Philippa Gregory’s latest novel, about Princess Margaret Tudor, will be released in fall 2016.
Margaret Douglas is not exactly a lost Tudor princess, as the title of this new biography suggests, but she is indeed wrongfully half-forgotten. She suffered, as have so many interesting Tudor women, from living in the shadow of the overwhelming Henry VIII and from the misogyny of early British historians. These were conventional — male — historians, who were prone to dislike and fear active, determined women like Margaret Douglas and portrayed them all as power-mad, treasonous, sexual and conspiratorial.
With the arrival of women’s history as a discipline and the work of feminist historians, the prejudice changed. We feminists love power-mad, treasonous, sexual and conspiring women for the crucial roles they play in many personal and political spheres. Alison Weir has done us a favor by reviving the story of this extraordinary woman who loved passionately, was imprisoned four times and built a dynasty over four reigns.
Margaret Douglas was the daughter of Princess Margaret Tudor, queen of Scotland, whose first husband, James IV, died at the Battle of Flodden fighting the English army of his brother-in-law Henry VIII. One of the less engaging aspects of this book is the remorseless plotting and fighting among three bad neighbors, England, Scotland and France, which Weir has mastered in detail; the book would have benefited if she had painted them with a broader brush. After the death of James IV, the widowed queen fell in love and secretly married Archibald Douglas, the dastardly Earl of Angus. Margaret was their only child.
Margaret’s birth and early years were more hazardous than usual for a medieval child because of the frantic rivalries between Scottish clans and the constant interference in Scotland by France and England. Her parents’ passion turned into abiding hate so extreme that Margaret Tudor fired the cannon of Holyroodhouse Palace on her rebellious husband’s forces, defeated him and won a shocking divorce. Daughter Margaret was exiled with the Earl of Angus and turned up at the English court of her uncle Henry VIII, where she was made lady-in-waiting to the new queen, Anne Boleyn.
She fell in love with the talented poet Thomas Howard and, encouraged by the queen, the lovers exchanged poems and probably vows. It is rare to hear a Tudor woman’s own voice, and Margaret is exceptional in her writing, editing and preserving of her poetry, though the general reader will find Weir’s long quotations more tedious than poignant. Margaret and her young lover celebrated their love and despair in clichéd detail, even as it all ended in disaster. Anne Boleyn was accused of adultery and beheaded; Margaret and her betrothed were locked in the Tower of London for the newly invented crime of marrying a royal without the king’s consent. In this unhealthy location Howard fell ill and died. Margaret, sick and heartbroken, was released to became a pawn in Henry VIII’s game of arranged marriages with the wealthy royal houses of Europe.
When her uncle made his fifth marriage, to Katherine Howard, Margaret Douglas was restored to favor and became part of her court. The flirtatious, partying atmosphere had a dangerously liberating effect on the young royal. She started a love affair with the new queen’s brother Charles Howard; fortunately for her, the flirtation was obscured by the greater scandal of the queen’s adultery. Charles fled to Flanders, and Margaret was sent to live in the country until summoned to the court of Katherine Parr, Henry’s last wife.
Now 27, middle-aged by medieval standards, Margaret was finally presented with a suitable husband, the heir apparent to the throne of Scotland, Matthew Stuart, 5th Earl of Lennox. Margaret would probably have married any man who was heir to the throne of Scotland, but the couple fell in love. She wrote: “He was in my power, and I his true bride.” Theirs was a happy and fecund marriage: they had four boys and four girls and, with an eye to the English throne, named two successive boys Henry.
The couple remained faithful to the Roman Catholic Church through Henry VIII’s death and the brief reign of his Protestant son, Edward VI, and rose to preeminence during the reign of Margaret’s dear friend and cousin Mary I, who nominated Margaret as heir to the throne of England. When Elizabeth I took the crown, Margaret believed that her own lineage was more royal than that of Elizabeth, a declared bastard. Margaret, after all, was granddaughter and niece to two kings of England, daughter to the queen of Scotland, half-sister to the king of Scotland, wife to the heir apparent of Scotland and nominated heir to the late queen of England. Wisely, given Elizabeth’s attitude toward rivals, Margaret retired to her home in Yorkshire, which became a center for Roman Catholic conspiracies.
After four years of plots, Elizabeth lost patience and had her cousin Margaret and her husband arrested for treason and witchcraft. Margaret’s staunch defense of herself saved them, and Elizabeth restored them to favor and even allowed their son Henry Darnley to visit Mary Stuart, the reigning queen of Scotland. This provided Margaret with a great opportunity: Secretly, she arranged the marriage of Henry to Mary Stuart. This was treason to Elizabeth, and Margaret was once again thrown in the tower while her son was declared King Henry of Scotland and the royal couple had a son, Prince James.
But the marriage failed, and Queen Mary became desperate to rid herself of her corrupt young husband. When he was murdered, suspicion fell on the unhappy Queen Mary and her alleged lover James Bothwell. But at least Darnley’s death meant that Margaret could be released from the tower. She had learned no caution, never ceasing to conspire for her own claim to the throne of England and for the rights of her grandson James as king of Scotland and heir to England.
Amazingly, for a woman who had been, as Shakespeare says, “near in blood, the nearer bloody” to four thrones, she died at age 62 in her bed, hoping that her grandson would succeed where so many had failed: uniting the throne of Scotland and England as Elizabeth’s heir, James VI of Scotland and James I of England.
This is a substantial, detailed biography of a fascinating woman who lived her extraordinary life to the full, taking desperate chances for love and for ambition. It will appeal to anyone with an interest in the powerful women of the Tudor period.
By Alison Weir
537 pp. $30