Margaret Douglas: Royal Granddaughter, Royal Grandmother

Margaret Douglas: Royal Granddaughter, Royal Grandmother

by Peggy M. Baker

A shadowy woman weaves through the lives of Henry VIII and his daughters Mary and Elizabeth Tudor.

A member of Mary Tudor’s household during her days of disfavor, she also enjoyed court life to the fullest. She held the affection of her uncle Henry VIII, although exasperating him with her romantic entanglements with two unsuitable men, one of whom died for his unauthorized passion. She married late, but very well and surprisingly happily, to a man chosen by Henry.

Although considered as a possible heir to the throne, and described by Mary as “the person best suited to succeed,” it was her grandson who grabbed the biggest prize of all – the English crown.

The rich and tumultuous life of Margaret Douglas, sometimes referred to as “Princess of Scotland,” is long overdue for the attentions of a good biographer! I am very glad to see that Alison Weir is finally taking on Margaret. Weir’s biography, The Lost Tudor Princess: A Life of Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox, is due out 1 October 2015.

Margaret’s story is more than just her own. The cast of characters includes Henry VIII, Henry’s older sister Margaret, Henry’s daughters Mary and Elizabeth, Elizabeth’s nemesis Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth’s successor James I of England.

Margaret Tudor, daughter of Henry VII and older sister of Henry VIII, had married James IV of Scotland. They had a son who would become James V. After James IV’ death in 1513, Margaret secretly married Archibald Douglas, Earl of Angus. During the resulting political turmoil, Margaret fled to England where, on 7 October 1515, she gave birth to Lady Margaret Douglas.

Mother and infant daughter spent an enjoyable year at Henry VIII’s court before returning to Scotland, where Angus had been behaving very badly indeed. Young Margaret was shuttled back and forth between her quarrelling parents until, in 1529, she was sent to England. There she joined the household of her cousin, Princess Mary, only four months her junior. Henry VIII seemed taken with his lively niece. When the family gathered at Greenwich Palace to celebrate Christmas, Henry gave Margaret £16 13s 4d “to disport herself.”

Then came the momentous break with Rome, Henry’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon, his marriage to Anne Boleyn and the birth of their daughter Elizabeth.

Mary, no longer “Princess,” had her household dissolved. She was sent, with her cousin Margaret, to “serve” the new infant Princess. Mary, miserably unhappy, remained adamant in asserting her status as the only legitimately born Princess of England.

Margaret loved her cousin, but she also loved life. By 1534, she had cheerfully returned to court and was living in Anne Boleyn’s household, behaving pleasantly and, in turn, being treated with affection.

Margaret Douglas’ First Love

In early 1536, Margaret formed an attachment to young Thomas Howard. This Thomas was born ca. 1511, the son of Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk, by his second marriage. The 2nd Duke already had a son named Thomas, by his first marriage. This older son Thomas had been born in 1473 and was, in 1536, the 3rd Duke of Norfolk. The 3rd Duke was Anne Boleyn’s uncle.

Margaret Douglas and Thomas Howard secretly vowed to marry. A vow, or contract, was considered a betrothal. It could be turned into a fully legal marriage simply by consummation (admittedly, secret contracts were fairly easily annulled).

Henry would NEVER have been pleased to discover that a member of his immediate family would, by ignoring his authority and marrying without his consent, treat him with such disrespect. Margaret and Thomas were singularly unlucky in their timing, however! Their secret vows were discovered shortly after Anne Boleyn’s execution. Not only were the Howards in (temporary) disgrace but, with both of Henry’s daughters now deemed illegitimate, Margaret was potentially his heir.

Margaret and Thomas were imprisoned (separately) in the Tower of London. Thomas was charged with having “traitorously contracted himself by crafty, fair and flattering words to and with the Lady Margaret Douglas.”

The two caged lovebirds wrote poetry. Thomas Howard lamented:

”Now may I mourn as one of late

Driven by force from my delight,

And cannot see my lonely mate

To whom forever my heart is plight.”


Margaret warbled:

“I may well say with joyful heart,

As never woman might say before,

That I have taken to my part

The faithfullest lover that ever was born.”

(As quoted in Tudor Cousins, by Dulcie M. Ashdown, p. 43).

God of Love

The God of Love inspires a nobleman to make a declaration. Courtesy of the British Library Illuminated Manuscripts Collection.

