Against Your Own Blood

Mary, Queen of Scots and Margaret, Countess of Lennox

Chapter 3 : Grief

Ultimately, it was Elizabeth who let Darnley go to Scotland in 1565 and who reneged on a promise to name Mary her heir if she accepted a suitor of Elizabeth’s choosing, and it was Mary’s choice to wed Darnley. But it was Margaret who had been aiming for it for longer than any other, and she was blamed for it. The anxiety in the language of Elizabeth’s Privy Council reveals just how unsettling the combined actions of Margaret and Mary had proved. On 4 June 1565, they decreed that the marriage showed ‘a plain intention to further the pretended title of the queen of Scots not only to succeed the Queen’s Majesty…but to occupy the Queen’s estate’ and raised the prospect that ‘the Romish religion should be erected and increased daily’ in England. Unable to punish Lennox and Darnley, who were safely north of the border, Elizabeth proceeded against Margaret, imprisoning her in the Tower

Mary — like the monarchs of France and Spain — petitioned Elizabeth on Margaret’s behalf. She wrote to her cousin, pointing out that Margaret was both her mother-in-law and close relative, ‘so tender of blood to her’, and asked Elizabeth to set her free. Elizabeth, as she told Spanish Ambassador de Silva, had no intention of obliging, declaring herself ‘justly indignant with the Queen [Mary] and especially with Lady Margaret, as they had both deceived her’. 

But Elizabeth’s anger towards them was not enough to keep Margaret and Mary united. On paper, Darnley had much to recommend him, but he was a disaster of a husband: lazy, abusive, treacherous. By the spring of 1566, Mary had come to distrust Margaret and Lennox nearly as much as she distrusted their son. At roughly this time, Margaret sent Mary letters which either ‘greatly offended’ her or caused her ‘great sorrow’ — perhaps both. Mary was pregnant and shortly before her confinement, she drew up a will which set out a plan for her child’s regency — a plan that did not include Lennox. When her son James was born, Margaret tried far harder than either Lennox or Darnley to effect a reconciliation. She sent a ‘fair and rich’ bearing-cloth for her grandson’s christening — a christening that neither Darnley nor Lennox deigned to attend. Yet the state of the affairs was clear. Margaret and Mary had each other for their own political ends: blood relatives they might be, but their relationship was, in its own way, as shallow as that of Mary and Darnley. 

The break came on the night of 9 February 1567, when Darnley was murdered at Kirk O’Field. Margaret, stricken by a grief so intense that it looked like madness, was convinced that the Queen of Scots had had a role in Darnley’s death, a conviction that led to an enmity which would last nearly a decade.

Darnley’s death pitted Mary and Margaret against each other. An anonymous English balladeer of Catholic loyalties lamented Darnley’s death and Mary’s public favour towards the Earl of Bothwell as disgraces to the Catholic faith: ‘[T]he Protestants now of every Region/have found delight with shameless voice to cry/behold and mark the fruit of papistry[.]’ Margaret’s imprisonment became one more charge against the Scottish queen: Did not his mother in the Tower sustain/A woeful bale [misfortune] without hope of rescuing?’ 

Mary wed Bothwell, the man suspected of murdering Darnley: she was soon forced to abdicate in favour of her son, James VI, and eventually fled into exile in England. Mary and Margaret each sought to undermine the other’s credibility with Elizabeth. Mary, well aware that Margaret’s promotion of the Darnley marriage had been considered treason, invoked old memories: ‘It is not only from this hour that she [Margaret] had had a bad opinion of queens: because she is so much an enemy to me...when it shall please you, I will tell her teachings before you.’ Margaret, for her part, commissioned a painting entitled The Memorial of Lord Darnley, which juxtaposed images of James VI and the Lennox-Stewarts praying for vengeance with Mary’s defeat at Carberry Hill. 

Mary tried but failed to reach an entente. Not long before Lennox was named regent for his grandson, Margaret received a letter from her niece, who lamented that she ‘had not only as it were condemned me wrongfully but so hated as by your words and deeds hath testified to all the world a manifest misliking in you against your own blood’. Mary had an olive branch — she asked Margaret’s advice about James, promising to ‘love you as my aunt, and respect you as my mother-in-law’, not ‘showing therein any unkindness to you, how unkindly that ever you have dealt with me’. Margaret was unmoved, and Lennox, as regent, was a ruthless persecutor of Mary’s allies, and swiftly lost his life fighting them. Reconciliation seemed impossible. 

Yet Mary and Margaret did reconcile, although just when they did is difficult to say. Shortly after Margaret’s death, Mary wrote that the two of them had been ‘very well reconciled…for the past five or six years’ which would mean they came to an understanding in 1572 or 1573. That would predate the 1574 marriage of Margaret’s son Charles to Elizabeth Cavendish, daughter of Bess of Hardwick and stepdaughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury, Mary’s gaoler. Elizabeth’s advisors were convinced Mary had something to do with this match, and yet again, Margaret was imprisoned in the Tower. There are, however, issues with this timeline. Mary and Margaret both denied it, and the French ambassador thought the English had completely misread the situation, as Mary feared that Margarethaving made friends with the countess of Shrewsbury would make her [Bess] an enemy of the Queen of Scotland’. It was in 1575 that a deathbed confession surfaced from Mary’s third husband, Bothwell, exonerating Mary of Darnley’s murder. Even though this was a forgery, it was an effective one, and has traditionally been seen as the trigger for Mary and Margaret’s reconciliation: it is only after this that we have evidence of correspondence between Mary and Margaret. The most plausible explanation remains that the confession convinced Margaret of Mary’s innocence and that Mary later confused the dates. 

But reconcile they did, exchanging letters and tokens — Margaret, an accomplished needleworker, gave Mary a piece of lace woven from her own white hair — and they both hoped to see James VI brought up in the Catholic faith. This is especially clear in her views on James’s religious education. In November 1577, Mary wrote to the Archbishop of Glasgow of her fear that James would be brought to England, and the hope she and Margaret shared that James would be ‘securely taken into France’, to be raised by Mary’s relatives. They were once more united by faith and by dynastic dreams for their family.

Among the detailed genealogical inscriptions on Margaret’s tomb is a reference to ‘her Neece and Daughter in Law Mary Q. of Scots’. It only hints at the complexity of their relationship — not only their descent from Margaret Tudor, their common religion, and their British ambitions for James VI, but also their unintentional rivalry, their enmity, and their final, whole-hearted reconciliation. And while they never met in life, Mary and Margaret are buried side by side in Westminster Abbey.