Sly Facts About Margaret Douglas, Henry VIII’s Naughty Niece

Byron Fast

A woman’s place in King Henry VIII’s court was a perilous existence. It was often a literal “heads will roll” kind of situation. Henry’s spirited niece, Margaret Douglas, spent her time in his court terrified of just that outcome. She had good reason to fear: Ambitious and single-minded, Margaret was determined to make any member of her family the King or Queen of England. She stopped at nothing to achieve her goal.


1. She Was A Miracle

Margaret Douglas’s mother bore a grand total of eight children—with three different husbands. If it sounds like a childhood surrounded by fun, games, and sibling affection, you’ve got it wrong. This was the 16th century and the child mortality rate was through the roof. Sadly, Margaret Douglas was one of only two children born to Margaret Tudor who managed to live past infancy. Sure she survived, but her life was tough from the get-go.

2. She Was On The Run

Margaret Douglas had a seriously perilous birth. It was 1515 and her mother, Margaret Tudor, was literally on the run. Tudor’s first husband, King James IV, had died in battle and Tudor had wasted no time getting a rather unsuitable second husband—a man named Archibald Douglas, the Earl of Angus. Tudor married in secret and, because her children were in line for the Scottish crown, there was a lot of drama.

Tudor escaped Scotland to save her life and that of her unborn child.  She arrived in England in October 1515, pregnant and ready to give birth to her namesake.

3. It Was A Dramatic Situation

Douglas’s birth was not ordinary for royalty—did I mention her uncle was King Henry VIII? Because her mother was on the run, she had to make do with whatever location she came across. Douglas was eventually born in a border keep: the part of a castle they used for protection from enemies as a last resort. It was here, with rain dripping through the stones, that Douglas was born.

It’s a miracle that she even survived.

4. It Went From Bad To Worse

Baby Douglas lived in the castle with her mother, and the two waited for her father, Angus, to arrive and join them. Well, this didn’t happen, so mother and Douglas packed it up and returned to Scotland in search of dad. When they found him, life went from bad to much worse. Douglas’s parents could not get along—not even a bit.

The shouting matches were intense, so intense that King Henry VIII basically heard them back in England. Henry VIII, something of an expert in bad marriages, had something to say about this one.

5. They Split

Margaret Douglas’ uncle, Henry VIII, knew about the marital problems between Douglas’s parents. His solution was not surprising for a man who would go on to have six wives. In 1527, he suggested an annulment. This marriage, besides bringing young Douglas into the world, had given nothing but trouble to Margaret Tudor, so she jumped at the opportunity to rid herself of her ball and chain.

She forgot one thing, though: wouldn’t this make her daughter a fatherless child?

6. The Pope Stepped In

If Margaret Tudor’s marriage to Angus no longer existed, that made Douglas an illegitimate child. That wouldn’t do, especially for royalty. The Pope at the time stepped in and made a special case. Even though Douglas officially had no father, the Pope took out his magic wand and deemed her legitimate. Tudor got what she wanted: Douglas was both fatherless and legitimate…but how did Angus feel about all this?

7. He Snatched Her

Angus may have been okay with the annulment, but he wasn’t okay with losing a daughter, which led him to do something deranged and desperate. He snatched his baby and fled to Tantallon Castle. In the 16th century this, apparently, didn’t break any laws, so no one tried to stop him. While living alone together, Douglas and her father became close.

In a letter, he called his daughter: “the woman who he loved most in all the world.” I wonder how his ex-wife took that news.

8. She Slept Rough

Eventually, Douglas’s special time with her father came to a cruel and sudden end. Her half-brother, James V, surrounded the castle and Douglas had to make a narrow escape with her father. Once free from the castle, Douglas’s life on the lam was far from royal. She slept in barns and sometimes even in fields. It’s clear that young Douglas was a resilient child as she managed to survive such a  lifestyle.

Eventually, dad had a realization: since his daughter was born in England—not Scotland—she had a chance to become the Queen of England. He was determined to make the most of the situation.

9. They Entered Court

Angus, who earlier had refused to enter England, was suddenly packing up his daughter and heading there. Douglas was Angus’ ticket to the court, and he planned on using her to her full potential. Sadly—for Angus anyway—once he arrived in England, the court graciously accepted Douglas but when it came to her father—he was out on his ear.