This particular love story did not have a happy ending. In late summer 1537, Margaret contracted typhoid and was moved to the convent at Syon to recover. Soon thereafter, with the birth of a son to Henry and his third queen Jane Seymour, Margaret’s dynastic significance lessened considerably. On 29 October 1537, she was released and rejoined the household of her cousin Mary Tudor. Two days later, on 31 October 1537, Lord Thomas Howard died, still in the Tower of London.

Margaret Douglas’ Second Love

 By 1539, a presumably chastened Margaret had returned to Henry’s court. She served Anne of Cleves (Queen #4, 1540) and Katherine Howard (Queen #5, 1540-1542) and Katherine Parr (Queen #6). There was, however, one brief interruption!

 In 1541, Margaret found herself briefly in the Tower and then rusticated once again to Syon. The lady seemed drawn to the Howards – although, admittedly, there was so many Howards at court that it might have seemed they had her surrounded. Margaret had engaged in a brief flirtation with her previous lover’s half-nephew, Charles Howard. He was also the brother of Henry’s current, but soon to be disgrace and executed, queen Katherine Howard.

 This time, Margaret was only charged with “over-much lightness” and advised to watch her step. She was rusticated once again to Syon (Charles was released and headed east on Crusade). She was rehabilitated after Katherine Howard’s execution and returned to court to serve Katherine Parr (Queen #6, 1543-1547).

 Margaret’s adventure, however, may have finally inspired her uncle to find her a husband. She was, after all, now in her late 20s, single, and demonstrably fond of men!

Margaret Makes a Marriage

 The husband Henry VIII found for Margaret was Matthew Stuart, 4th Earl of Lennox. A year younger than Margaret, he was, through a tangle of Scottish genealogical lines, one of two possible heirs to the fragile infant Mary Queen of Scots. Increasingly dismayed with the volatile situation in Scotland, Matthew had pronounced himself ready to ally with Henry VIII.

 Henry’s affection for his niece can be seen in a condition he set for the marriage. He insisted that Matthew write to Margaret and gain HER approval. Henry, it seems, had promised Margaret he would never force her to marry a man she did not love. (A cynic, of course, might say that Henry was creating an easy way out for himself, in case he changed his mind.)

 Matthew did write, more than once, to Margaret and a genuine bond developed. Not only was Matthew wellborn and well bred, but he was strong, manly, good-looking and very attractive to the ladies.

 Matthew Stuart and Margaret Douglas married 29 June 1544 at St. James Palace. At their wedding banquet, Henry VIII acknowledged that, if his own direct line of descent failed, he would be glad it Margaret’s heirs succeeded to the throne of England. (And they did! Eventually … even though Henry VIII did not name Margaret in his will.)

 Matthew had lost all his Scottish properties when he joined Henry’s family. Henry had, however, given Margaret several estates as a dowry. During the reign of Henry’s aggressively Protestant young son, Edward VI, the couple spent most of their time at their property at Temple Newsam, in Yorkshire. There, Margaret and Matthew could continue following the Catholic religion without worry. The pair had two surviving sons: Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, born in 1545 and Charles Stuart, 5th Earl of Lennox, born in 1555.

Duke and Duchess of England

A Duke and Duchess, with Tudor roses in the background. Courtesy of the British Library Illuminated Manuscripts Collection.


When Mary Tudor succeeded Edward, she recalled her cousin and girlhood friend to court. Margaret received apartments at Westminster Palace as well as generous privileges and revenues. She attended the queen dressed in splendid gowns and jewels, most of them presents from Mary. She was on occasion given precedence over Mary’s sister Elizabeth at court. Mary even considered Margaret as a potential heir: she was legitimate, Catholic, born of Henry VIII’s older sister, and born in England at that!

 Margaret accepted all this deference as the rightful honor owed to the daughter of a Tudor queen (a Scottish queen, but still…). Margaret carried Mary’s train at her wedding to Philip II; she was the chief mourner at Mary’s funeral.

Margaret and Elizabeth

 Margaret’s assurance in her royal blood did not endear her to Mary’s younger sister and heir Elizabeth. When Elizabeth took the throne, Margaret served as the leading noblewoman in her coronation procession. Then, however, the stream of honors was cut off. Margaret and Matthew were sent back to Yorkshire.

