The crowds of Scots who gathered to meet their new queen as she approached Edinburgh in the summer of 1503 were understandably excited. While some of this enthusiasm may have been the product of drink generously supplied for the occasion, there was also a sense of optimism. Scotland wanted a queen. Its king, James IV, already had seven illegitimate children and needed a legitimate heir.


Now around 30, James also appreciated the generous dowry and diplomatic advantage his wife would bring. An English princess was arriving to seal a treaty of ‘perpetual peace’ between the two kingdoms and to provide the dynamic, ambitious king with the partner who would help him enhance Scotland’s prestige.

The girl was Margaret Tudor, the eldest daughter of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, and still only 13 years old. But she had been thoroughly trained for her new role and was determined to prove that she was equal to its demands.

Historians have tended to be dismissive of Margaret’s character and abilities. She is almost forgotten compared with other members of her famous family, yet we know a considerable amount about her, for Margaret was a prolific letter writer. Her extensive correspondence reveals her turbulent life in Scotland and the fraught relationship with her brother Henry VIII.

The homesick daughter: Margaret Tudor to Henry VII, August 1503

God send me comfort that I and mine that be left here with me be well entreated… I wish I were with your Grace now and many times more… I pray God I may find it well for my welfare hereafter. Our Lord have you in his keeping. Written with the hand of your humble daughter, Margaret

Margaret’s letter to her father, Henry VII, betrays her homesickness and insecurities as she faced the reality of her new situation. Her response to her arrival in Scotland is hardly surprising: her beloved mother had died six months earlier and, in early July, she bid farewell to her father, knowing that she would probably never see him again. The journey north, lasting over three weeks, was exhausting.
Henry VII was determined to demonstrate, through his daughter’s progress into Scotland, the power and success of his dynasty. Margaret was constantly on show, meeting local dignitaries, attending banquets, changing dresses and jewels before she entered the towns along her way. Slim and red-headed, she cut a striking figure in her splendid gowns.

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She crossed into Scotland on 1 August, and met her husband at Dalkeith Castle a few days later.

James IV’s visit was ostensibly a surprise, but had been carefully arranged. A charming womaniser, the king knew how to put his bride at her ease, though Margaret’s letter suggests that she did not fully appreciate this. Yet she rode pillion behind him into Edinburgh, to the great approbation of the populace, and James guided her through official functions with his arm around her waist.

The couple wore matching outfits of white damask for their glittering marriage at Holyrood Abbey. James spent extravagantly on preparing accommodation for his queen and on the wedding festivities: a quarter of his annual income went on wine alone. And he shaved his beard after the wedding, at his wife’s behest.

Margaret still felt, however, that he did not spend enough time with her, preferring to talk military matters with the Earl of Surrey, who had escorted her to Scotland and whose dictatorial manner she resented. She was clearly worried about the long-term treatment she and her servants would receive.

The furious sister: Margaret Tudor to Henry VIII, May 1513

We cannot believe that of your mind or by your command we are so unkindly dealt with in our father’s legacy… Our husband knows it is witholden for his sake and will recompense us… We are ashamed therewith and wish God word had never been thereof. It is not worth such estimation as in your divers letters of the same and we lack nothing; our husband is ever the longer the better to us, as God knows.

These words, penned by an angry Margaret to her brother Henry VIII a decade after her arrival in Scotland, show that her fears about her new life north of the border were to prove unfounded. She swiftly settled into her position as Scotland’s queen, helped by the attention lavished on her by James IV. Clothed in rich furs and gowns and showered with jewels, she did, indeed, lack nothing.

And if James was by no means faithful (Margaret would not have known that his favourite mistress, Janet Kennedy, was pregnant with their third child at the time of her wedding), he was a considerate husband, easing her into the roles of consort and mother. She did not conceive until she was 16 and then produced a prince. But the child, like several others before the birth of the future James V, in 1512, did not survive.

The queen presided with her husband over a cultured court. James IV’s reign saw a flowering of literature and the arts in Scotland and he and his wife shared a love of music, dancing and masques.

