The Lost Tudor Princess: The Life of Lady Margaret Douglas by Alison Weir

  Lord Thomas Howard, born around 1511–12 and now twenty-three or -four to Margaret’s twenty, was the son and namesake of the 2nd Duke of Norfolk by his second wife, Agnes Tilney. He was a competent poet who enjoyed plays on words and conundrums,1 and it has been suggested that he was educated by the antiquarian and poet John Leland, chaplain and librarian to the King.2 Thomas and his much older brother Norfolk were uncles to Anne Boleyn, and Thomas had been part of her circle since his arrival at court in 1533,3 and had helped to carry the canopy at the Princess Elizabeth’s christening.4 It was almost certainly in this hothouse of flirtation and intrigue that was the Queen’s chamber that his courtship of Margaret flourished. It had begun in the summer of 1535,5 and may have been encouraged by the Queen.6 Anne Boleyn had already been instrumental in arranging the marriage of her cousin, Mary Howard, to the King’s illegitimate son; a match between her uncle and the King’s niece would further bind her family to the Tudor royal house.

  It is not possible to say with certainty that all the poems written by Margaret and Thomas Howard relate to their personal experiences, and in some cases it seems that they wrote verses about imaginary scenarios, or copied out the works of other poets simply because they enjoyed them.7 But internal evidence in many of their poems, and the emotional intensity of these verses, strongly links them to events in the couple’s lives. Three poems by Thomas Howard, numbers 67, 68 and 69, were probably written during the months when he was secretly courting Margaret, and it seems—from poem 67, with its chorus that suggests it was perhaps set to music—that in true courtly tradition she showed herself disdainful, causing her suitor much anguish:

  To joy in pain, my will

  Doth will to, will me still,

  For pain now in this case

  Appeareth joy in place.


  Although my pain be greater

  Than can be told or thought,

  My love is still the better

  The dearer it is bought.

  This do I joy in pain,

  Yet I do not obtain

  The thing that I would fain,

  Wherefore I say again: [Chorus]

  I have heard say ere this,

  Full many a time and oft:

  That [which] is fetched for ladies

  Far-fetched and dearly bought. [Chorus]

  This marvels much to me

  How these two can agree,

  Both joy and pain to be

  In place both twain, perdie. [Chorus]

  These poems suggest that the proverbial course of true love did not run smoothly. Poem 68, signed “T. H.,” with its clever plays on words, is about how the writer has been disdained by his passionate lady for valuing friendship as highly as love, and that her friends are siding with her.

  If reason govern fantasy

  So that my fancy judge aright,

  Of all pleasures to man earthly

  The chiefest pleasure of delight

  Is only this that I recite:

  For friendship showed, to find at end

  The friendship of a faithful friend.

  If this be true, true is this too:

  In all this pleasant evenness

  The most displeasure Chance may do

  Is unkindness showed for unkindness,

  For friendly friendship forwardness;

  Like as the one case pleasant is,

  Likewise a painful case is this.

  These two, approved, approve the third:

  That is to say, my self to be

  In woeful case. For, at a word,

  Where I show friendship, and would see

  For friendship, friendship showed to me,

  There find I friendship so far fainted

  That I scantly may seem acquainted.

  By this word friendship now here said,

  My meaning to declare truly,

  I mean no whit the burning braid [upbraiding]

  Of raging love most amorously,

  But honest friendly company.

  And other love than this, I know

  Herself nor yet none other can show.

  And since herself no farther knoweth,

  Nor I myself, but as I tell—

  Though false report as grass doth groweth,

  That I love her exceeding well,

  And that she taketh my love as ill—

  Since I indeed mean no such thing,

  What hurt could honest friendship bring?

  No staring eye nor hearkening ear

  Can hurt in this, except that she

  Have other friends that may not bear

  In her presence, presence of me,

  And that for that her pleasure be

  To show unkindness for none other,

  But banish me to bring in other.

  But since that fancy leads her so,

  And leads my friendship from the light

  And walketh me darkling to and fro

  While other friends may walk in sight,

  I pray for patience in that spite.

  And, thus fulfilled her appetite,

  I shall example be, I trow,

  Ere friends show friendship, friends to know.

  Underneath have been drawn two barbed arrows, showing that Cupid’s darts can have a sting in them.

  Poem 69 finds Thomas fretting because something has happened to upset the lovers and made his lady withdraw. Possibly she feared that someone had found them out and would report them. In these verses Thomas makes a rather heavy-handed alliterative play on words, using the word “hap” as both noun (meaning chance or occurrence) and verb (meaning to happen or chance).

  What helpeth hope of happy hap

  When hap will hap unhappily?

  What helpeth hope to flee the trap

  Which hap doth set maliciously?

  My hope and hap hap contrary,

  For as my hope for right doth long,

  So doth my hap award me wrong.

  And thus my hap my hope hath turned

  Clear out of hope into despair,

  For though I burn and long have burned

  In fiery love of one most fair,

  Where love for love should keep the chair,

  There my mishap is overpressed

  To set disdain for my unrest.

  She knoweth my love of long time meant,

  She knoweth my truth, nothing is hid,

  She knoweth I love in good intent

  As ever man a woman did,

  Yet love for love in vain asked.

