Lady Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox

  • Born: 8 October 1515
    Harbottle, Northumberland
  • Died: 7 March 1578
  • Cause of Death: Food poison
  • Religion: Roman Catholic
  • Parents: Archibald Douglas, 6th Earl of Arran
    Princess Margaret Tudor, Queen Consort of Scotland
  • Spouse(s): Matthew Stuart, 4th Earl of Lennox
  • Children: Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley
    Charles Stuart, 5th Earl of Lennox

On 8 October 1515, Princess Margaret Tudor, Queen Dowager of Scotland and sister of Henry VIII, gave birth to her daughter, Margaret, by her second husband, Archibald Douglas, 6th Earl of Angus. She had recently been forced to hand over the Scottish Regency to the Duke of Albany, who had arrived from France, and had escaped to Harbottle in Northumberland.  The birth was difficult and she was lucky to survive.  Yet, despite acute sciatica, she met up with Angus at Morpeth and he presented her with two new gowns to appeal to her not inconsiderable vanity.  She took the infant Margaret on to London, arriving on 3 May 1516, while Angus returned to Scotland. Henry VIII, who was determined to eliminate French influence there, ordered her to rejoin her husband to help him to regain control.  Yet Angus now had insufficient military support to promote the English cause.

When Albany returned to France on 6 June 1517, the Queen Dowager was permitted to return and was given limited access to see her son, James V, at Edinburgh Castle.  Yet she fell out with Angus after he failed to provide her with funds he had promised, and he snatched the infant Margaret from her arms. From now on Margaret remained mainly under her father’s control and her status became dependent on the extent of his influence.  After being separated from her mother, she lived initially at Tantallon. Angus was well aware of her political importance as a claimant to the English throne and almost certainly took her with him to France, when he was exiled from Scotland. Cardinal Wolsey was her godfather, and, when not with her father, the Cardinal offered her protection, arranging a home for her with Thomas Strangeways at Berwick, where she remained even after Wolsey’s fall from power.

In 1528, when she was thirteen and Angus had temporarily returned to authority in Scotland, she was considered of sufficient lineal importance to be brought to London to be educated with her cousin and contemporary Mary Tudor, becoming her close confidante and Henry treated her like a royal princess.  Yet, like her mother, she remained adamantly Catholic.  Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon resulted in Mary Tudor being declared illegitimate, and this promoted the Queen Dowager and her children as potential heirs to the English throne.  Although James V was technically debarred having been born outside England, the glamorous Margaret Douglas had not. With her father Angus’s rising influence, she was considered ‘beautiful and highly esteemed’ at Henry’s Court, becoming first lady-in-waiting to Anne Boleyn and Lady-of-Honour to Princess Elizabeth.  Her mother, who remained in Scotland, was already worried that her daughter might also be branded as illegitimate, given her divorce from Angus and re-marriage to Lord Methven.  Yet, when Margaret became secretly betrothed to Sir Thomas Howard, Anne Boleyn’s uncle and Norfolk’s youngest brother, Henry, on 8 June 1534, placed them both in the Tower.  Despite suffering from an intermittent fever, her mother had to intercede so that she was moved to the Abbey of Sion.  Although she was released on 29 October 1537, still only twenty-two, Sir Thomas died in the Tower two days later.

The Queen Dowager in Scotland had already separated from Methven, who had taken a mistress. To protect her daughter’s legitimacy, she now sought a reunion with Angus, who was in England, and asked Methven for a divorce.  Yet James V, who trusted Methven as an adviser, would not agree, particularly as his mother was now aged forty-nine.  The Queen Dowager bowed to the inevitable and was reconciled to Methven, but died at Methven Castle of the palsy on 18 October 1541.

Given doubts within the Catholic Church over Prince Edward’s legitimacy, Henry declared Margaret illegitimate, on the grounds that her mother’s marriage to Angus lacked Royal approval.  Having protected his son by barring her from the throne, he returned her to favour, appointing her as first lady-in-waiting to both Anne of Cleves and Catherine Howard.  Yet she formed another attachment, this time to Sir Charles Howard, brother of Queen Catherine, and was again disgraced to Sion.  From here, on 13 November 1541 she was moved to Kenninghall, Norfolk’s country residence, to make way for Queen Catherine, who was by then in even worse trouble.  It was Angus, who now came to her rescue after returning to influence in Scotland. Despite Angus’s vacillating loyalty, Henry saw him as his means to restoring his flagging influence and continued to pay him a pension. Angus continued to provide Henry with military intelligence to assist an English invasion, including the deposition of Scottish troops. The Douglases could provide a strong military presence in Scotland and Henry needed them on side.  Such was her political importance to that Margaret acted as a bridesmaid to Catherine Parr.

