The King's Beloved Niece

Lady Margaret Douglas

Chapter 4 : Ancestor of Kings

Of her eight children Margaret was now left with one surviving son, Charles. Despite Elizabeth’s virulent opposition to his marrying anyone, Margaret arranged a match to a daughter of the courtier Bess of Hardwick in 1574. Since this non-royal, non-noble, marriage did not pose a threat to the queen, Margaret was punished only with a spell of house arrest. Charles died of an unknown illness in 1576, but he left a daughter, little Arbella, to comfort Margaret in her last years.

A picture Margaret had painted of Arbella, aged twenty-three months, depicts a hazel-eyed infant clutching a doll, and around her neck, on a triple chain of gold, hangs a shield with the Countess’s coronet along with the Lennox motto in French, ‘ To achieve, I endure’ – and Margaret did endure. Her old enemy Thomas Bishop had, by 1576, proved a rather less reliable Tudor servant that he had claimed to be. In 1569 he had been found to be in contact with adherents of Mary, Queen of Scots, and had ended up in the Tower from where he was released only that year.

Eventually Bishop would return to his Scottish homeland, where Margaret remained in contact with her grandson, sending James works of history, and on one occasion a pair of embroidered hawking gloves. In 1578, aged sixty-two, Margaret also continued to entertain Elizabeth’s most powerful courtiers. At a dinner that February she had Robert Dudley, now Earl of Leicester, as her guest. Margaret was adept at turning enemies into allies and they had once even worked together towards the Darnley marriage, despite her earlier accusation that he was a pox-ridden wife murderer.

By the end of that month Margaret was seriously ill and on 26 February she wrote her will. Twelve hundred pounds was put aside for Margaret’s funeral and burial expenses at Westminster Abbey, while amongst her many bequests was her ‘ tablet picture of Henry VIII ’, which she left to Dudley.

Tablets’ often referred to pendant jewels containing pictures or even miniature prayer books. Margaret’s could be the famous gold enameled Tudor girdle prayer book known as ' Stowe manuscript 956'. It came to the British Library from a collection that belonged to the heirs of William Seymour, Duke of Somerset, the widower of Margaret’s granddaughter Arbella. She had, as a child, been betrothed to Robert Dudley’s short-lived legitimate son, and it may have passed to her then, if it had not always stayed in her care. It contains an illuminated miniature bust of Henry VIII, dating from around 1540

Margaret Douglas died on 10 March and on 3 April she had a funeral appropriate to a royal princess. She was buried in what is now called the Henry VII chapel close to her ancestress and namesake Margaret Beaufort, whose role in ushering in the Tudor dynasty she had emulated in her own life and dynastic ambitions. Few tombs in the Abbey match the royal ancestors listed on Margaret’s, but she was prouder still to be ‘ a progenitor of princes’ in her son Darnley and her grandson King James.

When Darnley was a baby Margaret had heard a prophecy that he would one day unite the crowns of England and Scotland. Although he was dead, his English birth, as well as his Tudor blood, greatly enhanced James’s claim to Elizabeth’s throne. One day, Margaret believed, James would lie in Westminster Abbey, as a King of England - as indeed he does today. It was fear of such an end that had seen Henry VIII demote her in his will. He was desperate that it would be his descendants who would sit on the throne in our time. Instead it is Margaret’s blood that still runs in the royal family and brings the Tudor family story into the present day.

This article was drawn from a more detailed account in Leanda de Lisle's book, 'Tudor: The Family Story (1437 - 1603)', published in the U.S. under the title 'Tudor: Passion, Manipulation, Murder, The Story of England's Most Notorious Royal Family' (2013)