Mastodon The Writing Desk: Book Launch Guest Post by Dr Linda Porter, Author of 'The Thistle And The Rose’

6 June 2024

Book Launch Guest Post by Dr Linda Porter, Author of 'The Thistle And The Rose’

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

Margaret Tudor, the elder sister of her more famous brother Henry VIII, is the single most important Tudor figure of this era that historians have consistently overlooked. Married at thirteen to the charismatic James IV of Scotland, a man more than twice her age, she would learn the skills of statecraft that would enable her to survive his early death, and to construct a powerful position in her adopted country of Scotland as she dealt with domestic issues as well as navigating international relations with England and France.

Margaret Tudor and her husbands

Margaret Tudor, the elder daughter of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, is overlooked as a major player in sixteenth century British history yet her life was as dramatic and significant as that of her granddaughter, Mary Queen of Scots. When she has been written about at all, Margaret has been roundly criticised for poor judgement in both personal and political matters and generally dismissed as an oversexed whinger whose major preoccupations were clothes, jewels and younger men. 

Scottish historians have tended to be at best sniffy - she was, after all, a Tudor princess and therefore bound to attract suspicion - and English historians, many of them, sadly, women, are equally dismissive, often viewing everything that happened to Margaret as her fault and even patronisingly deciding that it would somehow have all been better if she had only had a close friend to confide in. 

 Thus the complexity of an extraordinary life, not to mention the challenges faced by a woman trying to navigate sixteenth century politics in the British Isles, are neatly but inaccurately summed up in twenty-first century platitudes. I’d like to look at one particular area of Margaret’s life, her marriages, and provide a much more nuanced picture of the girl who was wed at thirteen, widowed at twenty-three, who survived further turmoil and two subsequent worthless husbands to become the matriarch of the Stuart line and whose descendants still sit on the throne of the United Kingdom.

The bride

In the summer of 1503, Margaret Tudor bade farewell to her father and grandmother, Margaret Beaufort, and began the journey north to marry King James IV of Scotland. A proxy marriage had taken place more than a year earlier in Richmond Palace but it had been agreed that Margaret would not actually live with her husband until the formal ceremony took place in Edinburgh the following year. 

Her departure was delayed by the unexpected and tragic death of Elizabeth of York in February 1503, so Margaret was still mourning the loss of her beloved mother when she took a solemn farewell of Henry VII on 8 July, at Collyweston, her grandmother’s home on the borders of Northamptonshire and Lincolnshire.
Henry VII was an affectionate parent. 

The warrant books in the National Archives show that he regularly made payments of gifts for his younger children, who lived away from the court in the healthier air of Eltham Palace and Richmond. Henry was keen to ensure that they were well-educated and did not lack for appropriate apparel and amusement. Margaret became a competent archer and equestrian, as well as mastering French and learning how to dictate to secretaries, attributes necessary for a future queen. 

She was also a keen and competent musician and dancer. She would have been brought up in the expectation that her future was that of a queen consort and that, probably sooner rather than later, she must leave the security of a pleasant childhood in southern England behind. Henry VII knew what he was asking of this girl on the cusp of womanhood when she rode out of his life. He gave her a parting gift of a beautiful prayer book, inscribed from ‘your kind and loving father’. He asked her to pray for him, reminding her that, ‘at all times’, she carried with her God’s blessing and his own. Margaret knew better than to succumb to tears when they said goodbye.

And the responsibility that hung on her slim shoulders over the next month was huge. Her progress was one of the most magnificent of the entire 16th century. She set off with a vast train of attendants, under the increasingly overbearing direction of the earl of Surrey, who was charged with delivering her to James IV in Edinburgh. Among the other lords and ladies in Margaret’s train was an up and coming courtier called Sir Thomas Boleyn. Cartloads of splendid furnishings, beds, dresses and religious items transported Margaret’s worldly goods to her new home. 

The journey took more than three weeks, as she stopped in key cities in the north of England such as York, Durham and Berwick-upon-Tweed. Henry VII intended his daughter (who would not be fourteen until late November, 1503) to be the visible presence of Tudor monarchy. Margaret made formal entries into all the towns she passed through, necessitating frequent changes of wardrobe and makeup that would certainly be familiar to modern celebrities. 

