Born in 1489, Margaret was the second child and oldest daughter of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, whose marriage had cemented the alliance between the Houses of Lancaster and York following the Wars of the Roses. Elizabeth did what every king hoped his wife would do when she provided Henry with ‘an heir and a spare’, with the birth of Prince Arthur in 1486 and the birth of Prince Henry, later King Henry VIII, in 1491. With the births of Margaret in 1489 and Mary in 1496, the only daughters of their seven children to survive into adulthood, Henry also had two marriageable daughters through whom he could create alliances with the royal houses of Europe, something he desperately needed when his own claim to the throne was still rather tenuous.
Marriage was certain but must have been a frightening prospect for a girl who’d witnessed the death of her mother, who died trying to provide her father with another son after Prince Arthur’s death, earlier that same year. Margaret was not yet 14 when she was sent to Scotland to marry James IV, the Scottish king 16 years her senior, not unlike her paternal grandmother and the woman she was named after, Margaret Beaufort, whose own marriage to Edmund Tudor occurred when she was only 12 years old. A year after their wedding Edmund died, leaving Margaret, now 13 years old, widowed and seven months pregnant. Even by the standards of the 15th century, Margaret was incredibly young to be having a child of her own.
Margaret Tudor didn’t begin to bear James’s children until February 1507, when she was 17 years old. During their ten years of marriage the Scottish king and queen would have six children, only one of whom, their fourth child and second son to be christened James, survived infancy.
Despite Margaret and James’s marriage the relationship between England and Scotland was not a peaceful one, and in 1513, despite Margaret advising him not to go to the battlefield, King James IV became one of the many victims at the Battle of Flodden.
At 24 years old, Margaret was a pregnant widow with a 17 month old son who was now the king of Scotland. James had named his wife as regent should he die before their son was old enough to rule alone, but it must have been a lonely and frightening time for a queen whose husband had been killed in a battle in which the opposing army served her own brother. Henry’s queen and childhood friend of Margaret’s, Catherine of Aragon, hastened to send ‘comfortable messages’ to Edinburgh following James’s death, promising Margaret England’s protection and support if she could keep the Scots quiet.
Margaret’s regency, however, did have one rule: she could only act as her son’s regent so long as she remained unmarried.
In many ways this is understandable. Margaret was queen of Scotland by marriage, not blood, and in a time when women were considered subservient to their husbands it wouldn’t do to have a man of Margaret’s choice hold any sway over Scotland’s infant king. When Henry VIII died in 1547 and left the English throne to his nine year old son, Edward VI, some expected that his sixth and final wife, Catherine Parr, would be named regent as she had been when Henry was at war in France. Though Catherine was clearly good at being queen, it’s perhaps for the best that Henry didn’t make that decision considering only two months after his death she finally married for love, and her man of choice was the scoundrel Thomas Seymour, brother of Henry’s third wife, Jane, and therefore Edward’s uncle. To have a man like that married to the most powerful woman in the country, who in turn would have been in charge of the monarch, could have been disastrous considering Seymour’s eventual treasonous behaviour that led him to the block.
Later, when Mary I came to the throne, there was genuine concern regarding her marriage. As a queen she was answerable only to God, but as a woman she was answerable to her husband, and if Mary planned to marry the heir to the Spanish throne, Philip II, would that place England under Spanish rule?
Regardless of her own feelings, if the late king had forbade her from remarrying to act as regent, she would be putting her regency and her relationship with Scotland’s nobles at risk if she chose to do so. Margaret, however, was incredibly proud of her Tudor heritage and believed that Scotland should bow to English rule, and perhaps it was this belief in her own rights as the king of England’s sister that led her to remarry on 6 August 1514.
Margaret chose Archibald Douglas, 6th Earl of Angus for her second husband, head of one of the most powerful families in southern Scotland. He was a nobleman whose father had been killed in the Battle of Flodden and was the same age as Margaret. There is evidence to suggest that Margaret and James’s marriage was fairly happy; the king seemed to pay her all the respect that was due to her as a princess of England, but he was still known for his womanizing. After spending ten years married to a man almost two decades older than herself and being left with two young sons when a difficult labour led to the birth of Alexander Stewart, Duke of Ross, it’s no surprise that Margaret sought comfort in the arms of a man her own age and of her own choosing.
Nor was Margaret the only Tudor to seek a marriage that wasn’t political. Her younger sister, Mary, would later follow in her sister’s footsteps. Two months after Margaret’s second wedding, Mary was wed to the much older king of France, Louis XII. She was 18, her husband 52, and it’s likely that Mary was already in love with Henry VIII’s close friend Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk when she was sent across the English Channel to take up the position of Queen of France and provide the aging French king with an heir.
