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Two Queens in One Isle

Two Queens in One Isle

by Alison Plowden

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The relationship between Queen Elizabeth I of England and her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, is one of the most complex, tempestuous and fascinating in history. United in blood but divided by religion, the two women were in some ways uniquely close; in others, poles apart. Championed by English Catholics as the rightful Queen of England, Mary was nevertheless given


The relationship between Queen Elizabeth I of England and her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, is one of the most complex, tempestuous and fascinating in history. United in blood but divided by religion, the two women were in some ways uniquely close; in others, poles apart. Championed by English Catholics as the rightful Queen of England, Mary was nevertheless given protection by her cousin after she was deposed amid outrage at her immoral behaviour. Rumours of papist plots involving Mary were rife and Elizabeth was put under extreme pressure to be rid of this dangerous threat to her sovereignty and to the Protestant church in England. After much reluctance and procrastination Elizabeth finally signed Mary's death warrant. Alison Plowden shows how political fear brought out the worst and yet the best in these women, and how history was overshadowed for centuries afterwards.

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Two Queens in One Isle

By Alison Plowden

The History Press

Copyright © 2010 The estate of Alison Plowden
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-6718-4


The Thistle and the Rose

It all began with a peace treaty and a marriage: on 24 January 1502, to be exact, when the English royal family gathered at Richmond Palace to witness the solemn betrothal of Henry VII's eldest daughter Margaret to James IV of Scotland. The King and Queen were accompanied by two of their other children, ten-year-old Henry and six-year-old Mary, and by the Queen's sister Katherine Courtenay. Also present, as befitted so important an occasion, were the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, the Spanish and Venetian ambassadors with their suites, and 'likewise the members of the Privy Council and a great number of the nobles of England' together with their ladies. The Scottish delegation was headed by the Archbishop of Glasgow and Patrick Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, the bridegroom's procurator or proxy.

After attending High Mass and listening to an eloquent sermon preached by the Bishop of Chichester, 'the whole illustrious company' crowded into the Queen's Great Chamber for the betrothal ceremony itself. According to established practice, the Archbishop of Glasgow began by asking all the parties to the marriage contract whether they knew of any impediments or objections. King Henry, speaking for his daughter, then asked whether it was indeed 'the very will, mind and full intent' of the King of Scotland that the Earl of Bothwell should, in his name, 'assure' the princess.

Satisfactory answers having been given to all these questions, the Archbishop turned to Margaret herself to enquire if she was content 'of her own free will, and without compulsion' to wed his master, and received the very proper reply: 'If it pleases my lord and father the King, and my lady and mother the Queen, I am content.' The twelve-year-old bride knelt for her parents' blessing and it was time to exchange the vows.

The Earl of Bothwell repeated that he had been given sufficient power and authority to contract matrimony per verba de presenti on behalf of his sovereign lord, and solemnly plighted King James's faith and troth. Now it was the princess's turn. Standing handfasted with Bothwell, a resplendent figure in cloth of gold, she spoke her piece with perfect self-possession: 'I, Margaret, first begotten daughter of the right excellent, right high and mighty Prince and Princess, Henry, by the grace of God King of England, and Elizabeth, Queen of the same, wittingly and of deliberate mind, having twelve years complete in age in the month of November last past, contract matrimony with the right excellent, right high and mighty Prince James, King of Scotland ... and take the said James, King of Scotland, unto and for my husband and spouse, and all other forsake during his and mine lives natural; and thereto I plight and give to him ... my faith and troth.'

The royal trumpeters, concealed in the rafters of the Great Chamber, sounded a fanfare and the musicians struck up in their 'best and most joyfullest manner.' Although the marriage still had to be sanctified by the Church and it had been agreed that the bride should remain with her parents for another eighteen months, betrothal per verba de presenti — that is, with the promises made in the present tense — represented a legally binding contract, and at the banquet which followed young Margaret took equal precedence with her mother as a married woman and a queen. The festivities went on for three days, with tournaments, 'disguisings', morris dancing and more banquets. Bonfires were lit in the streets of London, the church bells rang out, a solemn Te Deum was sung at St Paul's Cathedral and twelve hogsheads of free wine were provided for the citizens.

The elaborate celebrations which marked Princess Margaret Tudor's fiancels — the lavish indigestible meals, the pageantry, the jousting and dancing and public rejoicing — also marked the successful culmination of nearly seven years of patient diplomacy, during which her father had striven to secure a lasting peace with his next-door neighbours. For centuries Anglo-Scottish relations had been at worst actively hostile, at best in a state of uneasy truce, and a treaty which would safeguard England's vulnerable northern frontier, loosen Scotland's longstanding French connections, as well as putting an end to the perennial nuisance of cross-Border raiding and cattle-stealing, must be a valuable diplomatic achievement. All the same, in spite of the obvious advantages gained by this conversion of the Truce of Ayton into a 'perpetual peace', and the fact that it was common practice to seal such an alliance with a royal marriage, some of King Henry's councillors had had their reservations.

