Born in the aftermath of the disastrous battle of Flodden, which saw the deaths not only of the king, James IV, but also of swathes of the nobility, including his grandfather, the 2nd Earl of Lennox, Matthew Stuart’s childhood was clouded by feuds and internecine warfare.
In 1526, his father was killed at the battle of Linlithgow Bridge. It was widely believed that his death had been not in battle, but after he had surrendered, at the hands of Sir James Hamilton of Finnart, illegitimate son of the Earl of Arran. It appears Lennox believed the accusation, as avenging his father’s death was one of the chief motivations of his political life.
With the situation in Scotland still febrile, Lennox, aged ten, and one of his brothers, John, were sent to France to be brought up by a branch of the Lennox family that had been settled there since the Hundred Years’ War. Lennox spent some seventeen years in France, and was introduced to military service in the Italian Wars, fighting for King François I against the Emperor Charles V.
In 1543, the political landscape in Scotland shifted, when James V died, leaving a week-old daughter, Mary, as queen. Lennox’ old enemy, the Earl of Arran was appointed as governor, because he was the young queen’s nearest male heir. Lennox disputed this – he claimed Arran was illegitimate (Arran’s mother’s matrimonial history was complex, to say the least.)
François I saw the antipathy between Lennox and Arran as an opportunity. Arran was following a pro-English policy, promoting a marriage between Queen Mary and Prince Edward, son and heir of Henry VIII of England. This would endanger both the traditional Franco-Scots alliance, and the Catholic faith – Arran was flirting with Protestantism.
Lennox was sent home, to promote French interests, and build relationships with the French queen-dowager, Marie of Guise, and Cardinal Beaton, leader of the pro-French faction and Arran’s rival.
The country to which Lennox returned was in turmoil – the pro-English and pro-French factions were at each other’s throats, and many of the pro-English faction were in the employ of Henry VIII – captured after the battle of Solway Moss, they had been obliged to swear to support his policy of domination. Some of these ‘assured lords’ as they were known were, of course, genuinely in favour of improved relations with their southern neighbour, particularly those who leant towards religious reform. Amongst the pro-English faction was the Earl of Angus, who had been banished from Scotland since James V took personal control of his kingdom in 1528 and had been at the court of Henry VIII, along with his daughter, Lady Margaret Douglas, ever since.
On arrival, Lennox refused to recognise Arran as governor, and the factions waxed and waned. It was rumoured that Lennox sought to marry the queen-dowager, and she gave him enough encouragement to keep him on side, and give her an armed escort to take her daughter to Stirling for her coronation in September 1543.
Arran was coming round to a more pro-French position, so Lennox began to look for other ways of opposing him. He began secret talks with the Earl of Angus, and when a shipment of French arms arrived, instead of handing them over to Queen Marie or Cardinal Beaton, he secreted them in his castle of Dumbarton.
Soon after, he came to an agreement with Angus, and through him, with Henry VIII. Abandoning his French allegiance, Lennox swore an oath to Henry at Carlisle on 17th May 1544. He then travelled to London for his reward – marriage to Angus’ daughter, who just happened to be King Henry’s niece.
Lennox and Lady Margaret were married in June 1544 and, despite its political roots, the marriage was one of the happiest of any in the Tudor/Stuart family. They were devoted to each other for the rest of their lives, although they had the grief of losing many children, only two, Henry, Lord Darnley, and Lord Charles Stuart surviving.
For the remainder of Henry’s reign, and the first year of that of Edward VI, Lennox campaigned in the War of the Rough Wooing. He was moderately successful as a commander, but did not score any major victories. His reputation was sullied by his involvement in the hanging of four hostages at Brechin in 1548, although whether he personally ordered it is unclear.
Despite the English victory at the battle of Pinkie, England had neither the money nor the men to hold Scotland, so a peace was patched up – since Queen Mary had been secretly taken to France to marry the dauphin, there was little point in pursuing a war to enforce her marriage to King Edward.
With the coming of peace, Lennox and his wife spent most of their time on the vast northern estates they had been granted by Henry VIII. Lady Lennox was a firm Catholic, and did not like the religious reforms being introduced by Edward VI’s government. Lennox himself seems to have been indifferent to religion – he could just as happily live under a Protestant as a Catholic settlement. What he really cared about was regaining his lands in Scotland, confiscated after his defection in 1544, and gaining revenge over Arran, still acting as governor, although his place was later taken by Queen Marie.
In 1553, the Lennoxes returned to the English court. Mary I, half-sister of Edward VI, was now queen, and her cousin, Lady Lennox, had been one of her closest friends for over twenty years. Lady Lennox was treated as the highest-ranking lady in the country, after the queen, which did not endear her to the queen’s half-sister, Lady Elizabeth.
Queen Mary was willing to promote the cause of Lennox in Scotland, although Mary’s aim was the removal of French influence in Scotland – she would pay for Lennox, if he could overthrow Arran, drive out Queen Marie, and establish himself as king. As a first step, Mary wrote to Queen Marie, requesting the return of Lennox’ lands.
