Scathing Facts About Margot Asquith, The Witch Of Downing Street

May 2, 2024 | Brendan Da Costa

Scathing Facts About Margot Asquith, The Witch Of Downing Street

Margot Asquith was the sharp-tongued and provocative turn-of-the-century British socialite who married (and scandalized) British Prime Minister HH Asquith.

1. She Was Scathing—And Doomed

Margot Asquith was the British socialite whose quick wit and caustic sense of humor burned through Victorian high society with the fury of a scandal through the tabloids. Even her marriage to the future British Prime Minister HH Asquith couldn’t muzzle her controversial mouth. No amount of wit, however, could save her from a tragic ending.

Margot Asquith

2. She Had A Charmed Childhood

Emma Margaret Tennant (aka Margot) had a charmed life from the beginning. She was born in Peeblesshire, Scotland in February of 1864 as the sixth daughter and eleventh child of Sir Charles Tennant, 1st Baronet. Growing up in the picturesque family estate, The Glen, her childhood was basically one never-ending party.

Glen HousePip Rolls, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

3. Her Life Was One Big Party

Margot and her sisters entertained her father’s guests at The Glen in what became epic soirées of the Victorian Era. Famously, writer and socialite Mary Gladstone described the Tennant’s evening parties as “the maddest, merriest whirl from morn til night”. Growing up in that party atmosphere, it’s little wonder that Margot was the troublesome kind of child she was.

Margot Asquith in costumeHulton Archive, Getty Images

4. She Craved Adventure

The Glen was a wild place with sprawling grounds just begging to be explored. And explore them, Margot did. Her contemporaries described her as a “venturesome child” who often set off on her own “roaming the moors” and “climbing to the top of the roof by moonlight”. She even rode her horse right up the front steps of The Glen.

Sadly, she would have to leave her open-air playground behind.

The GlenIain Lees, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

5. She Made Her Big Debut

As Margot aged into a charming young woman, she had to take her place in society. As such, Margot and her sister/best friend, Laura, moved to London after their father bought a house in prestigious Grosvenor Square. However, he could take the girl out of The Glen, but he couldn’t take The Glen out of the girl. Margot was about to set London society on fire.

Margot Asquith in blackullstein bild Dtl, Getty Images

6. She Had Many Proposals

With their wild, untamed spirits, both Margot and Laura became prominent figures in London society. Compared to the stale culture of Victorian society, Margot dazzled everyone with her wit, irreverence and charm. In fact, Lady Frances Balfour even said, “It was unnatural if every man did not propose to them after a few hours’ acquaintance”.

Margot’s behavior, however, made marriage a little difficult.

Margot AsquithJohn McLure Hamilton, Wikimedia Commons

7. She Crashed The Gates

Margot brought all of her wild ways from Then Glen to the front steps of London society—literally. Just as she had at The Glen, the brash young woman once rode her horse up the steps of her London townhome—and the consequences were disastrous.

After crashing through the front door, the horse reared back, knocking down the chandelier and sending Margot flying. That was, somehow, not the most scandalous thing she had done.

Portrait Of Margot Asquith, Countess Of Oxford And Asquith  in white dressAlice Hughes, Wikimedia Commons

8. She Swore Like A Sailor

From the minute she arrived in London, Margot upset just about every unspoken rule and turned London society on its head. A history professor remarked that Margot turned gender norms on their head with a careless ease by smoking and swearing “self-consciously and copiously”. Her wild ways attracted some very curious eyes.

Margot Asquith Countess of Oxford and Asquith ice skatingullstein bild Dtl., Getty Images

9. Her Sister Married First

Margot famously “danced with the Prince of Wales” and “sat on Tennyson's knee”. However, despite both Tennant sisters being the toast of the town, it was Laura who managed to bag a husband first. She married Alfred Lyttelton in May 1885 at their family estate, The Glen. Margot’s happiness for her sister would be short-lived.

Portrait of Alfred Lyttelton, statesmanHenry Walter Barnett, Wikimedia Commons

10. She Lost Her Best Friend

During Laura’s first pregnancy, Margot’s worst nightmares came true. Her sister complained about her health throughout the pregnancy, openly saying that she feared she wouldn’t survive it. Tragically, she was right. Eight days after she gave birth, Laura passed away. Then, two years later, Margot also lost her nephew. She found solace in a curious place.

