Against Your Own Blood

Mary, Queen of Scots and Margaret, Countess of Lennox

Chapter 2 : Planning a Marriage

When Margaret was twenty-seven, her half-brother died, leaving his newborn daughter, Mary, to inherit the Scottish throne. Henry was determined to marry his infant great-niece to his son, a policy that would secure his northern border and unite his elder sister’s line with his own. Their new monarchy would be, if not ideologically Protestant, at least not allied with Rome. This concept of an island-wide monarchy under one religion would join Margaret and Mary’s fates for the rest of Margaret’s life. She had her own role in this campaign: she agreed to marry Matthew Stewart, Earl of Lennox, securing his allegiance to Henry, and she tried to persuade her father, Angus, to rejoin the English side that he had abandoned. Margaret kept trying to win her father back even after Henry had died and Mary had gone to France and become engaged to the Dauphin.  

Shortly before his death, however, Henry forged a final link between Margaret and Mary. By parliamentary statute, he had the authority to designate an order of succession in his will, and he used it: his son would succeed, followed by his eldest daughter, Mary, then by his youngest, Elizabeth, and then by the heirs of his younger sister, Mary Tudor, Duchess of Suffolk. Only if all his children and the entire Suffolk line died without legitimate issue would the crown pass to ‘the next rightful heirs’. Mary, Queen of Scots, Margaret Douglas, and her son Henry, Lord Darnley, had all been demoted, a fact that would recur to challenge their claims to the throne.  

Yet Henry’s will was only one factor in the succession debate. Religion, statute, monarchical and political support all counted too, as did the chief criterion: dynastic right. For all that Mary and Margaret were connected by blood and by the will, their separate claims to the throne made them unintentional rivals during the reign of Henry’s daughter, Mary I. Shortly after her accession and before her marriage, the queen met with her confidants to discuss the line of succession. In the view of Spanish ambassador Renard, Mary, Queen of Scots was the obvious heir, but Mary I thought Margaret was ‘best suited’ to be the next monarch. Margaret often took precedence over Elizabeth at Mary I’s court — indeed, her rooms were above Elizabeth's and the younger woman had to put up with the overhead noise from Margaret’s large retinue. But Mary, determined to have a child of her own — and convinced that she would — made no formal effort to redirect the succession. When she died in 1558, the crown was Elizabeth’s.

To some observers, the Queen of Scots and Margaret each had a better title to the English throne than Elizabeth. In France, Mary and her husband were called king and queen of England and England’s heraldic arms were added to Mary’s own, though on the initiative of Mary’s relatives rather than of the queen. In England, Lennox’s former secretary Thomas Bishop claimed — although it should be noted he detested Margaret — that she had told her household that one or the other of Henry VIII’s daughters was illegitimate, and there was no doubting which: ‘As for Queen Mary, she said all the world knew that she was lawful, and for herself, she desired nothing but her right.’ Margaret’s servants believed as she did, exulting in the knowledge that ‘their mistress should rule ere long and they should have the ball at their foot’. 

But Margaret became more concerned with her son’s hope of succession than her own. Henry, Lord Darnley is often portrayed as an arriviste, an obscure Englishman who had the good looks and good luck to catch the Queen of Scots’s eye. In fact, he was an English-born, male descendant of Henry VII and a potential heir to two Scottish earldoms and extensive estates in northern England. Moreover, he had grown up a Catholic, surrounded by the rhythms, prayers, and material culture of traditional religion — the religion Mary and Margaret shared.  

On 5 December 1560, Mary’s sixteen-year-old husband died, and Margaret saw her moment. Her messengers met Mary as soon as she emerged from mourning. Within weeks, there were reports that Margaret was positioning Darnley to become Mary’s husband. Spanish Ambassador De Quadra wrote that ‘Margaret Lennox is trying to marry her son Lord Darnley to the queen of Scotland, and I understand she is not without hope of succeeding’.  Over the next four years, Margaret worked to cast her son as Mary’s best marital option. She shored up connections with Catholic nobles in England and enlisted sympathetic reformers and her own co-religionists in Scotland. She made the case for Darnley to the Catholic monarchs of Europe, especially to Philip II of Spain — the widower of her close cousin Mary I, for whom Margaret had named one of her short-lived sons. 

More than anybody else, Margaret had to convince the niece whom she had never met. According to Bishop, they kept up a correspondence, in which Margaret told the queen ‘what a godly thing it were to have both the realms in one, meaning the question of her son to the Scots queen, who then should be both king of England and Scotland’ — although he also declared that they carefully burnt the letters. We can be more certain that Mary and Margaret met each other’s messengers: Arthur Lallart, Darnley’s schoolmaster, had an impromptu audience with the queen, and Sir James Melville came to England in 1564, meeting with Elizabeth but also tasked with the ‘secret charge’ of meeting Margaret. He helped her send gifts to friends and relatives in Scotland, including a diamond ring for Mary

By the end of 1564, English diplomat Thomas Randolph was sending anxious reports home from Scotland about Lennox, Darnley, and Margaret. He feared that if Darnley wed the Queen of Scots, the Countess of Lennox — ‘more feared a great deal than beloved of any that knoweth her’ — would become the power behind the throne: she would ‘bear that stroke with her [Mary] that she bore with Queen Mary, which she is like to do’.