Morgan Ring: Spy chief, lover, poet, plotter '“ a woman lost in history

Historians are uncovering astonishing but overlooked stories about women of the past, like Margaret Douglas, writes Morgan Ring.

A portrait from the early 1560s usually identified as Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox (Picture: National Portrait Gallery, London)
A portrait from the early 1560s usually identified as Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox (Picture: National Portrait Gallery, London)

I love a good supporting character: sidekicks, confidants, all-knowing, half-smiling counsellors. It was no surprise that when I started writing history, the people who caught my attention were the ones who shimmered onstage for a moment and then disappeared into other, unfamiliar stories in which they were the protagonists and not the spear-carriers. And it was even less of a surprise to find that many of those people were women.

“History,” says Pollio in I, Claudius, “is an old man’s game.” That’s not the case today, when more than half the history students in the UK are women. And writing about women is not feminine peculiar. From the 16th century onwards, historians who want to tell the story of Reformation Britain have had to grapple with female power, with female regents and reigning queens. But for every Mary, Queen of Scots there is another woman who remains in history’s shadows, remembered — at best — as a name and a set of relationships. She’s daughter of, mother of, wife of. Other roles and other motives go unexamined. In recovering these women’s lives, we have a chance not only to tell some cracking stories, but also to make our sense of the past messier, more complicated, and more truthful.

Margaret Douglas was one such woman. A daughter of the border, sole child of Margaret Tudor and Archibald Douglas, Earl of Angus, she was born in England because her mother had lost the regency of her young son, James V, and been forced to flee south. Margaret spent her adolescence and her 20s at the court of her uncle, Henry VIII, before marrying Matthew Stewart, Earl of Lennox.

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    She is most famous as the mother of Henry, Lord Darnley and as the prime mover behind his marriage to her niece Mary, Queen of Scots.

    Even in introducing her, I’ve fallen into the relational trap.

    Margaret herself, drawing up the plans for her monument in Westminster Abbey, did the same thing. Her tomb proclaims her to be “descended from princes, parent to princes”, less a person than a genealogical lynchpin.

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    Craigmillar Castle and the yew trees of Mary, Queen of Scots

    But a person she was and, in trying to tell her story, I found myself seeing familiar pictures from new perspectives. For a teenager who had fled her home and spent two years living in a series of draughty border castles, the court of Henry VIII was enormous fun. She took up up with a circle of literary-minded courtiers and was soon discussing, writing, and singing English verse. Even though she was one of the most eligible women in the country, she fell in love with one of her poetry-writing new friends and they became secretly engaged.

    A long-ago royal scandal? Undoubtedly, but also one that reveals something about court politics. In the summer of 1536, Henry had Anne Boleyn beheaded and found himself, for the first time in 20 years, without a legitimate heir or a pregnant wife.

    It suddenly appeared that his eldest sister’s children might succeed him: either Scottish-born James V or English-born Lady Margaret. When Henry discovered that his niece — a possible successor — was engaged, his reaction was volcanic: the couple were arrested, he was sentenced to death for daring to marry “in so high a blood”, and Margaret was sent first to the Tower and then to a convent, only released when Henry had a legitimate son and her lover died of a convenient fever. Margaret’s story reveals all the panic and succession anxiety of that unsettled summer. I was once asked what had made Margaret the subject of so much recent attention from historians and biographers. Part of it is that she crossed so many borders: her story is English and Scottish, Catholic and reformed. And part of it is that in the age of the betrothed-in-infancy Mary, Queen of Scots on the one hand and the Virgin Queen Elizabeth on the other, it is refreshing to find a woman who married the love of her life but spent her 20s single and had the odd ex.

    Writing about women also compels us to confront early modern Britain’s impressive array of gender ideas and stereotypes.

    Many of these made their way into contemporary accounts of Margaret, especially when she began trying to match her eldest son to the Queen of Scots. She was imprisoned and her husband’s former secretary, the cantankerous Thomas Bishop, was only too happy to tell the English just what he thought of her, making crafty use of 16th century ideas about ambitious women. She overruled her husband and entertained the affections of other men — domestic inversion. She plotted against Elizabeth and let her servants believe that she would be queen herself and they “should have the ball at their foot” — political inversion. She was a Catholic who consorted with witches and soothsayers — spiritual inversion. A woman who was untrustworthy in one sphere of life could turn the whole world upside down.

    Yet women could just as easily be reduced to figures with no political views at all. Where, in all these tropes, was the truth?

    When she was sent to the Tower again, this time because Darnley really had married the Queen of Scots, Mary herself wrote to Elizabeth and asked if Margaret should suffer for trying to do the best for her son.

    Margaret, a woman whose spies carried coded messages across the border, who was in close contact with the European ambassadors to the English court, who was, in the view of Elizabeth’s Privy Council, so central to her son’s suit that she had to be sent to prison — became just a doting mother, not somebody who acted with political intelligence and intent. In fact, she hoped that the marriage would see her family on the thrones of England, Scotland, and Ireland, the British Isles restored to Rome.

    Some stories may be beyond recall: Margaret had 100 poor women in attendance at her funeral and I do not know if I’ll ever find out a concrete detail about a single one of them, other than that Margaret left money to give them new gowns. But sometimes, we are luckier in our archives. How does a woman transform herself from poetry-quoting young courtier to spy-fielding political operative? Coming up with an answer means questioning what gets written down, what gets forgotten, what stereotypes are at play. And all those questions reveal just how many stories we have still to tell, if we have the patience and the curiosity.

    So High A Blood, The Life of Margaret, Countess of Lennox by Morgan Ring is available in paperback