Margot Asquith reading a bookAdolph de Meyer, Wikimedia Commons

11. She Was Part Of A Gang

Reeling from the loss of her sister, Margot found comfort (and raucous good times) in the company of her friends and remaining sisters. The group coalesced after Laura’s passing, and developed something of a reputation. Before long, everyone in London society was referring to Margot’s new group as “the Gang”. But they were a lot more than that.

Margot Asquith in dress and a fur coatPrint Collector, Getty Images

12. She Was All About The Pleasure

Margot’s new found friendships consisted of London’s finest aristocrats and intellectuals. William Scawen Blunt, a prominent poet and writer and frequent member of “the Gang”, described them as “a group of men and women bent on pleasure”. But Blunt wasn’t referring to the usual kinds of pleasure. The Gang was into something different.

Wilfrid Scawen Blunt in fur coatBritish Library, Wikimedia Commons

13. She Found Her Soul Mates

“The Gang” developed a reputation for “pleasure of a superior kind”. They were, primarily, an intellectual group. In fact, their intellectualism earned them some criticism. Lord Charles Beresford famously complained, “You are always talking about your souls”.

From then on, they became known as “The Souls”. But they pursued pleasures of the flesh as well.

The SoulsJohn Singer Sargent, CC BY 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

14. She Was Developing A Reputation

According to Blunt, The Souls didn’t just focus on the pleasures of the mind. They pursued pleasures of the heart as well. He stated that the group looked for “their excitement in romance and sentiment”. In no time, The Souls and their most prominent members (ie, Margot) had developed something of scandalous reputation.

Margot Asquith in dress and a hat in front of a carHulton Archive, Getty Images

15. She Was Fashionable

With her popularity in high society circles, Margot became a frequent figure in gossip columns. Most of the mentions of her name were positive and she was often described as “fashionable”. But not everyone had glowing things to write about her. In fact, she provided the rumor mill with tons of scandals to churn through.

Portrait of Margot Asquith in black dress and a hatBettmann, Getty Images

16. She Was A Social Climber

The gossip columns described Margot and her sisters as “social climbers” given that they were minor aristocrats. But the insults didn’t end there. Stories began circulating that Margot “[entertained] mixed company in her bedroom” with the tabloids describing her as “fast”. It would, however, take more than a few harsh words to shame Margot.

Mrs. Asquith and children at MurrenBain News Service, Wikimedia Commons

17. She Did What She Wanted

Margot resented the accusations about her, shall we say, “looseness” throughout her life. Despite this resentment, however, she never stopped doing what she wanted to do. She continued hosting guests behind closed doors well into the predawn hours. However, her scandalous reputation nearly cost her her chance at true love.

Margot Asquith British author and socialite Margot Asquith, Countess of Oxford and AsquithSasha, Getty Images

18. She Found A Good Man

In early 1894, Margot became romantically entangled with the Liberal Member of Parliament and future prime minister, Herbert Henry Asquith (AKA, HH Asquith). The two had traveled in somewhat similar circles but Asquith had recently, tragically, become a widower. Far from appearing like a saving grace, Margot’s romance with Asquith scandalized high-society

Herbert Henry Asquith in suitBain News Service, Wikimedia Commons

19. She Was Too Fast For Some

Margot’s reputation as a somewhat “fast” society girl clashed with her new role as the fiancée of a serious politician—and put her romance in peril. Asquith’s friends and colleagues warned him against marrying her, saying that she would ultimately lead to his demise. (Spoiler alert: she would). Nevertheless, Margot and Asquith defied the odds in favor of love.

But she had some stiff competition.

Herbert Henry Asquith and wifeHulton Archive, Getty Images

20. Her Husband Had A Harem

In all fairness, Margot wasn’t the only one in her new relationship with a reputation. Famously, Asquith also kept the company of many intellectual and beautiful women. But Margot never felt threatened by it. Using her acerbic wit, she dubbed these women Asquith’s “harem”. With self-deprecating humor in their hearts, the couple were ready for their happily ever after.

There were just five little problems.

