The King's Beloved Niece

by Leanda de Lisle

Lady Margaret Douglas

Chapter 1: The King's Niece

Why would the remarkable life of a Tudor princess be forgotten? When, in 1530 Henry VIII welcomed ‘our niece’, Lady Margaret Douglas, to court, the fourteen-year old princess was destined to be a player in key events over four Tudor reigns. Her youthful romances would see her caught up in the fall of two of Henry’s queens, she would be arrested at least four times, imprisoned in the Tower twice, and plot - ultimately successfully - for her heirs to inherit Queen Elizabeth’s throne. Yet because she was on the losing side of the Reformation struggle, she was to be relegated to the side-lines of Tudor history, dismissed as unpleasant and silly. I chose to turn that round and make her a central figure in my book on the dynasty, ' Tudor: the Family Story'. Her life is one of the most remarkable of the period - and brings the Tudor times into our times.

So who was this Tudor princess and grandmother to a new dynasty in England? Margaret Douglas was the child of Henry’s elder sister, Margaret Tudor, Queen of Scots, by her second husband, Archibald Douglas, Earl of Angus. As such she was third in line to the English throne in 1530, following her elder half-brother, the sixteen-year-old James V of Scots, and Henry’s daughter, Mary Tudor, who was four months younger than she. Her parents’ unhappy marriage had been annulled in 1527 and a year later, when her father was anxious to flee the stepson who hated him, and needed free passage to England, he had kidnapped Margaret and sent her to Henry as a good will gesture.

Henry had ignored her mother’s pleas for her to be returned home. Margaret was too valuable a commodity on the international marriage market to let go. Nevertheless, for eighteen months Margaret had been left in the north of England while Henry had focussed on his pursuit of a papal annulment of his own marriage to Katherine of Aragon. His hopes of being freed to marry his mistress Anne Boleyn, had all but drained away when he, at last, sent for Margaret. She found Henry living alongside a ‘somewhat stoutKatherine, as well as the hot-tempered Anne, in what David Starkey has characterised as a virtual ménage a trios.

Henry left Katherine of Aragon for good in the summer of 1531 while Margaret was sent on to join her cousin Mary’s household as her principal lady-in-waiting. She was to stay at Mary’s side during one of the most traumatic periods of the princess’s life: the break with Rome, Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn, the birth of Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth, and Henry’s decision to have Mary declared a bastard. With Mary’s household broken up in 1534, Margaret was then transferred to Anne Boleyn’s Privy Chamber.

The now eighteen-year-old Margaret was described by foreign ambassadors as beautiful and highly esteemed. Despite her closeness to Mary she made friends with a group of talented young courtiers related to Anne, and who together contributed to the famous collection of poetry known as the Devonshire manuscript. Amongst these friends was the twenty-three year old Lord Thomas Howard, a younger brother of the Anne’s uncle, the Duke of Norfolk. He and Margaret fell in love and at first Henry seemed to encourage the couple, but when they betrothed at Easter 1536 they did so in secret.

The atmosphere at Court was tense. Henry had married Anne in the expectation of her delivering male heirs, but the birth of Elizabeth had been followed by miscarriages – the latest that January. He had begun flirting with another of Anne's ladies in waiting, Jane Seymour, and Anne was quarrelling with the King’s chief minister and vicar-general, Thomas Cromwell. On May Day 1536 Anne was suddenly arrested, accused of adultery with several men, including her own brother, and of plotting the King’s death. By the end of the month she was dead, beheaded for treason.

Henry promptly married Jane Seymour with Margaret obliged to attend on the bride at the wedding. But these shocking events had a still more personal impact. Anne’s daughter Elizabeth was bastardized, leaving Margaret and her brother James V as Henry’s senior heirs in blood. As Henry had no legitimate heirs they were also a potential alternative focus source of loyalty. To counter this a new Act of Succession was drawn up that gave Henry the right to appoint his heirs: even, if he wished, his illegitimate children over his legitimate nephew and niece. Henry’s bastard son, Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond, stood to be the principle beneficiary, since of the King's children he, at least, was male.

It was as it emerged that Fitzroy was terminally ill with, ‘ a rapid consumption’ that Henry learned of Margaret Douglas’s betrothal to Thomas Howard. His bastardized daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, made far weaker claimants than Margaret, legitimate and married into the powerful Howard family. Henry had the couple sent to the Tower.

On 18 July a Bill of Attainder proclaimed that Thomas Howard, having been ‘ led and seduced by the devil’ had ‘ traitorously contracted himself by crafty, fair and flattering words to .. the Lady Margaret Douglas'. His object being to usurp the throne, trusting people would prefer the English-born Margaret, to the foreign King of Scots, ' to whom this Realm has, nor ever had, any affection '.

On 23 July it was reported that Thomas Howard had been condemned to death for treason and that the twenty-one year old Margaret Douglas was spared only because the marriage had not been consummated. There was, in fact, a further reason. The annulment of the marriage of Margaret’s parents’ had left her legitimacy intact. The Attainder nevertheless referred on several occasions to Margaret Douglas as being her mother’s ‘ natural (ie bastard) daughter’. This was a clear attempt to demote her in the succession and ensure Henry’s children had the superior claim.

Margaret believed that Cromwell had also helped to save her life, and she took his advice in pretending she had no further interest in Howard. The King’s anxieties were further reduced after Jane Seymour bore a son, Edward, on 12 October 1537. Margaret (by then imprisoned at Syon Abbey) was released early in November, only to learn that Thomas Howard had died in the Tower of ‘an ague’. Margaret took the news ‘very heavily’. It would be four years before Margaret risked her heart again.