‘This Woman and her Son’: Margaret Douglas and Henry, Lord Darnley

01 February 2018
Margaret_Douglas-09080.jpg Lady Margaret Douglas
Dr Morgan Ring explores the role that Lady Margaret Douglas played in the upbringing of her son Henry, who would grow up to become the second husband of Mary Queen of Scots.

Dr Morgan Ring explores the role that Lady Margaret Douglas played in the upbringing of her son Henry, who would grow up to become the second husband of Mary Queen of Scots.

It’s one of the great historical what-ifs: what if Henry, Lord Darnley, second husband to Mary, Queen of Scots, had not been so useless? It is easy to imagine an alternative history for Mary, one with no murder of David Rizzio, no mysterious deaths at Kirk O’Field, no marriage to Bothwell, no forced abdication, no flight to England. There is, however, no escaping the historical Darnley: lazy, arrogant, treacherous. His deservedly poor reputation has also cast a pall over that of his mother, Margaret, Countess of Lennox, a woman often charged with spoiling her eldest son. But Darnley was not even twenty-two when he was assassinated, and the sources for his life are thin. What can we really know about the countess and her son?

Lady Margaret's early years

The Countess of Lennox was born Lady Margaret Douglas, eldest grand-daughter of Henry VII. After James IV’s defeat and death at Flodden in 1513, his widow, Margaret Tudor, married Archibald Douglas, Earl of Angus: Margaret Douglas was the only child of this scandalous second match. Born in England, she spent her adolescence at the court of her uncle, Henry VIII. As Henry’s children moved in and out of royal approval, she remained a favourite — most of the time. He gave her the means to dress as well as his own daughters, and to everybody at court, young Margaret Douglas looked like a Tudor princess. He even promised that she would never have to marry a man she did not love.

That promise was tested when Henry began trying to marry his son, the future Edward VI, to Margaret’s newborn niece Mary, Queen of Scots. This marriage, he hoped, would draw Scotland away from its alliance with France and its adherence to Rome. Matthew Stewart, Earl of Lennox, was one of a number of Scots who came to support this scheme — but he lent his loyalty on condition that he marry Margaret Douglas. We do not know what Margaret made of Lennox at first, but she agreed to take him, and it proved a remarkably strong and close relationship.

All but two of their eight children died in infancy. The first to survive to adulthood was their second son: Henry, Lord Darnley, whose name was a cross-border compromise. As heir to a Scottish earl, he should have been known as ‘Master of Lennox’, but instead he was ‘Lord Darnley’, following the English custom of calling an earl’s son by one of his father’s lesser titles — a Scottish name in an English style. He had a claim to a Scottish earldom through each of his parents, although given the family’s effective exile in England, those claims were, at best, theoretical. What proved more important was the fact that he was an English-born great-grandson of Henry VII, when boys with Tudor blood were scarce.

Darnley's childhood

We do not have a detailed account of the role Margaret played in raising Darnley, but we do have a letter written some four years after Darnley’s death, in which she worried over her younger son, Charles. The contrast she saw between the two boys offers a revealing glimpse of Darnley’s childhood: Darnley had his ‘education and bringing up being only at home with his father and me’, while Charles grew up with his father absent in Scotland, without ‘that help of the father’s company that his brother had, whereby at this year he is some ways unfurnished of qualities needful’ — not yet trained for public life. Unlike his parents, who both had tumultuous childhoods — Margaret’s parents had a rancorous separation and fought each other for control of James V; Lennox’s father died in a duel before he was ten years old — Darnley had a softer upbringing.     

It was also a privileged one. Margaret was often away at court during Darnley’s childhood, and he had an array of tutors, who seem to have trained him well. He was accomplished in the courtly arts: a skilled rider, athlete, and lutenist. At the age of eight, he sent his mother’s friend and cousin Queen Mary I ‘a little plot of my simple penning, which I turned Utopia Nova’ — invoking the memory of the Catholic martyr Thomas More and the shared Catholicism of Mary I and her Lennox-Stewart cousins.