In 1544, Matthew Stewart, 4th Earl of Lennox had realised that his suit to marry Marie of Guise, in expectation of being recognised as heir to the Scottish throne, was not going to succeed.  He set off for England and, in a complete volte face, offered to support Henry VIII, if permitted to marry Margaret. Her strong dynastic connections suited his ambitions every bit as well, despite her headstrong reputation. Notwithstanding his French upbringing, Lennox would espouse whatever religious persuasion suited his objectives. He adopted a Reformist stance with Henry, portraying himself as a foil for her Catholic excesses, and commended himself as the Protestant claimant to the Scottish throne.  Henry was enthusiastic, as it offered a means to thwart the Earl of Arran, the Scottish Regent, whose legitimacy was being questioned, and it linked the Scottish and English royal families.  Lennox was soon dominated by the astute Margaret, who compensated for his lack of political finesse.

With Catherine Parr as his Queen, on 6 July 1544, Henry attended Lennox’s and Margaret’s wedding ceremony at St. James’s Palace.  This created a connection ‘sufficiently gratifying to her ambition and followed by a mutual affection’. As a dowry, he provided the valuable Templenewsam estates in Yorkshire and is reputed to have told her that, if his own children should die childless, he ‘should be right glad if heirs of her body succeeded to the Crown’. Henry immediately sent Lennox north on a series of military expeditions and Margaret moved from Stepney Palace in London to Templenewsam. She had never made any secret of her Catholicism and, out of sight of the English Court, became a catalyst for Catholic intrigue among local families.  When Henry learned this, he excluded her from the English succession under his will.

The punitive expeditions into Scotland caused Angus to become infuriated with the wilful destruction caused by the English. He blamed Lennox for his part in it and changed the entail of his earldom to limit its inheritance to heirs male. Although Margaret was his only legitimate child, his nephew now became his heir, but she vigorously disputed his right to interfere with the entail. It is clear that this rankled. When, in 1550, Mary of Guise visited England after visiting her daughter, Mary Queen of Scots, in France, Margaret travelled from Templenewsam to escort her to meet Edward VI, giving her the opportunity to complain at being disinherited by her father.

When Edward VI died of consumption on 6 July 1553, the Catholic Mary Tudor became Queen of England. This immediately signalled a counter-Reformation in England, and Margaret[1] returned to Court to luxuriously furnished apartments in the Palace of Westminster. She was given precedence over Elizabeth, who remained illegitimate in Catholic eyes, making her the Catholic heir to the English throne.

On Mary Tudor’s death and Elizabeth’s accession, Margaret again retired to Yorkshire, but was closely watched by Elizabeth’s advisers, who gathered evidence against her.  When Elizabeth heard that Lennox had agreed to support the French party in Scotland, he was arrested and thrown into the Tower, where he remained until 1564.  Margaret managed to send her son, Henry Lord Darnley, to France, but was confined with her other children at the home of Sir William Sackville at Sheene, where it was said that she claimed she should rightfully be Queen. Yet again she was excluded from the succession based on unfounded questions over her legitimacy.  She now realised that her own political ambitions were over and focused all her considerable skills on promoting Darnley as heir to both the Scottish and English thrones.

Following the death of Henry II of France in a jousting accident, Mary Queen of Scots became Queen Consort of France. Margaret took the opportunity to send her thirteen-year-old son, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, with his tutor John Elder to offer his condolences.  He delivered a letter from Lennox petitioning for the restoration of the Lennox estates in Scotland.  Yet again the request was turned down[2], but Mary gave Darnley 1,000 crowns and invited him to attend Francis II’s coronation. Following Francis’s death, the wily Margaret again sent Darnley, now aged fourteen, with her condolences.  She plied Mary with the advantages of a marriage to her son, which would combine their close claims to both the Scottish and English thrones. She even suggested that they should replace Elizabeth.[3]  Yet Mary was intent on marriage to Don Carlos of Spain and knew that Elizabeth would see the Darnley marriage as hostile. She had no desire to be confrontational, and Margaret’s hope of attracting Mary to her handsome young son fell flat.

In February 1563, Elizabeth asked Mary, who had returned to Scotland, to curtail Lennox’s long exile in England and to allow him to return to his estates.  Her apparent motive was to destabilise the Scottish Government at a time when Mary was negotiating to marry Don Carlos.  Although only recently released from Sheen, Margaret was still acting as a centre for Catholic intrigue, and Elizabeth kept her under virtual house arrest at Court, where her son, the seventeen-year-old Darnley, sang and performed on the lute in the evenings ‘as indeed he plays very well’.  His mother had trained him to have courtly graces, and although apparently Catholic he did not seem vehemently so, regularly throwing his critics off guard by attending Protestant services.  This made him less threatening as Mary’s suitor than Don Carlos. Everyone knew what was going on. When Lennox arrived in Scotland he was restored to his estates and Mary sent Sir James Melville back to London to encourage Margaret to seek a passport for her son to visit his father.  On Melville’s return, Margaret sent him with a range of valuable gifts, a ‘fair diamond’ for Mary, an emerald for her husband, a diamond for the Earl of Moray, a watch set with diamonds for William Maitland and a ring with a ruby for Melville’s brother, Sir Robert.  He considered her a very wise and discreet matron, but Randolph described her as ‘more feared than beloved of any that know her’.