Naturally enough, no one envisaged the sensational consequences which would result from the union of the Thistle and the Rose during the second half of the 16th century; but certain punctilious individuals, trying to look into the impenetrable future, did feel in duty bound to point out that if, by any awful chance, 'the heritage and succession of the realm of England' should pass to Margaret, as the King's elder daughter, 'the kingdom of England would fall to the King of Scotland, which might prejudice the monarchy of England.' Henry, himself a sufficiently cautious and far-sighted political operator, replied that if, God forbid, such a thing were to happen, 'Scotland would be but an accession to England and not England to Scotland, for that the greater would draw the less.' This, as Francis Bacon was to remark, 'passed as an oracle' and silenced the opposition.

In the long run, of course, history proved the King a true oracle, but at the time when the Scottish marriage was under discussion he had two apparently healthy sons to carry on his line and could reasonably have felt that the possibility of 'the succession of the realm' passing to Margaret or her children was remote enough to be disregarded. The difficulties faced by even the most prescient of 16th century statesmen were, however, grimly illustrated three months after the betrothal ceremony at Richmond by the sudden death of the heir to the throne, Arthur, Prince of Wales, at the age of fifteen. Of the seven children so far born to the first Henry Tudor and his wife, Elizabeth of York, only four had survived infancy. In an age of high infant mortality this was not a bad average, but when the Queen died in her eighth childbed in February 1503 the stark fact remained that the future of the House of Tudor now depended on the life of a single boy.

The King never fully recovered from the grief and shock of his double bereavement, but life and politics had to go on and that summer saw him setting out from London to escort his daughter on the first stage of her journey north. It was not thought worthy of any particular comment that Margaret, still five months short of her fourteenth birthday, was about to embark on married life with a man of nearly thirty, whom she had never seen and who was known to be keeping a mistress. All daughters of royal houses were conditioned from babyhood to make marriages of dynastic or diplomatic convenience, and in some ways it seemed as if Margaret Tudor might be getting an unusually good bargain.

James IV was the sixth Stewart king — a dynasty descended from Marjorie, daughter of Robert the Bruce, and her husband Walter, Hereditary High Steward of Scotland — and five years earlier Don Pedro de Ayala, ambassador of the Catholic Kings of Spain, had given an enthusiastic report of his qualities. Good-looking and good company, he was 'of noble stature, neither tall nor short, and as handsome in complexion and shape as a man can be.' He was also pious, intelligent, well-read and a talented linguist, fluent in Latin, French, German, Italian and Spanish. As well as his own Scottish dialect, he spoke Gaelic, 'the language of the savages who live in some parts of Scotland and on the islands' which, according to de Ayala, was 'as different from Scotch as Biscayan is from Castilian.'

'Neither prodigal nor avaricious, but liberal when occasion requires', James was a hard worker with a reputation for being a humane prince, for dispensing even-handed justice and for keeping his word. During his stay in Scotland, the Spanish envoy had himself taken part in one of the numerous Border forays and had been particularly impressed by the King's reckless personal courage. 'I have seen him undertake the most dangerous things in the last wars', he wrote. 'On such occasions he does not take the least care of himself. He is not a good captain, because he begins to fight before he has given his orders. He said to me that his subjects serve him with their persons and goods, in just and unjust quarrels, exactly as he likes, and that, therefore, he does not think it right to begin any warlike undertaking without being himself the first in danger.'

Warlike undertakings apart, just being King of Scotland was a chancy business. None of James's immediate predecessors had died in their beds, and consequently the Stewarts had been plagued by a succession of long minorities, resulting in the transferance of a disproportionate amount of wealth and power into the hands of their nobility — a notoriously factious, greedy and unlikeable body of men. James himself, in his early teens, had been seized by a group of rebellious lords headed by the Home and Hepburn families, and made the figurehead of a rising which ended in his father's murder.

Although not directly implicated in the crime, it has been suggested that his disregard for his own safety, his exaggerated, sometimes morbid piety and frenetic restlessness were caused by a haunting sense of guilt. Certainly these characteristics appear symptomatic of an inner disquiet and perhaps of a general underlying instability but, at the same time, James was undoubtedly a highly gifted individual. His intellectual interests ranged from medicine to music and he was an accomplished all-round athlete. Even more importantly in his circumstances, he had proved himself a strong and competent king, able to impose his authority, superficially at least, on the rough, tough, lawless society he ruled.

Scotland was a poor country and the monarchy chronically short of cash, but when Margaret and her retinue crossed the Border at the beginning of August 1503, James spared no expense in giving her a stylish welcome. National pride demanded that the English should see a civilised people who knew how to honour a royal bride, not poor relations to be despised and patronised.

