Margaret of Anjou - Jacob Abbott

Houses of York and Lancaster

Margaret of Anjou was a heroine; not a heroine of romance and fiction, but of stern and terrible reality. Her life was a series of military exploits, attended with dangers, privations, sufferings, and wonderful vicissitudes of fortune, scarcely to be paralleled in the whole history of mankind.

She was born and lived in a period during which there prevailed in the western part of Europe two great and dreadful quarrels, which lasted for more than a hundred years, and which kept France and England, and all the countries contiguous to them, in a state of continual commotion during all that time.

The first of these quarrels grew out of a dispute which arose among the various branches of the royal family of England in respect to the succession to the crown. The two principal branches of the family were the descendants respectively of the Dukes of York and Lancaster, and the wars which they waged against each other are called in history the wars of the houses of York and Lancaster. These wars continued for several successive generations, and Margaret of Anjou was the queen of one of the most prominent representatives of the Lancaster line. Thus she became most intimately involved in the quarrel.

The second great contention which prevailed during this period consisted of the wars waged between France and England for the possession of the territory which now forms the northern portion of France. A large portion of that territory, during the reigns that immediately preceded the time of Margaret of Anjou, had belonged to England. But the kings of France were continually attempting to regain possession of it—the English, of course, all the time making desperate resistance. Thus, for a hundred years, including the time while Margaret lived, England was involved in a double set of wars—the one internal, being waged by one branch of the royal family against the other for the possession of the throne, and the other external, being waged against France and other Continental powers for the possession of the towns and castles, and the country dependent upon them, which lay along the southern shore of the English Channel.

[Illustration] from Margaret of Anjou by Jacob Abbott

In order that the story of Margaret of Anjou may be properly understood, it will be necessary first to give some explanations in respect to the nature of these two quarrels, and to the progress which had been made in them up to the time when Margaret came upon the stage. We shall begin with the internal or civil wars which were waged between the families of York and Lancaster. Some account of the origin and nature of this difficulty is given in our history of Richard III., but it is necessary to allude to it again here, and to state some additional particulars in respect to it, on account of the very important part which Margaret of Anjou performed in the quarrel.

The difficulty originated among the children and descendants of King Edward III. He reigned in the early part of the fourteenth century. He occupied the throne a long time, and his reign was considered very prosperous and glorious. The prosperity and glory of it consisted, in a great measure, in the success of the wars which he waged in France, and in the towns, and castles, and districts of country which he conquered there, and annexed to the English domain.

In these wars old King Edward was assisted very much by the princes his sons, who were very warlike young men, and who were engaged from time to time in many victorious campaigns on the Continent. They began this career when they were very young, and they continued it through all the years of their manhood and middle life, for their father lived to an advanced age.

The most remarkable of these warlike princes were Edward and John. Edward was the oldest son, and John the third in order of age of those who arrived at maturity. The name of the second was Lionel. Edward, the oldest son, was of course the Prince of Wales; but, to distinguish him from other Princes of Wales that preceded and followed him, he is known commonly in history by the name of the Black Prince. He received this name originally on account of something about his armor which was black, and which marked his appearance among the other knights on the field of battle.

The Black Prince did not live to succeed his father and inherit the throne, for he lost his health in his campaigns on the Continent, and came home to England, and died a few years before his father died. His son, whose name was Richard, was his heir, and when at length old King Edward died, this young Richard succeeded to the crown, under the title of King Richard II. In the history of Richard II., in this series, a full account of the life of his father, the Black Prince, is given, and of the various remarkable adventures that he met with in his Continental campaigns.

Prince John, the third of the sons of old King Edward, is commonly known in history as John of Gaunt. This word Gaunt was the nearest approach that the English people could make in those days to the pronunciation of the word Ghent, the name of the town where John was born. For King Edward, in the early part of his life, was accustomed to take all his family with him in his Continental campaigns, and so his several children were born in different places, one in one city and another in another, and many of them received names from the places where they happened to be born.

On the following page we have a genealogical table of the family of Edward III. At the head of it we have the names of Edward III. and Philippa his wife. In a line below are the names of those four of his sons whose descendants figure in English history. It was among the descendants of these sons that the celebrated wars between the houses of York and Lancaster, called the wars of the roses, arose.

[Illustration] from Margaret of Anjou by Jacob Abbott

These wars were called the wars of the roses from the circumstance that the white and the red rose happened in some way to be chosen as the badges of the two parties—the white rose being that of the house of York, and the red that of the house of Lancaster.

[Illustration] from Margaret of Anjou by Jacob Abbott


The reader will observe that the dukes of Lancaster and York are the third and fourth of the brothers enumerated in the table, where, as it might have been supposed that any contest which should have arisen in respect to the crown would have taken place between families of the first and second. But the first and second sons and their descendants were soon set aside, as it were, from the competition, in the following manner.

