Meet Margaret Douglas, niece of King Henry VIII - the daughter of his elder sister, Margaret, Queen of Scots, and her second Scottish husband. Hhistorian Morgan Ring's new biography of Margaret, So High a Blood, is devoted to restoring this fascinating woman's historical legacy.
Half-sister to King James V of Scotland, Lady Margaret Douglas was both English and Scottish; husband was the Scottish Earl of Lennox). Veery close with her cousin, "Bloody Mary," although not such a big fan of her cousin Elizabeth, Margaret also got in trouble with her uncle for a few love affairs with English nobles. But she is best-known as the mother of Henry, Lord Darnley (who married Margaret's own niece, Mary, Queen of Scots, and fathered King James I of England/VI of Scotland). As a result, Margaret Douglas been the ancestor of all British monarchs for more than 400 years.
So High a Blood is available this spring from Bloomsbury.
Q: Margaret was neither fully English nor Scottish, neither fully royal nor a commoner. How do you think her nonconforming status may have affected the person she became and the way she acted? How did Margaret see herself?
A: "Liminal" is the very word — Margaret was born on the Anglo-Scottish border and in a sense she never really left it. It meant she had a British frame of reference: she was always aware of how events in England might affect those in Scotland and vice versa. In terms of status, she was guilty at times both of under- and over-estimating her own importance, getting engaged without her uncle’s permission on the one hand and questioning Elizabeth’s legitimacy on the other.
Usually, though, she saw herself as Countess of Lennox and as Countess of Angus in her own right. Nationality-wise, there were moments when her loyalties grew confused: she and Lennox wrote a letter shortly before he became Regent of Scotland in which they described James VI as their sovereign while also calling themselves Elizabeth’s ‘faithful subjects’. But her husband and her eldest son both died in Scotland, so she had no love for the country, and England was her home.
Q: What inspired you to write about Margaret? Why do you think she has often been overlooked in historical accounts of the Tudors?
A: I had a conversation about Margaret with [historian] John Guy at the end of my second year of university, and he mentioned that she was a watch collector. I’d been casting about for a dissertation topic, hoping to write something biographical, and that decided me: how could I resist a woman who collected clocks? As I read my way into the sources, I grew convinced not only that had Margaret had a more significant role in Tudor politics than I had initially thought, but also that her life offered a new way into some major debates about religion, the succession, and the relationship between England and Scotland. As to why she has been overlooked, I think that’s partly because the sources are so scattered about and partly because she does not sit comfortably within the histories of either England or Scotland. Recent years have seen a surge of interest in how the British kingdoms interacted with each other and therefore in individuals who crossed the borders.
Q: Margaret’s mother was an impulsive person (much like her brother, Henry VIII) who complicated her own life and her daughter’s, perhaps unnecessarily. How did Margaret Jr. learn from her mother, or, in some cases, not learn from the Queen’s example? What made her politically flexible?
A: Margaret Tudor and Margaret Douglas did not have much of a mother-daughter relationship, but their political styles had quite a lot in common. They were both willing to make massive shifts in allegiance in pursuit of family ambition, to the bafflement of outside observers. Margaret Tudor briefly made common cause with her old enemy the Duke of Albany because she saw him as the key to getting a real role in her son’s government. Over the course of Elizabeth’s reign, Margaret was at times allied with everybody from Philip II of Spain to William Cecil in her efforts to advance both her sons and then her grandchildren. Tactics changed; goals remained constant.
Margaret Tudor, Queen of Scots. Image via The Royal Collection/Wikimedia Commons.
Q: What was so troubling to Henry VIII about his niece’s various engagements/trysts before her marriage? Was it the fact that the men in question were Howards, members of a powerful clan that made inroads to the royal bloodline before (Anne Boleyn) and after (Catherine Howard)?
Q: The fact that the men were Howards, and minor Howards at that, made the relationships doubly inappropriate. They came from a powerful house but were not in line for the familial dukedom. Moreover, Henry VIII — as we can see from his reaction to his sisters’ remarriages — was never happy when the women in his family made romantic decisions without his say-so. This was partly practical: unmarried women were valuable in diplomacy. It was also about early modern ideas of female honour, which were bound up with sexual propriety: there were several references to Margaret’s having disgraced herself or "used herself lightly."
Above all, in 1536, it was about the succession: with all of Henry’s children illegitimate or dying or both, his elder sister’s children appeared very near the English throne, and their marriages were matters of enormous consequence. In the conspiracy theory vein, Francis Bigod alleged that there was a rumour that Thomas Cromwell wanted to marry Margaret and was thus responsible for the harsh punishment dealt out to Thomas Howard, but there is no evidence of that!
Q: How did Margaret’s religious leanings change over time, both politically and personally? What do we know of her private dogma, if anything?