Margaret must soon have realised that she had married a capable, popular ruler. James was a polymath whose interests ranged from naval matters to dentistry, and he was committed to being seen as a key player in Europe.

But his policies were to bring him into conflict with his young brother-in-law in England and deepen a rift between Margaret and Henry which may have had its origins in a reported childish spat when she, as a queen, briefly took precedence over him. Henry refused to pay Margaret the money and possessions left to her by both her father and brother, Prince Arthur Tudor. She was furious at this insult. But there was worse to come.

The desperate widow: Margaret Tudor to Henry VIII, November 1514

My party-adversary continues in their malice and proceeds in their parliament, usurping the king’s authority, as (if) I and my lords were of no reputation, reputing us as rebels, wherefore I beseech that you would make haste with your army by sea and land. Brother, all the welfare of me and my children rests in your hands.

Eighteen months later, Margaret’s life was completely changed. Relations between England and Scotland, increasingly volatile, collapsed as Henry VIII declared war on France and the French king, Louis XII, requested the aid of his Scottish allies.

The decision by James IV to invade England was not, however, taken lightly. Margaret’s opposition to the move has been overstated – her earlier letter suggests strong support for her husband and she was already in the early stages of another pregnancy. Yet tragedy awaited. James engaged the English at the battle of Flodden in September 1513, on a remote hillside in Northumberland. His army outnumbered the English, and boasted the latest military technology but James had no experience of commanding a large force. The wiliness of his opponent, combined with treacherous marshy terrain, resulted in terrible slaughter. Ten thousand Scots perished, among them the king himself. Margaret was left a widow at the age of 23.

The shock to the queen was immense but Margaret acted with resolution, removing the toddler James V to the safety of Stirling Castle where he was crowned on 21 September. She was named as regent in her husband’s will, with one important proviso: she must not remarry.

But Scotland was fiercely patriarchal and Margaret was an Englishwoman. Exercising power was always going to be difficult. She gave birth to another son in April 1514, but in August she made a serious misjudgment: she married again. Her new husband, the Earl of Angus, was a member of a powerful family with a history of dividing Scottish politics.

Margaret’s need for strong male support cost her the regency and heralded a prolonged period of faction-fighting during her son’s troubled minority. Desperate to hold on to power and to her children, Margaret appealed to her brother for help. None was forthcoming.

The aggrieved mother: An attack on the Duke of Albany, 1516

The Duke of Albany, by reason of his might and power, did take from me the king and duke, my said tender children. He removed and put me from out of my said castle (Stirling) being by enfeoffment paid for by the king my father of most blessed memory … and by his crafty and subtle ways made me signify in writing to the Pope’s Holiness and to my dearest brother the King of England and the King of France that I of my own mooting and free will did renounce my said office of tutrix and governess.

By the time the embittered Margaret wrote this official denunciation of the Duke of Albany, she had been forced to flee into England where she gave birth to a final child, her daughter by Angus, Lady Margaret Douglas. She wrote to Albany, the regent of Scotland who had replaced her, to announce the child’s arrival: “So it is that, by the grace of Almighty God, I am delivered, and have a Christian soul, being a young lady.” Her letter was sent in October 1515, from Harbottle Castle in Northumberland.

Margaret’s words reveal the depth of her anguish. John Stewart, Duke of Albany, was cousin to James IV and next in line to the Scottish throne after James V. He had been born and raised in France, and knew little of Scotland.

Initially, Margaret found Albany charming, but her position was further undermined when Henry VIII tried to have her sons kidnapped and brought to England. Determined to rule Scotland justly, Albany realised that he must gain control of the royal children. When Margaret refused, he besieged Stirling Castle and the queen was forced to submit. In a dramatic gesture intended to reinforce her son’s authority as king, she made little James V hand over the keys. Margaret had all the Tudor flair for a public occasion.

By September 1515, she decided that flight was the only option. Heavily pregnant, she rode for miles to the English border with Angus, leaving her jewels and wardrobe in Scotland. It was the last time her second husband would offer her any support.

