Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. This book illuminates the life of Margaret Douglas, and how she was an important and influential woman whose life spanned five Tudor reigns. Why do you think she became “lost” to history?
2. How did the Earl of Angus’s decision to send his daughter Margaret to the English court impact her future?
3. Margaret had illicit love affairs and got involved in dangerous political plots. To what extent was she different from other royal women of her time? What allowed her to behave as she did?
4. How did Margaret view marriage in regard to both herself and her son Lord Darnley? Was it for personal or political gain?
5. Why did Margaret pose a threat to the rulers of England and Scotland?
6. Did you agree with the author’s interpretation of the love poems -between Margaret and Thomas Howard? Such source material is a gift to historians; did the poems enhance your enjoyment of the book?
7. Margaret was lady–in–waiting for four of Henry’s six wives. With her extensive exposure to the throne, what kind of queen do you think she would have been?
8. Margaret was sent to the Tower several times, yet managed to survive each time, while so many who shared that fate did not. Why do you think she was never condemned to death or simply left there to die?
9. How might British history have played out differently if Margaret Douglas had never lived?
10. What is your opinion of Lennox? Do you admire him? Why or why not?
11. This story is full of religious rivalries and intolerance between -Protestants and Catholics. How would you compare religious conflict during the Tudor period to the religious hostilities that divide our contemporary world?
12. What do you see as the reason for the years of rivalry and chilly relations between Queen Elizabeth I and Margaret Douglas? Did they really hate each other, or was there admiration on either or both sides?
13. How can you account for the astonishing reconciliation between Margaret and Mary, Queen of Scots? Are you convinced by the author’s explanation?
14. Do you think there is any truth to the allegations that Margaret was poisoned? If not, how did the tale come about?
15. How would you describe Margaret’s life? A tragedy? A fiasco of her own making? Or the ultimate triumph of dynastic diplomacy?
About this Author
What Really Happened to Lord Darnley?
Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, husband to Mary, Queen of Scots and son to Lady Margaret Douglas, was Scotland’s king consort from 1565 until his murder in 1567. In this piece, Alison Weir examines the controversial circumstances of his murder.
In January 1567, Mary, Queen of Scots, left Glasgow with her husband, Lord Darnley, who had been lying ill with syphilis. It had been decided that he should convalesce at Craigmillar Castle outside Edinburgh, where he would be securely protected from the vengeance of the lords he had betrayed after the murder of Mary’s secretary, David Rizzio, in March 1566. Recently returned from exile in England, they were out for his blood.
As the royal couple approached Edinburgh, the Earl of Bothwell came to meet them to escort them to Craigmillar. But at the last minute, either out of fear that he might be imprisoned or murdered behind the castle’s stout walls, or because Craigmillar was inconvenient for his own plans, Darnley declared he did not wish to complete his convalescence there, and it was decided that he should go instead to the Old Provost’s Lodging, a two–story house within the quadrangle of a church called Kirk O’Field. Near the city, the house was “in good air where he might best recover his health.” The hasty preparations made for Darnley’s reception confirm that this was a last–minute change of plans.
The question of who chose Kirk O’Field as his lodging is crucial. His servant, Thomas Nelson, expected Darnley to be lodged in the Duke of Châtelherault’s mansion at Kirk O’Field, and evidently Darnley did too, but Mary insisted on taking him to another house in the quadrangle, the Old Provost’s Lodging, which Darnley “in no wise liked of.” Nelson’s account has been questioned on the grounds that it is unlikely that Darnley would have wanted to stay in the house of Châtelherault, his family’s greatest enemy, but it might have given him a sense of smug satisfaction to think that he could appropriate his adversary’s fine mansion: he was the King, and would expect to be lodged in the best house available.
His father, Lennox, later claimed that, when Darnley complained that he disliked the Old Provost’s Lodging, Mary “took him by the hand and said that the rooms were more easy and handsome for him, and also for her, that there passed a privy way between the palace and it, where she might always resort unto him till he was whole of his disease”; at which Darnley agreed to stay there.
Mary’s great critic, George Buchanan, later implied that she had an underhanded purpose. But there is evidence that Kirk O’Field was not the Queen’s choice. Her secretary, Claude Nau, who may have got his information from Mary herself, states that Darnley chose Kirk O’Field himself, and that this was against the Queen’s wishes. She had been anxious to take him to Craigmillar, for he could not stay in Holyrood Palace, the official royal residence in Edinburgh, lest he should give the infection to their infant son, Prince James. Craigmillar was in a healthy location where Darnley would be safe from his enemies and isolated from anyone who was conspiring against him.
