I love reading about marginal characters. In her lifetime, Lady Margaret Douglas was anything but marginal. However, in the last 400 years, her story has been overshadowed by the stories of those other Tudors & Stuarts – Mary I, Elizabeth I, the wives of Henry VIII & Mary, Queen of Scots – & although she was related to them all, her own story has been lost. I was very pleased to discover that one of my favourite biographers, Alison Weir, was writing about Margaret & the result is a new & fascinating angle on Tudor politics.
Lady Margaret Douglas was the daughter of Henry VIII’s sister, Margaret, Queen of Scots, & her second husband, the Earl of Angus. Queen Margaret’s marriage to a Scottish nobleman after the death of James IV at Flodden, may have been necessary for her own protection, but it meant she lost support among the fractious Scots nobility. She was deprived of the custody of her sons, James (now James V at the age of only 1) & baby Alexander, & forced to flee to England to seek the protection of her brother. This meant that her daughter, Margaret, was born in England. This had important consequences as the succession to the English throne became increasingly tangled in the later years of Henry VIII’s reign.Queen Margaret’s marriage to Angus was not happy & they separated when Lady Margaret was a child. She spent most of her childhood with her father in England at the court of her uncle. She grew up with Princess Mary, shared her education & her devotion to the Catholic religion, & was a favourite of the King. She served in the households of Henry’s Queens & her marriage prospects were important as she became a factor in Henry’s political machinations.
Margaret fell disastrously in love with Lord Thomas Howard in 1535 when she was around 20 years old. As I described in this Sunday Poetry post, the lovers were thrown into the Tower & Margaret was lucky to escape with her life. The result was that Henry passed an Act of Parliament making it a treasonous offense to aspire to marry anyone in the line of succession without the King’s permission. This had momentous consequences in Margaret’s later life but, even so, she fell in love again, three years later, to another member of the Howard family (Charles Howard, brother of Queen Katherine Howard) & was lucky to be pardoned again. Margaret must have felt frustrated, bored & unsure about her future prospects as she was by now in her late twenties, practically an old maid by 16th century standards. Eventually, Henry agreed to her marriage to Matthew Stuart, Earl of Lennox, a Scots nobleman with his own claim to the Scottish throne.
Lennox had spent much of his early life in France (where he adopted the French spelling of his surname) but returned to Scotland on the death of James V in 1542. James’s death had left another child to inherit the throne, & a daughter at that, six day old Mary. Lennox’s family had a long-standing feud with the Hamiltons, the Protestant Earls of Arran, & a power struggle was in progress as factions fought over the Regency. Lennox hoped to strengthen his own claim to the English throne by marriage to Margaret but, surprisingly, their marriage became a love match & they were devoted to each other. As the Protestant faction in Scotland gained the ascendancy, the Lennoxs spent most of their time in England, at their estates in the North. Margaret spent time at Court, serving Henry’s last queen, Katherine Parr, but, as a Catholic, avoided London during the reign of her cousin, Edward VI. She was overjoyed when her friend & cousin, Catholic Mary I, ascended the throne, but disappointed when Mary died only five years later & the Protestant Elizabeth became queen. Margaret was also furious that she had been denied the earldom of Angus when her father died. Accusations of illegitimacy were leveled against her as well as her sex & her English birth. She fought futilely for years to succeed to the earldom.
It is now, with her rival in power, that the real Margaret emerges, a strong, ‘masterful, ambitious woman’ of forty-three ‘with more than a dash of Tudor spirit’, whose ambitions and prejudices had hitherto been fed, or kept in check, by circumstances, and who had been denied her rights to a great earldom and a crown. It would not be surprising if she felt angry and wronged, especially now that she found herself in opposition to a powerful enemy (Elizabeth) who represented everything she despised. Margaret had already demonstrated that she had an audacious, passionate nature and a talent for dangerous scheming, and it was at this time that her relentless ambition and determination came into evidence. Sher did not shrink from what Elizabeth would certainly have seen as treasonable activities, although Margaret would not have regarded them as such. Two forces now drove her: her fierce ambition for her sons, and a burning desire to see England and Scotland united under Catholic rule.