Dorothy Tutin as Margot AsquithYorkshire Television, Number 10, The Asquiths (1983)

21. She Became A Mother

Margot and Asquith got married in May 1894. For Margot, it would have been wedded bliss…had it not been for Asquith’s baggage. With a kiss on the lips and the stroke of a pen, she was no longer a carefree socialite. Thanks to the five children from Asquith’s previous marriage, Margot had become an “unenthusiastic” stepmother.

Her new family didn’t exactly welcome her with open arms.

Dorothy Tutin as Margot AsquithYorkshire Television, Number 10, The Asquiths (1983)

22. She Was Like A Bird Of Paradise

Violet Asquith, the youngest of Margot’s new stepchildren and her only stepdaughter, was the most taken aback by Margot’s arrival. “She flashed into our lives like some dazzling bird of paradise,” Violet later recalled. But it was far from paradise. In fact, Margot and Violet set off sparks in the Asquith household that threatened to burn the family down.

Violet Bonham Carter 1915Raymond Asquith , Wikimedia Commons

23. She Caused A Storm

HH Asquith lamented the often “stormy” relationship between his wife Margot and his children, with Violet in particular. As much as he loved Margot, he couldn’t deny that she wasn’t necessarily a great stepmother. He wrote that Margot and Violet were “on terms of chronic misunderstanding”. He wasn’t far off—and it made for a dramatic incident.

Dorothy Tutin as Margot AsquithYorkshire Television, Number 10, The Asquiths (1983)

24. She Made Everyone Uneasy

Decades after Margot joined the Asquith family, Violet later claimed that she had always been somewhat uncomfortable around her stepmother. She said that the society woman left her “with a vague uneasiness as to what she might do next”. However, Violet wasn’t alone in that regard. Margot’s next startling move would have been anyone’s guess.

Mrs. Asquith and childBain News Service, Wikimedia Commons

25. She Was Too Opinionated

Margot entered this new stage of her life as disruptively as she had entered London society more than a decade earlier. Asquith’s colleagues described Margot as being the opposite of what an MP’s wife should be, calling her “outgoing, impulsive, extravagant and opinionated”. But Margot was, above all else, a society woman.

And she wasn’t about to let anyone forget it.

Dorothy Tutin as Margot AsquithYorkshire Television, Number 10, The Asquiths (1983)

26. She Became The Prime Wife

When HH Asquith became Prime Minister in 1908, Margot Asquith moved with him into 10 Downing Street. But she stubbornly refused to give up her role as a glittering—if sometimes scathing—socialite. She was determined to maintain her role as a society woman above all else and continued hosting weekend soirées. Pretty soon, everyone wanted to dine with the Asquiths.

But not everyone could.

Dorothy Tutin as Margot AsquithYorkshire Television, Number 10, The Asquiths (1983)

27. She Hosted The Best Of The Best

To entertain her guests, Margot Asquith and her husband built a residence in Oxfordshire called The Wharf. Their infamous evening soirées became the meeting point for London’s leading “literary, artistic and political luminaries”.

Much to Asquith’s chagrin (and amusement), however, Margot simply couldn’t hold her tongue. And it was about to get them into trouble.

Herbert Henry Asquith and Margot AsquithKeystone-France, Getty Images

28. She Didn’t Suffer Suffragettes

Margot Asquith brought her scathing sense of wit and unpredictability with her into her husband’s staid world of politics. But her unconventional views didn’t always go down smoothly. Despite bucking conventional gender roles her whole life, Margot became one of the most powerful opponents to Women’s Suffrage.

Her views rocked polite society.

Women’s SuffrageYorkshire Television, Number 10, The Asquiths (1983)

29. Her Opinions Were Controversial

Margot never made any efforts to conceal her unpopular—but well-worded—opinions. But only her inner circle of British aristocracy ever knew what she thought. That is, until she wrote in a letter that “women have no reason, very little [humor], hardly any sense of [honor]...and no sense of proportion”. When her controversial words came out, it nearly cost her her life.

Margot Asquith writing at a deskSasha, Getty Images

30. Her Enemies Followed Her

As Margot’s opposition to Women’s Suffrage became public knowledge, she faced a new kind of danger. While vacationing in Clovelly Court, Devon with her husband, she nearly met her demise. Prominent suffragettes Elsie Howey, Jessie Kenney, and Vera Wentworth menacingly followed her around. No one could have predicted what they would do next.

suffragettes at 10 Downing StreetLSE Library, Wikimedia Commons

31. She Had Strange Gardeners

Thankfully, for Margot’s sake, it seems like the suffragettes who had been following her only had peaceful intentions. After tracking her back to her vacation residence, they hid in her garden and covered her plants with their movement’s colors: purple, white and green. Given what she did next, however, Margot was never scared anyway.