Before anything could come of this somewhat optimistic plan, Mary of England died in November 1558, to be succeeded by her half-sister, Elizabeth, no fan of the Lennoxes, and nervous about their intentions, both religious, and political.
In late 1560, Mary, Queen of Scots, who had briefly been queen of France, was widowed. The Lennoxes saw an opening - they sent their son, Lord Darnley, to take their condolences, and try to strike up a relationship with Mary – perhaps even be considered for her second husband.
The English government got wind of the Lennoxes’ plotting, and the pair were arrested. Lennox was sent to the Tower of London, whilst Lady Lennox was kept under house arrest. She pleaded with the queen for her husband’s release, saying that he suffered from insomnia, and could not cope with being alone. This has been interpreted by some as guilt over the deaths of the hostages in 1544.
In early 1563, Elizabeth relented, and freed the couple. She also permitted Darnley to come to court and showed distinct marks of favour – probably to put the Lennoxes’ rivals for the throne, Lady Katherine and Lady Mary Grey, in their place.
Meanwhile, in Scotland, Mary, Queen of Scots was looking about for a husband. She needed an heir, and she probably wanted moral and emotional support in a very difficult position, as a twenty-two year old Catholic woman, of French upbringing, in the midst of an intensely macho, and now Protestant, court, dominated by her half-brother, Lord James Stewart, soon to be Earl of Moray.
The Lennoxes were ready with a suggestion – Lord Darnley was just the right age, well-educated, and with a respectable claim to the English throne. Initially, Elizabeth thought he might be a possibility, but then she decided to suggest her own ‘favourite’, Lord Robert Dudley.
Lennox was permitted to travel to Scotland, where Queen Mary had agreed to reinstate his earldom and his lands. He requested that Darnley be permitted to join him. Strangely, Elizabeth agreed. It was not until after Darnley had crossed the border that she seems to have changed her mind, and tried to call him back.
Within weeks, it was apparent that Queen Mary was intending to marry Darnley. Lennox was, of course, elated. His son would be King of Scots, and, in the thinking of the time, would soon relegate Queen Mary to a subordinate position. The couple were married in July 1564 – but Lennox was one of the very few supporters of the match – Mary’s other nobles were deeply worried about it, and a rebellion ensued, led by Moray. It was easily put down, but it was a hint of things to come.
Within months of their marriage, Mary and Darnley were at loggerheads. He wanted the Crown Matrimonial (which would have left him as king, in the event of her death), and she resisted. He also became poisonously jealous of Mary’s secretary, David Riccio. Inexperienced, and self-obsessed, Darnley was inveigled into a plot to murder Riccio, and he entered it with enthusiasm, insisting the assassination took place in the presence of his pregnant wife – Lennox either would not, or could not, control his headstrong son.
Following the murder of Riccio, Mary, always quick-thinking, persuaded Darnley to abandon his fellow plotters, and they appeared to be reconciled, at least until the birth of their son, James. Once Darnley had accepted paternity, Mary distanced herself from him, and, since he had betrayed his fellow assassins, Lennox was now his son’s only friend.
In early February 1567, Darnley was assassinated. Lennox was utterly convinced that the Earl of Bothwell was behind it, and that the Queen had connived at the assassination, if she had not been a direct party to it. Devastated by his loss, he badgered Mary to pursue justice, but she appeared reluctant to do so.
Eventually, Lennox was permitted to bring a private prosecution against Bothwell, but, on the day of the trial, he was told he could not bring his supporting troops into Edinburgh. He was aware that Bothwell had numerous armed retainers, so sent a message saying he would not be safe if he entered the city with only the six men allowed. Consequently, with no evidence given, the prosecution failed, and Bothwell was acquitted.
Before long, however, Lennox was vindicated. Mary married Bothwell (whether willingly or not) and was deposed, following the battle of Carberry Hill. She was forced to abdicate and Lennox’ young grandson was crowned King James VI, with Moray as regent. Mary was imprisoned, escaped, was defeated again at Langside, and sought refuge in England.
Lennox continued to hope that his son would be avenged and returned to England to seek help from Elizabeth. The queen was somewhat sympathetic, and listened to his and Lady Lennox’ grief, but would not intervene directly in Scottish affairs. She had given tacit support to Moray, but would not proceed against a fellow-sovereign.
Moray was assassinated in January 1570, and the warring factions – the King’s Party and the Queen’s Party - strove for control. It was suggested that Lennox return to Scotland as regent. Elizabeth was willing to support him, although she detained Lady Lennox and Lord Charles in England.
Lennox finally achieved his ambition of ruling Scotland – but it was a divided nation, and the cost had been the life of his beloved son. The old enmity with Arran continued – Arran and the Hamiltons continued to support Queen Mary and agitate for her return. In a skirmish in Stirling, Lennox was killed, possibly by the Hamiltons, although they insisted it was a shot from one of Lennox’ own party.
His last words were for his wife, whom he had dearly loved, and for his young grandson, James.