biography times she was attacked, robbed and raped. Ultimately she ended her life in poverty, racked with guilt and – understandably – exhausted. She died in her fifties,
from either syphilis or the toxic effects of the medication she was taking for the disease. Yet for all her misfortunes, Peg Plunkett was a fun-loving free spirit and
Julie Peakman’s biography is a fittingly joyous tribute. To order this book through our partner bookshop, Heywood Hill, see page 28
leanda de lisle
Married to the Mob The Lost Tudor Princess: A Life of Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox
By Alison Weir ( Jonathan Cape 542pp £20)
Lady Margaret Douglas is a wonder- ful subject for a biography. Henry VIII’s niece witnessed the fall of two of his queens. She was imprisoned in the Tower at least twice, was the mother of a king and a significant player at four Tudor courts. That her story remains largely unknown makes it a gift for Alison Weir, ‘the biggest-selling female historian since records began’. Unfortunately The Lost Tudor Princess is a missed opportunity.
Weir is a phenomenon and her work rate is awe-inspiring. She writes about a book a year, alternating between historical fiction and non-fiction. On top of this she does an incredible number of speaking engagements, sometimes several in a week. The brand she has built up ensures sales. Her knowledge and understanding of Tudor history have also deepened over the years. But this latest biography suggests she is keeping her abilities as a storyteller for her novels.
Margaret Douglas was the daughter of Henry VIII’s sister Margaret Tudor, Queen of Scots, and her second husband, the Earl of Angus. She arrived at the English court after her father kidnapped her from his estranged wife. He needed Henry to grant him entry to England to escape his angry stepson James V. Margaret’s value on the diplomatic marriage market was the price he was prepared to pay. Matters of marriage remained central to her life thereafter, though she would fight hard to make her own choices in this regard.
In the immediate aftermath of Anne Boleyn’s execution in 1536 it emerged that Margaret had become secretly betrothed to one of Anne’s young uncles, Thomas Howard. Any son Margaret bore Thomas would pose a threat to the possible succession of
Henry’s daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, whom he had declared illegitimate. Margaret and Thomas were thrown into the Tower. Henry then had a law passed making it treason to marry into the royal family without the monarch’s consent. Thomas died of an ‘ague’ before he could be executed for his retrospective crime.
Having survived this first affair, Margaret fell in love with Thomas’s kinsman, a brother of Henry’s fifth queen, Katherine Howard. This was discovered at the same time as Katherine’s adultery and arrest. Margaret was given a chilling warning by Henry not to make a third such mistake. Sensibly, she married instead, at Henry’s direction, Matthew Stewart, Earl of Lennox. In 1565, however, Margaret defied Elizabeth I to plot successfully the marriage of her eldest surviving son, Henry, Lord Darnley, to Mary, Queen of Scots. Darnley was murdered in 1567, but not before he had sired the future James VI and I.
Margaret is not a natural heroine for any Whiggishly inclined historian. She was a Catholic and no friend to Elizabeth I (who is praised by Weir as a woman of ‘enlightened religious views’). Margaret is judged tough and ambitious, without these seeming positive qualities. But even if the Margaret of The Lost Tudor Princess is not a woman you root for, her life is extraordinary. So what goes wrong with this biography?
There are mistakes. We are told on several occasions that royal marriages arranged without Elizabeth I’s consent were treason. Not so. The law introduced by Henry VIII in 1536 was repealed under Edward VI. But the real problem is not with a few errors; it is with the swathes of barely digested facts.
Early on we have successive lists of Margaret’s clothes, sent to her by Henry VIII from the Great Wardrobe. In the first of these Weir explains that the clothes are high-status items, befitting a lady at the English court. There are:
gowns of tawny (tan) velvet lined with the same, black damask lined with black velvet, black satin lined with tawny velvet, two kirtles (undergowns) with sleeves, one of black velvet, the other of black satin, and crimson and white satin partlets – yoke pieces (chemisettes) worn inside or outside the low-cut, square-necked bodices of the period, sometimes with a stand-up collar, and made of a variety of materials from lawn to velvet. Three pages on, a similar list is posted. We learn that black dye is expensive. On the following page comes another list, with another mention of the high status the clothes reflect.
Later there are further long passages that might as well have been cut and pasted from the printed volumes of state papers: chunks of diplomatic reports, letters published in their entirety. Following Weir’s lively and moving description of Lennox’s assassination, we are given a series of versions of his last words. I was nearly bored to death along with him. And that was before the tomb inscription: ‘Behold herein interred is Matthew, of Lennox earl/Who long of late in Britain’s soil, did live a peerless pearl/And as he was of royal blood, by royal projeny/From Stewart’s stock of ancient time, princes of Albany’ – and so on for twenty-six lines.
For all this, it is remarkable what Weir has achieved. Margaret’s story is immensely complex, because of her deep involvement in the politics of Scotland as well as England. Weir has written the most detailed history of Margaret’s life to date and that alone makes it a worthwhile read. But with a little more time and some judicious editing, Weir could have made this book much more. To order this book through our partner bookshop, Heywood Hill, see page 28
october 2015 | Literary Review 13