The thistle and the rose: the marriage of James IV and Margaret Tudor

James IV, king of Scots, was born at Stirling Castle in March 1473. His future bride, Margaret Tudor, the daughter of King Henry VII of England, was born more than sixteen years later in 1489 at Westminster Palace. The pair were by no means destined for each other, but it was not the significant age gap between them, which was common among medieval royal marriages, which made their union unlikely. A year after his birth, James’ father first arranged for him to marry Cecilia of the house of York, youngest daughter of the then king Edward IV, and then to Richard III’s niece, Anne de la Pole, until the accession of Henry VII to the English crown put an end to the negotiations. It seems that James III distrusted the new king and relations between the Scottish and English kingdoms grew even more strained. Although not at war, short-lived hostilities between the countries would frequently erupt in the border regions. As a result the parents of both Margaret and James pursued marriage negotiations with members of other royal European houses. Henry VII preferred Prince Christian of Denmark as a potential suitor for his daughter, which would have also had the benefit of upsetting the strong Scoto-Danish relationship (Christian was James IV’s cousin). When James assumed the kingdom in 1488 at only fifteen years old after the sudden (though not entirely unexpected) death of his father, the Scottish government also set to work sending ambassadors to France, The Holy Roman Empire and Spain to seek a continental wife for their king.

But Henry was not about to let a chance to influence Scotland through an English bride disappear so easily. In May 1493 he proposed Katherine, a granddaughter of Edmund Tudor, earl of Richmond, but since she was not a princess James rejected the marriage. Eager not to lose the alliance, Henry played his trump card and instead offered to the king his eldest daughter. Although reports of her physical attractiveness vary, Margaret was every inch the late medieval royal lady; she had learned to play the lute and clavichord, was an accomplished dancer, practised archery, studied Latin, and learned to speak the courtly language of French. With the English king’s pledge of a £10,000 dowry, James agreed to the match and a marriage contract was drawn up. Significantly, after papal confirmation was granted, the accompanying peace treaty declared that should either king revive hostilities, the instigator would be excommunicated. Margaret’s role was to be instrumental in keeping the peace between her two countries as well as safeguarding the welfare of her father’s and husband’s souls, and through them, the souls of their subjects.

On 15 January 1503, a proxy marriage took place with Patrick, earl of Bothwell, representing the Scots king. From that day, at just 13 years old, Margaret was regarded as Queen of Scots and her circumstances would change dramatically. In May 1503, James had confirmed her entitlement to £1000 Scots per annum, together with a yearly income of £6000 from several Scottish castles and palaces including Methven, Stirling, Doune, Linlithgow and Newark. Should she be widowed, Margaret was promised £2000 p.a. and the continued income of her lands. With Margaret’s father having won the English crown by conquest on a somewhat flimsy claim less than two decades earlier, for the royal Tudor dynasty this was a tremendously advantageous match which helped to secure their position in European politics. And for Margaret, her wealth, status and future seemed secure.

Yet despite her family undoubtedly emphasising the auspicious nature of the match, for the child bride the prospect of leaving her life in England to meet for the first time the man who was already her husband was surely terrifying. To make matters worse, tragedy stuck when shortly before Margaret was due to leave London, her mother died after giving birth to another daughter, Katherine. The baby survived for only a few days, while Elizabeth succumbed to a post-partum infection and herself died on 11th February 1503, her 37th birthday.

That summer, accompanied by twenty-four English servants and her grieving father, Margaret left Richmond Palace on a month-long journey to Edinburgh. The royal procession was met on their route north by vast throngs of cheering subjects, with jousts, dancing and feasts organised in every town where they stopped. Before crossing into Scottish territory her father left her and Margaret was tasked with meeting her new husband alone. At Dalkeith Castle on August 3rd, the thirty year old King James finally greeted his young bride in person. The couple spent a few days getting to know one another, before a formal wedding took place in an elaborate service in the chapel of Holyroodhouse on 8th August. James marked the occasion with gifts to his bride including a magnificent illuminated book of hours specially made in Flanders. Opulent festivities ran on for days, and the court poet William Dunbar, who had attended the marriage negotiations in London, celebrated the Queen’s arrival in several of his poems.

However the English guests were left unimpressed—according to Edward Hall they ‘returned into their countrey, gevynge more prayse to the manhoode, than to the good maner and nurture of Scotlande’. Margaret may have been shrewdly aware that despite her warm welcome, some at the Scottish court still considered her an agent of the enemy and her marriage was not about to wipe clean the slate of hundreds of years of hostilities between the land of her birth and her new kingdom. Before embarking on a tour of her realm, a homesick Margaret wrote to her father saying, ‘I would I were with your Grace now and many times more’.

Margaret’s feelings of loneliness and insecurity can only have been exacerbated by what she faced next. At her dower castle of Stirling, Margaret encountered the nursery for the king’s seven illegitimate children who were accorded significant status within the household. It would not have been long before Margaret also realised that the king continued to visit his mistresses, including his long-term lover and mother to his bastard son Janet Kennedy, after they were married. Not only was Margaret burdened with the expectations of her father and brother (the future Henry VIII) in England, and those of the Scottish court, but she now had to exert her authority in the royal family without upsetting James’ bastard children or their mothers for fear of angering the king.

How well Margaret fared in this task is uncertain but her husband appears to have been pleased with his new wife. On new year’s day 1507, while she was heavily pregnant with their first child, James gave her a jewelled ‘serpent’s tongue’ as a safeguard against poisoning. But a few weeks later their son James died shortly after his birth, as was the fate of their second child, a daughter, born 15 July 1508 who died the same day. Despite falling seriously ill after these pregnancies, Margaret mercifully recovered but her fortunes weren’t to brighten. She was unable to pacify the warmongering of James and her brother Henry, now king. Given the skill with which many royal women who came before her, including her grandmother Margaret Beaufort, were able to manipulate the policies of the men around them, Margaret’s contemporaries likely thought that she had failed in one of her vital duties as Queen. However, in hindsight, it would have been too much to expect that she could have unravelled centuries of  tension, fuelled by generations of hostility between the two royal houses,  which were ultimately out of her control.

What happened next to the couple is another story, but the significance of their union should not be forgotten. The innocence of the young queen and Scotland’s hope for a bright future in her union with their “lion” king, is remembered in William Dunbar’s poem Now Fayre:

“Now fayre, fayrest off every fayre, Princes most plesant and preclare, The lustyest one alyve that byne, Welcum of Scotland to be Quene!


Younge tender plant of pulcritud,  Descendyd of Imperyalle blude; Fresh fragrant floure of fayrehede shene, Welcum of Scotland to be Quene!


Swet lusty lusum lady clere, Most myghty kingis dochter dere, Borne of a princes most serene, Welcum of Scotland to be Quene!


Welcum the Rose both rede and whyte, Welcum the floure of our delyte! Our secrete rejoysing from the sone beme, Welcum of Scotland to be Quene; Welcum of Scotlande to be Quene!”

– Do you think Margaret was a poor monarch or a misunderstood queen?

– Would you like to hear more about Margaret, James or William Dunbar?

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