In 1536 a young woman lay in the Tower of London under sentence of death. Her crime was to fall in love – treason in the eyes of King Henry VIII, who believed that her lover had designs on his throne.


This wasn’t Anne Boleyn, who famously lost her head that year, but the king’s near heiress, Lady Margaret Douglas, who had secretly precontracted herself to Lord Thomas Howard, half-brother of the Duke of Norfolk. The Act of Attainder passed against Thomas was the first ever to legislate on royal marriages, and decreed that any man espousing or defiling a relative of the king, without royal assent, was a traitor – and both would suffer death. Thus Margaret and Thomas stood condemned under a statute that had not been in force when they had committed what was now, legally, an offence.

Margaret Douglas was a great prize, for she had a strong claim to the throne of England. Tudor blood ran in her veins: her mother, Margaret Tudor, Queen of Scots, was Henry VIII’s sister. Margaret was courted and feared accordingly.

The story of her extraordinary life spans five Tudor reigns, and is packed with intrigue, drama and tragedy. In an age of female inferiority, she stands out as a feisty, intelligent character who operated effectively at the highest levels of power.

Margaret’s birth was as dramatic as her life. In 1515, ousted from the Scottish regency, a pregnant Margaret Tudor fled into Northumberland, finding refuge at Harbottle Castle. Her daughter was born there, two weeks prematurely, on 7 October. Henry VIII had no children, and English law did not recognise the claim of the Scottish James V, so Margaret Douglas was Henry’s next heir after her mother.

Margaret’s childhood was overshadowed by her warring parents. By 1518 her father, Archibald Douglas, Earl of Angus was living in adultery and, after they divorced, he took custody of young Margaret. In 1528, branded a traitor, he fled with her to England.

Margaret was growing into a spirited young lady, “both beautiful and highly esteemed”, as one contemporary put it. In 1531 Henry placed her in the household of his daughter, the Princess Mary. Two years later, Margaret was one of the ladies of honour assigned to Anne Boleyn, a role she would hold under all of Henry’s successive wives.

Anne presided over a lively circle of courtiers who enjoyed much “pastime in the queen’s chamber”, making music, dancing and writing poetry. The poems they wrote were bound into books and circulated at court; one, the Devonshire Manuscript, comprised verses composed or transcribed by Margaret, and her friends Mary Howard, Duchess of Richmond and Mary Shelton, Anne Boleyn’s cousin. These poems chart the doomed romance between Margaret and Thomas Howard. Precontracting herself without royal assent shows Margaret as headstrong and reckless – character traits that would be evident throughout her adult life.

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Doomed romance

By October 1537 the couple were grievously ill. Margaret was freed from the Tower but Thomas, tragically, died. Devastated and weak, Margaret was sent to Syon Abbey to recuperate. She was still mourning her lost lover a year later.

Yet she failed to learn from this terrible experience. In 1541 she again incurred Henry’s displeasure after involving herself in an affair with Charles Howard, brother of the doomed queen Catherine Howard. This time she was fortunate to escape with a reprimand. She spent the next two years at Kenninghall, the Duke of Norfolk’s house. In 1543 she attended Henry’s wedding to Katherine Parr and returned to court.

On 6 July 1544, Margaret was married to Matthew Stuart, Earl of Lennox, an ambitious, French-educated, Scottish nobleman who had turned traitor by offering his allegiance to Henry VIII. It was a political union, but the couple fell in love and remained devoted to each other.

While Lennox was away campaigning, Margaret bore his children. They had eight: four boys and four girls. The only two to survive into adulthood were Henry, Lord Darnley, born in 1545, and Charles, born in 1557. Margaret doted on her sons, and was the dominating influence in their lives.

But a malign influence had entered her world: Lennox’s secretary, Thomas Bishop, a treacherous mischief-maker. His ill-feeling seems to have sprung from Margaret complaining about him to her husband and urging his dismissal. In time Bishop would exact a vicious revenge.

In 1547 Henry VIII died. Margaret lived in Yorkshire for most of Edward VI’s reign, but was in Scotland in 1553 at the time of his death and the unsuccessful coup to place Lady Jane Grey on the throne. She hastened home for the coronation of her friend, Mary Tudor, and it is at this point that Margaret emerges as a staunch Catholic, like the queen.

Mary wanted Margaret to succeed her instead of the Protestant Elizabeth. She gave Margaret precedence over Elizabeth at public ceremonies, and treated her as her next heir. But parliament would not sanction it and, when Mary died in 1558, it was Elizabeth who succeeded. Yet Margaret, as a Catholic, would remain a dynastic threat and prove a powerful force in Elizabethan politics.

A blessing and a curse

Elizabeth’s councillors feared that Margaret would make a bid for the crown. But Margaret’s aims reached further. She had brought up Lord Darnley in the Roman faith and had him well educated. Like her, he had a sound claim to the throne, and she was fiercely ambitious for him. But he was an arrogant boy, stupid and spoilt.

