We caught up with Morgan Ring ahead of her talk, ‘So High a Blood: The Story of Lady Margaret Douglas, the Tudor That Time Forgot’, at our York History Weekend this November…
Q: What can audiences look forward to in your talk?
A: An introduction to a little-known but tremendously important figure of the Tudor courts: Lady Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox. Her life makes a great story in its own right – failed love affairs and high political machinations – but it’s also a way into some of the biggest questions of 16th-century history: religion, succession, and the relationships between the British kingdoms.
Q: Why are you so fascinated by this topic?
A: I’ve always been drawn to the ‘fifth businesses’ of history, the people with essential, often overlooked supporting roles. Margaret was precisely that kind of person: both an outsider and an insider, sometimes watching events, sometimes shaping them. And as I got to work on her story, I found myself spending time with other under-studied people, from her servants (both the ones who loved her and the ones who couldn’t stand her), to her parents, with their impulsive, scandalous marriage. Looked at from the corner of the room rather than the centre, familiar events suddenly became unfamiliar, and that was quite exciting.
Q: Tell us something that might surprise or shock us about this area of history.
A: People wrote extraordinary things in the margins of their books. Margaret was part of a circle of young people who created a volume of poetry known as the Devonshire Manuscript, and you can still see her notes to herself on the pages: “Learn this… learn this… forget this.”
You can get a sense not just of what people read, but how they read. My current project is about the history of the Golden Legend, one of the most popular books in late medieval England, and it’s a rare surviving copy that doesn’t have some kind of handwritten marginalia. They range from devotional prayers to doggerel verse, by way of doctrinal essays and the odd typographical joke. It’s a way of getting scores of anonymous voices into the historical narrative.
Q: What is the hardest question you’ve ever been asked about your area of expertise?
A: One of my students once asked me why a people so obsessed by order (a key theme in social history) were always plotting, rioting, and otherwise being disorderly (an equally key theme in political history). That was sharp and hard to answer: it gets at the question of what we, as historians, choose to emphasise, and at an interesting tension between the world people wanted and the world they had.
Q: If you could go back in time to meet one historical figure, who would you choose and why?
A: It would have to be Niccolò Machiavelli. I once took a module in which we read almost everything he ever wrote – letters, political thought, histories, comedies, racy poetry. Since he was so playful with ideas and so adept at assuming different voices, I’d love the chance to ask “So, what did you really think about this? How serious were you when you wrote that?”
And if I could witness one moment in history, I’d watch the first performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and ask my fellow groundlings what they thought of it. Machiavelli can come too, if he’d like – I think he’d enjoy it.
Q: What historical mystery would you most like to solve?
A: I’m now working on the history of early printed books, and there are some basic questions that can be hard to answer: how many copies were printed? What was the retail price? Who bought them? If either William Caxton’s will or his account books ever turned up, I’d be delighted.
On a slightly nosier level, Wynkyn de Worde, who inherited the press from Caxton, left books to all his servants, including his maid, Alice. I’d love to know more about that gift: could she read and if so, how did she learn? Did she want a particular book or would any one have suited? Or was de Worde just making bequests with what he had to hand? It’s a small, human mystery, but I’d love to solve it!
Q: What job do you think you would be doing now if you weren’t a historian/author?
A: I suspect I’d be a lawyer, but I like to think I’d be an underwater archaeologist.
Morgan Ring read history at Cambridge, where she is now completing her PhD. She held the Francis J Weber Fellowship at the Huntington Library and holds the Gonville Studentship at Gonville and Caius College. She will be speaking about Lady Margaret Douglas at BBC History Magazine’s York History Weekend on Saturday 25 November.