Sunday, 26 May 2013

Lady Margaret Douglas: the disgraced Tudor cousin

This is the second post on Lady Margaret Douglas and it is focused on her young adulthood and amorous escapades which resulted in her being incarcerated in the Tower.

Portrait medal of Anne Boleyn c.1534
the only surviving contemporary likeness
of her which bears her image, initials and motto
In 1533 Margaret bade farewell to her cousin and was allocated a post as lady-in-waiting in the rapidly expanding household of Anne Boleyn, which was being packed with ladies of rank to attend the new Queen. She was 18 years old, attractive, amiable and still enjoying favour from her uncle, Henry VIII. Margaret established a strong rapport with Anne Boleyn, which is perhaps surprising given her closeness to Mary who was still suffering the fallout from the divorce. Despite her own parental problems and her cousin's shift in fortune Margaret appeared to have come out on top and between 1533-34 she seems to uneventfully blend in with court life. 

Poem entitled 'My hart ys set not remove' in
Lady Margaret's hand from the Devonshire MS 
It was probably during this time in Anne's household that Margaret became acquainted with Anne's uncle Lord Thomas Howard. Born in 1511 Howard was the son of Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk and Agnes Tilney. Their acquaintance progressed into something more meaningful as in late 1535 they were in love and had become secretly betrothed. They wrote a series of love poems to each other, many of which are preserved in the Devonshire MS and he gave her a cramp ring in exchange for her miniature. The timing of this (Margaret's first amorous escapade with a Howard) was unfortunate for the couple because Henry VIII learned of it shortly after Anne Boleyn's downfall and execution in May 1536 and at this time Margaret was a viable candidate for the succession due to the bastardisation of both of Henry VIII's daughters. Livid Henry ordered both lovers to be imprisoned in the Tower of London; being of Royal blood Margaret was confined to the Royal apartments whereas Howard was held in a cell. Henry also wrote to Margaret's mother writing that her daughter had 'behaved herself so lightly as was greatly to our dishonour', in response Margaret received a strongly worded letter in which her mother threatened to disown  her if she ever 'misbehaved' again. On the 18th July 1536 an Act of Attainder was passed against Howard, which accused him of attempting to interfere with the succession and for his crimes it sentenced him to death at the king's pleasure. A clause was then added to the Act of Succession  so that it was a capital offence to 'espouse, marry or deflower' any of the king's female relations.

Coat of arms of the Howards
In 1537 both Margaret and Howard contracted a feverish illness, so on the 29th October 1537 Margaret was released from the Tower. Henry's rage having dissipated he had a sickly and subdued Margaret transferred into the care of the nuns at Syon Abbey, but Howard was left in the Tower where he died from his illness on the 31st October 1537. Some claim that he was poisoned but this seems improbable due to a death sentence already having been passed on him and the fact that many people in the Tower came down with a similar illness. After Margaret's recovery she was released from Syon but kept away from court despite her writing several sedate letters to Cromwell in which she declared that she had discarded any feelings that she had ever had for Thomas Howard. A copy of the letter that she wrote to Cromwell can be found here.

Portrait by William Scrotts c.1546 which
could be of Margaret although some
suggest that it depicts her cousin Mary I
In 1539 her reconciliation with Henry VIII was almost complete because alongside the Duchess of Richmond she was appointed to greet Anne of Cleves and join her household. But her restoration was brief due to her participation in a second amorous escapade with another Howard in 1540. This time her lover was Sir Charles Howard, the half brother of Henry VIII's then Queen Catherine Howard. Again the affair was discovered and both lovers were sent to the Tower but Margaret was quickly moved to Syon Abbey where she could atone for her sins by living in seclusion with the nuns. In November 1541 she was released and sent to the Duke of Norfolk's manor of Kenninghall, which is curious because it was the prominent home of the Howards in East Anglia and one would think that Henry would have wanted to restrict his niece's association with the Howards given her history.

Further Reading: 
Sisters to the King by Maria Perry
Mary Tudor by Judith M Richards
Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery by Eric Ives


  1. I always find it so sad how the Tudor monarchs ruled with an iron fist over their female relatives and their amours. Although you would have thought Margaret would have learnt to be more cautious the second time round. Those Howards, eh?

    Poppy Coburn

    1. Thanks for commenting! I agree, especially in the case of Henry VIII who hardly set a good example with his tangled mess of a love life. I suppose with Margaret it was a case of 'the heart wants what the heart wants' and she clearly wanted a handsome Howard!