History

A murder most royal: Was James IV’s mistress poisoned?

The suspicious death of Margaret Drummond, King James IV’s mistress, paved the way for a Thistle and a Rose union

Words: Suzanne Milne

In the middle of the picturesque town of Dunblane stands one of the noblest and most imposing of Scotland’s medieval churches. The building dates from the 1100s and contains magnificent woodwork, soaring stone arches and stunning stained glass.

From the weathered interior walls of the nave, which had no roof for 300 years, to the superb Gothic west doorway, there is much for the visitor to see. But the cathedral also houses a mystery and scandal with royal connections dating back to the 15th century.

In front of the high altar lie three brass plaques, which give a tantalizing insight to a little-known piece of Scottish history. The plaques deal with the mysterious deaths, in 1501, of three of the daughters of John, 1st Lord Drummond.

Around 1495, James IV of Scotland visited Drummond Castle in Perthshire, home to Lord Drummond and his six daughters. James was a clever, well-read young man, intensely interested in science and the arts, who also spoke several languages. He loved hunting and this visit was most likely a hunting trip for himself and his entourage. Margaret, the eldest daughter, soon caught the eye of the king and he became besotted with the beautiful young woman. Like most noblemen of the time, James took several mistresses without too much being thought of it, but this liaison seems to have had a different effect on the 22-year-old monarch.

By June 3rd 1496, Margaret was ensconced in her own apartments in Stirling Castle, treated royally as a high status person in the king’s household. Then on October 30th, she was moved into Linlithgow Palace where she gave birth to James’s child, also named Margaret.

James made no bones about how he felt towards Margaret Drummond and was keen to propose marriage. His royal council was less keen as they had been engaged in talks with the English Tudor king, Henry VII, regarding a match between his daughter Margaret and the young Scots king.

James had had various other dalliances during his reign, but none seemed to have had the serious implications of his affair with Margaret Drummond. No doubt her family encouraged this; if she was to become queen, it would afford them great power and status.

However, that was not to be. Margaret and her daughter were moved out of Linlithgow Palace and back to Drummond Castle, albeit with a generous stipend from the king. Whether the move was the result of pressure from James’s nobles, or the affair running its course, or perhaps James thinking she might be safer back with her family, no one knows.

James’s courtiers continued to hold talks regarding the alliance with the English Tudor court. They certainly would have wanted to discourage James from having any thoughts of a marriage to the daughter of a minor noble. Politics definitely trumped love. They were desperate to ensure a tie between the two ancient enemies of Scotland and England and a marriage to Margaret Tudor would seal the deal. Perhaps it was this that contributed to the next turn of events for Margaret Drummond.

In 1501, at Drummond Castle, Margaret and her two sisters, Eupheme and Sybylla, along with several members of the household, became violently ill following a breakfast meal. Many people appeared to suffer from this mystery illness, but the only fatalities were Margaret and her two sisters.

This is an extract. Read the full feature in the November/December 2020 issue of Scotland, out on 23rd October.

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Published six times a year, every issue of Scotland showcases its stunning landscapes and natural  beauty, and delves deep into Scottish history. From mysterious clans and famous Scots (both past and present), to the hidden histories of the country’s greatest castles and houses, Scotland‘s pages brim with the soul and secrets of the country.
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