Margaret now worked to gain a passport for her son, but initially Elizabeth turned it down.  There was no time to waste as Elizabeth was still actively promoting Lord Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester as Mary’s husband. Yet it became clear that she was reluctant to lose him and Leicester was doing all he could behind the scenes to extract himself from the match. She now allowed Darnley to travel to Scotland with inevitable consequences.  She seemed to believe that he would never agree to marry Mary with his mother held as a hostage under her control and with the risk of his family’s substantial English estates being attainted. That was to reckon without Margaret’s astute acceptance that the prospect of the Scottish and English thrones for her son was a prize worth any personal inconvenience for herself.  Darnley set out for Scotland, where, on 17 February, he met Mary in Fife.  Margaret had sent him with further generous presents, this time for Mary, Maitland and Moray.  Mary was much more impressed than on their previous meetings in France.

Despite Margaret’s capacity for scheming, no one believed that the match would prosper.  It seemed clear that Elizabeth would never countenance it, although Mary may have interpreted her granting of a passport as tacit approval. She became infatuated and Maitland was sent to London to seek Elizabeth’s approval for them to marry. Elizabeth was suddenly alarmed; realising that the Scottish Protestant nobles, with whom she had such a good working relationship, were in jeopardy.  She informed the Privy Council that the marriage would be ‘unmeet, unprofitable and perilous to the sincere amity between the two queens’She refused her consent, claiming that she took offence at Darnley’s failure to seek her permission before leaving England.  On 20 April, Margaret was placed back under house arrest at Whitehall and, two months later, was moved to the Tower of London with her confinement made ‘hourly more severe’. The Templenewsam estates were attainted, and she was only released to Sheen in March 1567 after her son’s murder.

If anyone believed that the marriage would founder for lack of support, they bargained without Margaret’s scheming from imprisonment.  She bought the Earl of Morton’s important backing, by agreeing to cede her claim to the Angus Earldom to his nephew, for whom he acted as guardian. Patrick, 3rd Lord Ruthven, who had married her illegitimate half-sister Janet, became the chief councillor to gain acceptance for the marriage. Yet she remained imprisoned in the Tower while the marriage took place at Holyrood, but was able to send the Lennox Jewel to Mary as a wedding gift. When Moray was backed by the English to take up arms against Mary and Darnley, he was out-manoeuvred and forced into exile in England. When Elizabeth offered to free Margaret, if Moray was pardoned, Mary would not agree to such a one-sided offer.

As Darnley, petulant character became more apparent, Lennox failed completely to mentor his worst excesses and seems not to have noticed them.  On 19 December, he wrote to Margaret in the Tower:

My Meg, we have to give God most hearty thanks for that the King our son continues in good health and liking, and the Queen great with child, God save them all, for the which we have great cause to rejoice more.  Yet of my part, I must confess I want and find a lack of my chiefest comfort, which is you . . .

The Spanish ambassador concluded that the King would not have been led stray if his mother had been in Scotland, as she had better control of him.  Darnley was never a devout Catholic, but he used his Catholicism to promote his personal claim to the Scottish and English Crowns. This was fostered both by Lennox and, despite her imprisonment, by Margaret. Marriage to Mary was merely one step along the way.

When news of Darnley’s murder at Kirk o’ Field was brought to London, it was inadvertently reported that Lennox was also a victim. Margaret was inconsolable and Elizabeth asked Sackville, to take her into his care at Sheen.  The Lennoxes were eventually provided with the run down Royal Palace of Coldharbour.  Elizabeth still did not trust them and, although they could draw on its revenue, she kept control of Templenewsam. Following Mary’s escape to England, the Lennoxes hurried to Court to beg Elizabeth on their knees for justice for their son. Margaret’s face was ‘all swelled and stained with tears’, but Elizabeth lost patience with their vociferous cries and sent them away.

After Moray’s assassination in 1570, Margaret still had sufficient influence with Elizabeth to arrange for Lennox to be granted the Scottish Regency on behalf of his grandson. Elizabeth reasoned that she could manipulate him to her bidding by detaining Margaret and their son Charles in England to reinforce her will.  Lennox sent all his official correspondence to Elizabeth through his wife, explaining:

I cannot well commit the handling of those matters, being of such weight, to any other than yourself, neither am I assured if other messengers should be so well liked of, nor if the personages with whom you have to deal would be so plain and frank with others as they will be with you.