What she thought of the English countryside and the brilliant displays put on by local dignitaries as she passed on her way we do not know, though we are fortunate to have detailed descriptions of the people and places from John Young, the Somerset Herald, who accompanied the new Queen of Scots on her travels.

Margaret was never to see her father again. He lived on for another six years, his health deteriorating all the while, his concentration on preparing Margaret’s younger brother, Henry, for the throne. Shortly after her wedding, when the strain of being relentlessly in the public eye, uncertainty about her future in Scotland and inevitable homesickness got the better of her, she wrote an anguished postscript in her own hand in a letter to Henry VII. It read: ‘I wish I were with your Grace now and many times more…’ No doubt there were other letters, but this alone survives, speaking powerfully to us over the centuries.

The first husband: James IV of Scotland

Margaret’s initial concerns about her situation in Scotland were soon allayed. Her husband, then, thirty years old, was a remarkable man. This charismatic king, a true polymath with an affable, easy-going exterior that hid a fierce determination to rule effectively and to place Scotland firmly on the map of Renaissance Europe, was the last, and one of the greatest, kings of medieval Scotland. He was one of the most eligible bachelors in Europe at the time of his marriage but had not wanted for female companionship. 

Three well-born mistresses had provided him with a growing family of illegitimate children, some of whom, rather coyly described in official documents as ‘the bairns’, were housed in Stirling Castle. James was fond of his children, never shirking his responsibilities to these bastard offspring. At the time of his marriage his current mistress, Janet Kennedy, was pregnant with their third child. She had never nursed any pretensions of becoming his wife, and seems to have been content to move up to the north-east of Scotland, where she was housed in Darnaway Castle.

Though he did not entirely give up his philandering after his marriage, James was also determined to treat his new wife with the dignity that her role as his queen demanded. He was to prove a good-natured and indulgent husband, showering Margaret with jewels, furs and castles in different parts of Scotland. He was also at pains to acknowledge her importance as his queen and to train her in the duties of a consort. Shortly after their marriage, James took Margaret on a tour of Scotland, so that she could get to know her new realm and meet her subjects. Visibility was always a crucial facet of Stewart kingship and his subjects got much closer to James IV than the English populace ever did to Henry VIII.

James and Margaret first met at Dalkeith Castle, south of Edinburgh, on 4 August, 1503. In the conventions of the time, it was described as a chance encounter. The king just ‘happened’ to be out hunting in the area, and, learning that his bride had arrived at the nearby castle, paid what purported to be a surprise visit. This was a charming contrivance but Margaret and her entourage knew that he was coming. It would hardly have done for Margaret to be in the privy when her husband arrived. Both were dressed to impress and James had a lyre slung over his back, not an obvious accessory for a hunting expedition. After the inevitable deep curtseys and bows, the couple kissed, ate together and chatted privately.
Margaret’s first husband was a well-built, very fit man of about middling height, with shoulder- length reddish hair and a long beard. The young queen seems not to have liked facial hair on a man, because James consented to have the beard shaved off the morning after the marriage ceremony. He loved hunting, particularly with falcons, was a good musician and conversationalist (in several languages) and physically brave. The tournament was his natural milieu. 

 New technology was another passion and he was especially keen to have all the latest military and naval equipment, as well as the appropriate European experts to advise him. He also loved to dabble in the sciences and was keen to try out his dentistry skills on courtiers who may have been less than enthusiastic about submitting themselves to his experimentations. 

So far as we know, Margaret was not a victim of this particular enthusiasm. James was happy to travel miles on horseback and also on foot as he attended the justice courts of his country or went on pilgrimage to various shrines in Scotland. In matters of religion he was outwardly pious, as was his wife, observing the various feasts of the church calendar punctiliously. The great religious controversies that would engulf Europe later in the sixteenth century were yet to appear during his reign.

