The King's Beloved Niece

Lady Margaret Douglas

Chapter 2 : The Queen's Prisoner

Henry was married to his fifth wife, Katherine Howard, when Margaret formed an attachment to the new Queen’s brother, Charles. Unfortunately for Margaret – and still more so for the doomed Katherine Howard – it emerged in November 1541 that the Queen had been unchaste before her marriage and was conducting a new relationship with a gentleman of the Privy Chamber, Thomas Culpepper. As the investigations uncovered Margaret’s latest romance she was delivered a chilling warning. She had ‘ demeaned herself towards His Majesty, first with the Lord Thomas Howard, and second with Charles Howard ’, to whom she had shown ‘ overmuch lightness’. She was advised: ‘beware the third time’.

Following Katherine Howard’s beheading Margaret was careful not to risk any further unauthorised love affairs, and when she did marry it was at Henry’s arrangement. In 1543 he was hoping to build up a body of support in Scotland for a marriage between James V’s infant daughter, Mary Queen of Scots, and his son Edward. Margaret was to be a pawn in these plans, with Henry offering her as a bride to Matthew Stewart, Earl of Lennox, who was to lead a pro-English Scots party from England. Happily, Margaret was delighted with Lennox, ‘ a strong man of personage well shaped ’ who ‘was most pleasant for a lady’. Lennox was equally enamoured of Margaret and their marriage of 1544 proved happy.

Margaret was not mentioned in the Third Act of Succession, which had been given the royal assent in that spring. Having named Mary and Elizabeth as Edward’s heirs, the Act merely promised that Elizabeth’s heirs would be named later in letters patent. The King remained anxious to protect his children from rival claimants, but on a personal level Henry was fond of Margaret, writing to her from Calais that September, sending the new bride his special ‘ recommendations’.

Margaret’s biographers tell us that, nevertheless, in 1546 she quarrelled with Henry so bitterly over religion, that, when the dying King named the long stop heirs to Elizabeth that winter, she was denied her rightful place in line of succession, along with James V’s daughter, Mary, Queen of Scots. This supposed quarrel has helped diminish Margaret’s significance in Tudor and Stuart history, with the impression given that she was a woman of poor judgement and one who lacked political importance thereafter. This is far from the truth.

The Lennox payments that year to chantry priests, who prayed for souls in purgatory, does indicate religious conservatism, but Henry’s will also asked for masses to be said for his soul. The only evidence for Margaret’s quarrel lies in a source that postdates Henry’s death by fifteen years, but it remains important because, four hundred and fifty years later, the mud thrown at Margaret then still sticks.

By this time, early in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, Margaret was forty-six, and the birth of eight children had taken its toll on her good looks. But she had done well in negotiating the lethal riptides of the changing courts of Edward VI and Mary I, as well as being deeply involved in Scottish affairs, promoting her claims as her father’s heir. Indeed Margaret had matured into a political operator to match her great-grandmother, Margaret Beaufort, who had helped plot her son Henry VII’s rise to the throne.

The twenty-nine year old Elizabeth had invited Margaret to court to celebrate the Christmas season of 1561-2, and in order to keep an eye on her cousin. Elizabeth had discovered Margaret was plotting to marry her eldest son, Henry, Lord Darnley, to Mary, Queen of Scots. Under the terms of Henry’s VIII will Elizabeth’s heir was her Protestant cousin, Lady Katherine Grey, granddaughter of Henry’s younger sister, Mary, the French Queen. But some considered this unsigned document invalid, even forged, making Mary, Queen of Scots Elizabeth’s heir, as the senior in blood. If she were to be married to Darnley his English birth, combined with his Tudor blood, would greatly strengthen her claim.

A nervous Margaret insisted to the Spanish ambassador, Alavarez de Quadra, that securing the succession for Mary, Queen of Scots was her duty, for it would protect England from a civil war on Elizabeth’s death. But as the ambassador noted, Elizabeth based ‘ her security on there being no certain successor should the people tire of her rule ’. Margaret was in danger of being returned to the Tower, and her fears of this grew when she spotted an agent of a sacked Lennox servant called Thomas Bishop, skulking at court.

Margaret and Lennox suspected Bishop was feeding information against them to Elizabeth’s Secretary of State, William Cecil. In response they launched a pre-emptive attack on Bishop’s reputation. They described how Bishop had come to work for Lennox while their marriage was being arranged in 1543. Henry VIII had rewarded Bishop for his good service to Lennox, but, they claimed, Henry later regretted this, ‘understanding that [Bishop] went about to set dissension between the said Earl and his lady ’, and Bishop had proved a coward, a sexual reprobate, and a thief to boot.

It is Bishop’s reply to the Lennox attack that is quoted by historians as evidence of Margaret’s fatal quarrel with Henry. In a long memorandum Bishop focuses his attention on Margaret, describing his work for Elizabeth’s predecessors in the face of Margaret’s enmity, and his rewards. In particular he refers to land grants Henry gave him in October 1546, ‘a little afore his death and after the breach with my lady Lennox '. Bishop does not say what her argument with Henry was about, but in another manuscript, Cotton Caligula B VIII ( folios 165-168), Bishop clarifies matters.

Bishop claims that Margaret had wanted him sacked in the 1540s, ‘ seeking the rule of her husband ’ and that Henry VIII was so angry about her false accusations against Bishop that, ‘ she ever after lost a part of [the King’s] heart, as appeared at his death ’. In other words, Henry VIII demoted Margaret in line of succession because she was rude about Thomas Bishop!

Now, Henry VIII evidently did value Bishop’s services, but the King had named the Grey sisters as Elizabeth’s heirs because as unmarried females and minors, with only a distant claim under Common law, they had posed far less of a threat to his children than either Mary, Queen of Scots, or Margaret, who alone amongst his sisters’ children, had a growing son.

It was nowhere else suggested that Margaret had ever quarrelled with Henry over religion, and Bishop’s claim that there had been any quarrel at all does not appear to have been taken seriously. But he had other, more acute, accusations to make and by 2 April Margaret was imprisoned at the former Carthusian Abbey of Sheen, while Lennox was in the Tower.