A: During Henry’s reign, the evidence and the silences suggest that Margaret was conventionally pious but willing to follow the king’s direction. When she married Lennox, she signed up to a Protestant British project. Under Edward VI, however, the religious changes became more focused and more dramatic, and many people found that their consciences compelled them to take sides.
By Mary’s reign, Margaret was seen as a Catholic, and both her friends and her enemies described her that way from then on. In terms of what her Catholicism meant and the form it took, we do not know her views on papal authority or on the Counter-Reformation, but there were repeated hints that she was loyal to the Mass and continued to use the devotional objects and images of traditional religion. It is worth remembering, though, that she had Protestant friends throughout her life: confessional differences did not necessarily mean an end to other social or political bonds.
Q: Tell me a bit about Margaret’s relationship with Darnley. What made her so infatuated with her eldest son)? Is there evidence she was aware of his flaws, or did she overlook them?
A: During Darnley’s failed marriage, it was often mentioned that he respected Margaret more than he did Lennox, but this is (unfortunately!) one of the questions on which the sources are quiet — and while we know quite a lot about Darnley’s accomplishments before his journey into Scotland, we know almost nothing about his character. We have to be careful not to read the ending of the story into the beginning.
Henry, Lord Darnley. Image via The National Gallery/Wikimedia Commons.
Darnley turned out to be a disaster of a human being, but that does not necessarily mean that every gift he received as a boy was evidence that he was spoiled — noble families gave their children gifts. At the same time, it is understandable that Margaret and Lennox doted on their eldest son, both because they lost so many children and because they had such wretched childhoods themselves — and the more their own political ambitions were frustrated, the more ambitious they became for him.
Q: How did Margaret’s relationship with Queen Mary I differ from her relationship with Elizabeth? What drove Margaret to take certain risks during the latter’s reign that she didn’t in the former’s?
A: Margaret was loyal to Mary in a way that she was not to Elizabeth. This was partly personal: she and Mary were the same age, they had a shared history going back to the Margaret’s first arrival at court, and they were both Catholics. Elizabeth and Margaret were technically of the same generation, but Margaret was nearly twenty years older — Lord Thomas Howard was Elizabeth’s great-uncle — and was married by the time Elizabeth was a teenager, and their religious beliefs went in very different directions. It was also a question of circumstances: during Mary’s reign, waiting — whether for the queen to alter the succession or to help the Lennox-Stewarts to their lands in Scotland — seemed the best course, but during Elizabeth’s reign, the sudden widowing of the queen of Scots gave Margaret a moment to act.
Q: How much of Mary, Queen of Scots’s, ambition to rule both kingdoms was fueled by her aunt Margaret, if it’s possible to know? Was Margaret's ambition that fueled by her own mother’s mistreatment by the Scots and the Douglases' disagreements with the Stewarts, to any degree?
A: Unfortunately, very little of the correspondence between Mary and Margaret survives. Mary wanted to be named Elizabeth’s heir and she did not always see marriage to Darnley as the surest way to achieve that goal, so Margaret cannot be said to have given her the idea. That said, she is the leading advocate of the Darnley strategy, which was eventually the one that Mary adopted.
In terms of where Margaret’s ambition came from, her parents’ fortunes in Scotland did create the circumstances in which she had to operate: she was born in England because her mother was driven out of Scotland and she spent her adult life in England because of the conflict between her half-brother and her father.
Q: Tell me about how Margaret served as an intelligence agent for multiple governments. What about her background and life history made her an ideal person to gather information?
A: Margaret was involved in intelligence gathering in various ways over the course of her life: she built alliances with French, Spanish, and Scottish diplomats; she had her own network of servants and allies bringing information to her, and she was a conduit for Scottish news, especially during Lennox’s regency. Again, this was partly about personality and partly about circumstances. Personality-wise, she was discreet, she commanded loyalty, and she had a talent for making unlikely friends. On top of that, there were her personal connections and her place at court: for instance, she got to know lots of Spaniards and Hispanophiles during Mary I’s reign, which proved important later on.
Q: Ultimately, which namesake do you think Margaret Douglas resembled more—her great-grandmother, Lady Margaret Beaufort (mother of Henry VII), or her own mother, Margaret, Queen of Scots?
A: This is such a wonderful question and I have spent a lot of time asking it myself! My instinct is that she had more in common with Margaret Beaufort. All three women had great ambitions for their children and were important political figures themselves, but Margaret Tudor could more or less take for granted that her son would be a king and she got to exercise power in conventional roles, first as a queen consort and then — briefly — as regent.
Margaret Douglas and Margaret Beaufourt, in contrast, could not assume that their sons would become kings and they had to craft roles for themselves. Interestingly, they were both noted as readers and there was a certain murkiness about their places in the line of succession — the Beaufort line had started out illegitimate and Margaret’s own legitimacy was repeatedly questioned. It’s quite fitting that they’re buried in the same chapel!
Feature image via Wikimedia Commons.