Review: The Lost Tudor Princess, Alison Weir

Margaret Douglas is one of those historical figures who has been quite unaccountably forgotten.  While the story of Henry VIII and his six wives is trotted over time and time and time again, or the downfall or otherwise of Richard III – or indeed the mythical love life of Elizabeth I, Margaret Douglas has utterly vanished from view.  As an avid reader of Tudor biographical fiction, I have run into her on more than one occasion and have always found these glimpses to be incredibly intriguing.  Margaret Douglas was daughter to Princess Margaret, elder sister to Henry VIII, who married James IV of Scotland aged thirteen.  However, Margaret Douglas was born from Princess Margaret’s disastrous second marriage to Archibald Douglas, a union which ended in divorce (much to the anger of Margaret’s uncle Henry VIII who without a trace of irony decreed that marriage was an unbreakable bond).  Margaret Douglas was brought up in the English court, was niece to a King, sister to a King, mother of a King and grandmother to the Stuart dynasty but never sat on a throne herself.  She was imprisoned in the Tower of London three times and yet still managed to die in her bed.  She was a bystander to so much of Tudor history, growing up under Henry VIII, at one point almost being appointed Mary I’s heir and then dying as an old woman under Elizabeth I.  Truly, I shared Alison Weir’s astonishment that is has taken quite this long for a biography of her to appear.

alison weirAlison Weir is an incredibly readable historical writer (although I would note that her fictional output has universally disappointing).  Her prose is lucid and clear, even when a scarcity of sources leads her to supposition, she is always able to state her theory in a compelling fashion.  From the prologue of The Lost Princess, there is the hint of the fan-girl to this biography as Weir explains that the book has effectively been in embryo since the 1970s, that she has tried to persuade other people to take on the project and then finally decided to write it herself.  Indeed, more than in almost any of Weir’s other books, one senses a strong personal affection between author and subject.  Margaret Douglas was born in drama, her heavily pregnant mother having fled on horseback from a rapidly deteriorating political situation.  Born premature and in England, she would argue a better claim to the English crown than her elder half-brother James V, since ‘aliens’ were disbarred from the throne.

The breakdown of her parents’ marriage led to an inevitable instability in Margaret’s circumstances – the Queen Margaret complained in writing that her ex-husband had kept her daughter from her and it does seem that Margaret never saw her mother after the age of around thirteen.  Her father turned his coat on more than one occasion, making it difficult for Margaret to keep up a relationship with him either.  It was one of these changes in loyalty that brought Margaret to her uncle’s court, where she would spend the rest of her life.  What perhaps surprised me most was just how central Margaret Douglas was in court life.  She was brought up in Princess Mary’s household and was effectively the third lady in the land directly after her.  She was referred to as the ‘Princess of Scotland’ by ambassadors who were vague as to the child’s true status.


lady margaret douglas
Possible portrait of Margaret Douglas

After Katherine of Aragon’s downfall, Margaret moved to serving Anne Boleyn and would indeed have posts in the households of all of her uncle’s subsequent wives.  She ran into trouble early on however when she fell in love with Thomas Howard, one of Anne Boleyn’s relatives.  By this time, Henry VIII was tiring of his wife and not keen to have his relatives marrying further into her family.  Both Margaret and her lover were sent to the Tower, where Margaret would remain for over a year.  It really is a miracle that the Gillipa Phregorys of this world have failed to get their mitts on Margaret thus far, there is so much rich material within her life story.  Weir goes into in depth textual analysis over the letters and poems which Margaret and Thomas exchanged and indeed many of them are truly heart-breaking.  For a time it seemed possible that Margaret might even lose her head, but her mother’s anxious pleading and her uncle’s own affection for her appears to have saved her life.

In time, Margaret found herself restored to favour, fondly remembered in her uncle’s letters and treated almost on a par with his own children.  She was always present but her movements are scarcely reported, meaning that Weir is reduced to the ‘may have, could have’ school of history – compelling and convincing but rarely concrete.  It took until she was twenty-eight for Henry to get round to arranging her marriage, so it is hard to imagine that she was not frustrated with her life.  Despite inauspicious beginnings – her groom was still actively courting the Dowager Queen of Scotland until directly before the ceremony – Margaret found true love in marriage, something rare amongst her peers.

