The Lost Tudor Princess: The Life of Lady Margaret Douglas by Alison Weir


  “The Hasty Marriage”

  By November 1573 the likelihood of the forty-year-old Queen Elizabeth marrying and bearing an heir was becoming increasingly remote. As Margaret knew from bitter experience, many children died young, and she had only the one grandson, James VI, in line for the English succession. It was therefore important to secure a suitable, and preferably rich, bride for her son Charles, now sixteen. It has been suggested that Charles may have been manifesting symptoms of the tuberculosis that was to kill him, and that Margaret was perhaps aware that it was imperative that he marry and beget an heir as soon as possible.1

  Margaret herself was fifty-eight, and given the tragedies that had wrecked her life, it might have been expected that she would have retired from the political arena for a quieter existence; but ambition was still lively in her, and by that November, in pursuance of a marriage for Charles, she had involved herself in yet another fateful and potentially dangerous intrigue, and was plotting with two old acquaintances. One was that redoubtable matriarch and arch-intriguer, Bess of Hardwick, Countess of Shrewsbury, one of the wealthiest women in the kingdom and in high favor with the Queen, who once said of her, “there is no lady in this land that I better love and like.”2 The other was Katherine Willoughby, the Dowager Duchess of Suffolk. The three of them were intent on a match between Charles and Elizabeth Cavendish, aged eighteen, Bess’s remaining marriageable daughter from her second marriage, to Sir William Cavendish. Elizabeth had recently been disappointed by the latest in a line of suitors, Peregrine Bertie, the Duchess of Suffolk’s son by her second marriage,3 who had preferred another lady.4

  Referring on November 5, 1574, to the marriage being planned by Margaret, Bess and Lady Suffolk, Bess’s fourth husband, George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, stated that it “hath been in talk betwixt them more than a year past.” By his own admission, he was well aware of what was being discussed, and in favor of the match, having done what he could to further it.5

  The two matriarchs, Margaret and Bess, had strong motives for forging this union. Bess wanted all her children to marry well, and Charles, with his royal blood, was highly eligible, of greater birth than the “sundry” young men6 who had rejected the hand of Elizabeth Cavendish; moreover, he had claims to both the English and Scottish thrones. No wonder the ambitious Bess wanted him as a son-in-law. She too may have suspected that Charles might not live long,7 and she undoubtedly foresaw the heady possibility of her grandchild one day wearing two crowns.

  Elizabeth Cavendish was not as suitable a bride for Charles as many girls of higher birth: his great-grandfather had been a king, hers a clerk of the Exchequer, his father an earl, hers a knight.8 But she had apparently wealthy parents who could be expected to provide a substantial dowry, which must have brought a gleam to the penurious Margaret’s eye. As her letter to Leicester quoted below shows, she had hoped for a better match, but financial need was a deciding factor. Yet in this she was ultimately destined to be disappointed, and it was Bess who got the better bargain.

  The Duchess of Suffolk visited Bess at Chatsworth in the spring of 1573, when the marriage would almost certainly have been discussed. She probably felt obliged to help with finding another husband for Elizabeth Cavendish, given that her own son would not wed the girl. But there was more to the matter than that, for it has been suggested that the Queen of Scots herself was involved in the marriage negotiations. Elizabeth Cavendish was close to Queen Mary, and a marriage between the two young people would ally Margaret to Mary’s cause and open up a channel of communication between them. Margaret, of course, was unable to contact Mary openly, and was probably concerned to maintain the pretense that they were still enemies. But if Mary was instrumental in bringing the marriage about, she may have hoped that it would be seen as tangible evidence that Margaret no longer believed that she had murdered Darnley, and was now her friend.9

  What is incredible is that, according to Shrewsbury, this marriage that might have produced new heirs to the throne was “not thought of as a matter worth her Majesty’s hearing.”10 Margaret, who has been described as “a survivor of nearly sixty years of intrigue and catastrophe,”11 had seemingly learned little from her previous experiences, and not given sufficient thought to the consequences of committing what was, after all, a crime. As she should have known—for it was her misconduct that had led to the passing of the Act of Attainder in 1536—arranging the marriage of a youth of royal blood without the permission of the Crown might well have been construed as high treason. It was a debatable matter whether Charles Stuart came under the remit of the Act—cousins of the sovereign were not specified—but at the very least Margaret must have realized that the Queen would almost certainly have forbidden the match. Elizabeth did not like her heirs marrying and having children who could challenge her throne; Margaret had only to remember what had happened to her cousin, Katherine Grey, dead these five years after spending her life in captivity, separated from her husband and one of her sons. But, heedless as ever of the consequences, she pressed ahead with her plans.