Sure, Douglas was at court—but what would she do without parents?

10. She Found Security

Now fatherless again, Margaret Douglas found her way to the household of Cardinal Wolsey. The Cardinal was Douglas’s godfather and a very important man in all matters of the state. While Douglas was residing there, a controversy was brewing between Cardinal Wolsey and Douglas’s very own uncle: the temperamental King Henry VIII.

When it came to trouble with Henry VIII, it was usually pretty clear how things would turn out.

11. She Lost Her Home

In 1530, Douglas’s godfather, Cardinal Wolsey, had refused to grant Henry VIII’s annulment from Catherine of Aragon. After this, Wolsey faced harassment from state officials and threats. The constant harassment continued until it finally reached a gruesome peak. Wolsey became ill and died. With Cardinal Wolsey out of the picture, the 15-year-old Douglas faced being homeless once again.

12. She Made A Friend

Instead of being without a home, Margaret Douglas moved into the Palace of Beaulieu. This move wasn’t bad at all. Here Douglas met her cousin—and future bestie—Princess Mary. Mary was the daughter of King Henry VIII, and therefore a future Queen of England. Mary would end up being Douglas’s friend for life and, as we’ll soon see, the cause of a whole lot of scandal.

13. She Made Him Angry

The next stage of Douglas’s life was that of waiting. She started as a lady-in-waiting for her cousin Mary. What followed was becoming the lady-in-waiting for a whole bunch of other women. But what was she actually waiting for? Many thought that Douglas was waiting to be the Queen of England. Clearly, her uncle had a soft spot for her.

Perhaps out of teenage rebellion, however, Douglas spent the next years of her life making Henry VIII angry. And his soft spot for her wasn’t going to last forever.

14. She Met A Guy

Henry VIII did eventually get his annulment from Catherine of Aragon, and he soon ushered in a new bride: Anne Boleyn. Douglas was again assigned the job of lady-in-waiting and instead of just waiting around, she found her own guy. It was Lord Thomas Howard, and he was Boleyn’s uncle. The two love birds knew one thing for sure: they had to keep their romance a secret.

The reason for the secrecy was a bit of a mystery—maybe even to the couple. All that they knew was that one thing was for sure: you didn’t want to get on the wrong side of King Henry VIII.

15. They Were Afraid

King Henry VIII didn’t need many reasons for his anger—it seemed to be over anything and everything. The reason Margaret Douglas needed to be careful about spilling the beans about her boyfriend was that she was actually in line to be Queen. But wait a minute, Douglas was only the niece of King Henry. Why did she have a chance to be Queen?

16. She Kept It A Secret

King Henry VIII had his own daughters to fill his shoes as the monarch of England—but there was a sad twist. You see, once Henry had dismissed a wife, he tended to dismiss the children as well. His daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, were no longer his daughters—at least in his eyes anyway. He couldn’t let them be the ultimate ruler, so he saw Douglas as a potential Queen.

This was why Douglas knew she had to hide her boyfriend from the King. But how could she keep such a wonderful relationship a secret?

17. It Was Getting Hot And Heavy

By 1535, Douglas’s relationship with Howard was getting hotter and heavier. They even took a huge risk: they became secretly engaged. Howard was a match that was unauthorized and, worse still, related to Boleyn—who the King now suddenly despised. The couple must have been aware of the danger if the King learned of their love. Surely they could keep their relationship a secret. After all, their lives depended on it.

18. He Found Out

Someone with loose lips let the cat out of the bag, and Henry VIII found out about Margaret Douglas’s engagement to Howard. Henry hit the roof and began his tyrannical revenge. He sent both Douglas and Howard to the Tower—a horrible prison in the center of London. Howard received an even more cruel sentence: imminent execution.

This was particularly merciless and made many people wonder: why was King Henry VIII so angry?

19. It Was True Love

It seems the King had misinterpreted Douglas’s engagement to Howard. He thought it was a ploy by Howard to climb into the throne and become King. This was the reason why King Henry dolled out the most serious of punishments. It was later revealed that Howard wasn’t even trying to become King, and his love for Douglas was completely legit.

Much later, historians uncovered letters between Douglas and Howard and it was easy to see the sincerity of their relationship. Sadly, Henry VIII didn’t get this, so Douglas and Howard continued to languish at the Tower.