 With the door to wealth and power in England firmly, if politely, closed, the Lennoxes turned their eyes even further north. When Mary Queen of Scots, whose French husband had died, returned to Scotland, they requested that Matthew’s confiscated lands be returned. They also began scheming and planning a marriage between their son Henry and the young widowed queen.

 Word of their ambitions reached Elizabeth, who was not pleased. In 1562, Margaret and Matthew were summoned to London. Both were arrested and imprisoned although the only charge with real “bite” was made against Margaret. She was accused of supporting Mary Queen of Scot’s claim to the English throne and naming Elizabeth a bastard. No trials were held and the couple, presumably having learned their lesson, was released in 1563.

 The next year, a deferential Matthew sought permission to return to Scotland and regain his estates. Elizabeth agreed. When Matthew asked that his son Henry be permitted to briefly join him in Scotland, Elizabeth agreed. It was only when it was too late, that Matthew’s top-secret long-range plan became apparent. He was still intent on the marriage of his son Henry to Mary Queen of Scots.

 The bamboozled and outraged Elizabeth couldn’t reach Matthew and Henry in Scotland. She could, however, get her hands on the Lennox’s English estates, which she confiscated, and on Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox. Margaret was sent to the Tower on 14 June 1565.

Margaret, a Royal Mother-in-Law

 Margaret was still in the tower six weeks later when her son Henry, Lord Darnley, married Mary Queen of Scots. She was still there when, on 19 December 1565, her husband sent a letter from Scotland to his “sweet Madge.” He wrote of his loneliness and then of the good news that Mary Queen of Scots and Darnley were to have a child although “for my part, I confess I want and find a lack of my chiefest comfort, which is you…” (as quoted in Tudor Cousins, Dulcie M. Ashdown, p. 141).

 The marriage of Mary and Darnley succeeded in its most obvious purpose, the birth of a son. In all other ways, however, the marriage was a dismal failure. On 10 February 1567, Darnley was murdered, probably with his wife’s acquiescence, if not active consent. Margaret, still in the Tower, was distraught and enraged. Elizabeth released her. Lennox returned to England and was reunited with his grieving wife.

 The reign of Mary Queen of Scots spiraled out of control. Eventually, she was compelled to abdicate in favor of her son by Darnley. Briefly imprisoned in Scotland, she escaped and, on 16 May 1568, fled to England, where she was imprisoned.

 Meanwhile, Matthew and Margaret were living quietly in the north, in debt, sorrowing for their murdered son. Their situation changed in January 1570, when the regent of Scotland, governing on behalf of Mary and Darnley’s young son, was assassinated. With Elizabeth’s permission, Matthew returned to Scotland as his grandson’s new regent. Margaret, and her surviving son Charles, stayed behind to guarantee Matthew’s good behavior. Margaret never saw her husband again. On 4 September 1571, he was killed in a skirmish outside Stirling Castle.

 The focus of Margaret’s hopes, dreams and affection now became her son Charles. It was probably not just happenstance that, in 1574, she and Charles, then in his late teens, paid a visit to the Countess of Shrewsbury, known as “Bess of Hardwick,” and her lovely young daughter, Elizabeth Cavendish. Aided and abetted by their mothers, the young pair secretly married. Elizabeth called the parties concerned onto the carpet.

 Margaret Douglas was again consigned to the Tower, as was the Countess of Shrewsbury. Bess was released in March 1575, Margaret later that autumn, about the time that Charles’ daughter Arbella was born.

 Charles died of tuberculosis in 1577. Shortly thereafter, Mary Queen of Scots rewrote her will to bestow the title of Countess of Lennox on her murdered husband’s niece, Arbella Stuart. The Scottish Parliament never ratified the title. A year after her son’s death, on 9 March 1578, Margaret Douglas died. She is buried in Westminster Abbey; her tomb recognizes her as a lady of “invincible spirit.”

Westminster Abbey - Margaret Douglas Tomb

Margaret Douglas’ tomb at Westminster Abbey is overshadowed by that of Mary Queen of Scots.


Margaret herself never wore a crown. The crown her son, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, achieved was that of Scotland’s “King Consort.” It brought him no happiness and a very short life. It was Darnley’s son, Margaret’s grandson (whom she never saw), who achieved the family dream. When his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, abdicated on 24 July 1567, he became James VI of Scotland. On the death of his cousin Elizabeth I on 24 March 1603, he became James I of England. Margaret Douglas’ grandson sat on England’s throne.

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