Dorothy Tutin as Margot AsquithYorkshire Television, Number 10, The Asquiths (1983)

32. She Thought Suffrage Was Funny

In 1911, Margot Asquith did something unprecedented for a prime minister’s wife; she attended one of the debates over women’s suffrage. She sat comfortably (and perhaps a little smugly) without saying a word and “seemed highly amused at the earnestness” of the suffragettes, arguing their case. Her haughtiness only made matters worse.

Margot Asquithullstein bild Dtl., Getty Images

33. She Was “Unpleasant And Sarcastic”

Margot’s passive aggressive taunting of the suffragettes only made her and her husband’s position more difficult. Constance Lytton and Annie Kenney, two prominent suffragettes attending the 1911 debate, for example, had hoped to strike a conciliatory tone. By the end of the discussion, however, they called Margot “unpleasant and sarcastic”.

It sounds like Margot finally got the message.

Lady Constance Lytton in whiteCONSTANCE LYTTON, AND JANE WARTON, Wikimedia Commons

34. She Had To Travel In Secret

Thanks to her caustic wit and haughty attitude, Margot Asquith had to spend much of the rest of her time in 10 Downing Street dodging suffragettes. When traveling to Ireland, for example, she had to make a “stealth journey”, avoiding getting seen by the suffragettes awaiting her arrival at the dock. But some angry activists were least of her concerns.

Dorothy Tutin as Margot AsquithYorkshire Television, Number 10, The Asquiths (1983)

35. She Feared The Worst

The outbreak of WWI changed Margot Asquith considerably. She involved herself much more in the intrigues of Downing Street, becoming staunchly opposed to her husband’s efforts that escalated the fighting. Her primary concern, however, was that WWI would bring an end to her cultural influence and social status. Sadly, she would lose a lot more than that.

Dorothy Tutin as Margot Asquith Yorkshire Television, Number 10, The Asquiths (1983)

36. She Was Simply Inhumane

Margot’s stepsons participated in the fighting, right on the frontlines. They were facing the worst things a human can experience—but her reaction was disturbing. The calamity they faced didn’t soften her heart towards them.

In fact, Raymond Asquith, HH Asquith’s eldest son, even wrote to his own wife, complaining about Margot’s “inhumanity towards her stepchildren”. Her next move made it clear that she didn’t care what happened to them.

Margot Asquith in dressPhilip de László, Wikimedia Commons

37. She Didn’t Care For Veterans

When Herbert Asquith, HH Asquith’s second son, returned from the frontlines, Margot’s cool reception stunned British society. The things that Herbert had seen had left him shell-shocked. Instead of embracing him, however, Margot accused the decorated veteran of being plastered out of his mind. Surprisingly, that wasn’t her biggest WWI blunder.

Lady Margot Asquith in black and a hatullstein bild Dtl., Getty Images

38. She Downed Downing Street

Perhaps in an effort to rehabilitate her image, Margot Asquith made the decision to visit a German POW camp. However, the move backfired horribly. The society pages portrayed her as being out of touch with the common folk. The combined scandals and her continued rude remarks eventually contributed to her husband’s fall from power in 1916.

Margot AsquithTopical Press Agency, Getty Images

39. She Cheered Her Husband’s Defeat

Ultimately, Margot was happy to leave the stuffy and stifling world of Downing Street behind. But Asquith was not. Against her wishes, Asquith sought to regain power in 1918. She later recalled calling the Liberal Party headquarters for the election results. When the pollster read out the tallies, she exclaimed, “Asquith beat? Thank God!”

She celebrated too early though.

Henry Herbert Asquith, 1st Earl of Oxford and AsquithJames Guthrie, Wikimedia Commons

40. She Started To Lose Her Money

Out of office, HH Asquith’s income was severely diminished. However, Margot’s infamous extravagance was not. Even her inheritance money became entangled, leaving her and Asquith to watch helplessly as their resources—and lifestyle—dwindled. Slowly but surely, she began to fade from the society pages. Except, that is, when her sharp-tongue cut another scandal.

