Margaret Douglas: Life Story

Chapter 8 : Imprisonment

The sentence was not carried out immediately and Thomas and Margaret remained in the Tower throughout the summer of 1536. The example of Anne's death must have thoroughly frightened Margaret. She could not suppose that nearness of blood to the King would save her, but she perhaps put her hope in her parents or half-brother to plead for her with Henry. There is no record of Angus taking any action, although of course he may have done, but on 12th August 1536, Queen Margaret wrote an importunate letter to her brother, first marvelling that since he had known about the betrothal earlier, he could then punish her daughter for carrying it out.

She followed this by begging him both for affection for herself and respect for King James to allow Margaret to be sent back to a Scotland, so that ‘in time coming she shall never come into your Grace’s presence.’ Henry, however, had no intention of letting such a useful bargaining chip slip from his grasp and the young couple remained in prison.

It need not be thought that Margaret was confined to a gloomy dungeon, lying on straw watching the damp creep down the slimy walls and listening the scurrying of rats in the straw. That indeed, was the fate of many prisoners but nobles confined to the Tower were held in the upper rooms, usually in the Bell Tower or The Lord Lieutenant's own quarters.

Margaret probably had her gentlewomen and servant to wait upon her, and might even have received guests. That her captivity, although frightening, was not rigid, is supported by the likelihood that she and Thomas were exchanging verses whilst in confinement. Lord Thomas appears to have been more faithful than Margaret, who eventually renounced his love. One can hardly blame her, aged 21, urged to obey her uncle the King, and with the shocking death of her former mistress, Anne, and many of Margaret’s circle before her mind, and perhaps the scene of it before her eyes from her prison window.

By 20th October, 1536, Margaret’s mother wrote to Henry, thanking him for his ‘nobleness’ towards her daughter, and confirming that she would never give her blessing to her wayward child if she did not conform to the King’s will. From this we may infer that Henry had pardoned Margaret.

There is difference in historians’ accounts as to what happened next. Wriothesley’s Chronicle, a contemporary document, suggests that Margaret remained in the Tower until the end of October 1537. This is the view taken by Alison Weir, who also cites a letter from Queen Margaret of 30th October 1537, saying how pleased she is that Margaret is no longer in the Tower. Ms Weir then notes that Margaret was conveyed to Syon Abbey by barge on 24th November 1537 and that she was at the Abbey for convalescence, rather than under house arrest.

A contrary view, is that Margaret left the Tower in November 1536, for conveyance to Syon. This rests on a letter from the Abbess of Syon that confirms she is willing to take Margaret into the precinct of the convent. The letter is catalogued in the ‘Letters and Papers of the Reign of Henry VIII’ and also in the collection of letters transcribed in 1822 as ‘Letters of Illustrious Ladies of Great Britain’ as pertaining to November 1536.

However, Ms Weir contends that this is a misplacement, and that it should be placed in November 1537. The earlier date would seem to accord with Queen Margaret’s letter of 20th October 1536 and Henry’s response to it in December 1536 that although Margaret had ‘used herself to her dishonour’, yet, in future, if she behaved, Henry would be good to her. This seems to imply that she had been forgiven and it was in that month that she received from him the gift of a magnificent crimson velvet chair, with 2,000 nails and silver fringe at 5s the ounce. Chairs were the preserve of the highest ranks, and this specimen must have been a splendid example. Would Henry have sent such a present if she were still in the Tower and would she have been kept there for a further ten months after being forgiven?

Furthermore, there is a letter (see below) from Margaret, again transcribed in Letters of Royal and Illustrious Ladies of Great Britain. Letters and Papers catalogues it in August 1536, with which Ms Weir concurs, giving it as written from the Tower. The transcription in Royal and Illustrious Ladies also dates it to 1536, but with no month given. It could be argued that the text, although the tone of it suggests that Lord Thomas is still alive, is more consistent with Margaret being at Syon for a couple of reasons: first, it refers to a complaint by Cromwell about her keeping excessive numbers of servants and having too many visitors. It is hard to believe that, imprisoned in the Tower, she could have had excess servants or visitors. Second, Margaret denies that her servants are an additional charge to the ‘house’ and uses the expression ‘house’ twice, which might seem an odd way of referring to the Tower.

Wherever Margaret was, Lord Thomas continued to languish in the Tower. Eventually, he fell ill, and before Henry could either confirm his execution, or release him, he died on 31st October, 1537. Margaret apparently took Lord Thomas' death hard, despite her protestations to Cromwell, and one of the last entries in the Devonshire Manuscript from her is a long poem with a definitely suicidal tone. Suicide was the most terrible sin of all, and it is unlikely a woman of Margaret's apparent energy and spirits would have contemplated such a terrible step, but the verses make sombre reading. Margaret was unable to mourn publicly for Lord Thomas.

His mother, Agnes, Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, was granted permission by the King to take his body and bury it

so [on the condition] that she bury him without pomp.

Lord Thomas was interred, with many others of the family, at Thetford Priory.

That Margaret was ill both during, and after, her time in the Tower is attested by medical expenses paid by the King, to the tune of £14 4s. Henry also paid £20 to Dr Cromer, possibly for medical services, but more likely for spiritual advice, as the payment is for ‘preparations against Easter.’ There seem to be two Drs Cromer – one a physician, and the second a priest who had preached on Palm Sunday, and who was later accused of heresy. It is possible, of course, that they were one and the same.

There is no record of Margaret leaving Syon or where she went, although there is a note from Cromwell to pay her expenses there in April 1538. As the court was in mourning for Jane Seymour, it seems likely she returned to the household of her cousin, Mary, and was certainly there by June 1538.

Letter from Margaret to Thomas Cromwell

My Lord,

What cause have I to give you thanks, and how much bound am I unto you, that by your means hath gotten me, as I trust, the King’s Grace’s favour again, and besides that, that it pleased you to write and to give me knowledge wherein I might have his Grace’s displeasure again (which I pray our Lord sooner to send me death, than that.) I assure you, my Lord, I will never do that thing willingly that should offend his Grace.

And my Lord, whereas it is informed you that I do charge the house (Syon Abbey) with a greater number than is convenient, I assure you I have but two more than I had in the Court, which indeed were Lord Thomas’ servants; and the cause that I took them for was for the poverty that I saw them in, and for no other cause else. But seeing, my Lord that it is your pleasure that I shall keep none that did belong unto my lord Thomas, I will put them from me.

And I beseech you not think that any fancy doth remain in me touching him, but that all my study and care I how to please the King’s Grace and to continue in his favour. And my Lord, where it is your pleasure that |I shall keep but a few here with me, I trust ye will think that I can have no fewer than I have; for I have but a gentleman and a groom that keeps my apparel, and another that keeps my chamber, and a chaplain that was with me always in the Court.

Now my lord, I beseech you that I may know your pleasure if you would that I should keep any fewer. Howbeit my lord, my servants hath put the house to small charge, fort hey have nothing but the reversion of my board; nor do I call for nothing but that that is given me, howbeit I am very well intreated.And my lord, as for ‘resort’. I promise you I have none, except it be gentlewomen that comes to see me, nor never had since I came hither, for if any ‘resort’ of men had come, it should neither have become me to have seen them, nor yet to have kept them company, being a maid as I am. Now my Lord, I beseech you to be so good as to get my poor servants their wages; and thus I pray our Lord to preserve you, both soul and body.

Transcribed in ‘Women’s Works; 900 – 1550’

Footer, Donald W, and Donald W Foster, Women’s Works: 900 - 1550, 1st edn (New York: Wicked Good Books, 2013) Published by Wicked Words, Editor