Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Lady Margaret Douglas, Poet and "Progenitor of Princes"

Margaret Douglas, countess of Lennox (christened 8 October 1515)


Margaret Douglas was the daughter of Margaret Tudor, Henry VIII's older sister--the Tudor princess's first marriage had been to James IV of Scotland. After the king's death, the queen dowager had married Archibald Douglas, the earl of Angus. Margaret Douglas was the only child of Margaret Tudor's second marriage.

Margaret Douglas,
c. 1560-65
As a widowed queen, Margaret Tudor struggled to maintain her role as regent for her young son, who at seventeen months old succeeded his father as James V of Scotland in 1513, after the king's death at the battle of Flodden.

But when the queen dowager married her second husband secretly in 1514, she lost her regency and her guardianship of her two royal sons, the child-king, and his younger brother, Alexander, born in 1514, after his father's death.

In 1515, heavily pregnant with Angus's child and deeply embroiled in the violent political struggles of the Scottish lords, the former queen left the country, undertaking a desperate escape to England.

She took refuge in Harbottle Castle (Northumberland), where her daughter, Margaret Douglas, was born on 8 October 1515. The elder Margaret, too ill after childbirth to travel south to join her brother's court, remained in the castle with her daughter until she recovered enough to make the journey.

In late April of 1516, mother and daughter were finally able to move on to the safety of Henry's court, where they were greeted by Henry's queen, Katherine of Aragon, who had just given birth to a daughter of her own, Mary Tudor, in February. 

But after a year in England, with her husband Angus refusing to join his wife and daughter, Margaret Tudor returned to Scotland and her husband, taking Margaret Douglas with her. The turbulent marriage of Margaret and Angus, despite their brief reconciliation, was not to last.

Back in Scotland, Margaret was allowed to have some contact with her son, James V, but her difficult marriage disintegrated, and by the time the younger Margaret was three, the pair were engaged in a long and bitter struggle. 

Though the two would continue in their attempts at reconciliation, primarily at the urging of Henry VIII, by 1527 the marriage was irretrievably broken, and it was at last annulled by Clement VII--while declaring Margaret Tudor's second marriage invalid, the pope nevertheless declared Margaret Douglas legitimate. (Margaret Tudor would go on to marry a third time, to Henry Stewart, first lord Methven--but that's another story.)

At some point between 1525 and 1528, Angus removed his daughter from her mother's guardianship--although some historians have referred to this as a kidnapping or even an abduction, Angus had every legal right to take possession of his child. Now in her father's custody, Margaret, began to identify not as English but Scottish.

Angus continued to involve himself in the struggle to control the Scottish throne and the person of the young king. By 1528, Angus was not only back in Scotland but once again regent--though he quickly lost power. By the end of the year, the young king escaped from Angus's control and joined his mother. 

Attainted and finding his lands confiscated, Angus managed a truce and fled to England, taking his daughter with him, recognizing her value as a significant political pawn. While Margaret Tudor's son, James V, might be considered an heir to the English king, he was at least technically debarred by reason of his Scottish birth. Margaret's daughter, on the other hand, faced no such bar. She was English--born in Northumberland. 

But once in England, Margaret Douglas was removed from her father's custody and joined the household of her godfather, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, her residence established in Berwick Castle. She remained there until the spring of 1530; after Wolsey's death, she was summoned to her uncle's court.

Her proximity to the throne would shape her turbulent life. In 1530, she was made a lady-in-waiting to her cousin, Mary, whose residence was at the royal palace at Beaulieu  The two would remain lifelong confidantes. 

But in 1533, with the English king's marriage to Anne Boleyn, Margaret Douglas was transferred to the new queen's court, once again appointed as lady-in-waiting. After Elizabeth Tudor's birth, Margaret was a lady of honor to the princess. 

While at the court of Henry and Anne, she met and fell in love with Lord Thomas Howard, the queen's uncle. The two seem to have entered into a contract for marriage. When he discovered the relationship between the two, the king regarded it as a dangerous attempt by Howard to gain control of the throne. On 8 June 1534, Henry had the pair arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Howard was attainted for treason, his position becoming increasingly dire after Anne Boleyn's fall and execution in 1536, but he was not tried and executed--he eventually fell ill  as a result of the harsh conditions he suffered while imprisoned in the Tower.

For her part, Margaret also fell ill, but she was transferred from the Tower into the custody of the abbess of Syon Abbey.  She was finally released on 29 October 1537, but she would not be reunited with her lover--he died in the Tower just two days later.

The poems that Howard and Margaret Douglas exchanged during their calamitous affair are now part of the collection known as the Devonshire Manuscript--an anthology of courtly lyric poetry composed and compiled by members of the royal court, many of them women. In addition to its significance as a repository of sixteenth-century poetry, the manuscript collection "also provides a unique insight into the precarious position of Renaissance women in, or close to, power."