Margot Asquith in fur coatLibrary of Congress, Picryl

41. She Corrected Jean Harlow

Margot allegedly met the American actress Jean Harlow at the height of her fame. But Harlow, having never heard of Margot, kept mispronouncing her name. Exasperated with the actress’ poor manners, Margot finally interjected. “No, no,” she mused, “the 't' is silent, as in 'Harlow'”. Margot decided to share more tidbits like that in her scandalous memoirs.

Image of Jean Harlow wearing hat and looking at side - 1968.Nationaal Archief, Picryl

42. She Was Out-Witted

Margot Asquith tried to recoup some income by publishing her memoirs. However, critics panned the writing style. Margot even found herself out-witted for the first time in her life. The equally sharp-tongued Dorothy Parker reviewed Margot’s autobiography, writing: “The affair between Margot Asquith and Margot Asquith will live as one of the prettiest love stories in all literature”.

Margot AsquithSasha, Getty Images

43. She Was A Walking Parody

As if Parker’s scathing review hadn’t been enough, the famed author and satirist Barry Pain took aim at Margot Asquith as well. He published a book titled Marge Askinforit as a parody of Margot’s memoirs. “There was a quality in that autobiography,” he later explained, “which seemed to demand parody”. But there was nothing funny about Margot’s final years.

Margot Asquith in plaid clothes and furSasha, Getty Images

44. She Sold Everything Off

It wasn’t long before Margot’s extravagant lifestyle far exceeded her means. She even admitted to being thousands of pounds in debt. It had gotten so bad that she had resorted to pawning her pearls. But even that wasn’t enough. She and Asquith had resorted to begging their old friends for money. The embarrassment was too much for someone.

Herbert Henry Asquith with wife and daughterL. Blandford, Getty Images

45. Her Stepdaughter Called Her Monstrous

Violet Asquith, Margot’s stepdaughter, leveled criticism at the aging society woman for bankrupting her father. “It is monstrous,” Violet raged, “that other people (should) be made to foot Margot's bridge bills. How she has dragged his name through the mud”! Margot was just about ready to do anything for money. Including selling the only services she could.

Margot Asquith and familyTopical Press Agency, Getty Images

46. Her Husband Left Her Nothing

When HH Asquith passed away, he left Margot with the meager sum of just £300—not nearly enough to settle her mounting debts. The bulk of his life insurance went to his surviving children, who were only too happy to leave Margot high and dry. There was just one thing left that she knew she could sell—even if it lowered her standards.

Herbert Henry AsquithBill Nicholls, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

47. She Sold The Only Thing She Had Left

In her final years, Margot Asquith managed to make a meager income by providing her services. No, thankfully, it wasn’t in doing anything too undignified. Margot advised people on “matters of taste” pertaining to interior design and sometimes advertised commercial products. But it wasn’t enough money and she resorted to even more desperate measures.

Society figure Lady AsquithKeystone, Getty Images

48. She Started Paying In Promises

Forced to resort to unconventional measures, Margot Asquith began issuing IOUs to stave off her creditors—a stark contrast to her former opulence. The grand dame of wit and charm was humbled by the harsh realities of economic downfall. It was a cruel twist in her fate but, sadly, there was an even crueler one just around the corner.

Margot Asquith in Chair wearing pearls and dressBettmann, Getty Images

49. Her Daughter Was Trapped

The real tragedy for Margot came at the outbreak of WWII. Her daughter, Elizabeth, had married Antoine Bibesco, a Romanian prince. Sadly, when the fighting started, Elizabeth became trapped in Bucharest. The stress of having her daughter trapped behind enemy lines, coupled with her own financial stresses, pushed her right over the edge.

Elizabeth and Antoine Bibesco's wedding, 1919Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

50. She Passed Away Penniless

Margot did everything she could to get Elizabeth out of Romania, but all of her efforts were for nothing. There was no amount of wit and pointed humor that could save her. Tragically, Elizabeth succumbed to complications arising from pneumonia in 1945. Heartbroken, Margot passed away just three months later, penniless and all but forgotten.

Margot Asquith in black and pearlsElliott & Fry, Wikimedia Commons

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