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Margaret Douglas: The other Tudor princess



Margaret Douglas, Henry VIII’s once beloved niece, is a somewhat shadowy and mysterious character in Tudor history who ended up taking stage in the bitter struggle for power during Henry’s reign.  

She was born in a state of emergency in a Border keep where rain dripped from the roof and wind whistled through cracks in the stone. The small red-headed baby survived to travel to England with her mother to the court of her uncle, King Henry VIII.

Margaret Douglas did not have a normal childhood even for those unsettled times. Her mother, King Henry’s sister, had married King James IV of Scotland and then, on his death, Margaret’s father Archibald, 6th Earl of Angus, with whom she quarrelled violently even before their daughter was born. Returning to Scotland, Margaret was snatched by her father and taken to his stronghold of Tantallon Castle where she learnt to fly the famous Tantallon hawks.

But then, besieged by an army led by her half-brother James V, she had to escape by the sea gate and live like a gypsy, sleeping in barns and fields. Rescued by the Captain of Berwick, she returned to England to live with her cousin Princess Mary, a Roman Catholic like herself, who became her lifelong friend.

Misfortune struck when she fell in love with Thomas Howard, uncle of Anne Boleyn, and King Henry imprisoned them both in the Tower of London where Thomas died. On Margaret’s release she became first lady at the court of her unpredictable uncle, who had since married Jane Seymour. Margaret (or Marget, as Henry called her) was heir to the throne of England until the birth of Prince Edward, Henry’s son.

The king married her to the Earl of Lennox, an arranged marriage which became a love match. He also gave them lands in Yorkshire where their son Henry, Lord Darnley, was born. Margaret focussed all her ambition on her handsome boy, cleverly contriving his marriage to the widowed Mary Queen of Scots, which resulted in the birth of James I of Scotland. But her plans fell apart when Henry was murdered, allegedly with the connivance of his wife. Meanwhile, Queen Elizabeth, furious that her consent to the marriage had not been given, imprisoned Margaret again.

Lord Lennox, sent to Scotland by Queen Elizabeth to act as regent, was murdered, leaving Margaret to fight on alone. Undaunted, she engineered the marriage of her surviving son Charles to Elizabeth, daughter of the Countess of Shrewsbury, Bess of Hardwick, for which Elizabeth imprisoned her yet again.

From the Tower of London she corresponded with Mary Queen of Scots, with whom she achieved reconciliation, believing her to be maligned. Yet she constantly quarrelled with her cousin Queen Elizabeth, who may have sent Lord Leicester to poison her. Both women were remarkable, courageous and devious, battling with adversity throughout their lives.  

Margaret Douglas, duplicitous and constantly threatened by both danger and deceit, nonetheless survived the dangers that beset her from birth. She was guided by common sense and the strength of her religious faith, qualities which descended from her to her grandson King James VI & I.

By Mary McGrigor

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