  Conveniently, in the autumn of 1574, Margaret’s hopes of rearing her eight-year-old grandson James sprang anew. The Council had “unanimously agreed” that the sons of Katherine Grey were illegitimate, and that the lawful heir to Queen Elizabeth was James VI. They were therefore putting great pressure on the Scots to send the boy to be raised in England, having “adopted the expedient of giving him up to the Countess of Lennox, his grandmother.”12 Never one to waste an opportunity, Margaret decided that she and Charles would travel north at once, so that she could be at hand to welcome James. She asked for Elizabeth’s permission to go, saying that she also needed to visit her estates in Yorkshire. The French ambassador, Fénélon, who had not been informed of the reason for her journey, suspected “that she has no other purpose than to transfer the little Prince into England.”13 But he was wrong.

  Elizabeth gave her permission, but then Margaret told her that she might visit her friend, the Duchess of Suffolk, at Chatsworth. “At my coming from her Majesty,” Margaret wrote later to Leicester, “I perceived that she misliked of my lady of Suffolk being at Chatsworth”14—and no wonder, for the Queen of Scots was then staying there, in Shrewsbury’s custody. By September 1574, Elizabeth had heard rumors of the détente between the two great protagonists, Margaret and Mary, and her suspicions were now further aroused. It seemed inconceivable that Margaret, who had so vehemently demanded vengeance on Mary, should secretly have been reconciled to her. Was Margaret plotting against Elizabeth once more?

  The Council concluded that Mary was seeking to appease Margaret by offering to broker an advantageous marriage for Charles Stuart. Elizabeth feared that Margaret might collude in Mary’s endless plotting. As Margaret recounted to Leicester, “I asked her Majesty, if I were bidden thither [to Chatsworth], for that had been my wonted way before, if I might go. She prayed me not, lest it should be thought I should agree with the Queen of Scots. And I asked her Majesty if she could think so, for I was made of flesh and blood and could never forget the murder of my child; and she said, marry, by her faith, she could not think so, that ever I could forget it, for if I would I were a devil.”15

  Margaret kept her word; like Elizabeth, she was never to meet Mary. Yet her journey was not to be uneventful, and its outcome would prove to be almost as dangerous as conspiring with the Queen of Scots.

  On October 4 the Council arranged for “the taking up of two teams of horses or oxen, with their furniture, for the moving of the Lady Lennox’s stuff from Hackney unto her manor of Temple Newsam in Yorkshire.”16 Margaret left London on October 9 and “was already on the road to receive” her grandson as soon as Morton and the Scottish Council agreed to give him up when she learned that they had refused. “The Scotch people were so much disturbed at this, that they were already crying out that, if the Prince is surrendered to the English, they will murder all the nobles, as the only object is to kill the Prince and his mother.”17 Marga
ret must have been deeply disappointed. She had never set eyes on her grandson, and doubtless longed to do so.

  On the road toward Yorkshire, Margaret came to Grimsthorpe Castle, the Lincolnshire seat of Lady Suffolk.18 Here, needing to rest her mules,19 she sought the Duchess’s hospitality. But Lady Suffolk had already informed Bess that Lady Lennox “meant to come to her house in the north, and that she would bring her to Chatsworth if she could entreat her to, but if she could not, herself would [i.e. go to Chatsworth].” Since Queen Mary was at Chatsworth, the Shrewsburys “thought better” that Margaret and Charles should visit them at their house, Rufford Abbey, in Sherwood Forest, “and made that home ready.”20

  What happened next was to be related by Margaret and others at a time when she and Bess were suspected of conspiring treason, and were therefore concerned to portray their actions as innocent. On the face of it these accounts suggest that Margaret was unwittingly bounced into a situation in which she could not but consent to her son’s marriage—but we know, of course, that she had been planning it for nearly a year. It is likely therefore that when she traveled north, she had already arranged for her son to be married, and how this was to be achieved, but that the fallout from the marriage made her tell a different story.

