Archaeology South-East


The Two Margarets: The Women of the Wars of the Roses

31 March 2024

As part of Women's History Month, resident medievalist Lorna Webb looked at the life and times of the two most important women of the Wars of the Roses – who both happen to be called Margaret – Margaret of Anjou and Margaret Beaufort.

A composite image of a woman looking sidelong at text that reads "The Women of the Wars of the Roses", over a blurred image of a manuscript. The words Women's History Month are at the bottom right of the image.

The Wars of the Roses are a series of English civil wars fought mainly in 1455-1487 between the Lancastrian and Yorkist lines of the ruling house of Plantagenet. They spanned the reigns of Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III and ended when Henry Tudor killed Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth, assumed the throne as Henry VII, and married Elizabeth of York, thus uniting the Lancastrian and Yorkist claims to the throne as the House of Tudor.

But this post isn’t going to explain the causes and outcomes, the kings and main players nor the complicated nature of the Wars of the Roses (although there are some links below if you're interested), instead focussing on two women named Margaret. These Margarets arguably shaped history in a period dominated by men and their actions, and their influence, while traditionally relegated to the side-lines, cannot be underestimated.

Margaret of Anjou

Margaret of Anjou was married to Henry VI in a political marriage as part of the peace treaty between England and France in an attempt to end the Hundred Years War. During this time, she fulfilled the role of what a medieval queen would be expected to do, including participating in religious ceremonies, interceding on matters to the king, mediation and the collection of alms.

This was until Henry VI became ill and the growing resentment around his nobles reached breaking point. We cannot discuss Margaret without a side note on the inadequacies that plagued Henry VI. Henry's father, the famed Henry V, died young, leaving Henry VI to be crowned both the king of England and France at only 9 months old. He was an unsuitable king for the period, averse to warfare, timid and prone to periods of mental instability. He also had favourites at court which was a factor in the discord which led to the civil wars known as the Wars of the Roses.

Henry was left in an unresponsive psychological state following losses in the Hundred Years War, and it was during this period that Margaret gave birth to their son Edward, heir to the throne. However, Henry failed to recognise the boy as his heir, causing the ruling nobles of the realm to elect a regent (Hicks 2010). The role of Protector of The Realm was given not to Margaret, but to Richard, Duke of York. Richard incidentally was seen as the next senior male in the Plantagenet line with an arguably better claim to the throne through blood than Henry's (Grummitt 2013). This made him a threat to the established ruling line.

When Henry regained himself, he immediately removed Richard and reinstated his favourites to high positions, worsening the tensions between the nobles. These actions started the civil wars beginning with the battle of Northampton in 1460, in which Henry VI was captured. Margaret escaped and fled to Scotland, making alliances and raising an army to continue the fight. Margaret had her son and legacy to protect, and her distrust at being sidelined by Richard, Duke of York, spurred her on. Margaret’s determination paid off and when her forces met Richard’s at the Battle of Wakefield it was the Duke of York who was killed.

This did not, however, end the war. Margaret would be the last Lancastrian Queen, ultimately failing in both protecting her son and her husband’s throne. Edward, Prince of Wales would be killed at the Battle of Tewkesbury on the 4th May 1471 and Henry VI would be dead by the 21st May 1471. Later history was not kind to her, with her involvement giving her a reputation as “unqueen like” and Shakespeare dubbed her “she wolf of France” (Maurer and Cron 2019; Percec and Şerban 2022).

Margaret Beaufort

Margaret Beaufort’s influence in the Wars of the Roses, and what she achieved, cannot be understated. Her family ties were the main factor that governed her early life but she then used that to her advantage. Though not a queen herself, as the mother of a future king she was an important player in the Wars of the Roses.

Margaret’s family had a blood link and disputed claim to the English throne. The Beaufort name was bestowed on the illegitimate children of King Edward III’s third son John of Gaunt (Amin 2017). This meant that they were related to royalty but not in direct line to the throne. The Beauforts had been legitimised by Richard II and held high office in the English court.

Margaret was born just 7 years before the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses and her family ties came into play when the Beauforts sided with Lancastrians and Henry VI. At just 12 years old, very young even for the medieval period, she was married to Edmund Tudor, who was 24 at the time. Edmund Tudor was the son of Owen Tudor who had married the widow of Henry V. This could mean that any children Edmund had would have a claim to the English throne.

Edmund died less than a year later leaving a 13-year-old Margaret pregnant and a widow. She gave birth to a boy called Henry – the same Henry that would eventually assume the throne as Henry VII and end the Wars of the Roses. It has been speculated that the birth was very traumatic as she would not have any other children (Wilson 2024). During her life, Margaret advocated for longer gaps between marriage and consummating the marriage for young brides, revolutionising later medieval maternity practices within the English royal family.

Throughout the Wars of the Roses Henry was exiled in France. During this period Margaret made political alliances through further marriages, giving her access to influential players at court, especially Elizabeth Woodville (Edward IV’s wife and mother of Edward V, who had been deposed by Richard III). It was these connections that paved the way for Henry’s return to England with the army that would claim victory at the Battle of Bosworth.

After Henry was made King Henry VII, Margaret was fashioned “the king’s mother” and had great presence and influence in his court. She would outlive her son and see Henry VIII become king.

Two women who shattered expectations

What makes both of these women important in this period of history is how they wielded their limited positions of power to manipulate events in spite of the much more powerful men around them.

Margaret of Anjou was forced to act as a political figure, making the alliances and connections that her husband was unable to make, in order to protect him, their son, and their claim to the throne. This was in stark contrast to the more passive roles inhabited by the queen before her. In some accounts the way in which she fought to protect her family actually extended on to the battlefield. Her actions earned her criticism for being unqueenly.

Margaret Beaufort was initially seen as valuable because of her blood line but became a major player in her son’s journey to the throne. Though it is not known if her plan was to install Henry as King of England from the outset, it became a driving force of her life. While the politics played out around her, Margaret Beaufort used people’s expectations of how a mother should support her son while subversively manoeuvring him to be the future king. She used marriage arrangements to her advantage to stay in the English court and through this used powerful nobles to raise her son to the highest office in the land.

Though both women fill the role of mother and ‘peace weaver’, or mediator, as expected in late medieval society, they also show ambition, intelligence and a drive that women at the time were not allowed to show. Both Magarets outlived the men who fought the wars around them and their roles in the Wars of the Roses changed how the monarchy in England functioned. It was their connections and willingness to make alliances and concessions that shaped the events around them.


Amin, N. (2017). The House of Beaufort: The Bastard Line that Captured the Crown
Grummitt, D. (2013). A short history of the Wars of the Roses
Hicks, M. (2010). The Wars of the Roses
Maurer, H., and Cron, B. (2019). The Letters of Margaret of Anjou (NED-New edition)
Percec, D and Serban, A. (2022). Lions and She Wolves: Kingship, queenship and the legitimacy of power in Shakespeare’s historical plays. Philologia, 67(2), 169–189.
Wilson, R. (2024). Tudor Feminists: 10 Renaissance Women Ahead of their Time.

BBC Bitesize has a quick overview of the Wars of the Roses for those interested in finding out more!