One of Margaret’s most important roles was to preside over his court. There had not been a queen consort in Scotland since 1486 and the gap needed to be filled. Though Margaret was young, she was fully trained for the role and with James’s support and guidance, she filled it with aplomb. The queen and her ladies entertained the king and his gentlemen to evenings of card-playing, dancing and music. As the winter nights drew in, around the time of Margaret’s fourteenth birthday, the Scottish poets, or makars, would entertain the court with recitals and plays, while Margaret, swathed in the furs James provided, sat in front of roaring log fires. 

The Scottish court was smaller than the English but it was lively and sophisticated.
Whatever his enthusiasm for women, James IV was careful to avoid an early pregnancy for his wife. We know nothing of their wedding night. Somerset Herald merely remarked that ‘the king had the queen apart, and they went together.’ 

It is likely that there was some sort of sexual activity (about which Margaret would have been forewarned by her ladies), or the legality of the marriage could be challenged, an outcome neither Margaret nor James would have wished. But Margaret did not become pregnant until 1506, three years after her marriage. In early 1507, after a difficult labour, she produced the longed-for heir. He was christened James, after his father and placed in a magnificently decorated nursery, with wet nurses and a staff of rockers and laundresses to attend him.
Margaret was so ill after his birth that, for a while, her survival hung in the balance. The king, thoroughly alarmed, set off on pilgrimage to pray for her recovery. His prayers were answered but, tragically, the little prince died of unknown causes around the time of his first birthday. Other babies followed regularly, Prince Arthur, who also died in the first year of his life, and several girls, either stillborn or dead soon after birth. 

The royal couple grew increasingly anxious about the lack of a child, mirroring the concerns of Margaret’s brother, Henry VIII, and his wife, Katherine of Aragon, in England. Margaret went on pilgrimage herself to seek God’s help. Finally her prayers were answered in 1512 when she gave birth to another Prince James. Though sickly for his first few months, he began to thrive and would be the only child of Margaret Tudor and James IV to live into adulthood.

The child was born at a time of growing tension between England and Scotland. Despite renewing the Treaty of Perpetual Peace when he came to the throne in 1509, Henry VIII seems to have had an instinctive dislike of Scotland and his much older brother-in-law. This and tensions on the Borders, as well as very different policies towards the great European powers, would bring them into armed conflict the following year and cost James IV his life.

The battle of Flodden in 1513 is one of the least-known yet most significant in British history, at least from the Scottish perspective. On a sodden, windswept hillside in the far north-east of Northumberland, James IV and the flower of the Scottish nobility lost their lives in desperate hand-to-hand fighting in the muddy morass below Branxton Ridge. The site can still be visited (it is peaceful farmland now) and I would urge anyone with an interest in this period history to visit it. I had written about Flodden for my earlier book, ‘Crown of Thistles’ but found that I was still greatly moved in describing it again, though I am not generally given to the emotional school of history.

For Queen Margaret, then in the early stages of yet another pregnancy, the loss of so supportive and dynamic a husband at the hands of a much smaller English force, led by the ubiquitous earl of Surrey, was a catastrophe. Its impact on her has never, I think, adequately been recognised. The tales of her watching for news every day from the tower of Linlithgow Castle, as well as her screams on hearing of James IV’s death, are no doubt fanciful. 

Distressed as she was, Margaret had a lifetime’s training of not making an exhibition of herself in public. And James in his will had left her as regent for their toddler son, a huge responsibility at a time of such national disaster. His confidence in her was clearly great. But there was one caveat: she would retain the role only if she never remarried.
The Second Husband: Archibald Douglas, earl of Angus

So why, then, did Margaret remarry within a year of the death of James IV and just three months after she had given birth to their last child, Alexander Stewart, duke of Ross? There are several possible factors in play here. The most important, in my view, is the uncertainty she felt over her hold on the Scottish lords. Not all had perished with James IV at Flodden but the majority of those now charged with giving the queen regent their allegiance were either elderly or much younger men who had little experience of government. 

That they held the country together at all is a testament to their determination. We have a tendency to dismiss the Scottish nobility as a bunch of murderous thugs but it is worth noting that Scotland survived, under their collective (if often squabbling) guidance during nearly two hundred years when no monarch came to the throne as an adult, and despite the attempts of both France and England to destabilise the country.