A leaf from the Devonshire Manuscript
As a result of his niece's actions, the king altered the Act of Succession to make any attempt to "espouse, marry or deflower being unmarried" a female claimant to the throne an act of treason.

Margaret Douglas was released from her confinement in Syon in order to attend the funeral of Jane Seymour, Henry's third queen. Fearing that his long-desired son's legitimacy might be questioned by the Catholic church, given his complicated marital history, Henry VIII had his niece Margaret declared illegitimate--on he grounds that her mother's marriage to Angus had been entered into clandestinely, 

Although legally debarred from the throne, Margaret was welcomed back to court. In 1539, she was appointed as a member of the household of Anne of Cleves, serving as one of the English women who would greet the future queen on her arrival in England. The Cleves married was annulled in 1540.

By that time, Margaret had involved herself in yet another disastrous romantic entanglement, this time with Sir Charles Howard, the brother of Henry's fifth queen, Catherine Howard. (Charles Howard was also the nephew of Margaret's earlier love, Thomas Howard.)

Margaret once again found herself in disgrace, though on this occasion she avoided the Tower and went immediately back to Syon. (For his part, Charles Howard escaped to the continent.) But she was quickly released after Catherine Howard's fall and execution, once more back at court and appointed to the household of Henry's last queen, Katherine Parr.

In 1544, Margaret Douglas at last found a marital prospect of whom the English king approved, and she married the Scottish exile Matthew Stewart, earl of Lennox. Although they remained in England, the couple had many interests (and intrigues) in Scotland. (Still fearful of Margaret's claims to the English throne, Henry VIII excluded her from the succession in his will.)

Now the countess of Lennox, Margaret Douglas quickly gave birth to eight children, but only two survived, two sons, Henry Stuart, lord Darnley, in 1545, and Charles Stuart, earl of Lennox, in 1555. Meanwhile, during the brief reign of Edward VI, the staunchly Catholic Margaret and her more religiously opportunistic husband largely stayed away from court.

By contrast, she remained at the English court throughout the reign of Queen Mary (1553-58). The first English queen reportedly told Simon Renard, Habsburg ambassador to the English court, that her cousin was "best suited" to succeed her on the English throne.

But after Mary's death, Margaret retired to Yorkshire. Her northern household was a center for Catholic intrigue and numerous political plots. 

Margaret involved herself in many of them--notably angling for the marriage of her son, Darnley, to the widowed Mary Stuart, queen of Scotland. In the midst of her scheming, she was again arrested and imprisoned--unlike her husband, who was sent to the Tower, Margaret was moved south but placed under house arrest at Sheen (the former Carthusian monastery, not far from the palace of Westminster).

The two were held for a year, but by 1563, Margaret Douglas was accepted back at court, perhaps because she could be kept under Elizabeth's watchful eye. But after Darnley's marriage to the Scottish queen, Margaret Douglas found herself once more in the Tower, where she remained until Darnley's murder in 1567.  

Released by Elizabeth, Margaret Douglas witnessed the fulfillment of many of her aspirations when she saw her grandson, Darnley's child, become James VI after his mother, Mary Stuart, was forced to abdicate on 24 June 1567. Margaret's husband, the earl of Lennox, was at last able to return to Scotland, serving as regent for his grandson--at least until his murder on 4 September 1571.

Still the indomitable countess was not to be stopped. With the redoubtable Bess of Hardwick, she conspired to marry her second son, Charles, to Bess's daughter, Elizabeth--this couple would give birth to the unfortunate Arbella Stuart. (As noted at the British Library website, "Douglas's disastrous love affair [with Thomas Howard] in turn foreshadowed her granddaughter Arbella Stuart’s experiences almost 75 years later." In 1574, after the marriage was accomplished, a furious Queen Elizabeth ordered Margaret to the Tower once more.

Having achieved this last marriage, Margaret Douglas "retired" from her political intrigues and matchmaking, dying just a few years later on 9 March 1578. Although she died in poverty, she was given an extravagant tomb in Westminster Abbey, funded by her cousin and adversary, Queen Elizabeth.

The tomb of Margaret Douglas, countess of Lennox,
Westminster Abbey
Margaret Douglas did not live to witness her ultimate dynastic triumph, when her grandson James VI of Scotland would ascend to the English throne in 1603, after the death of Elizabeth, becoming James ! of England. 

For an excellent essay, I recommend "King Henry's Niece," by Leanda De Lisle. (In her essay she calls Margaret the "progenitor of princes," which I have quoted in the title of this post.)