  Margaret was to recount that when she and Charles left Grimsthorpe, the Duchess “friendly brought me on the way to Grantham, and so departed home again.”21 Margaret and Charles stayed for at least one night at Grantham,22 then Margaret seems to have gone ahead alone to Newark.23 Possibly Charles was unwell, and she was seeking out a suitable lodging. Bess, meanwhile, was now “by chance” installed with her daughter thirty miles away at Rufford Abbey, and hearing (no doubt from Lady Suffolk) “of their being at Grantham, sent the next day” her servant Henry Camen “to desire them both to come to Rufford.” At Grantham, Camen found Charles alone and “loth to come,” and it took great persuasion to get him to consent.24 Probably he had wanted to wait for his mother’s sanction for the diversion.

  Camen and the reluctant Charles caught up with Margaret at Newark25 and pressed her to break her journey and stay a night with Bess at Rufford Abbey, or at least to travel by a route that lay within a mile of it, which Camen said was a better way north. Apparently undecided, Margaret took that road, but then, as she later recalled to Leicester, there was Bess herself, riding forward to greet her. Having been “very earnestly requested, and the place not one mile distant out of my way, yea, and a much better way, as is well to be proved, and my lady meeting me herself along the way, I could not refuse, it being near upon thirty miles from Sheffield. And as it was well known to all the country thereabouts that great provision was there made both for my Lady Suffolk and me.”26 In referring to “all the country,” Margaret probably meant all the landed families in the county—people who would have known Bess and taken an interest in her doings. Shrewsbury even informed Burghley of Margaret’s visit.27

  It was the middle of October when Bess brought Margaret and Charles to Rufford Abbey, a former Cistercian monastery owned and converted into a fine residence by the Shrewsburys.28 There, Shrewsbury was to recount, Margaret was “sickly” and rested for five days, keeping mostly to her chamber; and while she was doing so, Charles fell into “such liking” with Elizabeth Cavendish that Bess was prompted to tell her husband that there was no doubt of a match between them. In fact Charles and Elizabeth had “so tied,” or precontracted, themselves that they “cannot part.” Charles was “so far in love that belike he is sick without her.”29

  Margaret was also to assert, in similar terms, that the young couple had fallen headily in love, but the two countesses had clearly colluded to bring together their unsupervised children, who must have been given their instructions. Probably Bess had made herself busy—and scarce—looking after her ailing guest, and so Charles and Elizabeth had plenty of scope for trysting: A sheriff of Nottingham described Rufford as “a confused labyrinth, underneath all vaults, above entries, closets, oratories…I was never so puzzled in my life.”30 It has been pointed out that had Bess not wanted her daughter to marry Charles, her chaperonage would have been “Argus-eyed.”31 Indeed, as Margaret later wrote (see below), Charles had so “entangled himself that he could have none other”—no doubt as he had been told to do. Possibly, on the strength of the precontract, he had relieved Elizabeth of her virginity. Either way, marriage was now a necessity.

  If love had flowered, which is by no means certain, it was the perfect outcome to what the two matriarchs had contrived, and they proceeded to the marriage. Rapid secret negotiations ensued, in which the Queen of Scots may have involved herself, writing at this time, and possibly seeking foreign support, to the Bishop of Ross, Antonio de Guaras (a Spanish merchant and banker resident in London, who had been acting as chargé d’affaires at the Spanish embassy after Spes had been expelled from England in 1572 for his involvement in the Ridolfi plot), and Antonio Fogaza, a Portuguese spy with connections to the Spanish embassy.32

  If, when she learned of the marriage, the Queen expressed concern, the intention was to present it as the necessary consequence of a love affair that had gone too far. The wedding took place soon after November 533 in the chapel of Rufford Abbey, with only a handful of witnesses present.34 Shrewsbury, the bride’s stepfather, was not among them; he only learned of the marriage after it was a fait accompli, but he was pleased to see his stepdaughter so well matched, and later stated that he was “well at quiet, for there is few noblemen’s sons in England that she hath not prayed me to deal for at one time or other; so did I for my Lord Rutland, my Lord Sussex, for my Lord Wharton and sundry others.”35