The King of Scots' shoulder-length red hair and long full beard made him a striking figure in any company, and from the couple's first meeting at Dalkeith on 3 August it was he who dominated the scene with effortless gaiety and charm. The state entry into Edinburgh was brilliantly stage-managed with all the proper trimmings of cloth of gold, velvet and satin richly bejewelled, pageants and tableaux and cheering crowds, and throughout the hectic social round of feasting, dancing, jousting and ceremonial church-going which followed the wedding in St Giles Cathedral, James missed no opportunity of kissing his bride in public and showing her every distinguishing courtesy. Everything, in fact, went off splendidly and the English escort returned home laden with gifts and 'giving great praise, not only to the valour and manhood of the Scottishmen, but also to their good manners, and the hearty entertainment which they received of them.' James had spent a good deal of time conferring privately with the Earl of Surrey, King Henry's lieutenant in the north, and it really looked as if the ancient enmity between the two countries might be over at last.

On a more personal level, the marriage of the Thistle and Rose turned out no more and no less successfully than most marriages of its kind. The new Queen of Scots was a commonplace young woman of no particular brains or beauty, her somewhat stolid exterior concealing a stubborn, headstrong character, a 'great twang' of the Tudor, or rather the Plantagenet temper, a well-developed sense of her own importance and a sharp eye for a grievance. She shared none of James's interests or aspirations and made no attempt to identify herself with his people, but once she had recovered from her first paralysing homesickness and become acclimatised to her new surroundings, she played her part conscientiously enough. As for James, although he soon re-established relations with his current mistress, he proved a good husband by the standards of the day, treating his wife with generosity and consideration, and showing genuine concern over her difficult childbirths, for in this vital department the marriage was definitely unsatisfactory. The virility of the King of Scots was not in question — he had already fathered a sturdy brood of bastard children by a succession of obliging ladies — but his efforts to beget a legitimate heir met with repeated disappointment. Margaret was seriously ill after each of her confinements and of her first four babies only one survived.

By the time this infant, a boy christened James, was born in April 1512 the Anglo-Scottish peace no longer looked so healthy. Old Henry Tudor had died three years earlier and the new King of England, an ebullient, impetuous teenager, his head stuffed with romantic dreams of war and conquest, wasted no time in trumpeting defiance at the French in a remarkable scene which had only needed a tun of tennis balls to give it the authentic medieval flavour. Henry VIII, it seemed, saw himself as another Harry V, only too ready to assume the port of Mars and re-enact the rugged deeds of his ancestors on the vasty fields of France. This inevitably put a severe strain on Scottish good-neighbourliness, for the Auld Alliance was still very much in being — James's lavish entertainment of a grand French embassy in 1508 had made that ostentatiously clear — and if young Henry really intended to re-fight the Hundred Years' War, the King of Scotland was going to find it difficult to remain neutral.

As it turned out, young Henry was reluctantly obliged to curb his impatience for military adventure until the shifting pattern of events abroad gave him the opportunity to join a league of European powers alarmed by France's empire-building activities in northern Italy. By 1512, however, he had all the excuse he needed to sally forth and prove his manhood and James was under strong pressure both from the French and his own subjects, long deprived of their favourite bloodsport, to resurrect the time-honoured custom of invading through England's back door while she was engaged across the Channel. For a time he hesitated, but in the end a touching appeal to his chivalry from the Queen of France outweighed the more practical representations of his own wife and in August 1513, while his brother-in-law was happily occupied playing soldiers in Picardy, he led an army some 20,000 strong across the River Tweed.

The result was an overwhelming defeat for the Scots at Flodden in the wild Border country a few miles south-east of Coldstream. James himself, as usual in the thick of the fighting, was killed 'within a spear's length' of the English commander — the same Earl of Surrey who had been a guest at his wedding ten years before — and with him died twenty-four earls and barons, two bishops, two abbots and about a third of his army. The slaughter of Flodden has become a part of Scottish folklore, but by far the most serious loss in real terms was that of a vigorous, popular adult king. The shattered corpse of the brave and beautiful James IV was carried off the field by the victors, a seventeen-month-old baby succeeded as James V and once again Scotland faced the prospect of a long royal minority.

James IV had appointed his widow as 'tutrix' or guardian of their son and from the English point of view, Margaret, who could be relied on always to put the Tudor interest first, had every qualification for the position of regent. The Scots were understandably less enthusiastic, nor were they reassured by the King of England's ominously proprietorial attitude towards his little nephew. Henry, who was apparently considering reviving the ancient English claim to suzerainty over Scotland, had sent instructions to Lord Dacre, Warden of the East Marches, to 'endeavour what he can to have the young King of Scots placed in the hands of the King of England, who is his natural guardian.'


Excerpted from Two Queens in One Isle by Alison Plowden. Copyright © 2010 The estate of Alison Plowden. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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