Margaret secretly plotted to marry Darnley to the young Mary, Queen of Scots, which would unite two Catholic claims to the throne of England, and bring the two kingdoms under Stuart rule. Yet she was unaware that spies were watching her every movement. One of those informers was the malevolent Thomas Bishop.

When Elizabeth found out about Margaret’s plotting, she kept her under house arrest for more than a year and sent Lennox to the Tower. In 1563 both were released, but Margaret continued to scheme, and when, in 1565, Darnley wed Mary without Elizabeth’s permission, Margaret once again ended up in the Tower. She stayed there for two years until Darnley was murdered, whereupon she collapsed in such violent paroxysms of grief that, out of compassion, Elizabeth set her at liberty.

Margaret demanded vengeance on Darnley’s murderers. She denounced Mary, insisting that she had connived at Darnley’s destruction. She and Lennox were ceaseless, and vocal, in their quest for justice.

In 1567 Mary was forced to abdicate in favour of her infant son, who was crowned James VI of Scots. Margaret had now realised her ambition of being grandmother to a king, and was to dedicate herself to young James’s interests for the rest of her life. In 1570 Lennox was appointed regent for his grandson, but his alleged sympathies for the English made him an unpopular figure and, in 1571, he was assassinated. Margaret was once more plunged into grief.

In 1574 Margaret intrigued with the redoubtable noblewoman Bess of Hardwick to marry her son Charles to Bess’s daughter. It was probably on his mother’s instructions that Charles so “entangled himself that he could have none other”, and Margaret and Bess hastened the marriage – crucially, without seeking the queen’s permission. Elizabeth I was incandescent – and Margaret suffered a third spell in the Tower.

After Charles’s death from tuberculosis in 1576, she fought in vain to secure for his daughter Arbella the earldom of Lennox, which had reverted to James VI.

That was to be her last political effort for, on 9 March 1578, Margaret, aged 62. The Earl of Leicester’s opponents often circulated rumours that he poisoned his enemies – and some blamed him for Margaret’s death. But she probably succumbed to a heart attack or stroke. She was buried in the tomb that she had built for herself in Westminster Abbey.

Given her intrigues, her closeness to the throne, and Elizabeth’s enmity, it is surprising that Margaret Douglas lived so long. She had spent four years in the Tower, “not for matters of treason, but for love matters”. Love had been the great blessing and the great curse of her life.

Her royal blood had brought danger and tragedy, for it had fuelled her ambition to secure a crown for her descendants. But she managed to retain her position at court – a lucky survivor in the brutal world of 16th-century politics – and she died in her bed, not by the axe as did Lady Jane Grey or Mary, Queen of Scots, or in prison like Jane’s sister Lady Katherine Grey. That may well be why Margaret Douglas, a prominent and crucially important figure in Tudor England, is largely forgotten and overlooked.

Margaret did not live to see her dynastic ambitions brought to fruition. How she would have exulted to see her grandson ascend the English throne as James I, uniting the kingdoms of England and Scotland under one ruler. It was what she had hoped and schemed for all her life. And it is her blood, not that of Henry VIII or her rival Elizabeth I, that has flowed in the veins of every sovereign since.

The life of a lost princess

1515: Margaret is born at Harbottle Castle, Northumberland. Because she is born in England, she is her uncle Henry VIII’s subject, and as such has a strong claim to the throne.

1527: Margaret’s parents, Archibald Douglas, Earl of Angus, and Margaret Tudor (below) divorce, which raises enduring questions about
Margaret’s legitimacy.

1530: She arrives at the English court, where she is treated as a princess of the blood. She will serve five of Henry VIII’s wives.

1536–37: Margaret secretly precontracts herself to Lord Thomas Howard. Both are imprisoned in the Tower. Margaret is released, but Thomas dies of an illness.

1544: Margaret marries Matthew Stuart, Earl of Lennox. It is a love match.

1562–63: Margaret is kept under house arrest at Sheen for plotting to marry her son, Lord Darnley, to Mary, Queen of Scots.

1565–67: Margaret is again imprisoned in the Tower after Darnley (below) marries Mary without Elizabeth I’s consent. Compassion prompts Elizabeth to release her after Darnley’s murder.

1571: Margaret’s husband, the Earl of Lennox, is assassinated in Scotland after a turbulent regency for their grandson, James VI.

1574–75: Margaret schemes to marry her son Charles Stuart to Bess of Hardwick’s daughter Elizabeth Cavendish. For this, she is once again sent to the Tower, but remains there for only a few weeks.

1578: Margaret dies at her house at Hackney, and is accorded a state funeral and buried in Westminster Abbey.

Alison Weir is the top-selling female historian in Britain.


This article was first published in the November 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine