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The Woman Who Was Almost Queen Elizabeth I

In her new book "The Lost Tudor Princess: The Life of Lady Margaret Douglas," Alison Weir charts the confusing history of Henry VIII's niece, Lady Margaret Douglas, who lived her entire life almost becoming the Queen of England.
Lady Margaret Douglas
A portrait of someone who is "probably" Lady Margaret Douglas. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Most of the Tudor-obsessed among us would agree that Showtime's The Tudors wasn't a very realistic portrayal of the dramatic dynasty. Yes, Jonathan Rhys Meyers is a very sexy King Henry VIII (sexy long after the real king was considered so), but the show missed out on quite a few important characters that shaped—or could have shaped—the English court. In her recent book The Lost Tudor Princess: The Life of Lady Margaret Douglas, Alison Weir introduces the world to a fascinating woman who lived through the reign of nine queens and was constantly incredibly close to becoming one herself.


As the daughter of Henry VIII's sister, Margaret Tudor, Margaret Douglas was the portly king's niece. This would have been a great thing for her prospects, but complicating matters was the fact that she was Scottish, sort of. Although Margaret Tudor was English, she had been married off to James IV, King of Scots. They had six children, four of whom died when they were born or very young. James V was the surviving son, and because his dad died when he was only a toddler—if you follow Game of Thrones, you'll know this one—Scotland was to be ruled by regents until James V turned 11, when his mother declared him fit to rule (though he didn't truly shuck off his regents' shackles until he was 15). This became a whole saga of its own, full of rivalries between various noble houses. Meanwhile, a year after her husband's death, Margaret Tudor, widow and queen dowager, secretly remarried without anyone's approval, though both the Scottish lords and her English brother had stakes in her remarriage, which could have been used for political advantage.

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Things got messy. The man Margaret Tudor married was Archibald Douglas, 6th Earl of Angus, and his Scottish family was pro-English; meanwhile, the Scottish Council was led by a rival, pro-French noble family, the Hamiltons, who assigned a pro-French regent to James V once Margaret Tudor remarried. Because of this political strife—which in turn led to the small matter of Henry VIII threatening to start a war with Scotland over its choice of an anti-English regent (pretty much par for the course for Scottish/English relations at the time)—Margaret Tudor fled to England so that her child by her new husband could be born there, far from the anger of the disapproving Scottish lords. On October 7, 1515, Margaret Douglas was born in Northumberland, England, making her an English subject, eligible to sit on the English throne. At the time of her birth, Douglas was second in line to the throne through her mother, the king's sister: If Henry VIII were to die without having a legitimate child, born within wedlock—and his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, wasn't doing well in the producing-an-heir department—the English throne would pass to his sister, and then to his niece. Soon, though, Margaret lost her place in line, when Katherine gave birth to Margaret's cousin, Mary I, in 1516. (Mary I was later known as Bloody Mary, not to be confused with Mary Queen of Scots—there were lots of Marys and Margarets floating around during this time period. Catherines and Katherines, too.)


Margaret Douglas had a strange and difficult childhood. Although she had expected an easier life near her royal brother, Margaret Tudor found out that her newly minted Scottish husband was having an affair with a woman he'd once been meant to marry. And so "at only three, [Margaret Douglas] now found herself the only child of a broken marriage for whom the term 'warring parents' would become only too apt," Weir writes, referring both to the antagonism between Scotland and England and to the various skirmishes and political upheavals that went on between the Tudor and Douglas clans.

Despite her mother's continued life of scandal, Margaret Douglas was raised as a princess, moving from one royal house to another. Her being so close to the throne made her highly desirable in the bridal market, especially as she was considered good-looking, a redheaded beauty, and is thought by today's historians to be "the best-looking Tudor girl."

"Queen Mary I" from the National Portrait Gallery. Image via Wikimedia Commons

But ignoring her beauty (and her strong will later in life), what is truly astonishing about Margaret Douglas was how close she was to being queen—constantly. With the high death and annulment rates among Henry VIII's wives and children, it's pretty incredible that the stars aligned to keep her off the throne. When Henry VIII was in the process of getting rid of his first wife, Douglas was the chief lady in Princess Mary I's personal household. When he married Anne Boleyn in 1533, Margaret's cousin Mary I became illegitimate. Yet despite her close relations with her now-bastard cousin Mary, which might have rendered her out of favor, once Henry VIII's sister (another Mary; it gets really confusing) died the same year, Douglas became "the second lady in the land after the new Queen," Anne Boleyn. Indeed, even though some of Douglas's earlier mentors and caretakers stayed away from Anne Boleyn and were staunch supporters of Katherine of Aragon, and even though Douglas was a Catholic and Boleyn a reformer, Henry VIII rather adored his niece and appointed her to be the first lady of honor to his new queen. This basically meant that Douglas was the chief lady-in-waiting, hanging around Anne Boleyn and her other ladies in court, listening to gossip, flirting with the men the queen enjoyed surrounding herself with, and generally being an early Kim Kardashian to Anne Boleyn's Paris Hilton.


