For a woman who lived a life packed with more than its fair share of melodrama, Marguerite of Anjou made a relatively quiet entry into the world. On the twenty-fourth day of March, her father René jotted a brief note in his Book of Hours to record the christening of his second daughter, Marguerite. She joined her five year-old brother Jean, three year-old Louis and two year-old Yolande as the fourth child of René of Anjou, current duc de Bar, comte de Provence and heir to the duchy of Anjou, as well as being the more controversial and disputed heir to the crowns of Aragon and the Naples.
Through her parents, young Marguerite, who was to acquire her historical fame thanks to her often savage defence of the House of Lancaster during England's War of the Roses, was related to the ruling families not just of Aragon and the Naples, but also Hungary, Poland, Moldavia, France, Walmachia and Dalmatia. She was also, distantly, related to the House of Plantagenet, who had ruled England in its purest form from 1054 to 1399 and who, for the last forty-one years had been ruling it in the form of the cadet branch of the dynasty, the Lancasters.
Despite his many dynastic ambitions, Marguerite's father was never ruthless enough to succeed in the cut-throat world of medieval politics which, by the fifteenth century, had entered one of its most amoral phases. Left to his own devices, René of Anjou would much rather have pursued his interests in literature and the arts - he himself was apparently quite a talented painter and poet. (The most recent literary presentation of Marguerite's life by the novelist Susan Higginbotham draws its rather lovely title from a reference in René's poetry to Marguerite.) However, although René was not a great political operator, that is not to say he was an incompetent duke or, later, king and one Burgundian chronicle admiringly recorded of him, "No prince ever loved his subjects as he his, nor was in like manner better loved and well-wished than he was by them." He was certainly an affectionate father and given the fact that Marguerite's own future husband, King Henry VI, was also a personality much too gentle for realpolitik, it is interesting to speculate if her own protectiveness over her husband arose from similar childhood feelings for her father.
It seems likely that she did unconsciously emulate her own parents' marital dynamic, although it's important to stress that René had no history of mental illness, unlike Henry. One courtier wittily observed that all of the House of Lancaster's problems would have been solved if gentle Henry had been the queen and gutsy Marguerite the king. It was from her mother, Isabella, that Marguerite acquired a "courage above the nature of her sex." Isabella, twenty-nine at the time of her second daughter's birth, was Duchess of Lorraine suo jure, meaning that she held that prestigious title in her own right and had not ceded her inheritance to her husband, as so many medieval heiresses did. Beautiful and determined, Isabella was also politically savvy and she oversaw a regency government in Anjou when René was compelled to go abroad pursuing his claims to various counties and kingdoms. Despite their differences in personality, it seems that René and Isabella's marriage was a happy one, albeit by the undemanding standards of the medieval nobility.
Marguerite of Anjou was born into a time of great political and cultural unrest throughout the European continent and she had the singular misfortune to marry into a country crippled by ambitious claimants and magnates, whilst being ruled over by mild mannered and eventually imbalanced introvert. In the academic version of the Wars of the Roses still played out on paper five hundred years after the event, Marguerite has not been given a kind reputation. It is necessary to vilify her in order to make what happened in 1461 and again in 1471 seem like anything other than an outrageously opportunistic usurpation. She has all too often been dismissed as an adulterous schemer - a view recently resurrected in Philippa Gregory's novel The White Queen. When allegations of adultery are not been flung at her, the idea that she herself was a vindictive harpy in the ilk of Edward II's wife refuses to go away. More sober-minded academics like Lisa Hilton, Christine Carpenter, Philip Erlanger and novelists like Susan Higginbotham have attempted to level the playing field in Marguerite's defence. As queen, she was certainly aggressively partisan, although given that she was married to the man who the War of the Roses was attempting to overthrow, that is perhaps understandable and in the final analysis, the assessment of Cambridge historian Professor Christine Carpenter, that Marguerite should be "given credit for taking on an impossible job" is perhaps the most kind.