He became something of a pet for the English queen, who sent him a gold chain, several expensive lutes, and even her dead brother’s clothes — ‘the bravest of King Edward’s apparel’. Darnley also tried his hand at poetry. As a teenager, Margaret had been part of a literary circle at Henry VIII’s court, a group of young people who took turns writing poems in the pocketbook-sized pages of a volume now known as the Devonshire Manuscript. Written years after the rest of the verses is a poem in Darnley’s writing on the evergreen subject of the determined wooer. Concluding ‘But now receive by your industry and art/Your humble servant Harry Stewart’, it is a pedestrian bit of verse — Darnley was unfussy about scansion — but it is written in a fine italic hand. Neither of his parents seem to have been able to write in such a modern, elegant style.

A key role

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It was in Darnley’s religious upbringing that Margaret almost certainly had a central role. According to Thomas Bishop, once Lennox’s secretary, pre-Reformation Catholicism lived on at the Lennox-Stewart estates, all its sacraments and practices intact, and Darnley had been ‘grafted in that devilish papistry’ by his mother. This leads us into the difficult realm of stereotype. Bishop was painting a larger picture, one of total domestic, political, and spiritual inversion: Margaret, he declared, had sought to rule her husband; she disparaged Elizabeth I; she consulted witches, soothsayers, and Catholic priests. Even so, early modern women were usually responsible for instructing their children in the basic tenets of the Christian faith, so there is nothing implausible about the idea that Margaret raised her son to share her religion. Moreover, the Spanish ambassadors at Elizabeth’s court regarded Darnley as a Catholic and Mary, Queen of Scots later noted that he had been presented to her as a man ‘of the same religion as myself’.

She was also ambitious for him. When Francis II’s death left the Scottish queen a widow, Margaret seized her moment: Her messengers, carrying letters in her own hand as well as those of Lennox and Darnley, were ready to greet Mary as soon as she emerged from her forty days of secluded mourning. Within weeks, there were reports that Margaret was positioning Darnley to become Mary’s husband. The Spanish ambassador wrote ‘Margaret Lennox is trying to marry her son Lord Darnley to the queen of Scotland, and I understand she is not without hope of succeeding.’

 A web of Margaret’s informants stretched out from Yorkshire, spreading across northern England and into Scotland. Some bolstered her ties with fellow Catholic nobles in the north, while others sought allies among the Scottish nobility. The court was not neglected either: before long, she had Spain’s ambassador convinced that English Catholics would rise up in her favour if there were any hope of help from Spain, for ‘they had placed all their trust in this woman and her son’.

Under the thumb?

Margaret’s friends and enemies alike believed that she was the strongest influence on Darnley. Thomas Randolph, an English diplomat, caricatured Darnley as a mother’s boy under Margaret’s thumb. When Darnley became ill shortly before his marriage to the Queen of Scots, Randolph mockingly reported that ‘my Lord Darnley, though I would not have it known to my Lady’s grace his mother, hath taken a little cold.’ More seriously, Randolph also thought that Margaret was ‘more feared a great deal than beloved of any that knoweth her’ and if Darnley were to wed her niece, Margaret would become the power behind the throne. Afterwards, when Margaret had been sent to the Tower for her part in the marriage, the Spanish ambassador — a close ally — observed that the English had probably been wise to imprison her: ‘….if she had been in Scotland they [the English] are sure her son would not have been led astray, nor would these disputes have taken place, as she is prudent and brave, and the son respects her more than he does his father.’

Darnley was at once Margaret’s greatest triumph and her greatest failure: she saw him marry a queen and then prove himself spectacularly unfit for and unworthy of his new role. She had given him an easy childhood and been tremendously ambitious for him, and it is not, perhaps, surprising that she is best known to history as awful Lord Darnley’s awful mother. Much about Lord Darnley’s childhood remains mysterious, but what does become clear is how deeply the Countess of Lennox divided opinion and how involved she was in sixteenth-century British politics, not just as Darnley’s mother, but as an actor in her own right.

Dr Morgan Ring is a political and cultural historian of early modern Britain. She is the author of So High a Blood: The Life of Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox, London: Bloomsbury, 2017. (Published in North America as So High a Blood: The Story of Margaret Douglas, the Tudor that Time Forgot.)

Images from top: Lady Margaret Douglas; Temple Newsam, Yorkshire - birthplace of Heny Lord Darnley, copyright Sirenuk; Darnley and Mary Queen of Scots copyright New York Public Library;  Elizabeth I, copyright Peace Palace Library.