  What cloud hath brought this thunderclap?

  Shall I blame her? Nay, I blame hap.

  For whereas hap list to arise,

  I see both she and other can

  For little love much love devise;

  And sometime hap doth love so scan

  Someone to leave her faithful man,

  Whom, saving bondship, nought doth crave,

  For him she ought nor cannot have.

  Howbeit that hap maketh you so do,

  So say I not nor otherwise,

  But what such haps, by hap, hap to,

  Hap daily showeth in exercise.

  As power will serve, I you advise

  To flee such hap for hap that growth,

  And pardon me, your man, Tom Truth.

  Some take no care where they have cure,

  Some have no cure and yet take care,

  And so do I, sweetheart. Be sure

  My love must care for your welfare.

  I love you more than I declare,

  But as for hap happing thus ill,

  Hap shall I hate, hap what hap will.

  It has been stated that the King knew of, and even looked kindly upon, the relationship,8 but this is based on a misreading of a letter sent by Margaret Tudor to Henry VIII in August 1536,9 in which she says she has been informed that her daughter “should, by your Grace’s advice, promise to marry Lord Thomas Howard, and that your Grace is displeased that she should promise or desire such thing.?
??10 The two statements are contradictory, and it may be that Queen Margaret had received conflicting reports and been initially confused herself. The rest of her letter makes it clear that she knew that the King was furious with Margaret. If he had encouraged the relationship there would have been no cause for that, or need for the affair to be conducted in secrecy. The truth was that Anne Boleyn’s influence was waning, and it was almost a certainty that Henry VIII would not have approved of such a match for his niece, given that Margaret was third in line to the throne and a valuable counter in the intricate game of diplomacy and power politics. Her marriage—which was of supreme political importance, since there was a chance that her husband might one day end up ruling England beside her—was in the King’s gift, to be made to his, and the realm’s, advantage. It was not for her to choose the man she would wed: That was her uncle’s prerogative, and he would certainly wish to select a suitor with care. Thomas Howard, a younger son with no fortune, no prospects and no influence in any quarter, would not have stood a chance. Henry was already allied to the Howards through his marriage to Anne and his son’s marriage to Mary Howard, but with the Boleyn influence diminishing, that alliance was souring.

  The lovers ignored these considerations. They managed to arrange many secret trysts, always with the Duchess of Richmond present as chaperone; they would wait until the Queen’s aunt, Lady Boleyn, had vacated her chamber and then steal in there.11 Margaret gave Thomas a portrait of herself and a diamond; in return he gave her a cramp ring blessed by the King on Good Friday 1536;12 since the time of King Edward the Confessor (reigned 1042–66) such rings were believed to relieve attacks of cramp. According to a poem by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, Margaret was Thomas’s “true love,” and his own poems suggest as much; but it is possible that he was as hardheaded and ambitious as most of his family and hoped for great things from marrying her. Even so, his feelings appear to have been sincere, and probably compassed friendship as well as passion. In poem 46, Margaret wrote, “To love me best was his intent.”

  The first verse of poem 8 is sometimes attributed (probably incorrectly) to Thomas Wyatt; it reads:

  Suffering in sorrow in hope to attain,

  Desiring in fear, and dare not complain,

  True of belief, in whom is all my trust,

  Do thou apply to ease me of my pain,

  Else thus to serve and suffer still I must.

  Next to this verse there is an annotation in Margaret’s hand, “Forget this,” beneath which Mary Shelton, whose surname is spelled out in the initial letters of the verses, has written, “It is worthy.” There is a suggestion in this that Margaret found the subterfuge wearisome and frustrating.

  The couple should have known that they were courting disaster. There was even a salutary warning on the first page of the manuscript that Margaret and her friends were compiling:

  Take heed betime lest ye be spied,

  Your loving ways you cannot hide;

  At last the truth will sure be tried,

  Therefore take heed!

  The year 1536 was one of unprecedented royal dramas. On January 7, Katherine of Aragon died of cancer at Kimbolton Castle, and on January 29, the day she was buried at Peterborough Abbey with the honors due to a Dowager Princess of Wales, Anne Boleyn miscarried of a son.

  Anne had never been popular, and her failure to bear the King a male heir laid her open to the machinations of her enemies. The courtly dalliance and frolics she had encouraged proved to be her downfall. On April 27, as the storm clouds gathered about her unwitting head, she paid £4:13s.71/2d. (£1,440) for a gift of “Venice gold fringe and silk and gold points for a saddle for my Lady Margaret” and “2 round buttons of silk and gold for the bridle.”13 Already members of Anne’s household were being interrogated as to the conduct of their mistress, and Margaret must have been one of those questioned,14 although no source names her.

  She was probably among the ladies in attendance on the Queen at the May Day tournament, from which the King abruptly rose and departed, leaving Anne nonplussed. Like most observers, Margaret would have speculated as to what this portended. And then, sensationally, the next day, in a swift coup masterminded by the King’s Secretary of State, the powerful and clever Thomas Cromwell, Anne was arrested at Greenwich and imprisoned in the Tower of London, charged with adultery with five men, one her own brother, and with conspiring to assassinate the King. On May 15 she was tried and condemned to death, and on the 19th she was beheaded by a swordsman. The next day Henry VIII was betrothed to her former maid-of-honor, Jane Seymour, a meek, pale blonde whom nobody thought very beautiful. They were married ten days later.

