Vulpes Libris

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Christine Weightman: Margaret of York: The Diabolical Duchess

ImageMargaret of York was the youngest surviving daughter of Richard, Duke of York, and thus sister to both Edward IV and Richard III. After a turbulent childhood, living in Edward’s court as a young woman, she was valuable marriageable property; after different proposals, complicated marriage negotiations and one Portuguese betrothal, she was finally married to Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, in 1468, at the age of twenty-two. This book begins with a long chapter dedicated to a lavish description of the whole process, from the negotiations to Margaret’s journey to Burgundy and the marriage celebrations themselves. Weightman makes great use of the available sources and brings the dizzying spectacle before the reader’s very eyes: close your eyes and you can see all the sumptuous velvet, gold, jewelry, pageantry, pomp and circumstance – including, rather puzzlingly, ‘a forty-one foot tower inhabited by monkeys, wolves and bears which danced’. (‘Huizinga loftily condemned these entertainments as “incredibly bad taste”,’ writes Weightman. I believe Johan Huizinga’s picture will be found illustrating the dictionary definition of ‘spoilsport’.)

The first word that springs to mind as a description of this biography is ‘opulent’, and this is surely because of the loving descriptions of places and riches: the duchy of Burgundy in particular, which was quite possibly the wealthiest in Europe. It is interesting how England in the late 15th century still seems more ‘late Mediaeval’ whereas Burgundy already comes across as more firmly ‘Renaissance’.

As the Duchess of Burgundy, Margaret’s primary duty was to produce a male heir. In this, she was to fail – indeed she had no biological children at all – but throughout her career she was an asset to her adopted country in many other ways. She was a clever woman with considerable political and diplomatic skill, a bibliophile and patroness of the arts, and a capable administrator with authority in her own right, especially as the Dowager Duchess after her husband’s death. Charles the Bold was an impetuous and despotic man; not too bad as far as despots go, but a despot nonetheless. Margaret’s infertility must have been a disappointment to him, but the two seem to have got along well enough. Then again, considering that of the seven years of their married life they only spent one year in total together, this probably wasn’t all that difficult.

Indeed, Margaret’s most important relationship was with her stepdaughter Mary, from her husband’s first marriage. Charles’s death in 1477 left Mary the Duchess of Burgundy, and Margaret was not only invaluable as an advisor and moral support, but also as a mother to this young girl. It’s quite heart-warming to think that even in such a highly political, cut-throat environment such lasting bonds could be forged. Margaret’s was largely responsible for Mary’s marriage to Archduke Maximilian of Austria, and Mary’s early death in 1482 (an ardent animal lover, she tragically fell to her death from a horse) left them both heartbroken. Margaret would then prove to be an invaluable help to Maximilian and her stepgrandchildren as well, one of whom was called Margaret and would later take after her stepgrandmother in many ways – proving that sometimes affinity is actually thicker than blood.

One of the episodes in Margaret’s life for which she is best known is her involvement in the Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck conspiracies to replace Henry VII. Margaret certainly had reason to hate Henry, who had defeated her last surviving brother Richard III, and later Tudor sources painted her as a ‘diabolical duchess’ who was simply driven by malice in her futile attempts at deposing Henry. (Why are political women always driven by ‘malice’, I wonder?) The most hilarious description of her must be Edward Hall’s: ‘lyke a dogge reverting to her old vomyte’. But Margaret of York was different from Margaret of Anjou; less stubborn and single-minded, perhaps, she never went against the interests of Burgundy in her support of these pretenders to the throne – or in anything. Indeed, she never remarried, remained in Burgundy even when the political situation was dangerous, and was as steadfastly loyal to the Burgundian people as they were to her. Malicious rumours about her didn’t affect the respect she commanded.