The line of the first brother soon became extinct. Edward himself, the Prince of Wales, died during his father's lifetime, leaving his son Richard as his heir. Then, when the old king died, Richard succeeded him. As he was the oldest living son of the oldest son, his claim could not be disputed, and so his uncles acquiesced in it. They wished very much, it is true, to govern the realm, but they contented themselves with ruling in Richard's name until he became of age, and then Richard took the government into his own hands. The country was tolerably well satisfied under his dominion for some years, but at length Richard became dissipated and vicious, and he domineered over the people of England in so haughty a manner, and oppressed them so severely by the taxes and other exactions which he laid upon them, that a very general discontent prevailed at last against him and against his government. This discontent would have given either of his uncles a great advantage in any design which they might have formed to take away the crown from him. As it was, it greatly increased their power and influence in the land, and diminished, in a corresponding degree, that of the king. The uncles appear to have been contented with this share of power and influence, which seemed naturally to fall into their hands, and did not attempt any open rebellion.

Richard had a cousin, however, a young man of just about his own age, who was driven at last, by a peculiar train of circumstances, to rise against him. This cousin was the son of his uncle John. His name was Henry Bolingbroke. He appears in the genealogical table as Henry IV., that having been his title subsequently as King of England.

This cousin Henry became involved in a quarrel with a certain nobleman named Norfolk. Indeed, the nobles of those days were continually getting engaged in feuds and quarrels, which they fought out with the greatest recklessness, sometimes by regular battles between armies of retainers, and sometimes by single combat, in which the parties to the dispute were supposed to appeal to Almighty God, who they believed, or professed to believe, would give the victory to the just side in the quarrel. These single combats were arranged with great ceremony and parade, and were performed in a very public and solemn manner; being, in fact, a recognized and established part of the system of public law as administered in those days. In the next chapter, when speaking more particularly of the manners and customs of the times, I shall give an account in full of one of these duels. I have only to say here that Richard, on hearing of the quarrel between his cousin Henry and Norfolk, decreed that they should settle it by single combat, and preparations were accordingly made for the trial, and the parties appeared, armed and equipped for the fight, in the presence of an immense concourse of people assembled to witness the spectacle. The king himself was to preside on the occasion.

But just before the signal was to be given for the combat to begin, the king interrupted the proceedings, and declared that he would decide the question himself. He pronounced both the combatants guilty, and issued a decree of banishment against both. Henry submitted, and both prepared to leave the country. These transactions, of course, attracted great attention throughout England, and they operated to bring Henry forward in a very conspicuous manner before the people of the realm. He was in the direct line of succession to the crown, and he was, moreover, a prince of great wealth, and of immense personal influence, and so, just in proportion as Richard himself was disliked, Henry would naturally become an object of popular sympathy and regard. When he set out on his journey toward the southern coast, in order to leave the country in pursuance of his sentence, the people flocked along the waysides, and assembled in the towns where he passed, as if he were a conqueror returning from his victories instead of a condemned criminal going into banishment.

Soon after this, the Duke of Lancaster, Henry's father, died, and then Richard, instead of allowing his cousin to succeed to the immense estates which his father left, confiscated all the property, under the pretext that Henry had forfeited it, and so converted it to his own use. This last outrage aroused Henry to such a pitch of indignation that he resolved to invade England, depose Richard, and claim the crown for himself.

This plan was carried into effect. Henry raised an armament, crossed the Channel, and landed in England. The people took sides. A great majority sided with Henry. A full account of this insurrection and invasion is given in our history of Richard II. All that it is necessary to say here is that the revolution was effected. Richard was deposed, and Henry obtained possession of the kingdom. It was thus that the house of Lancaster first became established on the throne.

But you will very naturally wonder where the representatives of the second brother in Edward the Third's family were all this time, and why, when Richard was deposed, who was the son of the first brother, they did not appear, and advance their claims in competition with Henry. The reason was because there was no male heir of that branch living in that line. You will see by referring again to the table that the only child of Lionel, the second brother, was Philippa, a girl. She had a son, it is true, Roger Mortimer, as appears by the table; but he was yet very young, and could do nothing to assert the claims of his line. Besides, Henry pretended that, together with his claims to the throne through his father, he had others more ancient and better founded still through his mother, who, as he attempted to prove, was descended from an English king who reigned before Edward III. The people of England, as they wished to have Henry for king, were very easily satisfied with his arguments, and so it was settled that he should reign. The line of this second brother, however, did not give up their claims, but reserved them, intending to rise and assert them on the very first favorable opportunity.

Henry reigned about thirteen years, and then was succeeded by his son, Henry V., as appears by the table. There was no attempt to disturb the Lancastrian line in their possession of the throne during these two reigns. The attention, both of the kings and of the people, during all this period, was almost wholly engrossed in the wars which they were waging in France. These wars were very successful. The English conquered province after province and castle after castle, until at length almost the whole country was brought under their sway.

This state of things continued until the death of Henry V., which took place in 1422. He left for his heir a little son, named also Henry, then only about nine months old. This infant was at once invested with the royal authority as King of England and France, under the title of Henry VI., as seen by the table. It was this Henry who, when he arrived at maturity, became the husband of Margaret of Anjou, the subject of this volume. It was during his reign, too, that the first effective attempt was made to dispute the right of the house of Lancaster to the throne, and it was in the terrible contests which this attempt brought on that Margaret displayed the extraordinary military heroism for which she became so renowned. I shall relate the early history of this king, and explain the nature of the combination which was formed during his reign against the Lancastrian line, in a subsequent chapter, after first giving a brief account of such of the manners and customs of those times as are necessary to a proper understanding of the story.