‘She-wolf of France, but worse than wolves of France,” Shakespeare once said about Margaret of Anjou in Henry VI.
Cersei Lannister was one of the most unliked characters in Game of Thrones. I liked her a lot as a character over time, but she has always evoked very strong emotion of distaste for me in her many machinations — a testimony to the good writing of her character and the incredible acting of Lena Headey.
Headey played the hated queen so well that she became the subject of public vitriol in place of her character: some fans said “you’re such a fucking bitch” and “can you slap your son for me?”
While it is frightening some people cannot separate a fictional show from real life, the ability to evoke that much negative emotion in viewers is unique, even within the Game of Thrones world where there are many distasteful characters.
But what few know is Cersei Lannister was inspired by a real queen in history — Margaret of Anjou. Margaret of Anjou was, according to TIME Magazine, also was married off at a very young age.
At the beginning of the show, Cersei Lannister seems to be auxiliary in terms of power. While she maintains a very prominent role in the show and seems to be someone to be very careful around, she only gains power through a series of machinations and political maneuvers.
Who was Margaret of Anjou?
According to Charlotte Ahlin at Bustle, Margaret of Anjou was someone people loved to hate, and the mythology behind Margaret certainly inspired Cersei. Much of the Game of Thrones plotline, particularly the central War of the Five Kings, was inspired by the War of the Roses in England, which included a major conflict between the Lancasters and the Yorks over rule of England.
The Lancasters inspired the Lannisters, and the Yorks inspired the Starks. Margaret of Anjou was a Lancaster, or at least she married into the family. Margaret was betrothed at a very young age to King Henry VI, who was given the throne upon being an infant. Margaret herself was from France, and she was the niece to the Queen of France, and it was an unusual marriage — there was no dowry, only land given from the English to the French.
At 15 years old, Margaret of Anjou became the queen consort. Her husband did not rule well and became very unpopular as his mental health deteriorated over the course of his reign.
Marta Cobb, a teaching fellow at the University of Leeds, suggests a large reason for Margaret of Anjou’s tainted legacy is disdain towards ambitious and powerful women. Margaret of Anjou took power in England during the mental illness of her husband that left him unable to rule — throughout her unofficial reign, she was plagued by rumors of adultery and her son being the product of an affair.
According to Emma Irving at History Hit, Margaret of Anjou ruled England for 18 months as her husband became unable to reign and essentially paralyzed. Today, historians believe he suffered from catatonic schizophrenia. During her rise to power, she feuded with Richard, Duke of York, who is thought to have inspired Ned Stark in Game of Thrones.
It was common for women in France to take power when their husbands were unable to rule, but not in England. In 1453, there simply was no precedent for female leaders in the country. While queens would be famous later on in the country’s history, the first queen of England was Mary Tudor (Bloody Mary) in 1553.
Simply put, Margaret of Anjou’s reputation among her enemies as a ruthless, evil, conniving leader had sexist connotations of a woman who broke societal conventions. To her enemies, she didn’t know her place. But at the end of the day, she did her duty and did it well — defending her husband and her son.
The War of the Roses
Asheley Grove at the Department of Women’s History at King’s College writes Richard was a long-time rival of Henry VI. Soon, Henry VI recovered, and went to war against Richard, starting the War of the Roses. Richard was at war in Ireland and France before returning to England, and two of his children, Edward IV and the famous Richard III, would later on become kings.
During the War of the Roses, Margaret was incredibly intelligent and politically savvy. She was popular with her soldiers, but obviously, she was not popular among those who supported Richard and the Yorkists in general.
Rumors of the illegitimacy of her son, Edward, Prince of Wales, started to spread, fueled by the Yorkists. Eventually, the Yorkists captured Henry VI and named Richard of York the Protector of England. The Act of Accord listed Richard and his sons as the successors to the throne, not Margaret’s son. Margaret went to war against Richard of York, defending her son’s claim to the throne against the Yorkists.
In 1460, in the Battle of Wakefield, one of the most famous battles in the War of the Roses, Margaret of Anjou and the Lancastrians defeated Richard and the Yorkists. The Lancastrians heavily outnumbered the Yorkists. In the battle, Richard died, and Margaret recovered her husband.
In a devastating defeat for the Yorkists, Richard’s son also died. He begged for his life before he was killed, but the Lancastrians ignored his begging. Many prominent Yorkists were killed, including the Earl of Salisbury, and Margaret insisted on sending a message. She had the heads of Richard, his son, and the Earl of Salisbury impaled and displayed on a gate outside the city of York.
Displaying the impaled heads of three of the most prominent Yorkists is the closest Margaret of Anjou came to resembling Cersei Lannister. Tristan Hughes at History Hit says the Lancastrians put a paper crown on Richard, as well as a sign that said: “let York overlook the town of York.”
Naturally, the message was sent, and the three prominent deaths of Yorkists meant the Yorkists wanted revenge. Edward, another son of Richard, defeated the Lancastrians in a decisive battle on February 2, 1461, overthrowing Lancastrian power and putting Edward in power as the king.
She allied with Richard Neville, a Yorkist who had fallen out of favor with King Edward and plotted to overthrow King Edward and restore her husband in 1470. The plan did not work out well — both Warwick and Margaret’s son Edward died fighting against the Yorkists. Henry VI would be imprisoned in the Tower of London and killed to eliminate any threats to the Yorkists (he wasn’t killed earlier because Edward of Wales was seen as the immediate threat to the throne.
Margaret of Anjou was a prisoner until 1475 when Louis XI of France ransomed her. She died in obscurity in 1482 in France.
Margaret of Anjou is remembered differently based on who told her story. But Cersei Lannister is the worst possible version of Margaret as if the Yorkists told her story.
She is mentioned in Henry VI and Richard III and portrayed as “worse than a [wolf].”
It’s not the most fair description.
Originally published on Frame of Reference on October 14, 2021