Having agreed to her husband’s lodging at Kirk O’Field, Mary selected the Old Provost’s Lodging as the most suitable residence; it was lying empty, while the Duke’s house was at present occupied. It is not implausible that Mary chose the Old Provost’s Lodging on the advice of Sir William Maitland, her Secretary of State, who may have had an ulterior motive in choosing it. He had been plotting to get rid of Darnley since December. The house was in a quiet location and could be approached by the “privy way” that Mary referred to: a back route through the grounds of the nearby Blackfriars monastery, which gave access to a lane leading to Kirk O’Field. Security would be easy to breach.
So we know that the house at Kirk O’Field was prepared in a hurry after the last–minute decision to change the King’s lodgings. The furniture was delivered on February 1, the day Darnley took up residence. Tapestries, hangings, carpets, furnishings, and supplies were quickly carted up from Holyrood Palace.
Kirk O’Field lay on a hill to the south of Edinburgh; it stood just inside the city wall and three–quarters of a mile from Holyrood Palace, in a semi–rural location, “environed with pleasant gardens, and removed from the noise of the people.” The Old Provost’s Lodging was a spacious and well–appointed residence. Behind it was a little courtyard and the twenty-four–foot-high Flodden Wall that surrounded Edinburgh. Darnley’s bedchamber was on the second floor; it had a timber gallery with a window that projected over the Flodden Wall. Beyond it lay the walled south garden and orchard, surrounded by open fields.
When Mary stayed at the house, she slept in a bedchamber directly below Darnley’s. The single–storied Prebendaries’ Chamber, which adjoined the house, served as her presence chamber. Mary’s courtiers would gather there when she visited Darnley. The kitchen was in the cellar.
During his stay at Kirk O’Field, Darnley was attended by his valet, William Taylor, Thomas Nelson, two grooms, and household servants. Surprisingly, no mention of guards for the King is made in any source, which seems unusual. Both he and Mary knew that his enemies had been conspiring to take his life, and it is curious that he did not demand guards, and that Mary did not provide them. The lack of such protection left him dangerously exposed to an attack.
So what did happen at Kirk O’Field on the fateful night of February 10, 1567? And how did Darnley die? There have been many theories, but this is what probably happened:
The plot to kill Darnley was masterminded by two Protestant lords, Sir William Maitland and Mary’s half brother, the Earl of Moray, Maitland being the active partner, Moray the passive one, but the ultimate beneficiary. Their motive was to rid Scotland of a troublesome Catholic activist and hopefully implicate their enemy, Bothwell, who had been brought into the plot in December. Once Darnley and Bothwell were out of the way, Moray and Maitland would enjoy unchallenged political influence.
Bothwell, not suspecting that he was to be framed, soon became the leading participant in the plot, having secretly conceived an ambition to marry the Queen once her husband was out of the way. There had been no opportunity for the conspirators to carry out their plans until Darnley returned to Edinburgh early in 1567. The lords soon realized that the Old Provost’s Lodging was ideal for their purpose.
The lords had decided to use gunpowder to blow up the house so that all evidence of the murder would be destroyed. The gunpowder was brought to Kirk O’Field on the evening of February 9. Once the kitchen staff had gone home, the Old Provost’s Lodging was undermined, as perhaps was the Prebendaries’ Chamber. The men who transported the powder and laid the explosives were henchmen of Bothwell’s who later made depositions as to their guilt, although these depositions were undoubtedly manipulated by men who had secrets to hide. Bothwell almost certainly would have returned to Kirk O’Field after midnight, and it is possible that other conspirators were with him.
Bothwell must have returned to Holyrood prior to the planned explosion. He was sheriff of Edinburgh and might well be called upon after the blast was heard. He could have gone back to the palace over the ruined wall near the Blackfriars monastery, and thence by the gardens along the Cowgate.
Gunpowder being unpredictable, Darnley’s kinsman Archibald Douglas and his men were on hand to apprehend Darnley should he by any chance escape, which is what appears to have happened.
