All things are connected, especially in the matter of family trees. I was writing recently about my Angus ancestors, related to me by marriage through my 3x great uncle Joseph Angus. The Earls of Angus built and lived in Tantallon Castle, which holds a tremendously dramatic position on a cliff-edged promontory on the coast east of Edinburgh.
While I was checking my facts about the castle, the name of my 12x great uncle Sir Ralph Sadleir cropped up. I’m related to Ralph through the grandfather of my paternal grandmother, and to Joseph through the great aunt of my paternal grandfather; so it’s rather nice to see both lines colliding some 376 years earlier than they eventually did at the birth of my father.
Sir Ralph Sadleir (1507-1587) painted on a panel in the Old Hall at Everley House, Wiltshire
In 1543 the Scottish royal court was an ants’ nest of intrigue. James V had died at the end of the previous year, and his daughter the infant Mary, now Queen of Scots, was the focus of frenzied political activity. Henry VIII, king of neighbouring England, wanted to negotiate a marriage between the baby Mary (six days old when her father died) and his son Edward, Prince of Wales, a mature five-year old.
Henry saw an opportunity to consolidate his power in the region and simultaneously neutralise Scotland as a traditional ally of his enemy France. He had a number of aces up his sleeve. A month before James’s death Henry had decisively defeated a Scottish army at the battle of Solway Moss, capturing rank upon rank of Scottish nobility. The Scottish earls and lords were well treated in captivity – Henry gave each one a gold chain for Christmas, for example – and many were released early in 1543 in the expectation that they would support Henry’s match-making.
Henry VIII (1491-1547) depicted in 1542
Meanwhile the Douglas family, Earls of Angus, had been living in exile in England since 1529 after staging an unsuccessful coup d’etat against James V with support from Henry VIII (who had also, years earlier, encouraged their attempt to kidnap the young James and spirit him away to England). Angus’s affiliation to England should not have been a surprise – the 6th Earl had married James IV’s widow Margaret Tudor, Henry VIII’s big sister. Following James V’s death, the Douglas family returned en masse to Scotland and took up residence in Tantallon once more.
Henry had all these potential allies now placed in the Scottish court. But how could he trust them to act on whatever promises they had made while in captivity or exile in England? Enter 12x great uncle Ralph. Sadleir, the English king’s ambassador to Scotland, was to be Henry’s enforcer. He was a seasoned political worker, having learned his craft under Thomas Cromwell.
Ralph spent most of 1543 adroitly moving between the various factions within the Scottish court, sifting out the political traps being laid for him by many of them. In all of it he used one man in particular as a sounding board: Sir George Douglas, the 7th Earl of Angus’s brother.
Signature of Sir George Douglas, Master of Angus (d. 1552)
It’s clear that the men knew each other well, presumably from Douglas’s time in exile. Sadleir wrote long reports back to Henry which are peppered with references to discreet walks with Douglas in the gardens of Blackfriars in Edinburgh. In his first, of 20th March 1543, Ralph writes:
I told Mr Douglas that I longed to speak with him and had much to commune with him from your majesty. … ‘Marry,’ quoth he, ‘I have laboured with all my power to do the king’s majesty service, … wherein I have always pretended outwardly the commonwealth of Scotland, and spake not much of England, because I would not be suspected.’
So two of my ancestral lines were in cahoots over the fate of Mary Queen of Scots! And when Ralph Sadleir had successfully negotiated the Treaty of Greenwich that summer (which agreed peace between the two countries and the marriage of Mary and Edward), he left Edinburgh and went to stay at Tantallon Castle to relax after a job well done.
Tantallon Castle, where Angus and Sadleir relaxed in late 1543
In December Sadleir was recalled from Tantallon to London when the Scottish parliament rejected the Treaty (which had been agreed only by Henry’s tame Scottish nobility). Henry was furious at the thwarting of his marriage plans, and there followed seven years of warfare between England and Scotland, known as the Rough Wooing. Ralph Sadleir was appointed treasurer-general of the English army; and some say that as that army marched north into Scotland, it passed Tantallon by instead of ransacking it, in recognition of the services of the Douglas family.