20. He Changed The Law

The laws at this time did not permit Henry to punish the couple for their secret engagement. Henry was clever and enacted a new law that forbade any royal family members from marrying—or even getting engaged—without his permission. The fact that the law came into effect after Douglas and Howard hooked up didn’t matter to Henry.

He was the supreme ruler and what he said was what happened. But Douglas couldn’t continue at the Tower—her life was in danger.

21. She Needed To Get Out

Douglas’s parents pleaded for the release of their daughter from the Tower, claiming their daughter was ill. Some speculate that it was something much more scandalous than just illness. Some say she was pregnant with Howard’s child. King Henry VIII took a kind stance toward his niece and let her leave the Tower and spend her days at Syon Abbey—where the abbess could watch over her.

But what about her beloved, Howard? What was his fate?

22. She Had Hope

For some unknown reason, in 1537, King Henry VIII did eventually turn over the execution order against Howard. There was still hope that Douglas and Howard could be together again. But then, tragedy struck. Howard caught an illness and, just a few days after Douglas’s release, passed in the Tower. Howard’s passing was quick and beneficial to Henry VIII—which led some to believe the worst.

23. There Were Rumors

Many people at the time—and even now—believe that Howard didn’t come down with an illness in the Tower at all. They believe Henry VIII had him poisoned. There was never any proof, but it wouldn’t be out of character for Henry to make this happen. The authorities at the Tower handed Howard’s remains to his mother, and they gave her a strict and rather cruel warning.

She had to bury him with no ceremony at all. Strangely, a few years later, Douglas managed to resurrect her romance with Howard—even beyond the grave.

24. She Rekindled

Just three years after Howard’s demise in the Tower, Douglas found a way to rekindle her romance with Howard—through his half-nephew. Douglas and Sir Charles Howard struck up a friends with benefits situation that, if found out, would also infuriate the King. You see, Howard was also the brother of Henry’s current wife, Catherine Howard. Douglas seemed intent on two things: getting herself wedded to the Howard family and making Henry VIII angry.

25. He Sent Her Away

Of course, King Henry found out about this little affair as well. This time King Henry was a little more restrained in his anger. He didn’t send Douglas, or even her boyfriend, to the Tower. Instead, he simply sent Douglas directly back to Syon Abbey. The boyfriend was a little more clever and took off to the continent. But how could Douglas get herself out of the boring Abby and back to the court?

She needed to continue her quest to get her family onto the throne.

26. He Allowed Her Back

Henry VIII was soon becoming tired of his new wife Catherine, but he was not short of ways of getting rid of wives he no longer liked. This time he changed a law and made an indiscretion of his wife’s punishable by execution. For some reason, the fall of Catherine brought about a benefit for Douglas. Henry released her from Syon—maybe he was appeasing his guilt.

Whatever the reason, Douglas was free to return to court and get into trouble again.

27. Her Arranged Marriage

Surprisingly, Margaret Douglas did not return to causing trouble. Perhaps she had learned a lesson…although I wouldn’t count on that. Douglas played the role of the good little King’s niece and, in 1544, married the man Henry wanted her to. It was Matthew Stewart Earl of Lennox and it was an arrangement by Henry for political reasons.

Surely, marrying a man that King Henry chose for her was a recipe for disaster. Surprisingly, it was anything but.

28. It Was True Love

Douglas gave all she had and made her arranged marriage work. There’s even physical evidence of the couple’s true love and it still exists today. Most historians believe that Stewart gave Douglas the opulent Lennox Jewel as a symbol of his love for her. And another bit of evidence of their love was true?  They had eight—or by some counts nine—children together.

Sadly, only two of these children survived to adulthood: Darnley and Charles.

29. She Made A Big Move

In 1553, Margaret’s best friend, Mary became Queen, and so she moved into Westminster Palace. This was a big deal and meant that Douglas was now an important member of the court. Mary had worked hard to make England Catholic again, so it was important that Douglas was also firmly Catholic. Some members of the court were Protestant and wanted the whole country to go back to that way.

Because Queen Mary was committed to keeping England Catholic, she made a brash statement that would change Douglas’s life forever.

30. She Would Be Queen

Queen Mary had a grave fear: she worried that when she died, her half-sister Elizabeth would become Queen. This bothered Mary mostly because Elizabeth was one of the Protestant members of the family. To stop this from happening, Mary declared that her cousin—our own Margaret Douglas—would be a better successor to the throne. What a coup for Douglas!