Darnley may have been awoken by suspicious noises outside caused by the assassins beating a hasty retreat after lighting the slow fuse(s), or by the “many armed men round the house.” Fearing that he was in -danger, he panicked and begged his valet, Taylor, to help him get out of the house. Together, by means of a rope and a chair, they climbed out of the window that gave onto the Flodden Wall and lowered themselves to the ground below. Darnley took with him a dagger, and Taylor his master’s nightgown and a quilt or cloak. Before escaping, they may have tried to awaken Thomas Nelson and others, who slept in a gallery, but time was against them and self–preservation upper-most in their minds.
It is possible that, in escaping from the window, Darnley either fell to the ground or jumped and hurt himself—-this would account for the severe internal injuries discovered during a post–mortem examination. It has been suggested that Darnley and Taylor were thrown clear by the explosion, then strangled outside, since being hurtled from the exploding house would also account for Darnley’s injuries. But while there is good evidence that a man can be thrown clear of an explosion and left unmarked, it is inconceivable that two men, who were sleeping in different places in the bedchamber, would have been blasted in the same direction and survived without a blemish. It is also inconceivable that several objects and items of clothing would have been found lying neatly beside them. Most people, including, probably, Mary, believed that “the King’s body was blown into the garden by the violence of the explosion, and a poor English valet of his, who slept in the same room, was there killed.” But this would not account for witnesses in nearby cottages overhearing a man pleading with his kinsmen for mercy.
Probably in great pain, Darnley, followed by Taylor, began making his way across the orchard, but Archibald Douglas and his men suddenly emerged from those cottages and seized them. This was when Darnley, realizing that their intent was murderous, cried, “Pity me, kinsmen, for the love of Him who had pity on all the world!” But the Douglases were out for revenge, and in no way inclined to mercy. They suffocated both Darnley and Taylor, perhaps with the nightrobe and the quilt. A Captain Cullen, who apparently later confessed to taking part in the murder, testified that “the King was long a–dying, and in his strength made debate for his life.” After the double murder, the assassins made off toward Blackfriars Wynd, where they were seen by two housewives. As soon as they had disappeared, the house blew up.
One of Bothwell’s accomplices, James Ormiston, was clearly unaware of Darnley’s actual fate, and was to declare, “As I shall answer to my God, I knew nothing but that he was blown up.” He swore that other accomplices thought the same. He was adamant that the King had not been handled by any man’s hands. One of Bothwell’s men, facing execution, stated that there had been no more than nine people present at the murder, and if Darnley were handled by anyone, it was not one of them. Bothwell, when he went to view the bodies the next morning, seemed astonished that there was no mark on them, and was probably not aware at that point that the explosion had not killed them. Whether he ever found out the truth from the Douglases is uncertain—-and unlikely. Most official versions of the murder, and even Bothwell’s own account, which naturally makes no mention of his own involvement, asserted that Darnley had been blown up with the house.
There can be little doubt that Darnley’s assassination was a political crime dictated by motives of self–interest and revenge, and that its aim, and ultimate result, was the securing of power by a faction dedicated to establishing the reformed faith and wielding exclusive influence. But this is not the whole picture. The events that followed the murder also have a bearing on the detection of those responsible, and Mary’s subsequent behavior raises questions that need to be answered.
For more than four centuries, there has been speculation that Mary was a party to her husband’s murder, or at least had foreknowledge of it. Even today the matter is controversial, with Mary’s detractors insisting she was guilty and her partisans proclaiming her innocence; much as happened during her own lifetime.
It is indeed possible to construct a convincing case against Mary, even without reference to the notorious Casket Letters, which were put forward by the lords as evidence of her guilt, and the damning libels of Buchanan and Lennox. The circumstantial evidence is strong. Mary did want to be rid of Darnley. His treasonable conspiracies were grounds enough to justify his removal. The most telling evidence against Mary is the fact that she took him from the safety of his father’s power base at Glasgow to Edinburgh, where—-as she knew—-he had powerful enemies who had good reason to seek vengeance on him; she herself had sanctioned the return of some of these men from exile less than two months earlier.
According to the later libels, she was having an adulterous affair with Bothwell at the time and wanted to marry him, but there is no contemporary evidence to support this. She had agreed to a surprising reconciliation with Darnley, which could have been a pretense calculated to divert suspicion from herself. It was perhaps more than coincidence that the syphilitic Darnley was murdered the very night before he had been due to resume carnal relations with his wife. Mary herself had fortuitously—-or deliberately—-left Kirk O’Field about two hours before the explosion. She was quite capable of sanctioning the murder of someone who had become inconvenient: There is no escaping the fact that, in 1586, she authorized the assassination of Queen Elizabeth by Anthony Babington and his associates as a preliminary to seizing the throne of England.