The long recovery after a difficult labour was brightened by the arrival of new dresses sent from London but saddened by the death in December of her younger son. Margaret’s world had fallen apart.

The estranged wife: Margaret Tudor to Henry VIII, 14 July 1524

Also, my dearest brother, I have seen your writing touching my lord of Angus, which, as your Grace writes, is in your realm, and that ye purpose to send him here shortly, and that ye find him right wise… and that he is well minded of me and beareth me great love and favour. As yet he hath not shown, since his departing out of Scotland, that he desireth my good will and favour, neither by writing nor word… I trust, my dearest brother, that your Grace will not desire me to do nothing that may be hurt to me your sister, nor that may be occasion to hold me from the king my son.

The queen stayed in England, in the company of her brother and sister, Mary, until 1517. The three had not been together for 13 years. But though Henry VIII treated Margaret well, he did not want her to stay, believing that her place was in Scotland.

It was typical of Henry’s muddled Scottish policy and his underlying misgivings about his sister that his preference for influencing Scottish politics was to work through the Anglophile Earl of Angus, Margaret’s husband. Unfortunately, the couple were now estranged and their relationship, despite a brief reconciliation in 1519, went from bad to worse. Angus took up with a former sweetheart and helped himself to the rents from Margaret’s lands, leaving the queen strapped for money and furious at his behaviour.

Taking his daughter Lady Margaret Douglas with him, the earl, who had fallen out with Albany, fled to France and then to England, where Lady Margaret was brought up at court. Feisty and attractive, she never really knew her mother, though her uncle proved an affectionate guardian.

In 1524, however, Queen Margaret’s time appeared to have come again. Albany returned to France and the queen and her supporters declared the 12-year-old James V of age to rule. Assuming the regency again, Margaret, who wanted a divorce, was not about to share power with Angus, and fired the guns of Edinburgh Castle on him when he appeared with armed men.

Her success was short-lived. At the end of 1525 Angus tricked fellow politicians and assumed full control of the king. For three years the boy chafed under the restrictions of his hated stepfather, while his mother outraged Henry VIII by pursuing her campaign for divorce.

The ageing matriarch: Margaret Tudor to Henry VIII, 12 May 1541

Here has been great displeasure for the death of the prince and his brother, both with the king and the queen. I have done great diligence to put my dearest son and the queen his wife in comfort. I pray your grace to hold me excused that I write not at length… I can get no leisure.

Margaret’s marriage to Angus was annulled by the pope in 1527, the year Henry VIII began divorce proceedings against Catherine of Aragon. The following Easter, James V broke free from the domination of the Douglases and Angus fled again to England.

Margaret was elated, as she had fallen in love with a member of her household, Henry Stewart, and, at the age of 39, wanted to marry again. Her son gave permission but extracted a high price. He would not tolerate Margaret’s further meddling in Scottish politics. The queen felt sidelined and increasingly aggrieved, the more so as her third marriage was as unsuccessful as the union with Angus. Henry Stewart exploited her financially and was unfaithful.

Relief and a sense of fulfilment came from an unexpected source, Mary of Guise, James V’s second wife. This attractive and clever French noblewoman paid due attention to Margaret and the ‘old queen’ spent more time at court. In 1541 tragedy struck when Margaret’s two grandsons died within days of each other, leaving their parents devastated. Her support at this desperate time was greatly appreciated.

But Margaret’s own life was drawing to a close. In October, 1541, she suffered a stroke at Methven Castle, outside Perth, and died before her son could reach her. She was buried at St John’s Abbey in the city, alongside other Scottish rulers.

During the Reformation, Margaret’s tomb was desecrated and her skeleton burned – probably because she was English and Catholic. Like her first husband, James, she has no monument. But she would, no doubt, have been pleased that it was their great-grandson, James VI and I, who united the crowns of England and Scotland in 1603.

Linda Porter’s book about the rivalry between Tudors and Stuarts, Crown of Thistles: The Fatal Inheritance of Mary Queen of Scots, is out now in paperback (Macmillan)


This article was first published in the May 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine