Margaret of York has become known mostly for her later years. There is, unfortunately, not much information known about her childhood. This is as likely to do with the fact that the War of the Roses (or Cousins War) began during her childhood as it is that girls’ lives were just not recorded as much as boys.
When Margaret was born in 1446 as the sixth (of twelve) children, the conflict had not yet begun. King Henry VI had ruled since he was an infant (rarely a good start) and seemed to have inherited madness from his French grandfather, Charles VI. Margaret was raised away from court in the care of her mother, Cecily Neville, along with her younger siblings. Though we can’t say for sure, it can be strongly argued that she had a marvelous education. Her mother, Cecily, was known to have “followed a ‘dedicated regime of literate and ascetic piety’” and likely would have made sure all of her children were well educated. Also, Margaret’s life as the Regent of Burgundy shows that she was certainly educated enough to run a duchy in her husband’s absence. She was also a well-known patron of books and writers when she was Duchess of Burgundy.
When Margaret was nine years old, the War of the Roses officially began and her father, Richard, emerged as Protector of the Realm. This was not anywhere near the end of the struggle, however, as Queen Margaret of Anjou fought against Richard to keep her husband on the throne (and to keep her son as heir) and out of Richard’s influence. After losing the protectorate, Richard decided to simply press his claim as king, which was arguably stronger than that of Henry VI. The wars lasted until 1485, long after Margaret’s eventual marriage, but it consumed the majority of her life. Her father was killed at the Battle of Wakefield in 1460, when Margaret was 14 years old. Her eldest brother, Edward, inherited his claim to the throne as well as the duchy and continued the battle. Finally, Edward emerged as the first Yorkist king in March 1461, a mere three months after their father’s death.
As the sister of the king, Margaret became a Princess of England and a valuable marriage pawn to her brother. She received quite a few offers, with James III of Scotland and Don Pedro of Portugal being two major contenders. Edward finally settled on Charles ‘the Bold’ of Burgundy, betrothing Margaret to him when she was 19 years old (still a bit young for today, but considered rather old for a bride in this time). Not only was she considered a pawn (standard for princesses, unfortunately), but her betrothal caused a major rift between Edward and his largest supporter, their cousin Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick (also known as ‘the Kingmaker’). The rift began with Edward’s own marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, rather than a French princess that Warwick had been negotiating for. By Edward picking Burgundy, the enemy of France, over another French match that Warwick had suggested, their friendship/alliance broke irrevocably.
Warwick was not the only person unhappy with the Anglo-Burgundian alliance, however. Louis XI of France was mortified that his two enemies allied together against him. To prevent the marriage, Louis used underhanded tactics. Picture an old cartoon villain, rubbing his hands together and cackling maniacally: that’s basically how Louis behaved. First, he tried offering his daughters to Charles and Richard of Gloucester (Margaret’s brother). When that didn’t work, he tried to get the Pope to refuse a dispensation for the marriage (both Charles and Margaret’s mothers were granddaughters of John of Gaunt), spread rumors about Margaret to make her less desirable, and attempted to offer England trade deals and mess with their credit. He was ignored, much like a cartoon villain, and the wedding went off without a hitch.
Despite the fact that Charles was 13 years her senior and had been married twice already, with a daughter from wife number two, the marriage worked out well for Margaret. She was well liked in Burgundy and respected by Charles, receiving all due deference as his duchess and was made regent during his absences in war. His mother, Dowager Duchess Isabella, took to her instantly: the two became the best of friends. Isabella was a great lady and highly respected in her own right. She had been regent for her husband as well during his absences, so likely shared her experiences with Margaret. Margaret’s step-daughter, Mary of Burgundy, also greatly admired and loved Margaret. Though she and Charles had no children, Margaret treated Mary as her own daughter. Margaret could almost be described as a “woman’s woman”. She worked with her mother-in-law and stepdaughter for the betterment of Burgundy. She also worked with her mother to reconcile her two brothers, Edward and George. She was such an influence that Mary named her own daughter, Margaret, after her. Isabella even bequeathed Margaret her own favorite palace in her will.
Charles died in battle in 1477 (in an attempt to make himself a king), leaving his daughter, Mary, as the Duchess of Burgundy. Fortunately, she was already 20 years old so did not need a regent, but she relied heavily on her step-mother’s advice. It was Margaret who suggested Mary wed the Austrian archduke, Maximilian, even over the proposal of her own brother, George, Duke of Clarence. Margaret was not only an astute politician, but a wonderful matchmaker as well: her suggestion turned out to be a love match as Mary and Maximillian were devoted to each other. Margaret was named as godmother to both of their children, Philip (later nicknamed ‘the Handsome’) and Margaret of Austria. It is said that Louis tried spreading rumors again at the time of Philip’s birth, this time that the child was actually a girl. At the baptism, Margaret undressed the baby and showed him to all the gathered people to prove he was a boy. When she was only 25, however, Mary died in a hunting accident, falling from her horse while heavily pregnant.
Margaret and Maximilian were devastated, but there was still a country with a minor duke to run. Since the Burgundians did not trust the foreign Maximillian, Philip was raised by Margaret, who worked with Maximilian to run Burgundy during Philip’s minority. After being briefly sent to the French court as a possible bride for the dauphin, young Margaret of Austria was sent back to Burgundy to live with her step-grandmother also. Margaret did become what we would think of today as a ‘sassy old lady’. While she was busy in Burgundy, the War of the Roses eventually ended after her brother Richard III was defeated by Henry VII, who then married her niece, Elizabeth of York. Despite this marriage connection, Margaret was still opposed to him and supported any pretender to the throne that came her way. She financed both Perkin Warbeck (who claimed to be her nephew, Richard, Duke of York) and Lambert Simnel (who claimed to be another nephew, Edward, Earl of Warwick). Because she was respected and protected, Henry VII could do nothing but fight the pretenders as they came. She was the epitome of a cantankerous in-law. After all the work she had done and tragedies she had endured, I don’t think anyone could begrudge her a little fun.
All told, Margaret supported three generations of Burgundian rulers and lived long enough to see many of Philip’s children born (she died only a few years before he did). While most of her fame happened during her adulthood, she was able to teach other generations of girls well. Margaret of Austria became governor of the Netherlands in her own (young) widowhood, for her nephew Charles, and owed her successful rule to her education at Margaret of York’s hands. Margaret of York was “A capable ruler, she proved a masterful Duchess; she was a Yorkist in sympathies, but she was before that the Duchess of Burgundy.”