With scanty documentation, Margaret remains a ghostly figure for much of the early sections of the book but her character becomes increasingly clear from the point of her marriage onwards.  She was a tough lady – often to her own detriment.  As a fervent Catholic, she had much in common with Mary Tudor and the two of them were lifelong friends and Margaret was also to join in with the latter’s distrust of the Lady Elizabeth.  At one point when Elizabeth was ill and her rooms at court happened to be near Margaret’s, Margaret apparently set her servants to bashing about the kitchen with pots and pans.  For the rest of her life, Elizabeth was always careful that her rooms were never near a kitchen and she never seems to have quite trusted Margaret.

darnley memorialMother to eight children, Margaret does appear to have modelled herself on her great-grandmother and namesake Margaret Beaufort, determined to manoeuvre herself or her progeny towards a throne.  Perhaps the most intriguing section of the book relates to Margaret’s plotting and scheming to get her son Henry Darnley into the path of the newly-widowed Mary Queen of Scots.  Elizabeth I and her councillors fought keenly to block this, banning Darnley or any member of his family from entering Scotland.  However, Weir constructs a very convincing case that this was subterfuge – Darnley being known to be such a political and personal liability that he could not but bring the Scottish Queen to ruin. Indeed, over time, Mary Queen of Scots appears to have come to this conclusion herself.

Margaret found herself in the tower again for her son’s hasty marriage but yet although Elizabeth dealt harshly with her Grey cousins Catherine and Mary, there is a surprising edge of humanity to how she treated Margaret.  After Darnley met his violent end (in circumstances which have never been entirely agreed upon), Elizabeth moved quickly to ensure that Margaret was moved out of the tower and that her younger child was moved immediately into her custody, all to try to assuage the mother’s grief which does appear to have been overpowering.  The famous Darnley memorial portrait reads as a powerful promise from Margaret’s furious sorrow, a determination to wreak her vengeance.

It was Margaret’s curse to live in interesting time, but still she brought much of the curse on herself.  Like her mother, like her uncle, like her niece, she made her choices from the heart, from her own ambition but rarely from lengthy consideration.  She was impulsive.  She had a keen sense of the value of her own name.  She has been forgotten, ignored in costume dramas and yet – all monarchs from James VI downwards are her direct descendants.  Would she have deemed it worth her while to gain this, even if it she knew that she would be consigned to obscurity?  I think that she might well have done – in her latter years, her hopes were invested in her grandchildren and she campaigned desperately for the young Scottish King to be released into her guardianship.  She seems to have found a sense of fulfilment in what she achieved on his behalf.

This was a highly readable book and Weir achieves a great deal with meagre material.  If there are times when the evidence feels a little thin, it does little to compromise the overall narrative and this did feel like a fresh approach, particularly how far Weir was prepared to analyse the poetry which Margaret is said to have written.  Similarly, the discursive appendix which details the legitimacy or otherwise of the disputed portraits of Margaret reveals the depth of Weir’s research – this is a true labour of love.  I did wonder though, I felt that there was a tell-tale sign in the prologue, when Weir noted that it was surprising that even in the ‘crowded’ field of Tudor biography, Margaret had still not found a place until now.  I feel as if it is so easy for writers to re-hash the lives of the main players and to forget to look beyond the obvious – there are so many fascinating figures from the Tudor court who deserve to have their stories told.  What is strangest though is that a woman like Margaret Douglas, a witness to almost every sensational event over the Tudor period, could sink so far into oblivion.  It makes one wonder who else has been similarly forgotten.

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The Lost Tudor Princess: A Life of Margaret Douglass, Countess of Lennox by Alison Weir
Published by Jonathan Cape on October 1st 2015
Genres: Medieval, Non-Fiction
Pages: 576
ISBN: 0224089803

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