Hidden historical heroines (#22: Margaret Tudor, Queen of Scots)

Margaret TudorMargaret Tudor (28 November 1489 – 18 October 1541) was the eldest daughter of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, an elder sister to Henry VIII. In her early teens she became Queen of Scotland; through her first marriage she was the grandmother of Mary, Queen of Scots, and through her second, that of Mary’s second husband Lord Darnley – she is therefore twice-over the great-grandmother of James VI of Scotland/I of England.

Margaret was named for her paternal grandmother – the formidable Margaret Beaufort – and grew up alongside her surviving sister Mary and younger brother Henry in their mother’s household in Eltham Palace. She had the typical Tudor auburn hair and dark eyes and had a talent for music, much like her mother and brother. From the tender age of six she was told to expect that one day she would cross the border and take her place as Queen of the Scots. Relations between Henry VII and James IV were tense, but eventually, in 1502, a peace treaty was agreed, and pretty Princess Margaret was the cherry on top. A marriage by proxy was undertaken in January 1503; Margaret was thirteen and James, thirty. Legend has it her brother Henry – then of course just the Duke of York to his older brother Arthur’s Prince of Wales – threw a tantrum when he was told that his sister, now officially Queen of Scotland, outranked him.


That summer, when the weather was more temperate, Margaret set off on her long progress north to the border at Berwick-upon-Tweed, where she was formally handed over to the Scottish court and proceeded to Edinburgh. Although the union was of course one arranged for political rather than personal reasons, there seems to have been true affection between James and his child-bride. Margaret was homesick at first, as is to be expected, but soon settled in. She bore her first child at sixteen; she would bear six in total, although only the one son would survive to adulthood. James spoiled his queen and the Scottish court was pleasant and social; Margaret would have been happy.


James IV

In 1509, Henry VII had died and had been succeeded by Henry VIII, who had no particular interest in upholding his late father’s peace treaties. Henry declared war on France, putting James between a rock and a hard place, as he had a treaty with both sides. In the end, it was the ‘Auld Alliance’ that won out – France and Scotland were historic allies – and James moved against his brother-in-law.


Margaret was conflicted. She clung to her identity as a member of the English royal family, but held affection for her adopted homeland. She begged her husband not to go to war against her brother, claiming to have had prophetic dreams of his death and defeat. This was probably just rhetoric in an attempt to persuade her husband to abstain, but it turned out to be all too true; James met his death at the Battle of Flodden Field in September 1513, along with a devastating percentage of the Scottish nobility.


Margaret was widowed, the Dowager Queen, left quite literally holding the baby – the now James V was but seventeen months old. She would soon have another son, born after his father’s death, but he was to die at just eighteen months. James IV had, in his will, appointed Margaret as regent during his son’s minority, but only whilst she remained unmarried. Although Margaret’s appointment as regent was confirmed by Parliament, it was begrudging. Margaret was a woman, sister to an enemy king and held anti-French sympathies. It was proposed that she be replaced by John Stewart, Duke of Albany, the closest male relative to the infant prince.


It was agreed, even by her enemies, that Margaret was a more than competent leader. As such she held onto her position and within the year Scotland and France had agreed peace with Henry VIII. She may have been able to hold onto power, remain de facto King of Scotland for the decade or more until the young James was considered ready to take over leadership, but Margaret threw it all away – the men of the council sneered: typical woman! – for love.

Archibald Douglas, the Earl of Angus, had – upon his grandfather’s death – taken up his place on the king’s council. Upon their meeting, he and Margaret fell hopelessly in love and were secretly married only a few months later. Under the terms of her late husband’s will, Margaret had forfeited the right to be regent and to be guardian to her two young sons. The Duke of Albany became regent after all.

When the Duke arrived at Stirling to take possession of both the castle and the royal boys, Margaret initially resisted. Her brother Henry had been urging her to flee with her sons to England, but Margaret felt that to do so would be risking James’ right to the throne. Eventually she realised it was futile and gave up her small sons.
Margaret refused to hand over her sons

By this time Margaret was heavily pregnant by Douglas and the council allowed her to go into her female confinement in Linlithgow Palace, in southern Scotland. From there, the eight-months pregnant Margaret fled across the border back to England. Only weeks later she gave birth to her daughter, Margaret Douglas, the future Countess of Lennox and mother of Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. Douglas did not follow her as to do so would have been forfeiting all of his Scottish lands and he appeared to love his position and income more than he now loved his wife. When Henry learned that his sister’s husband had abandoned her, he sneered: “Done like a Scot.”


Henry cared for his sister, lodging her in Scotland Yard, the ancient palace (or embassy, if you will!) of the Scottish kings in London. He and Cardinal Wolsey worked tirelessly to smooth things over with the Scottish council. After a year in exile, the dowager queen was allowed to return to her sons and husband in Scotland.