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So far, Douglas had witnessed two queens on the English throne. This number was to rise substantially, and she continued to be appointed to that same honorable first lady role by King Henry VIII. As the first lady of honor, she was automatically made close to all his wives. She witnessed Elizabeth I's birth and the swift fall of Boleyn after she miscarried a son. When Boleyn was beheaded, Elizabeth I—like Mary I before her—was declared a bastard, and Henry VIII married Jane Seymour, who had been raised a Catholic and was thus even more sympathetic towards Douglas. Soon after this, in 1536, Henry VIII's Parliament passed the Second Succession Act, according to which the king could choose his own heirs, though he didn't at the time. But the situation was this: Mary I, Elizabeth I, and Henry Fitzroy (the kid born to Mary Boleyn, Anne's sister, with whom Henry VIII had an affair, in case you haven't read The Other Boleyn Girl) were all bastards; James V (Douglas's brother) was Scottish and not an English subject; Douglas was essentially, though unofficially, the heir apparent.

Unfortunately, in 1535, Douglas had started a bit of a scandal involving a lover from the Howard family, with whom Henry VIII had had enough, as they were connected to his beheaded ex. Douglas exchanged quite a lot of rather sappy, bad poetry with her lover but most likely no fluids. They were both thrown in the Tower for a while in 1536, when their affair and pre-contract to marry were exposed. Henry VIII was pissed off: He was the one who was supposed to choose Douglas's husband, since she was a diplomatic prize to be had and used to garner favor and alliance. Worse for Douglas, Henry Fitzroy was ill and would soon die, and it seems that Henry VIII had been planning on naming her as his successor before he found out about her chaste fling. If she hadn't fallen in love, Douglas may have been the official heir, changing the history of the English royalty forever.


This basically meant that Douglas was hanging around Anne Boleyn and her other ladies in court and generally being an early Kim Kardashian to Anne Boleyn's Paris Hilton.

All was not lost for Douglas, though. After Jane Seymour died in 1537 from complications of giving birth to, finally, a male heir, Douglas was free and made the chief lady of Henry VIII's new wife, Anne of Cleves. This was the fourth queen Douglas was close to, but that marriage was quickly annulled. (Basically, because Anne wasn't beautiful enough.) In 1540, Henry married queen number five, Katherine Howard, where again Douglas was high in favor and still extremely close to the throne. During this queen's reign, Douglas had yet another letters-and-poetry affair, but because of Katherine Howard's recent cheating on Henry VIII, Douglas's infraction barely registered. Soon Howard, only 21, was beheaded. When Henry married yet again, in 1543, Douglas was back in court and waiting on the final queen, Katherine Parr.

Now 29, relatively old to be a bride, Douglas was finally married off to Matthew Stuart, 4th Earl of Lennox, who was a Scottish nobleman (to come full circle). But when Henry VIII died in January 1547, Douglas and her husband did not succeed him, as Henry had gotten his legitimate heir in Edward VI, Jane Seymour's son, who was only nine at the time of his father's death. Though Margaret Douglas still had a claim to the throne, at this point her religion became an issue; the little king was a staunch reformer, as were his advisors and the council Henry VIII left after his death. Douglas's various allies such as Katherine Parr, Henry's last wife, and Elizabeth I, his daughter, left court, and with an unmarried king, it wasn't a place for Douglas, either. When Edward died at the age of 15, he designated his cousin (once removed) Lady Jane Grey as his heir (he'd named her as such prior to his death). This seventh queen only lasted nine days before she was overthrown by Mary I, Douglas's longtime friend and cousin.


At this point, Weir writes, "From the first Margaret found herself prominent and in high favor at [Mary I's] court… Indeed, [Mary I] would give every appearance of wanting Margaret to succeed her instead of the Protestant Elizabeth, the bastard half-sister whom Mary disliked and feared." However, Parliament wasn't really into the idea, because according to the Second Succession Act, Elizabeth I was next in line if Mary I died.

Margaret Douglas with a small dog. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Anyway, once she started having kids, Margaret Douglas shifted her focus to getting them onto the thrones of England, Scotland, or both, since she had claims to all. However, there was an issue with her own legitimacy, and thus her children's: Her father's mistress, from all those years ago, had been the woman he'd been pre-contracted to marry before going with Douglas's mother Margaret Tudor, and pre-contracts were considered serious. Though the pope had declared Douglas legitimate when she was still a child, Elizabeth I didn't care—she was a Protestant, and the papal word meant nothing to her. Besides, Elizabeth I knew that Douglas was dangerous to her.

Douglas spent much of her later life trying to arrange for her husband to get his lands back in Scotland while simultaneously trying to arrange a marriage between her son and the young Scottish queen Mary Queen of Scots. She attempted to curry favor with the French, with whom the Scottish queen was aligned, in order to get her elder son closer to the Scottish throne. In Douglas's mind, her son would be able to unite England and Scotland through marriage. As a teenager, the Scottish queen had no interest in marrying a boy three years her junior. But when she was widowed after her short-lived marriage to the heir and then king of France, Francis II, she returned to Scotland. In 1565, when both she and the eldest Douglas boy, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, were in their 20s, Douglas succeeded in her plan. The two were married, cementing a joint claim to the English throne.

Margaret Douglas's son was murdered in 1567, and her husband—who was finally successful in returning to power in Scotland, the couple's longtime wish—was assassinated in 1571. But Douglas continued her diplomatic work through her children, having her younger son marry an incredibly rich Englishwoman.

Although Douglas was thrown into the Tower twice more during her lifetime—first during the marriage of her son to Mary, Queen of Scots, and next when her younger boy married—and even though she died in debt, Queen Elizabeth I gave her worthy adversary a funeral befitting a noblewoman of her status. Today Lady Margaret Douglas lies today interred at Westminster Abbey, all but forgotten by so many Tudor geeks—until, maybe, now.