  Margaret was probably dismayed to discover that her new daughter-in-law brought with her no dowry after all. Shrewsbury was perennially short of funds, having had largely to finance his royal prisoner out of his own pocket, and Bess was land-rich but cash-poor, as what she owned was vested in her sons. The best she could give Margaret was a loan. When Bess did eventually insist that her husband provide a dowry, he protested that, as he had known nothing of the marriage, he should not have to pay anything. At length, “by brawling,” Bess got him to agree to bestow £3,000 (£520,600), although there is no record of it ever being paid.36 But that was the least of Margaret’s troubles.

  Predictably news of the marriage provoked the Queen’s wrath, for if Elizabeth Cavendish bore a son he would have a sounder claim than the alien James VI to the English succession.37 The Queen felt threatened; she was convinced that the marriage had been part of a sinister conspiracy against her throne, and expressed her belief that the Queen of Scots had been “a party to the treason.”38 On November 17, Margaret was summoned immediately to London with her son and his bride to answer for their actions.

  Realizing the enormity of what she had done, Margaret was in great fear, and Shrewsbury nearly fainted when he learned of the Queen’s displeasure. Early in November he sent a letter seeking the Earl of Leicester’s support, and on the 5th he wrote to Burghley, in fear that he and Bess would be arrested, “for that my wife sought the marriage of her daughter, as oft she before hath done.” He recounted how Margaret had come to be at Rufford, and reminded Burghley that

  when we heard that the lady of [Lennox] was coming to Grimsthorpe, I made a full account of both their comings, and took occasion of small matter to write unto your lordship. As for the motion of marriage between the Duchess’ [sic] son and my wife’s daughter, it was not [blank] nor hid from the world. It hath been in talk betwixt them more than a year past, and not thought of as a matter worth her Majesty’s hearing. To be plain with your lordship, I wished the match, and put to my helping hand to further it, and was contented, by my Lady Suffolk’s great entreat[ing], to suffer my wife for that purpose to accompany her to Grimsthorpe; and at her return she thought it in good forwardness, and so hoped…and this is all the dealing I know of that Lord [Charles].

  Shrewsbury went on to describe in detail what had happened at Rufford. It had been no more than an innocent
love affair that had led to a necessary wedding. “And now this comes unlooked-for and without thanks to me. Thus have I at large particularly made account of these ladies and their dealings at my houses, for your lordship’s full knowledge.” He had been “tedious” in relating everything he knew “concerning those ladies,” hoping that Burghley would “as friendly satisfy her Majesty in all these things,” and he ended by saying that he and Bess wished his lordship “heartily well.”39

  Her Majesty was not friendly or satisfied. News of the marriage had caused a sensation at court, and enemies of the protagonists were ready to pounce. It is clear that there was a whispering campaign aimed at bringing down the Shrewsburys, if not Margaret too. By December 2 the Earl was beginning to panic. He wrote again to Burghley: “I am advised that the late marriage of my wife’s daughter is not well taken in the court, and there are some conjectures, more than well brought to her Majesty’s ears, in ill part against my wife.” He asked Burghley to counter such talk.40


  Margaret’s journey south to London was terrible, as her little party battled gales, sleet and floods. Even so, they were in no hurry to reach their destination, for Margaret was deeply fearful of what the Queen might do next. On December 3, marooned at Huntingdon, she wrote to Leicester, who had been sympathetic toward her in the past but had now sent her “a letter of small comfort”:

  My very good lord,

  The great unquietness and trouble that I have had with passing these dangerous waters [floods], which hath many times enforced me to leave my way, which hath been some hindrance unto me that hitherto I have not answered your lordship’s letters chiefly on that point wherein your lordship, with other my friends (as your lordship says) seems ignorant how to answer for me. And being forced to stay this present Friday in Huntingdon, somewhat to refresh myself and my over-laboured mules, that are both crooked and lame with their extreme labor by the way, I thought good to lay open before your lordship, in these few lines, what I have to say for me touching my going to Rufford to my lady of Shrewsbury.

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