Margaret had eight children, of whom only two sons, Henry, Lord Darnley & Charles survived childhood. Margaret’s ambitions soon centred on the possibility of marrying her son, Darnley, to Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary had been sent to France as a child & had married the Dauphin, who briefly reigned as Francis II. After Francis’s death, Mary returned to Scotland & her second marriage was an important political decision. It was assumed that a Queen Regnant must marry & the political & religious differences in Scotland made her choice fraught with difficulty. Various Catholic foreign princes were proposed; Elizabeth I even offered her own favourite, Robert Dudley, & Margaret was keen to unite her own claim to the English throne to the claim of the Queen of Scots. Darnley had been born in England which was seen as a distinct advantage. However, Margaret had learned nothing from her own romantic history & pursued her intrigues even though she knew Elizabeth would disapprove of two potential successors combining their claims.
Darnley went to Scotland where Mary fell in love with him. He was a stupid, weak, vicious young man, handsome, but fatally spoilt by his doting mother. The marriage was famously disastrous & soon broke down. Darnley’s murder in 1567 devastated Margaret, who blamed Mary for Darnley’s death, which led to a feud between the two women that wasn’t healed for many years. The only bright spot for Margaret was the birth of James, her first grandchild, undisputed heir to the Scottish throne & an obvious successor to Elizabeth, who seemed increasingly unlikely to marry & have children of her own.
Although Margaret spent more time imprisoned in the Tower after Darnley’s marriage to Mary, she was undeterred in her ambitions. She was fortunate in her two great supporters & friends at Court, William Cecil & Robert Dudley, who did not abandon her &used their influence with Elizabeth in her favour. .After Mary was forced from the Scottish throne & fled to England where she spent the next eighteen years in genteel imprisonment, Margaret was relentless in pushing for her to be tried for the murder of Darnley. Eventually, she accepted that Mary was innocent of the foreknowledge of the plot & the two women were reconciled. Lennox was recalled to Scotland to act as Regent for his grandson, King James, a dangerous job that was virtually a death sentence. The Lennoxs were unhappy to be parted but Margaret played a crucial role in his Regency, as a source of contact with Elizabeth’s Court & an advisor through their constant correspondence. Lennox was assassinated in 1571, leaving Margaret bereft & focusing all her thoughts on her only surviving son, Charles.
Margaret’s final intrigue was her scheme to marry her son, Charles, to Elizabeth Cavendish, daughter of the formidable Bess of Hardwick. Bess was married to the Earl of Shrewsbury, jailer of Mary, Queen of Scots, no stranger to intrigue herself. Although Bess & Queen Mary had a strained relationship, Mary was keen to help her brother-in-law Charles to a good marriage or maybe she was just bored & eager to help along a budding romance. Margaret was perennially hard up & Bess was keen to see her daughter married to a potential heir to the throne. The two matrons contrived a meeting between the young couple, they duly fell in love & were secretly married. Queen Elizabeth was furious & even more so when a baby girl, Arbella, was born, another potential heir to her throne born on English soil. Elizabeth instituted an inquiry into what she saw as a treasonable conspiracy & Margaret was once again imprisoned in the Tower. Eventually she was released & lived with Charles, Elizabeth & baby Arbella in Hackney, deeply in debt & worried about Charles, who was soon to die of tuberculosis. Margaret then spent her final years trying to have Arbella recognised as her father’s heir to the Lennox estates. She died at the age of 62 in 1578.
As Weir writes at the conclusion of the book, it’s amazing that Margaret Douglas lived as long as she did. Not many Tudor women left the Tower alive & Margaret was imprisoned more than once & suspected of treason several more times. She was ambitious & a determined intriguer who schemed for her family’s advancement until the end of her life. During the reign of Henry VIII, at a time when almost all the potential heirs to the English throne were female, she played an important role in the political machinations of the Court although she had little power herself. Her marriage was arranged yet she & Matthew were very happy together. She was the dominant partner, the driving force in their relationship, & he wrote to her constantly when they were parted, addressing her as My Dear Meg & Dearest Madge. She outlived everyone who was of any importance to her, except little Arbella, & struggled with debt throughout her life. Her ambition was driven by a burning sense of injustice that her rights to inheritance had been trampled on, mostly because of her sex. I can imagine her as a suffragette; prison & hunger strikes would have held no fears for this indomitable woman. Alison Weir, as always, has written a meticulously researched account that is as gripping as a novel. If you love Tudor history as I do, this book will illuminate the life of a woman usually seen in her role as Darnley’s mother or Mary, Queen of Scots’ aunt. Weir puts Margaret Douglas back in her rightful place as an important player in Tudor politics.