But all this was idle talk, wasn’t it? Mary was not that old, and surely she would have her own child that could take up the crown and keep England Catholic. Well…

31. Problem Solved

In 1557, fantastic news hit the streets. Mary was pregnant. This would solve all her problems, because a child of hers would certainly continue in the Catholic faith. Unfortunately for Douglas, this meant she probably would not get her chance on the throne. Mary, however, still insisted that Douglas be her plan B, as Mary was well aware that anything could happen.

She really would do almost anything to avoid having Elizabeth be Queen. Mary had thought of everything…well, almost everything.

32. She Was Her Plan B

Douglas’s cousin Mary, Queen of England soon made a disturbing discovery. She wasn’t pregnant. But it was worse than that. She was also gravely ill. Luckily, in case the worst happened, she had Margaret Douglas as her plan B—anything to keep Elizabeth from becoming Queen. On November 17, 1558, Mary died. Douglas was ready and able to keep England Catholic.

Only one thing stood in her way: Parliament.

33. They Ushered Her Out

While Mary had her ducks in a row for the end of her life, Parliament didn’t see things her way. They thought Elizabeth, being Mary’s half-sister, trumped Margaret Douglas, who was only her cousin. Elizabeth waltzed into court, and the court ushered Douglas out. It was a Protestant-only club and the strict Catholic Douglas had no place there.

34. She Was Feared

Margaret Douglas was now living at her houses at Temple Newsham and Settrington in Yorkshire. She may have been away from court—but not away from controversy. Douglas’s official word on the new Queen was simple: she didn’t believe she was the Queen. Elizabeth grew to fear Douglas, as she still had power with the royal family.

Douglas also had something else. She was fearless and incredibly cunning.

35. She Was A Mom With A Plan

Douglas’s new plan was to get herself back in court, and she was prepared to use her son to do it. Douglas had the idea to marry her son, Lord Darnley, off to his own first cousin: Mary, Queen of Scots. This would solidify his right to potentially become King of Scotland and England. It would also help bring the Catholic church back to court.

All Douglas had to do was keep the plan for the marriage a secret and not let the Queen hear about it. It seemed almost too easy…

36. She Had To Stay Home

Well, just like Henry VIII always found out about Douglas’s secrets, Elizabeth also heard about Douglas’s plan to marry her son to the Scottish Queen. Elizabeth was furious and put Douglas under house arrest to keep her scheming to a minimum. Elizabeth thought she’d nipped Douglas’s plans in the bud. But what she didn’t count on was the impudence of Douglas’s 19-year-old son.

37. She Returned To The Tower

It’s not clear if Margaret Douglas made it happen or not, but in 1565, Lord Darnley went north and tied the knot with Mary, Queen of Scots anyway. This information put Elizabeth into a frenzy. She’d already made it clear that the two should not marry and it had happened anyway. Elizabeth took a lesson from King Henry and sent Douglas back to the Tower of London.

This was Douglas’s second visit to the tower and again, it was because of a marriage.

38. He Was A Bad Husband

While Douglas idled her time away in The Tower, her son was up to no good. Sure Douglas had arranged for his marriage to the Queen of Scotland, but she hadn’t taught her son how to be a good husband. Mary was soon tired of her husband’s vanity, arrogance, and unreliability. Worse still, he seemed to have become Protestant overnight.

Lord Darnley wasn’t sticking to the plan that Douglas had concocted. On top of that, Douglas was locked up in the tower and had no way to control him.

39. He Wanted Revenge

Douglas’s daughter-in-law, the Queen of Scotland, found she was pregnant. This would usually be an occasion of great joy, and it was—but just not for her husband. Douglas’s son was pretty sure he wasn’t the father of this child, and he also had an idea who the father was—his wife’s private secretary David Rizzio. Lord Darnley, instead of sticking to the plan organized by his mother, was busy planning to get back at his wife for her infidelity.

40. He Had An Evil Plan

Margaret Douglas was still languishing in The Tower, but her son was plotting something absolutely evil. He wanted his wife to suffer for her alleged affair with her secretary, so Darnley went with some associates to where his wife was dining with Rizzio. There he publicly accused his wife of cheating. What he did next is beyond shocking.

