Our guest this month, Morgan Ring, on the extraordinary life of Lady Margaret Douglas and her crucial role in the Tudor succession.
In July 1536, Henry VIII found himself — for the first time in twenty years — with neither a legitimate child nor a pregnant wife. In the absence of a boy born in wedlock, it was not at all clear who was next in line: the king’s son Henry Fitzroy, illegitimate and dying? his daughters, both legitimate at birth but now legally bastards? the heirs of his elder sister, Margaret? his younger sister, Mary? or even surviving members of his mother’s family, children of the house of York?
The heirs of Margaret Tudor came in for special attention that unsettled summer. She had one surviving child from each of her first two marriages: James V of Scotland and Lady Margaret Douglas. James was the elder, male, and royal — but born abroad. Margaret was younger, female, and of debatable legitimacy — but she had been born in England and now lived at her uncle Henry’s court. (And between secret marriages, excommunications, and constant changes in religion, it was an uncreative courtier who could not find grounds to charge a rival with bastardy.)
When Henry learned that Lady Margaret was secretly engaged to a minor nobleman named Thomas Howard, his reaction was volcanic: Howard was attainted of high treason and sentenced to death. Howard, by daring to marry a woman of ‘so high a blood’, was accused of plotting to seize the crown if Henry died childless, ‘having a firm hope and trust that the subjects of this Realm would incline and bear affection to the said Lady Margaret, being born in this Realm, and not to the King of Scots her brother’. Neither Howard nor Margaret were would-be monarchs: they were young people obsessed with the possibilities of poetry and the ideals of courtly love. Yet he spent the next fifteen months in the Tower, writing bad verse before dying of a fever, while she was sent to the nuns of Syon Abbey and only brought back to court once Henry had a legitimate son and Howard was dead.
The story of the Tudors is so familiar that it has an air of inevitability — an air the Tudors calculated. While the births of heirs and the deaths of kings could not be controlled, the list of monarchs follows the logic of male primogeniture: first the dynastic founder, Henry VII, then his son, Henry VIII, then his three children, then the heirs of his eldest sister. From the 1485 Act of Parliament proclaiming Henry VII’s title to the throne to the heraldic banners borne at Elizabeth’s funeral a hundred and eighteen years later, these kings and queens told a story of divine grace and dynastic continuity.
But throughout the Tudor age, that continuity was in constant doubt. Conventions decreed who ought to succeed a king, but when there was no adult male heir, people from all ranks of the social order envisaged alternatives to this line of succession. In Howard’s fate, we can see not just how many succession scenarios were considered but how seriously they were taken. Lady Margaret Douglas lived a theatrical life of last-minute escapes, illicit romances, and cross-border intrigue, but what is perhaps most fascinating is the new perspective her story offers on the Tudor succession.
The young woman imprisoned for an ill-advised secret engagement did not remain a victim of events. She recovered her uncle’s favour and embraced his politics. When James V died and left a daughter to succeed him, Henry plotted to marry his own son and heir Prince Edward to the infant Mary, Queen of Scots and unite to the crowns of England and Scotland under one Protestant monarchy. Margaret played her part in the scheme, agreeing to marry Matthew Stewart, fourth earl of Lennox, Henry’s highest-ranking ally among the Scottish nobility. Later, her friendship with Henry’s daughter Mary I and her devotion to Catholicism meant that the queen briefly had hopes of making her cousin Margaret her successor. But Margaret made her most strenuous efforts during the reign of the Protestant Elizabeth rather than the Catholic Mary, and these were not on her own behalf, but on those of her niece, Mary, Queen of Scots and her eldest son, Henry, Lord Darnley.
Henry had failed to match his son with the Queen of Scots and she had instead married the French Dauphin, becoming Queen of France when he succeeded his father. The sudden death of the young Francis II on 5 December 1560 left Mary a widow. To Margaret, it meant a chance to achieve what Henry VIII had so wanted: union of the English and Scottish crowns through dynastic marriage. This time, however, Darnley, not Edward, would be the bridegroom and the settlement would not be Protestant, but Catholic.
