Book review: So High a Blood by Morgan Ring

So High a Blood: The Story of Margaret Douglas, the Tudor That Time Forgot by Morgan Ring, published by Bloomsbury USA.

This biography showed up in my mailbox a couple of weeks ago when the publisher sent me a free copy to review. Although I've read plenty of books about the Tudors, I couldn't remember who Margaret Douglas was. Now that I've read So High a Blood, I'm surprised that time forgot someone who was so close to two thrones (England and Scotland) for so long. I know I won't forget her again.

Margaret was the daughter of English king Henry VIII's elder sister, Margaret Tudor. That made her a first cousin of English monarchs Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I, as well as a half-sister of Scotland's King James V and an aunt of Mary, Queen of Scots.

That's not all -- she was also the mother of Mary, Queen of Scots's notorious second husband, Lord Darnley, and therefore grandmother of the first king of Great Britain, James VI and I.

Born in England, Margaret probably spent most of her childhood in her father's country, Scotland. As a teenager she went to live at the English royal court and was treated generously by her uncle Henry VIII. She became a close friend of his daughter Mary at the time when Henry was working to annul his marriage to Princess Mary's mother.

Yet apparently Margaret got along well with Mary's greatest enemy -- Henry's second wife, Anne Boleyn. As author Morgan Ring writes, "Margaret moved seamlessly from the Catholic atmosphere of her cousin's household to the Protestant one of Anne's, without appearing to sacrifice her friendship with the princess... The quarrels shaking court and country did not seem to touch her."

But around the time of Anne Boleyn's execution, Margaret got into trouble, too. She had fallen in love with Anne's uncle Thomas Howard, and they became engaged without the king's permission, earning them both a trip to the Tower of London. While imprisoned there, Thomas Howard fell ill and died.

Fortunately for Margaret, the king freed and forgave her. He later attended her wedding to Matthew Stewart, fourth earl of Lennox.

However, Henry and Margaret had a serious falling out not long before his death. The king demoted Margaret in the royal line of succession and made a point of not mentioning her by name in his will. Nonetheless, Margaret remained loyal to his memory:

In 1562 her retainer Ralph Lacy testified that he 'heard her say that King Henry VIII would call her his niece and make much of her'. She kept Henry's portrait in the great chamber at [her house] Temple Newsam, alongside that of her much-loved cousin Mary, and had 'a tablet with the picture of King Henry VIII therein' at the time of her death. For all his temper had cost her, Margaret had loved the old king as a young woman, and did so until the end of her life.

During the reign of Henry's Protestant son, Edward VI, Margaret became a more committed Catholic. During the reign of Elizabeth I she dedicated herself to scheming on behalf of her eldest son, Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley. She was sent back to the Tower after she angered her cousin Queen Elizabeth I by secretly arranging Darnley's marriage to Mary, Queen of Scots, but Margaret and Elizabeth became allies for a time after Darnley's murder.

A look at the index of So High a Blood gives an idea of the cousins' up and down relationship: under "Elizabeth I, Queen" you will find "declares Margaret disloyal," "exchanges gifts with Margaret," "and Margaret's imprisonment," and "pays for Margaret's funeral."

Margaret's relationship with Mary, Queen of Scots was similarly variable. She hated the queen for Darnley's murder, but eventually she became convinced of the queen's innocence and befriended her in secret letters. Together they plotted on behalf of Mary and Darnley's young son, James VI of Scotland, who one day (after both their deaths) would fulfill their hopes by becoming England's King James I.

Because Margaret lived on the margins of famous royal lives, much of So High a Blood is dedicated to retelling familiar stories (the marriages of Henry VIII, the misadventures of Mary, Queen of Scots). But Morgan Ring has a knack for summing things up and an excellent eye for the details that bring history to life. Reading this book made me feel I was seeing Margaret's world through her eyes.

This is an excellent biography from start to finish. I recommend it.

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