Whatever great love there had once been between Margaret and Douglas that encouraged her to give up everything, it was dead and gone now. Douglas had been living openly with his mistress whilst Margaret had been gone – most insultingly, on Margaret’s money! Margaret removed herself from her husband’s household and immediately began petitioning for a divorce. In 1518 she wrote to her brother:


“I am sore troubled with my Lord of Angus since my last coming into Scotland, and every day more and more, so that we have not been together this half year… I am so minded that, an I may by law of God and to my honour, to part with him, for I wit well he loves me not, as he shows me daily.”


Extremely ironically considering how his own marital history was to go, Henry was against the idea of divorce and would not countenance it. It seemed that poor Margaret was expected to lie in the bed that she had made, so to speak. However, her luck was on the turn. The Duke of Albany was in France, negotiating the marriage of James V to the French princess, and as a result she was allowed to resume her regency in his absence.Detail of a young Henry VIII with his sister Margaret

When the Duke returned to Scotland the pair became close, very close, close enough for some to say they were lovers. One nobleman wrote to Wolsey in England, saying that he believed the young James was going to be assassinated so that Albany would become king and marry Margaret. However, in hindsight it was clearly just an association of convenience. When Albany returned to France in 1524, Margaret brought the now twelve year old James to Stirling and announced the regency was over as the young king had reached his majority. James declared his mother as his chief councilor.


Once again, Margaret was to let her heart rule her head and risk everything. She fell in love with Henry Stewart, a younger brother of Lord Avondale and began to advance him. Douglas and his cronies were furious, doubly so when Margaret would not allow her estranged husband to attend council, as was his right as the Earl of Angus. Things escalated quickly, with Margaret even ordering cannons to be fired at him when Douglas arrived in Edinburgh with a crew of armed men.


Eventually Margaret was persuaded to back down and allow Douglas back onto the council. It was the opportunity he had been waiting for; Douglas seized control and the king. He was to remain in this position of power for the next three years. Margaret was incensed and her desire to be officially divorced and free of him became a real obsession. Over and over she begged her brother for support and petitioned the Pope in writing. Finally, in 1527, the Pope granted the divorce and only a few months later Margaret married for the third time, to Henry Stewart.


(Her brother Henry’s reaction is very amusing, in hindsight. He wanted Margaret to disregard the Pope’s divorce dispensation, declaring that marriage was ‘divinely ordained’ and protesting against the ‘shameless sentence sent from Rome.’ He probably thought it was extremely unfair that he couldn’t get one of these ‘shameless sentences’ of divorce when he wanted one.)


Not long after the marriage, James V managed to extricate himself from his erstwhile step-father’s custody. Angus fled into exile in England. Now that she was free of Angus and her son was firmly on the throne, Margaret could turn her attentions back to what had originally been her foremost concern – improving relationships between England and Scotland. She attempted to arrange a meeting between her brother and her son, but although Henry was agreeable, James refused. Although he was fond and respectful of his mother, he hated the English with a passion, blaming them for both the death of his father and the continued patronage of the step-father who had held him in thrall for three years.


Margaret’s life was on the downturn again. Her new husband was already cheating on her and burning through her money, just like Angus before him. Their only child died in infancy and she soon began petitioning for another divorce. James refused her. She then began to write to her brother in England, requesting money, protection and even a place in his court: “I am weary of Scotland”, she confessed. At one point she even tried to run away across the border, as she had as a younger woman, but James caught wind of the plan and immediately had her captured and brought back.Margaret Tudor

Margaret died of a stroke at the age of 52. The onslaught of her illness was rapid; so certain was she that she would recover that she never made a will. By the time anyone realised it was serious and sent for the king, it was too late; James arrived shortly after his mother had passed away.


Margaret was a Tudor to her bones, stubborn and passionate and larger than life, just like her famous brother. She too had scandalous divorces, defied tradition to marry whom she pleased, hungered for power and wealth and proved herself an able ruler. Somehow, Margaret (and her sister, Mary) are often omitted, eclipsed by their nieces and grandchildren, the illustrious personages of Mary I, Elizabeth I, Mary, Queen of Scots, Lady Jane Grey – etc. In the television show The Tudors Margaret and Mary are amalgamated into the same person and randomly married off to the King of Portugal (Mary Tudor was married into France, not Portugal, so this was a total fabrication. She did, however, get almost immediately widowed and married Charles Brandon, much to her brother’s wrath).


When she wasn’t obsessing about divorces, Margaret was steadfast in her wishes to see England and Scotland united in peace and friendship. It has a nice poetic justice, then, that through her great-grandson, the two countries were united under the same monarch and together, thrived.



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