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Book Review: The Lost Tudor Princess

By (January 23, 2016) No Comment

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The Lost Tudor Princess:

The Life of Lady Margaret Douglas

by Alison Weir

Ballantine Books, 2016

At long last, she gets a great big modern biography. In her latest book, popular historian and historical novelist Alison Weir turns her attention to Lady Margaret Douglas, the smart, headstrong niece of England’s King Henry VIII, the daughter of his sister Margaret Tudor.

Lady Margaret came of age at a time of powerful, larger-than-life women like Mary Queen of Scots, Bess of Hardwick, and of course Queen Elizabeth I, and Weir’s book distills a vast amount of research about that time in primary and secondary sources (along with the author’s signature sleuthing-out of clues when matters go murky). The picture she paints of Lady Margaret is that of a canny backstage operator rather than a flamboyant creature of the spotlight, and according to Weir, that very contrast is cause enough to study the life of this remarkable woman:

Like all of her cousins, Margaret was a victim of Queen Elizabeth’s animosity toward her female heirs; like them, she was imprisoned, but, unlike them, she was freed. Despite everything, she had managed to retain her position at court through four turbulent reigns, a lucky survivor in the brutal world of sixteenth-century politics. Furthermore, she died in her bed, not by the ax like Jane Grey or Mary, Queen of Scots, or in prison like Katherine and Mary Grey; and she lived out what her contemporaries would have seen as her allotted span. Perhaps that is why her story is more obscure than theirs – and that is one of many reasons why it needs to be told.

In two dozen meaty, densely-annotated chapters, Weir excavates that story from sometimes recalcitrant records, and the Lady Margaret who emerges from these pages is a vital, nervy creature, by turns passionate and intriguing, periodically enraging her uncle through her repeated and ill-advised dealings with the better-looking men of that politically explosive family, the Howards. Margaret was lady-in-waiting to several of Henry’s wives, and she moved in the highest circles of the Court, but even so, she had the increasingly psychopathic Henry as the head of her family, which led to some stark panic when her various alliances went against the pleasure of the Crown:

Margaret had some days in which to agonize over the prospect of dying a hideous death, at just twenty years old, for the crime of having fallen in love. She can have been under no illusions as to what she was facing, or that the King would spare her because of their kinship and his former affection for her. That he would send her to the block was all too believable, given that he had recently signed the warrant for his wife, the Queen of England, to be beheaded. And there he had been merciful, for Anne had been sentenced to be burned or beheaded at his pleasure, burning being the statutory sentence for women convicted of treason. In her anguish, Margaret must have prayed that, if it came to it, he would show the same clemency to her.

It was Lady Margaret’s son, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, who married Mary Queen of Scots and through her founded the House of Stuart when her grandson, James VI, became Elizabeth’s successor. A great deal of Weir’s terrific book is devoted to anatomizing Margaret’s dynastic wheelings and dealings, and the author is a very practiced hand at keeping such political arcana tense and interesting. She’s written about most of her dramatis personae for decades, after all, and in The Lost Tudor Princess she’s in top form.

And she’s relentlessly clear on Lady Margaret’s long-term goal – and her success in achieving it, even if, like Moses, she never quite reached the Promised Land herself:

Margaret did not live to see her dynastic ambitions brought to fruition. How she would have exulted to see her grandson ascend the English throne as James I, first monarch of the House of Stuart, uniting the kingdoms of England and Scotland under one ruler. It is what she had hoped and schemed for all her life. And it is her blood, not that of Henry VIII or her rival, Elizabeth I, that has flowed in the veins of every sovereign since.