Did Robert Dudley Have a Spy in Margaret Douglas’ Household?

Robert Dudley, c.1561

Did Robert Dudley employ a spy in Margaret Douglas’ household at Temple Newsam in Yorkshire in the early 1560s? According to a number of Margaret’s and her son Darnley’s biographers, yes. The claim seems to rest on a single document. It was written by Sir William Cecil, Queen Elizabeth’s Principal Secretary on 9 May 1562, recording the deposition of one William Forbes, the supposed spy and a servant in the household of Margaret Douglas. Margaret was the daughter of the Scottish queen, Margaret Tudor, and her second husband, Archibald Douglas, 6th Earl of Angus. She was a Catholic and had a good claim to the English throne. Any suspect activities, like corresponding with foreign ambassadors, was thus likely to be scrutinized by Elizabeth’s government.

It is therefore likely that Margaret more or less unwittingly employed some spies in her household. The often-repeated claim that Robert Dudley employed William Forbes, though, does not hold water. The biographer of Lord Darnley, Caroline Bingham, believed that Dudley was both very ambitious and extremely unpopular, and that therefore he “attempted to protect himself against his enemies by employing spies in influential households.” She then goes on to list the items of Forbes’ deposition in chronological order as if reported directly to Robert Dudley when they occurred, although we only know about these events and supposed speeches of Margaret’s due to Cecil’s report after Forbes (and several other of Margaret’s servants) had been arrested in the spring of 1562. This does not preclude Robert Dudley employing other spies in other households at other times, but there is zero evidence that he ever employed William Forbes.

Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox, a possible claimant to the English throne

Although the Forbes the spy story has gained wide acceptance, the real Forbes was just a man under arrest who talked about what Margaret had allegedly been doing and saying over the last few years:

That he has heard in all the house that the Countess [i.e. Margaret] is next the crown; that he has heard her say that Queen Elizabeth was a bastard, and that God would send her [Margaret] her right one day. …

That she suffered a fool to rail on the Queen and my Lord Robert, and that he [Forbes] has “heard her rail upon my Lord Robert and his blood, calling them traitor’s birds, and that he caused kill his wife, with mo[re] odious words nor I will rehearse; and said to Hew [Hugh] Allen she was informed from a man of good worship that he was lying sick in the pokkes.” …

That she gave thanks for the preservation of the Scottish Queen [Mary Stuart] from Queen Elizabeth. “And finally, I know she loveth neither God nor the Queen, nor yet your Honour.”1

1 Calendar of State Papers Foreign: Elizabeth, Volume 5, no. 34

Books saying William Forbes was a spy:
Caroline Bingham: Darnley: A Life of Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, Consort of Mary Queen of Scots. Constable, 1995.
Mary McGrigor: The Other Tudor Princess: Margaret Douglas, Henry VIII’s Niece. The History Press, 2015.
Alison Weir: The Lost Tudor Princess: A Life of Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox. Jonathan Cape, 2015.

Books that don’t say Forbes was a spy:
Leanda de Lisle: Tudor: The Family Story. Chatto & Windus, 2013.
Morgan Ring: So High a Blood: The Life of Margaret, Countess of Lennox. Bloomsbury, 2017.

About Christine Hartweg

Hi, I'm the author of "Amy Robsart: A Life and Its End" and "John Dudley: The Life of Lady Jane Grey's Father-in-Law". I blog at www.allthingsrobertdudley.wordpress.com
This entry was posted in Elizabeth I, errors & myths, Robert Dudley, sources & historians, strange facts from popular books and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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