On the face of it, this is all pretty damning, but it is not the whole picture. There is no evidence that Mary ever contemplated freeing herself from Darnley by other than legal means. When Maitland suggested that other ways might be found, she insisted that they must not conflict with her honor and conscience. When Mary took Darnley away from Glasgow, she was in possession of compelling evidence that he was plotting against her in order to seize power and rule through their child. It would have been dangerous to have left Darnley where he was, with an English ship waiting in the Clyde and his father at hand to raise troops. That her husband was a threat to her was later confirmed by the Spanish diplomat Francisco de Alava, who opined that Mary had had to get rid of him, otherwise he would have killed her. But would Mary have connived at the killing of her husband, Queen Elizabeth’s cousin, on the eve—-as she believed—-of Elizabeth agreeing to leave the English throne to her?
Bringing Darnley back to Edinburgh, however, gave his enemies the opportunity to take their revenge on him. She must have known that they posed a danger to Darnley, but she did ban them from coming anywhere near the court for two years. And when it came to Bothwell and other lords, she may have been lulled into a sense of false security by the fact that they accompanied her on her visits to cheer the invalid at Kirk O’Field.
Mary’s reconciliation with Darnley is in keeping with other evidence that suggests she had come to realize that there was no lawful means of ridding herself of him, and that, given the imminent hoped–for accord with England, it would be more advantageous to her to stay married: Her union with Darnley had greatly strengthened her claim to the En-glish succession, since many members of the English Parliament felt that he had the better claim. Without him, she would have been far less acceptable to Elizabeth’s subjects. That apart, it is surely unthinkable that Mary, even with her poor judgment, would have prejudiced these longed–for negotiations by committing murder just as they were about to begin. Instead, she had probably resolved to make the best of her marriage. She had forgiven men who had committed worse crimes against her, so there was no reason why she should not have been reconciled to Darnley.
Mary may have left the gathering at Kirk O’Field at a fortuitous time, but she herself would always maintain that she had been the intended victim, and that it was only by a lucky chance that she had not returned to the Old Provost’s Lodging to stay the night.
As for Mary’s capacity for murder, by the time she connived in the plot to assassinate Elizabeth, she had been a prisoner in England for eighteen years, during which she had plotted ceaselessly for her release and her elevation to her cousin’s throne. She was then an aging, embittered woman, worn down by injustice and ill health. In 1570, the Pope had sanctioned and urged the assassination of Queen Elizabeth as a means of furthering the Counter–Reformation. But while there is good evidence of Mary’s complicity in the Babington Plot, there is no reliable evidence of her being involved in the Kirk O’Field plot.
Mary did not choose Kirk O’Field as a lodging for Darnley. She had intended that he stay at Craigmillar, where he would be more secure from his enemies. It is highly unlikely that she would have consented to become involved in a Protestant plot against a fellow Catholic, because the outcry among her co–religionists would have been great. It has been said that, as so many people were involved in the plot against Darnley, Mary could not have failed to be aware of it, but even more people were involved in the earlier conspiracy against Rizzio, and she had remained in ignorance of it. Finally, some conspirators “declared the Queen’s innocence” in their confessions, and her own confessor confided to an ambassador that she had had no knowledge of Darnley’s murder and was greatly grieved by it.
It is important to remember that almost all the evidence against Mary comes from her enemies and was produced sometime after the murder, and that there are serious flaws in much of it. We know that some were deliberately falsified. The men who were responsible for this evidence had to justify their deposition of Mary in 1567, and safeguard the continuance of their regime. They laid the blame wholly with Bothwell and Mary, so as to deflect suspicion from themselves, and in so doing they waged one of the most vicious and successful propaganda campaigns in history, the effects of which are still apparent today. These men were clever at covering their traces, but left enough clues to condemn themselves, and even in Mary’s lifetime it became well known who had masterminded and carried out the killing of Darnley. Not only were these men guilty of the murder, but, in killing a man under the Queen’s protection, and pinning the guilt for their crime on Mary, they were also responsible for one of the greatest injustices in history.