‘More feared than beloved’
Gareth Russell on a formidable Tudor spy-mistress, the Countess of Lennox
In late 1578, work ended at Westminster Abbey on the tomb of Margaret, Countess of Lennox. It described the late countess, often known by her maiden name, Margaret Douglas, as aedita principibus principibusque parens: “descended from princes, parent to princes”. Margaret lived, by virtue of her ancestry, in the thick of 16th-century politics: she was Henry VIII’s niece, James V’s half-sister, Cardinal Wolsey’s god-daughter, a favourite of Anne Boleyn, amanuensis to Thomas Wyatt, cousin and friend of Mary I, cousin and rival of Elizabeth I and mother-in-law to Mary, Queen of Scots. The death of her son, Lord Darnley, in the Kirk o’ Field explosion in Edinburgh in 1567, is one of the great unsolved murder mysteries of British history.
Given this galaxy of connections, there is a risk that Margaret Douglas might, like her grandmother, Elizabeth of York, seem interesting only by virtue of those who surrounded her, the historical equivalent of the Lady of Shalott’s mirror, an unlikely glass in which shadows of more important and more interesting events are reflected. Fortunately, Morgan Ring’s So High a Blood avoids this trap. This impeccably researched portrait of a troubled, fascinating woman traces the arc of Margaret’s journey from the neglected child of a down-on-herluck queen to a grande dame with a network of spies and soothsayers, “more feared a great deal than beloved of any that knoweth her”, in the words of the diplomat Thomas Randolph.
Margaret was the daughter of Henry VIII’s eldest sister, Margaret Tudor, Dowager Queen of Scots, by her second husband, Archibald Douglas, 6th Earl of Angus. Their affair had cost Margaret Tudor what little political credit she had in her adopted homeland, but there is, none the less, something rather magnificent about the widowed queen’s chutzpah when she proclaimed: “I took my lord Angus against all Scotland’s will… I took him at my own pleasure.” The marriage was so contentious that she had to flee to England, where she gave birth to her daughter in October 1515.
When she returned to Scotland, young Margaret stayed behind to join the court of her uncle, King Henry. Ring deals well with the relative paucity of sources concerning her early years, particularly before her formal debut at Christmas 1530. After that, she is on firmer ground. Margaret established a lifelong friendship with her Tudor cousin and heiress-apparent to the English throne, Princess Mary, but that did not prevent her from enjoying the company of the king’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, who emerges from the pages of So High a Blood as a salonnière before her time. In Anne’s orbit, Margaret flourished, “celebrated for her exquisite loveliness of shape, and elegance of form”, according to her contemporary George Buchanan. Ring’s Margaret is an incorrigible romantic. Under Anne Boleyn she wrote love poetry, some of which survives. But she was also, particularly as she matured, a viciously unforgiving politician. Given the perfect storm of romantic and political scandals that followed her, it is odd that she has not featured in any of the dramatisations concerning the Tudor royals. There were diplomatic incidents, to put it mildly, over her youthful romances with members of the Howard families, first with one
The Lennox or Darnley Jewel was given by Margaret to her ill-fated husband
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