Crown of Thistles is the story of a divided family, of flamboyant kings and queens, cultured courts and tribal hatreds, blood feuds, rape and sexual licence on a breath-taking scale, and violent deaths. It also brings alive a neglected aspect of British history – the blood-spattered steps of two small countries on the fringes of Europe towards an awkward unity that would ultimately forge a great nation.
Beginning with the unlikely and dramatic victories of two usurping kings, one a rank outsider and the other a fourteen-year-old boy who rebelled against his own father, the book sheds new light on Henry VIII, his daughter, Elizabeth, and on his great-niece, Mary Queen of Scots, still seductive more than 400 years after her death.
Crown of Thistles examines the rivalry between two of the greatest royal houses: the Tudors of England and the Stewarts of Scotland. Of course, the enmity between Scotland and England goes back much further than this, however this particular period of history would culminate with the reign of two powerful queens and a merger that would change the two countries forever.
There are plenty books out there examining the lives of Elizabeth I and her rival, Mary, Queen of Scots, however I can’t remember ever reading one that contrasted the two eras before and that is what drew me to this book more than anything else. Porter begins with the Battle of Bosworth Field, the last significant battle in the War of the Roses, which brought the House of Tudor to the throne after the ascension of Henry VII. In contrast, the House of Stewart had been reigning over the far poorer kingdom of Scotland since the late fourteenth century, but the two houses were about to become irrevocably intertwined through marriage.
James III was one of Scotland’s most unpopular kings for various reasons but his pro-english policies were particularly galling to the Scottish nobility. James had agreed to a plan to marry his eldest son to Cecily of York, daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, a move that was highly contentious in Scotland due to the enmity that had existed between the two countries for centuries. In the end, the political climate scuppered the marriage plans and instead James III found himself battling to keep his throne from a coup headed by his own teenage son. James III was killed at the Battle of Sauchieburn on 11 June 1488, and was then succeeded by his son, James IV, who would go on to make that all important marriage alliance with England. James married Margaret Tudor, daughter of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, on 8 August 1503 at Holyrood Abbey, Edinburgh.
Despite the marriage, peace between the two countries was never achieved and Porter goes on to examine the volatile relationship between Margaret and her brother, Henry VIII, particularly after the untimely death of James IV in 1513. The Stewart monarchs seemed to be cursed to die young, leaving their kingdoms to children barely old enough to walk, let alone rule, and the kingdom suffered through periods of instability as a result. When James IV died, his son, James V, was barely seventeen months old and it was inevitable the child would be used as a pawn by various nobles intent on getting their hands on the throne. James’s mother, Margaret, was initially appointed his regent but her second marriage to Archibald Douglas, 6th Earl of Angus, led to her losing her place as regent as she had violated the terms of the late king’s will. The marriage was a disaster, on a political and personal level, although it did result in the birth of Lady Margaret Douglas, the future mother of Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley.
Margaret’s relationship with her brother, Henry VIII, was permanently damaged when she chose to divorce Angus to marry another Scottish noble, Henry Stewart, 1st Lord Methven. Henry did not approve of divorce which is ironic when you consider the choices he would later make in regard to his own marriage, however at that time he was still married to Katherine of Aragon and could afford to take the moral high ground. Henry made no secret of his desire to claim Scotland and the increasingly precarious political situation was making it easy so he was not as helpful to his sister as she would’ve liked. It was a relief for everyone when the young king was finally declared to have reached his majority and the kingdom finally settled into a brief period of stability. However, James V would ultimately die at the age of thirty, leaving Scotland to be ruled by his six-day-old daughter, Mary.
Naturally, there are periods of history that are better documented than others so it is inevitable Porter has to make a lot of assumptions but I think she handles these episodes quite well. I do wish we could’ve had more focus on the regency of Margaret Tudor and the consequences of her later marriages on the relationship with her son, James V, as these were pivotal to shaping the kind of man James V would eventually become. For some reason, I always find myself drawn to the women in history, probably because they don’t get as much attention, so I would’ve liked less about Henry VIII’s problems and more about his sister. The same thing happens later on when Mary of Guise has to act as regent for her daughter, Mary, who she sends to France. I think Mary of Guise’s contribution to securing the throne of Scotland for her daughter is vastly under-rated so it would’ve been nice if she had gotten more attention.
While I do think Porter tried to balance the Scottish and English sections as best as she could, there were still times where I felt there was too much focus on England at the expense of the Scots. Being a Scot myself, I will admit to maybe being a wee bit biased here but it may have just been down to the documented evidence available. I’m not sure if it is still the case today or not, but I was never taught the history of the Scottish monarchy at school and had to study it on my own. Seriously, who came up with the idea that woollen mills were more interesting than kings and queens? A friend of mine, whose father was a history teacher, later claimed it was not part of the curriculum because the government did not want to breed nationalism, and while I have no idea if this is true or not since said friend is a confirmed nationalist, it does make me rather sad.
The first half of the book is mainly a build up to the arrival of the two leading ladies in this drama, Elizabeth I, and her sister queen, Mary Queen of Scots. When these two ladies finally take centre stage, their story is a familiar one and I don’t think Porter really brings anything new to the script. She does try to keep things balanced, particularly in regard to Mary, which I appreciated because far too many biographers tend to make Mary look completely incompetent by highlighting her faults and disregarding her strengths. Of course, I wouldn’t have expected anything less from an author who has already managed to rehabilitate the character of Mary I of England, probably the most hated queen in British history.
I like Porter’s writing style because it is easy to read and while her books may not always explore a subject in great depth, they make for a good starting point for those who want to take their research further or simply for those with no more than a passing interest.