The Lost Tudor Princess: A Life of Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox

The Lost Tudor Princess: A Life of Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox, by Alison Weir

The Lost Tudor Princess

A Tudor? Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox, was definitely that. She was the daughter of Henry VII’s daughter Margaret and, therefore, Henry VIII’s niece.

A princess? Well, sort of. Margaret Douglas’s mother was a Tudor princess by birth and a queen by marriage. A queen of Scotland, not England, through her first marriage to James IV. Margaret Douglas’ father, however, was not a king. He was Queen Margaret’s second husband, Archibald Douglas, earl of Angus.

Thanks to her maternal bloodline, however, strengthened by her fortuitous birth in England, Margaret Douglas did have a claim to the English throne. She was, by Henry VIII’s decree, fourth in line should Henry’s three children die without children of their own. Margaret never reached the throne (although her grandson did). Margaret, however, had ambitions. She always believed she “could have been a contender.”

The Lost Tudor Princess is a welcome and long-overdue look at this secondary Tudor’s long life, filled with accomplishment, tragedy and – always – intrigue.

Weir’s account of Margaret’s early years offers an appealing and slightly oblique look at life among the royals and semi-royals. Margaret’s parents argued and fought and eventually separated. Margaret came under the protection of her uncle Henry VIII, joining the household of her first cousin and lifelong friend, Princess Mary. Weir shows us a teenage Margaret successfully navigating, with charm and grace, the pitfalls of a court undergoing the throes of Henry VIII’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon.

Then we meet Margaret in love – and forbidden love, at that! Thomas Howard was a cousin of Anne Boleyn but Margaret, as Henry VIII’s niece, was not for the likes of him. Margaret was sent to a convent and Thomas to the Tower. The separated pair expressed their sentiments in poetry. And here, Weir’s account bogs down. This happens more than once in The Lost Tudor Princess. Momentum builds, and then deflates, with segments that do not advance the reader’s knowledge of, or interest in, Margaret Douglas. Here, the poetry of Thomas Howard is quoted at length. While the depths of his emotions are real, the genuine feeling between the two would have been far more effectively portrayed by short selections of his rather mundane verses.

Weir picks up the pace, and the interest, considerably when the Matthew Stewart, Earl of Lennox, the man Margaret would eventually marry, enters the picture. She details Matthew’s endless quest to have his position as foremost lord in Scotland and heir to Mary Queen of Scots recognized. Weir wends her way, with sure foot and pen, through Matthew’s ambitious trimming and hedging, his twists and turns. Ultimately, Margaret and Matthew marry with the approval of Henry VIII. Unfortunately for the reader, if not for Margaret Douglas, the tight and loving bond between the couple seems to leach all the vitality and personality out of Matthew. The result is to render fairly lifeless the account of his dealings, double-dealings and triple-dealings as he continued to plot and scheme to achieve yet more power.

Margaret, meanwhile, was back at the castle having babies. While she was so occupied, England’s throne passed to Edward, then to Mary and then to Elizabeth. According to Henry VIII’s act of succession, Margaret should now have been regarded as Elizabeth’s heir. There was not much that annoyed Elizabeth more than anyone even imagining her death. Add in the Lennoxes’ Catholic faith and their obvious ambition, and you have a very annoyed Queen indeed! With their path to power and wealth in England thus effectively closed off, the Lennoxes concentrated on Scotland.

When Margaret’s oldest son Henry, Lord Darnley, reaches his mid-teens, Weir’s account enters another active and gripping phase.

Margaret turned her considerable energies towards maneuvering a marriage between Darnley and his slightly older cousin Mary Queen of Scots. That Mary was already married didn’t phase Margaret one bit. Mary’s husband (Francis II of France) was frail and not expected to live long. Margaret (who was one seriously determined and relentless woman!) wanted her son’s name to head the list of acceptable “second husbands.”

Francis II did die young, in 1560. It took Margaret five more years of conniving and scheming and downright skullduggery, all in the face of Elizabeth’s opposition, but she succeeded! Mary and Darnley married in 1565. Elizabeth immediately sent Margaret to the Tower, where she long remained (albeit in semi-royal comfort).

Darnley’s marriage was a disaster. There are not words sufficient to describe his bad character – he was vain, inconstant, lecherous, dishonest, greedy, whiny, treacherous and, and, and…. And how much of that, one wonders, could be laid at the feet of his over-indulgent mother? He did give Margaret Douglas a grandson, James, who had in his veins the royal blood of both Scotland and England. Margaret was overjoyed. Her joy was short-lived. Darnley was murdered; Mary was forced to abdicate in favor of James; and a regency government was set up in Scotland.

Here things again deteriorate (in Weir’s book, as well as in Scotland). Many of the biography’s readers, drawn by “Tudor” in the title, will be familiar with the major English players. Scotland, however, is more difficult. The cast of characters, and the tangled, sorry tale of who is doing what to whom and/or with whom, is as clear as mud, despite the many words Weir expends in an effort to illuminate. Eventually, Matthew Stewart, Earl of Lennox, was asked to serve as regent for his grandson James, the tiny king of Scotland. He agreed, with Margaret’s blessing. There, in Scotland, he was assassinated.

Margaret was truly bereft. Tragedy, however, brought her neither wisdom, caution nor prudence. Weir’s final chapters deal with Margaret’s last scheme, a sad and sorry one, that resulted in the secret marriage of her only surviving son, Charles. The child of this marriage, Arbella Stuart, continued in the doomed family tradition. By that time, however, Margaret had died, lonely and destitute. She did not live to see her grandson, James VI of Scotland, take his place as James I on Elizabeth’s death. The sad thought is that this infuriating and intriguing woman would probably have deemed his accession worth all the suffering and loss.

The Lost Princess is as infuriating and intriguing as its subject. Alison Weir tells Margaret’s story in sometimes fascinating, sometimes bewildering and sometimes stultifying detail. There are lyrical descriptions, and engrossing plot twists. There are also, however, arid recountings of political battles and stratagems with no clear objectives or conclusions. This reader had the unusual experience of being often unable to put the book down until a chapter was finished, but yet dreading to pick it up and begin anew. The need to untangle the unfathomable workings of the tumultuous Scottish regency probably required a certain amount of tedium. Much, however, could have been avoided by more judicious editing (or additional use of appendices) so as not to divert from the central character.

The depth of research in The Last Tudor Princess is extraordinary. As a scholarly work, it might well rate five stars. As a popular biography, its rating has been lowered to four stars. Even for a lover of “big books,” working through its 500+ pages took a disproportionate amount of discipline and an inordinate amount of time.

I would still strongly advise, however, that you DO read this book. Your hard work will, ultimately, be rewarded.