  While the eyes of the world had been focused on Anne Boleyn’s swift and sensational fall, Margaret had been living in her fool’s paradise with Thomas Howard. For a woman of royal blood to indulge in a clandestine romance was to court scandal and disaster, as the world had just so spectacularly witnessed. All the same, sometime after the court moved to Whitehall Palace on June 7 for the opening of Parliament,15 Thomas Howard had “so obtained the favor of the Lady Margaret, then living in the King’s court, that some affiancing or privy contract passed between them.”16

  It cannot be doubted that Margaret dared to enter into a precontract with Thomas Howard17 in the presence of witnesses,18 although we do not know who these witnesses were. Thomas later revealed that the next day Margaret had confided news of her betrothal to Margaret Gamage, the wife of his older brother, Lord William Howard.19 Margaret herself later recalled her betrothal: “My faith to Lord Thomas Howard I plight; most truly to me his troth did appear.”20

  Prior to the Reformation (as Margaret had good cause to know, given that her father’s precontract had been the grounds on which her mother divorced him) a precontract—a promise to marry made before witnesses—was as binding as a wedding. All that was needed to transform the betrothal into marriage was not the blessing of the Church—although that was considered essential where persons of rank and property were involved—but sexual intercourse. It appears, however, that the couple did not venture so far, as the Imperial ambassador, Eustache Chapuys, was to report that they had not consummated their relationship.21

  Precontracting herself without royal assent shows how headstrong and reckless Margaret could be;22 already the “invincible spirit” referred to in her tomb epitaph was manifesting itself, as well as an alarming talent for dangerous intrigue, character traits that would be evident again and again throughout her adult life. In Margaret “the ambition and resolution of the Tudors” combined with “the cunning and courage of the Douglases.”23 She has been hailed as “a woman of unusual courage,”24 although one might describe it as impetuosity. This tenacious, articulate, audacious and often outspoken young woman was determined to have what she wanted, and there is plenty of evidence that, a true Douglas, and in many ways the mirror of her formidable great-grandmother and namesake, Margaret Beaufort, she was every bit as combative and determined as the rest of her family. Proud of her royal blood, she has been called “pathologically ambitious,”25 though that is probably unfair to her, since her close kinship with the monarchs of England and Scotland entitled her to have dynastic aspirations. But she was undoubtedly of an amorous and passionate nature, like her mother, and (it has been said) “no better than she should be,”26 but that presupposes sexual immorality, and there is no evidence that Margaret ever did anything worse than fall in love with unsuitable men.

  She and Thomas must have known that they risked Henry VIII’s wrath and worse if their precontract was discovered. Preempting the King’s prerogative was a serious matter. But the couple were blinded by love, as is evident from their poems, which survive as a poignant memorial to a doomed romance.

  Doomed, that is, because secrets like that could not be kept long at court.


  Parliament convened on June 8, and on the 15th, the feast of Corpus Christi, the King rode with his new Queen in procession from Whitehall Palace to Westminster Abbey,
with the lords preceding and Jane’s ladies following on horseback, Margaret leading them. The bishops and clergy preceded the lords and the King up the nave, followed by the Queen with “my Lady Marie [sic] Douglas bearing up the train of her gown,” and the other ladies and maids-of-honor bringing up the rear. High Mass was celebrated, and afterward the procession wended its way back to Whitehall.27

  Jane Seymour’s advancement as queen must have been welcome to Margaret. Like herself, Jane favored the old religion, and she was known to be sympathetic toward the Lady Mary. She was resolved to be the complete antithesis to her predecessor. Even the French hoods that Anne had favored were banned at Jane’s court, and her ladies were ordered to wear English gable hoods. She seems to have liked Margaret. In the “catalogue of beads” in a book listing the Queen’s jewels, some were marked in the margin as given to Margaret Douglas.28 That must have been soon after Jane became queen, because very soon she would not be able to give Margaret anything.

  Margaret’s prominent role in the procession was an acknowledgment of her new, enhanced status. Anne Boleyn’s marriage had been ruled invalid two days before her death, and her daughter Elizabeth declared a bastard. The probable ground for the annulment was the barrier to the marriage created by Henry’s affair with Anne’s sister, Mary Boleyn, which rendered it incestuous; and since both parties had known about that at the onset, their marriage could not be deemed to have been made in good faith, and so Elizabeth was illegitimate.

  On July 4, Parliament passed a new Act of Succession, which provided that the King could name any heirs he chose, in the event that his marriage was unfruitful. He had not chosen to do so because, according to the Act, any person so named “might happen to take great heart and courage, and by presumption fall into inobedience and rebellion.”29 As things stood—his three children, Mary, Elizabeth and the Duke of Richmond, all being bastards, and James V an alien—Margaret was effectively next in line for the throne, and second lady in the land after the new Queen.

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