Margaret seized her moment. Her messengers, carrying letters in her own hand as well as those of Lennox and Darnley, were ready to greet Mary as soon as she emerged from her forty days of secluded mourning. The reports started coming back to England almost immediately: the Spanish ambassador de Quadra wrote that she was ‘trying to marry her son Lord Darnley to the queen of Scotland, and I understand she is not without hope of succeeding’. Knowing that it was not enough to convince the queen herself, Margaret sent out spies and messengers to fellow Catholic nobles in northern England, to potential allies — both Catholic and Protestant — among the Scottish aristocracy, and to the courts of Catholic Europe.
To William Cecil, Elizabeth’s secretary and chief advisor, the goal of all this politicking was clear: to see Mary and Darnley rule as Catholic monarchs of England and Scotland alike. One by one, he summoned Margaret’s servants to London and cross-examined them relentlessly, eventually getting the evidence he needed to have Lennox imprisoned and Margaret confined.
Just when it seemed that the Lennox-Stewarts would remain locked up until the Scottish queen was safely remarried, Elizabeth faced succession anxiety from another corner. Stories circulated that Lady Jane Grey’s family was angling to have Jane’s younger sister, Catherine, named Elizabeth’s successor. Determined to leave the matter of an heir unsettled, the queen dampened Grey hopes by freeing the Lennox-Stewarts. Darnley was in favour, and there were new rumours about his prospects —Elizabeth might name him her heir in his own right. Margaret, Elizabeth, and Cecil, so at odds the year before, appeared perfectly reconciled. The women even stood as joint godmothers to Cecil’s daughter Elizabeth.
But the truce was only temporary. Back at court, Margaret built new ties with Spain and Scotland, sending advice and gifts to Mary and her advisors. Mary later wrote that the countess had drawn her attention to Darnley’s religious as well as dynastic suitability: ‘Lady Lennox…solicited me by letters and tokens to accept her son, of the royal blood of England [and] of Scotland, and the nearest in the succession after me…of the same religion as I am.’
Darnley got permission to go to Scotland early in 1565, but when Elizabeth reneged on a promise to name Mary her heir, Margaret again seized her chance. She gave up her claim to her father’s earldom in return for her Scottish relatives’ support for the Darnley match. There was panic in the English court as the folly of Darnley’s release became clear: ‘…by this marriage with the Lord Darnley there was a plain intention to further the pretended title of the Queen of Scots not only to succeed the Queen’s Majesty…but to occupy the Queen’s estate…that hereby the Romish religion should be erected and increased daily in this Realm’.
Elizabeth and her advisors could only watch. Margaret had won: Mary married Darnley, uniting Margaret Tudor’s heirs into one family, with control of the throne of Scotland and a powerful claim to the English crown. The triumph cost her. Elizabeth threw her into the Tower, where for two years she remained – ill, destitute, and often hungry. Protests from Scotland and the Catholic European powers were of no avail. Worse, Darnley quickly proved himself an arrogant, abusive young man, incapable of sustaining a real marriage. He died in bizarre circumstances at Kirk O’Field, leaving Margaret broken-hearted and despairing.
But she never lost sight of her hope that her family would unite the English and Scottish crowns and restore the Catholic faith in the British kingdoms, for Darnley and Mary had had a son. While King James VI of Scotland was still a boy, Margaret commissioned a locket setting out her ambitions for him. The white enamel border of the face bears the motto Qvha Hopis Stil Constantly Vith Patience Sal Obteain Victorie in Yair Pretence: Scots for ‘Who hopes still constantly with patience shall obtain victory in their claim’. For the King of Scots, the claim in question could only be the English crown.
There is a moment in Shakespeare’s Richard II when the Duke of York asks Richard ‘how art thou a king/But by fair sequence and succession?’ It’s a rhetorical question, as though the answer is too self-evident for discussion. But as Shakespeare’s audience would have known, few matters in sixteenth-century politics could provoke so much uncertainty as that seemingly obvious ‘fair sequence and succession’. Who could have predicted that Edward and Mary would both die childless after brief reigns, that Elizabeth would rule unmarried for forty-five years, and that the crowns of England and Scotland would then unite under the Stewarts? Each accession was a controversy, and Margaret was never far from the centre.
Morgan Ring was born and raised in Toronto. She read History at Cambridge, where she is now completing her PhD. She held the Francis J. Weber Fellowship at the Huntington Library and holds the Gonville Studentship at Gonville and Caius College. So High a Blood is her first book.
- Portrait of a Lady, thought to be Margaret Douglas.
- Family tree reproduced from So High a Blood with permission from Bloomsbury