Louis died less than three months after their marriage on 1 January 1515, and when Brandon was sent to collect Mary, under orders from Henry not to propose to her, she quickly convinced him that they should be married. Technically Brandon had committed treason by marrying the king’s sister without his permission, and he could have been executed for it, but once the two of them had been forgiven by Henry, Mary was permitted to remain in her much happier marriage until her death in 1533.
Margaret wasn’t quite so lucky. Her marriage to Angus wasn’t well received by the other Scottish nobles, some of whom were jealous of what they perceived to be his rise to power, and the faction of nobles who supported Scotland’s long history of good relations with France wanted Margaret replaced with John Stewart, Duke of Albany. Albany was James IV’s cousin, his own father Alexander Stewart having been son of James II and brother of James III, and should James IV’s sons die he was the rightful heir to the Scottish throne.
Albany had spent his entire life in France and the Scottish nobles had wanted him to return to Scotland and lead the country’s military even before Margaret’s second marriage. Albany arrived in 1515 and Margaret was forced to hand over her regency and her two sons; she must have been frightened for their safety when her own uncles, the Princes in the Tower, disappeared while under Richard III’s care. Albany, however, treated Margaret with great respect and didn’t appear to have any interest in usurping the throne.
Even so, encouraged by her brother, Margaret made the decision to flee Scotland in the summer of 1515. She and Angus sought refuge with Lord Dacre, English Warden of the Marches where, in October, she gave birth to their daughter, Margaret Douglas. It was only when she’d recovered from the ordeal the birth had been that she headed south to London and her brother’s court while Angus returned to Scotland.
Margaret stayed in England for just over a year until Albany returned to France to see his family, and arrangements were made for her to return. As Henry’s sister, she was the perfect candidate to work in England’s favour from a position of considerable power within Scotland. Sadly, her younger son, Alexander, had died during her absence, but the Scottish lords agreed that she was to be given as much access to James as she wished as well as her dower rights.
Though she must have been happy to be reunited with her son, her marital happiness wasn’t to last when she returned to Scotland to discover Angus was living with another woman and using Margaret’s money to keep her. She refused to live with her husband again and sought either a divorce or annulment. Ironically, Henry was scandalised that his sister would think to end her marriage – particularly as Angus had pro-England views himself – and supported his brother-in-law rather than her.
When Albany returned to Scotland in 1521, he and Margaret developed such a strong working relationship that some people believed they were having an affair. Albany sent Angus to France, and Henry worried that his sister would support France’s influence in Scotland over England’s, but in 1523 Angus fled from France to the English court where he loyally served Henry’s interests in Scotland until the king’s death in 1547.
The Scottish lords who opposed Albany’s regency were satisfied when James was pronounced king in his own right at 12 years old, rather than 14 as was usually the case in Scotland at this time, to rule with guidance from his mother and under supervision of a rotating group of Scottish lords – one of whom was Angus. Albany happily returned to France, leaving Margaret to deal with her husband who infuriated her when he refused to pass supervision of the king to the next lord and James was essentially held captive by his stepfather for three years.
Albany continued to support Margaret over Angus, however, as during James’s captivity Albany put Margaret’s case for annulment forward in Rome. Much to Margaret’s delight the annulment was granted, which was for the best considering she was already living with the man who would become her third husband, Henry Stewart, 1st Lord Methven. Despite James’s disapproval they quickly married when the annulment was announced, and were residing in Stirling when the 16 year old James managed to escape Angus’s clutches and fled there. Angus and James’s sister, Margaret Douglas, were banished and went to England, after which Margaret never saw her daughter again.
James ruled in his own right from then on with some influence from Margaret, who hoped to improve relations between Scotland and England herself. She even hoped that her son might be named Henry’s heir, and suggested her son marry Henry’s daughter, the future Mary I, but James had no interest in such a match. He strongly disagreed with his uncle’s break from Rome, particularly as Henry had declared Mary a bastard, and preferred a French marriage.
Eventually Margaret’s influence over him waned and, sadly, her third marriage proved no happier than her second when she discovered that Methven was also a womaniser who liked to spend her money. She sought an annulment this time, too, but James forbade it and Methven would remain Margaret’s husband until her death.
It was James’s own marriage to Mary of Guise in 1538 that would improve his relationship with his mother. Mary was a kind and attentive daughter-in-law, and Margaret even wrote to her brother, ‘I trust she will prove a wise Princess. I have been much in her company, and she bears herself very honourably to me, with very good entertaining.’ When the royal couple’s very young sons James, Duke of Rothesay and Robert, Duke of Albany both died in April 1541, it was Margaret they turned to for comfort.
Margaret herself died later that year, on the 18 October. While her life was a rather turbulent and unhappy one, it would ultimately be her great-grandson, James I of England and VI of Scotland, who would succeed Henry’s final child, Elizabeth I, beginning the reign of the Stuarts who would rule England for 111 years.