He was acutely short of money and Margaret had to pawn her jewellery to fund his journey north and was quick to seek Elizabeth’s financial assistance.  Elizabeth’s main objective was to gain control of Prince James by placing him in Margaret’s care. Even Mary supported this plan. On 10 July 1571, she swallowed her pride and wrote to her mother-in-law, reiterating that she was not involved in her husband’s murder.  She then discussed her son’s future: ‘She hoped that by moving James to England she might be permitted to communicate with him’. Yet the Regency supporters wanted him kept in Scotland. Lennox respected Mar and his wife Annabella’s devoted care of his grandson, and he stayed where he was.

The Lennoxes remained convinced of Mary’s involvement in their son’s murder. It was not until Lennox was killed trying to put down a Hamilton inspired uprising at Stirling in 1571, that Margaret began to believe that Mary was the victim of a conspiracy and started sympathising with her Catholic claim to the English throne. There was strong pressure within the Catholic community to see a rapprochement, and she was mellowed by Mary’s effort to arrange for James to be educated in England under her control.  A secret correspondence developed, but even now Margaret carefully avoided any show affection.  In September 1574, Elizabeth asked her if rumours about their reconciliation were true.  Margaret prudently denied it, writing to Cecil:

I asked her Majesty if she could think so, for I was made of flesh and blood, and could never forget the murder of my child; and she said nay, by her faith, she could not think that ever I could forget it, for if I would, I were a devil.

In 1576, there were rumours of the Earl of Bothwell having written a deathbed confession in Denmark. Copies of this were circulated, but, although they can be shown to be fraudulent, on seeing one, Margaret concluded that Mary was the victim of a foul injustice.

Margaret had been distraught on hearing of her husband’s death, and ‘her greef was poignant and perpetual’. By right his title should have passed to James, his grandson, but, when Mar became Regent, it was offered to Lennox’s second son, Charles. Yet when Morton succeeded Mar, this grant was countermanded and the Lennox estates were annexed to the Scottish Crown, although Charles continued to be known as the 5th Earl. Margaret soon sought Elizabeth’s permission to take Charles to visit Mary at Chatsworth, while on her way to Scotland to see James.  As expected, Elizabeth refused, but Bess of Hardwick, Countess of Shrewsbury, as an old friend, offered her home at Rufford Abbey as a stopping place. Bess came with her daughter Elizabeth Cavendish and, when Charles fell ill, they stayed for five days.  Bess was keen to promote her daughter in a Royal match, and, to the delight of both Margaret and Bess, Charles and Elizabeth fell for each other.  Bess sweetened matters by granting Margaret a loan, and by offering a dowry of £3,000 for her daughter.  Charles then ‘entangled himself so that he could have none other’, and they were hastily married, despite failing to obtain Elizabeth’s prior consent, as required by the Royal Marriage Act.  This was a risk that they were prepared to take.

Elizabeth summoned both Bess and Margaret to London, where Margaret was imprisoned in the Tower.  She now made an extremely fine piece of pointe tresse lace with her grey hairs, and sent it ‘as a token of her sympathy and affection’ to Mary, who much treasured it; she was by now convinced of Mary’s innocence. Margaret was soon released, and her granddaughter, Arbella, was born in the autumn of 1575.  Tragically, Charles died of consumption in April 1576, and his wife, Elizabeth[4] came to live with Margaret.  Yet the old lady was suffering ‘a languishing decline’, and died in great poverty two years later.  She was buried in a magnificent tomb at Westminster Abbey.

The Lennoxes were showered with gifts.  Margaret received two cloth-of-gold gowns.  Lennox was given a large pointed diamond, a gold belt set with rubies and diamonds and Edward VI’s best horse.  Darnley, already known to be musical, received Edward VI’s lutes, and three suits of clothing.  Such was the enthusiasm for them that Margaret had hopes that Darnley would be named as Mary Tudor’s heir. It was during this period that Margaret provided a gift to her husband of the Lennox Jewel, a locket confirming their enduring love.

[2] Margaret seems to have developed a close rapport with the Guises as a result of these efforts.  In February 1560 she confided to the Bishop of Aquileia that, should Mary die without children, Lennox and she would be placed on the Scottish throne by the French.

[3] Elizabeth got wind that Margaret was involved in ‘secret compassing of marriage betwixt the Scottish Queen and her son’. Margaret had to use all her guile with flattering letters to redeem Elizabeth’s mistrust.  She denied any treasonable intent, claiming ‘it was the greatest grief she ever had to perceive the little love the queen bears her’. Without concrete evidence against her, Elizabeth eventually rehabilitated them to Court, where Darnley was ‘made much of’ by the Queen for his proficiency with the lute and was kept in daily attendance by her presumably to ensure that the scheming was stopped.

[4] Elizabeth Lennox died in 1582, leaving Arbella to be brought up by Bess in the company of Mary Queen of Scots.