Royal women of influence

Painting of the tapestry at St Mary’s Hall by George Scharf, 1855. Queen Margaret is in the bottom right panel. ‘Justicia’ has been blanked out, which is a post-medieval amendment. Credit: With kind permission of The Society of Antiquaries of London, photograph by Ken Walton

Queen Isabella of France and Queen Margaret of Anjou and their connection with medieval Coventry

The marriage of Edward II and Isabella, from Jean de Wavrin, Recuil des chroniques d’Engleterre, Vol. I (detail). Issued under Creative Commons License. Credit: © The British Library Board, Royal 15 E IV f. 295v

Queen Isabella of France (1295–1358)

When Edward III took control of the Crown in 1330, Isabella, his mother, was not sent off to Norfolk to a quiet retirement, as was traditionally thought. Instead, there is evidence that she took an active role in supporting her son and indeed was at court for a great tournament at Windsor to celebrate the great victory of the Black Prince at Poitiers shortly before she died in 1358.

Isabella took an active interest in the estates she was given in 1330, including Cheylesmore manor. Although there is no evidence she actually visited Coventry, there is no doubt that she at least managed affairs from afar through leading burgesses. Her main servant was William Walshman (or Welshman), who was associated with the establishment of the Great Drapery, or cloth market which extended from Bayley Lane to Earl Street, where St Mary’s Street is now.

The Drapery grew to have up to 35 shops or stalls by the end of the 15th century.  Archaeological excavations behind the later Drapers Hall in 1988–9 found the remains of deep pits and a high class 14th-century building associated with the Drapery. A large number of stone moulds for creating dress accessories like brooches and buckles was also found, together with a number of seals for enclosing Coventry cloth, after they were inspected for quality.

Another key character of the period was Sir John Pultney (c. 1290–1349), who established Coventry Whitefriars in 1342. He was born nearby and became the wealthiest London merchant of the 14th century, where he was mayor four times and became a close friend of the king.

The 1345 Charter of Incorporation awarded to Coventry by Edward III, on the intervention of Isabella, gave the burgesses the right to elect their own mayor each year. It also gave them a number of freedoms from Crown intervention in Coventry’s affairs. This was confirmed ten years later with the Tripartite Indenture, which completed the burgesses bid for ascendancy in the city over the Prior. One of the first initiatives by Coventry in this new period of independence was the building of a wall around the city, starting at New Gate, Much Park Street, in 1355.

Edward Woodstock, the Black Prince (1330–1376), inherited Isabella’s Coventry estates, as Prince of Wales, in 1358 and spent a good deal of time there. It is perhaps from this time that Coventry became known as ‘camera principis’ or ‘princes chamber’.

Portrait of Margaret of Anjou, gilt and bronze medal, made by Piero de Milano during Margaret’s exile, c. 1463. Credit: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Queen Margaret of Anjou (1430–1482)

Much of what we know about Margaret and Henry VI in the 1450s comes from the Coventry Leet Book. Margaret and Henry visited Coventry in September 1451 and took part in a procession through the city culminating in a Catholic Mass at St Michael’s church. The choir of Bablake college probably sang the Missa Caput, a fragment of which survives in the Coventry archives. The church had recently been enlarged and embellished and this may have been an occasion to mark the new, impressive building.

The pageant welcoming Margaret in 1456 is seen as a significant episode in Margaret’s taking up the reins of power in her Midlands strongholds at a time of unrest, and with her husband now unwell. But there are also signs of unease. The Leet Book tells us that in March 1457, Margaret expected to be escorted out of the city in the manner of the reigning monarch, which apparently raised a few eyebrows.

There is no physical evidence surviving in the city of Margaret’s presence, although she would have recognised many of the buildings and art we see today, such as the Apocalypse painting from the painted Chapter House, and the magnificent tower and spire of St Michael’s. There is one tantalising connection with Coventry in the form of her father’s prayer book, the Book of Hours of Rene of Anjou. It was given to Henry VII by the Archdeacon of Coventry and now rests in the British Library. Was this prayer book used by Margaret in Coventry?