41. They Watched In Horror

In 1566, in front of his pregnant wife, Douglas’s son and his associates ambushed Rizzio with knives. In the end, there were 56 puncture wounds in Rizzio’s lifeless body. The entire macabre scene played out in front of the dining royalty, including his pregnant wife. It was a bloodbath—and Lord Darnley was going to pay dearly for it.

42. They Found His Body

By this time, Margaret Douglas had been in the Tower for a year. Her son’s popularity could not have been lower—which wasn’t helping Douglas’s case one bit. On February 10, 1567, there were two explosions under the room where Darnley was sleeping. Darnley’s lifeless body was later found in an orchard. Due to Darnley’s unpopularity, the list of suspects was long and even included his own wife, Mary.

Believe it or not, this horrific incident meant good news for Douglas.

43. They Never Solved It

When Elizabeth I heard about Margaret Douglas’s son’s demise, she took pity on Douglas and released her from The Tower. Douglas, once out of the Tower, had a pretty good idea who was responsible for her son’s murder. She suspected his own wife, Mary, Queen of Scots. Douglas and her husband wanted justice and they openly accused the Queen of murder.

Sadly, nothing came of their accusation and the case remains unsolved to this day.

44. She Faced Another Tragic Loss

In the meantime, Douglas’s grandson—the son of Lord Darnley—had become King of Scotland, even though he was just a child. Because the King was so young, Douglas’s husband—Lennox—was sent to be regent until the child was old enough to rule. Well, this position didn’t last too long as, in 1571, followers of Queen Elizabeth I raided the castle.

During the raid, a shot rang out and Lennox fell to his knees. His life was over.

45. She Had One Left

Poor Douglas had lost both her husband and her oldest son in a matter of years. All she had left was her younger child, Charles. Unfortunately, Charles was a bit of a mess. Douglas surmised that what Charles needed was self-control, and she thought someone needed to teach it to him. She asked the Queen’s chief minister—Lord Burghley—to basically knock some sense into her son.

What he did was something much different.

46. She Had A Partner

Lord Burghley didn’t listen to Douglas’s request to teach her son discipline. Instead, he hired a tutor who gave the boy an actual education. Charles grew into a distinguished young man, and it got Douglas to thinking—something that often led to trouble. She was soon back to her old tricks of concocting controversial marriages.

This time, however, it would be different—she now had a partner in her devious deeds: Bess of Hardwick. Together the two women came up with a plan: marry their children to each other.

47. She Made A Repeat Visit

If you’re starting to feel an odd sense of deja vu, hang on to your hat. Elizabeth again heard of Douglas’s plan and Elizabeth again sent Douglas to the Tower. Remember the law that Henry VIII had made? No one in the royal family could marry anyone without the permission of the Queen. Somehow Douglas could not seem to get this idea through her thick skull.

Oh, and that feeling of deja vu? Well, it’s about to go into overdrive.

48. She Emerged…Again

The last time Douglas was living at the Tower she got out because of the murder of her son. Well, less than two years after entering the Tower, Douglas’s son Charles took ill. By April 1576, Charles passed due to consumption. Elizabeth took pity on the grieving Douglas and, in a replica of Douglas’s last incarceration, released Douglas from the Tower.

And, just as in the case of Lord Darnley, before Charles passed, he had a child.

49. She Ate Her Last Meal

Margaret Douglas didn’t have many members of her family left, so she took it upon herself to take care of her granddaughter: Charles’ daughter Lady Arbella. In this way, Douglas spent her days peacefully and then passed—also peacefully. Or did she? Douglas’s last meal was with Robert Dudley—Queen Elizabeth’s right-hand man.

Many suspect that Dudley, on the Queen’s orders, poisoned Douglas’s final meal.

50. She Left A Legacy

At the end of her life, Margaret Douglas was penniless, but she did leave a legacy—actually, two.  Surprisingly, her manipulations eventually paid off: her grandson James was eventually proclaimed the King of England. Her other legacy is not quite so happy and again gives that feeling of deja vu. Douglas’s granddaughter followed in her grandmother’s footsteps.

Arbella went to the Tower because of a secret marriage. Sadly, Lady Arbella wasn’t quite as resilient as Douglas: she never left the Tower’s walls alive.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11

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