepdaughter Mary’s interests. She also patronized the arts and the church. You can read more about her Here.
Somewhat lower in the social ladder, Margaret Paston is a good example of the fact that not only great ladies showed an iron will and ambition. Margaret was born Margaret Moutby and married a Norfolk gentleman, John Paston, in 1440. Paston’s collection of letters 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 aristocrats of her time, Margaret was brought up to run a household, which in the conditions of the late Middle Ages was a difficult job! The French writer Christine de Pizan gave a comprehensive description of what to expect from such women as wives:
As barons, and still more often knights, squires, and gentlemen, travel and go to war, their wives must be wise and prudent administrators, and manage their affairs well, because most of the time they are left at home without their husbands who are at court. or abroad. They must bear all administrative responsibility and know how to use their income and property. Every lady of that rank (if she is intelligent) should know what her annual income is and how much the income from her land is worth. This wise lady should convince her husband, if she can, with kind words and reasonable admonitions, to agree to discuss their finances together and try to maintain a standard of living that can provide their income, and not so much that at the end of the year they find themselves in debt to its people or other creditors. … Such a lady or young woman must know well the laws concerning fiefs, fiefs, rents, champars (in feudal law, field rent paid to the lord in kind), taxes for various reasons, and all those kinds of things that are in the jurisdiction of the lord, according to the customs of the region, so that no one can deceive her. about them.
Christine de Pizan, Women’s City Treasure, trans.: Sarah Lawson. New York: Penguin, 1985, pp. 130-133, translated from French.
At the same time, such women were also expected to take on a range of domestic and social responsibilities as mothers, housewives and patrons. Margaret Paston’s letter to her husband in 1449, when their house was besieged by Lord Moleynes and his men, vividly illustrates the range of roles a noble wife could fill:
“My dear husband, I am thinking of you again. I ask you to get crossbows and windlasses to shoot with them along with quarrels, because your houses are so low here that no one can shoot with a longbow, although we really need them. … Please promise to buy me 1 pound of almonds and 1 pound of sugar, as well as some woolen cloth for your children’s dressing gowns. I was told that you have the cheapest and best selection from Hay’s wife. Also, please buy me a yard of broad black hoodie at 44d or 4s a yard, because there is no good fabric in this city. As for children’s dresses, if I have fabric, I can sew them.
Margaret Paston to John Paston, January 1449 – see Here for a modern English translation, as well as the original text.
Today I have shared with you three adorable women who have been devoted (stepmothers) stepmothers and also women who are not to be crossed with. You may have noticed that they all have the same name. Saint Margaret was a very popular saint in the Middle Ages. mythical Margaret of Antioch was known as a great intellectual as well as a great beauty, and became famous for having endured many trials, most notably the battle with Satan in the form of a dragon. I think the three Margarets I describe here may have drawn inspiration from their holy namesake!