But Margaret was an Englishwoman, the sister of a predatory monarch, and if she doubted the personal loyalty of the Scottish lords, their concern about the policies she might follow was considerable. Many took the step of inviting the nearest male heir, John Stewart, duke of Albany, to assume the role of Governor, whatever the terms of James IV’s will might say, not long after James’s death. Albany had been born and bred in France, knew nothing of Scotland and was a faithful soldier in the service of Francis I. Yet he was male and not English, two major points in his favour.

As her pregnancy advanced, Margaret found it harder to attend meetings of the ruling council, and her absences undermined an authority that many already found hard to accept. During the summer of 1514, the lords were still making a public show of support for Margaret. She evidently did not find it convincing. Alone and under pressure, she decided that she could not rely on Henry VIII for support and knew that, even if this was forthcoming, it would further compromise her. So she made a fateful decision. 

She would marry again, into one of the strongest Scottish families, and hope to shore up her position. A Scottish spouse was, at least, neither English nor French. She knew it was a gamble but she evidently felt so insecure that it was worth the risk. Perhaps it would be acceptable. In truth, there was not a lot of choice but her decision was one she soon came to regret bitterly. For Margaret, there was a huge cost, both personally and politically.
Her second husband, Archibald Douglas, earl of Angus, was a member of the most prominent family in Lowland Scotland. The Douglases had split in two during the fourteenth century and a fierce animosity between the Black Douglases and the Red Douglases was only partially healed a century later. On his mother’s side, Angus was related to another influential family, the Drummonds. 

His Douglas relatives were less than complimentary, one uncle describing him as ‘a young, witless fool.’ This was harsh, for Angus was many things, but he definitely was not witless. He was a young widower and Margaret was a young widow but that was about all they had in common. Their union has often been represented as that of a lusty woman in thrall to a younger, handsome man. This is simply not the case. They were of an age and Angus was pleasant enough in appearance, though with something of the wariness about him that would characterise his approach to life. He does not look like a man one would instinctively trust. 

Margaret did not know him well. Indeed, it is not clear how they even met, for he only joined the Scottish council in the spring of 1514 and had no prior experience of government. Probably the link was his grandfather, John, Lord Drummond, who became Keeper of Stirling Castle and of the person of little James V. It would have been easy for Drummond to ingratiate his nephew in the queen’s eyes and bring pressure on her to consider Angus as the man who would help her retain power. Their courtship must have been swift and how it was kept out of the eyes of Margaret’s other councillors is a mystery.
The wedding is said to have taken place in secret, around 6 August, 1514, at the church of Kinnoul, outside Perth. There is still much we do not know with certainty about the circumstance surrounding Margaret’s second marriage, but of one thing we can be absolutely sure: Angus was soon to prove himself a faithless, greedy and self-serving spouse, consistently putting his own interests above those of his wife and Scotland, undermining her with her brother, Henry VIII and blighting the life of his young stepson, the king. 

Only late in life did Angus discover his Scottish patriotism. His political successes were brief but they had a profound effect on Scotland and all those around him. Though Margaret and Angus had one child together – Lady Margaret Douglas, herself a key player in 16th century British politics – they grew apart during Margaret’s year-long stay in London in 1516-17 and the breach was never healed. She came to detest him and was greatly relieved when the Pope granted her a divorce in 1528.
The Third Husband, Henry Stewart

Margaret was now thirty-nine years old and a far cry from the slim teenager who became Queen of Scots in 1503. In 1525, during Angus’s exile in France, she regained the regency, claiming that her thirteen- year-old son was now old enough to exercise power, with appropriate guidance. The queen had waited long for this opportunity, never losing sight of her commitment to James V, who was very fond of his mother. Alas, Margaret did not keep the office she had struggled so hard to obtain, for long. 

Supported by Henry VIII , who consistently refused to work with his sister or follow any of her suggestions, Angus returned and was able to seize power again when the naïve Scottish lords agreed that he should be the first to head up a supposedly rotating council. Angus had no intention of handing over power, removed James V from Edinburgh and his mother’s control and effectively staged a coup d’état. Margaret retired to Stirling Castle and young James V was to endure three years as a hostage to his stepfather’s ambitions. No wonder he hated the Douglases. But for Margaret, distressed as she was, there were other compensations in her personal life.