The funny thing is that this biography is far more detailed and personal than Maurer’s Margaret of Anjou, but Margaret of York still remains a more shadowy figure. And it makes me wonder: is this because of the personality of Margaret of York herself, of whom it was said that she ‘seldom smiled and was rather reserved’? Or is this because Shakespeare’s fierce Margaret of Anjou can’t help but loom in the background, even when you know that Shakespeare’s rendition is not the truth about her? Did I simply expect to find Margaret a ferocious woman with a strong personality and thus grab at every little piece of evidence that seemed to confirm this view? I had no such strong preconceptions about Margaret of York, after all.

Another funny thing can be found on the level of detail – regarding Margaret of Anjou herself. Don’t get me wrong: Weightman’s Margaret of York is a splendid biography with impeccable research. But even such biographies have their small biases, blind spots and lapses in detail, and it’s always startling when you notice them in an otherwise neutral-seeming work. Reading this book right after Maurer’s Margaret of Anjou, I was intrigued to spot this one little detail about this Margaret’s father, Richard, Duke of York: ‘Yet on his return to England, he found himself disregarded by the men who had gathered round King Henry VI’s new Queen, Margaret of Anjou.’ This was in October 1455. The 15-year-old Margaret of Anjou had been Queen for a few months. Are we really to suppose she was already responsible for the partisan politics of the time?

One short sentence (and the point that Weightman seems to take at face value the legend that George, Duke of Clarence was drowned in a butt of malmsey-wine) certainly doesn’t devalue an otherwise excellent biography, but it’s a good reminder how much of the biographical devil – with all its inherent biases – is in these small details. Sometimes it only takes one sentence to establish a character for good.

If I was amazed at Margaret of Anjou being packed with information for such a short book, then Margaret of York: The Diabolical Duchess is a veritable miracle in this regard. Partly, however, this is explained by the typeface. Speaking as someone who actually prefers small fonts and regularly prints out manuscripts in 9 pt. fonts, I found this text so incredibly tiny it was tiring to read for more than a few pages at a time. For someone long-sighted, this edition would probably be impossible to read without some kind of a magnifying glass.

I hope the other editions are easier to read because this is a great read for anyone interested in the time period – and a fascinating portrait of a fascinating woman.

Amberley, paperback, 2012. 250 pp. ISBN: 9781445608198

4 comments on “Christine Weightman: Margaret of York: The Diabolical Duchess

  1. Jackie
    March 24, 2013

    It does sound like an interesting biography, as well as a good portrait of the country and times. I always suspected that the Renaissance reached some areas before others, so that is nice to have confirmed. This Margaret sounds like she was a person of redeeming qualities, despite her uncomplimentary reputation. Surely she couldn’t have been all bad if the populace loved her?
    That tiny font in worrying, though. I wonder if there is an ebook version available so that the font size can be increased?
    And the cover is artfully done, I know that’s a rearrangement of Middle Ages art & it looks quite elegant.

  2. Ed
    March 26, 2013

    That sounds quite interesting. With regard to personality here is a quote from Jacok Burckhardt’s “The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy”.

    “Till the time of the Reformation, the personality of women out of Italy, even of the highest rank, comes forward but little. Exceptions like Isabella of Bavaria, Margaret of Anjou, and Isabella of Castile, are the forced result of very unusual circumstances. In Italy, throughout the whole of the fifteenth century, the wives of the rulers, and still more those of the Condottieri, have nearly all a distinct, recognizable personality, and take their share of notoriety and glory.”

    So if Margaret of York remains shadowy it is probably more to do with how history was written at this time at least outside Italy.

  3. Kerry
    April 3, 2013

    I just read this while on holiday in Bruges. Like you, I was a little surprised at some of the unexamined myths, but it was a wonderful reading experience – chatty, warm and detailed. I didn’t know much about Margaret until I picked it up, but I was really impressed by the strong characterisation of her and her family members. I don’t often re-read non-fiction books for pleasure, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be coming back to this one.

    Jackie – I read it on my Kindle, so there’s definitely an ebook version!

  4. Pingback: explication aux amis de puissance et du destin de la Republique de la Hollande | Clemens M. M. Buur - wordpress

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This entry was posted on March 23, 2013 by in A Week Called Margaret, Entries by Leena, Non-fiction: biography, Non-fiction: history.



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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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