Rumours began to reach London that the queen was showing great favour to a young member of her household, Henry (Harry) Stewart. The second son of Andrew Stewart, second Lord Avondale, Harry Stewart was from a family loyal to the Scottish crown. By late 1524 he was already enjoying Margaret’s patronage. English visitors described him ‘as a young man about her who keeps all the seals and orders everything’. 

He was Margaret’s chancellor and treasurer and, through the queen’s influence was appointed carver to the king. His brothers were also given prominent roles in the royal household. They lost their positions when Angus came to the fore again, but the relationship between Margaret and Harry Stewart became ever more public, to the horror of Henry VIII and Wolsey, who berated Margaret for contemplating divorce from Angus – at a time when Henry was initiating proceedings to annul his own marriage to Katherine of Aragon.

We know very little about Harry Stewart. No portraits of him survive and assertions by some of Margaret’s biographers that he was ‘brash’, ‘weak and amiable’ and ‘a handsome youth’ cannot be verified. Neither was he a ‘toy boy’. The ‘handsome youth’ was around six years younger than Margaret, the same age difference between Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon. What can be said with reasonable certainty is that Margaret was clearly attracted to him, perhaps genuinely in love for the first time in her life. 

They married in the spring of 1528, as soon as Margaret’s divorce was known, and James V ennobled Harry Stewart, giving him the title of Lord Methven. But the queen’s happiness was short-lived. Margaret did not show the shrewdest judgement when she handed over some of her lands to this third husband. By the mid-1530s the marriage had clearly foundered. 

Like Angus, Harry Stewart helped himself to his wife’s rents and began an affair with another woman. Margaret pleaded with her son to let her initiate divorce proceedings but James V, who seems to have otherwise tolerated his second stepfather, refused to agree. He had had enough, by this time, of Margaret’s marital woes and was looking to find a suitable bride himself. He did not want to be embarrassed by his mother .

Margaret’s last years

For the last years of her life, Margaret assumed the role of Queen Mother with aplomb. She hardly had time to get to know her first daughter- in -law, Madeleine of France, the tubercular daughter of Francis I, who lived only a matter of weeks after her arrival in Scotland in 1538. Undeterred by this setback, James V soon married again, this time to Marie de Guise, the recently widowed duchess of Longueville.

Margaret and Marie got along well and the new queen consort encouraged her mother-in-law to return to court. When James V and Marie’s two young sons, the hope of the Stewart dynasty, died within days of each other in May, 1541, Margaret did her best to comfort the grieving, shattered parents and wrote movingly of their loss to her brother in England.

This was to be Margaret’s last great service to the son to whom she had devoted her life from the moment of his father’s death at Flodden. In October 1541 she was at Methven Castle near Perth when she suffered a stroke and soon died. On her deathbed, inexplicably, she asked her confessor to convey her apologies to Angus for any wrong she had done him. He does not seem to have been greatly moved by her request, if it ever reached him.

James V only outlived his mother by just over a year and she never knew her grand-daughter, Mary Queen of Scots, who had an even more dramatic life, but did not die in her own bed. Margaret was buried in St John’s Abbey in Perth, alongside other Scottish monarchs. Her grave was desecrated by Calvinists only twenty years after her death, when her remains were removed from her coffin and burned, the ashes being contemptuously strewn around. Mary Queen of Scots, does, however, have a monument in Westminster Abbey, whereas the girl who went north to marry a king in 1503 has, like her first husband, no resting place.

 Dr Linda Porter

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About the Author

Linda Porter has a B.A. and a D.Phil from the University of York. She spent nearly ten years lecturing in New York, at Fordham and City Universities among others, before returning with her American husband and daughter to England, where she embarked on a complete change of career. For more than twenty years she worked as a senior public relations practitioner in BT, introducing a ground-breaking international public relations programme during the years of BT’s international expansion. The attractions of early retirement were too good to miss and she has gone back to historical writing as well as reviewing for the BBC History Magazine, The Literary Review and History Today.. Find out more at Linda’s website and follow Linda on Twitter @DrLindaPorter1

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