Margaret was born on 28 November 1489 in the Palace of Westminster in London to King Henry VII and his wife, Elizabeth of York. She was their second child and firstborn daughter. Her siblings included Arthur, Prince of Wales, the future King Henry VIII and Mary, who would briefly become Queen of France. Margaret was baptised in St. Margaret’s, Westminster on St Andrew’s Day. She was named after Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and Derby, her paternal grandmother. Her nurse was Alice Davy.
On 30 September 1497, James IV‘s commissioner, the Spaniard Pedro de Ayala concluded a lengthy truce with England, and marriage was again a serious possibility. James was in his late twenties and still unmarried.
The Italian historian Polydore Vergil said that some of the English royal council objected to the match, saying that it would bring the Stewarts directly into the line of English succession, to which the wily and astute Henry replied:
What then? Should anything of the kind happen (and God avert the omen), I foresee that our realm would suffer no harm, since England would not be absorbed by Scotland, but rather Scotland by England, being the noblest head of the entire island, since there is always less glory and honour in being joined to that which is far the greater, just as Normandy once came under the rule and power of our ancestors the English.
On 24 January 1502, Scotland and England concluded the Treaty of Perpetual Peace, the first peace agreement between the two realms in over 170 years. The marriage treaty was concluded the same day and was viewed as a guarantee of the new peace. Margaret, who was still a child, remained in England, but was now known as the “Queen of Scots”.
The marriage was completed by proxy on 25 January 1503 at Richmond Palace. The Earl of Bothwell was proxy for the Scottish king and wore a gown of cloth-of-gold at the ceremony in the Queen’s great chamber. He was accompanied by Robert Blackadder, archbishop of Glasgow, and Andrew Forman, postulate of Moray. The herald, John Young, reported that “right notable jousts” followed the ceremony. Prizes were awarded the next morning, and the tournament continued another day.
The new queen was provided with a large wardrobe of clothes and her crimson state bed curtains made of Italian sarcenet were embroidered with red Lancastrian roses. Clothes were also made for her companion, Lady Catherine Gordon, the widow of Perkin Warbeck.
In May 1503, James IV confirmed her possession of lands and houses in Scotland, including Methven Castle, Stirling Castle, Doune Castle, Linlithgow Palace and Newark Castle in Ettrick Forest, with the incomes from the corresponding earldom and lordship lands.
Later in 1503, months after the death of her mother, Margaret came to Scotland; her progress was a grand journey northward. She left Richmond Palace on 27 June with Henry VII, and they travelled first to Collyweston in Northamptonshire.
After crossing the border at Berwick upon Tweed on 1 August 1503, Margaret was met by the Scottish court at Lamberton. At Dalkeith Palace, James came to kiss her goodnight. He came again to console her on 4 August after a stable fire had killed some of her favourite horses. Her riding gear, including a new sumpter cloth or pallion of cloth-of-gold worth £127 was destroyed in the fire.
On 8 August 1503, the marriage was celebrated in person in Holyrood Abbey. The rites were performed by the archbishop of Glasgow and Thomas Savage, archbishop of York, and Margaret was anointed during the ceremony.
Two days later, on St Lawrence’s day, Margaret went to mass at St Giles’, the town’s Kirk, as her first public appointment. The details of the proxy marriage, progress, arrival, and reception in Edinburgh were recorded by the Somerset Herald, John Young.
Queen of Scotland
By her marriage contract, Margaret was allowed a household with 24 English courtiers or servants. These included her cook Hunt, her chamberer Margaret, John Camner who played the lute, her ushers Hamnet Clegg and Edmund Livesay, and her ladies in waiting, Margaret Dennet, Eleanor Johns, Eleanor Verney, Agnes Musgrave and Elizabeth Berlay.
Richard Justice and Harry Roper worked in the wardrobe, making her sheets, washing clothes, mending her tapestries and perfuming them with violet powder. Roper returned to England to serve Catherine of Aragon.
Elizabeth Maxtoun, a Scottish woman, washed the queen’s linen. Rich fabrics were provided by the Italian merchant Jerome Frescobaldi. After a few years, she employed a Scottish cook Alexander Kerse. Some members of her household were described in a humorous poem by William Dunbar, Ane Dance in the Quenis Chalmer.
On Maundy Thursday, known as Skyre Thursday or “Cena Domini”, it was the custom for the monarch and consort to give gifts to the poor and symbolically wash their feet. On 4 April 1504 Margaret gave 15 poor women blue gowns, shoes, a purse with 15 English pennies, and a wooden tankard with a jug and a plate, a token of the Last Supper. The number of poor women matched her age.
Another custom was to give gifts on New Year’s Day, and in 1507 James IV gave Margaret a “serpent’s tongue” (really a shark tooth) set in gold with precious stones, which was believed to guard against poison. She gave a French knight Antoine d’Arces a gold salt cellar with an image of the Virgin Mary.
In January 1513 the gifts included gold rings for eight ladies of her chamber, made by John Aitkin, a goldsmith who worked in Stirling Castle.
Margaret suffered from nosebleeds and the apothecary William Foular provided a blood stone or heliotrope as a remedy. Foular also sent the queen medicinal spices including pepper, cinnamon, “cubebarum”, and “galiga”, with glass urinals.
Margaret went on pilgrimages to Whitekirk in East Lothian, and in July 1507, after recovering from a period of ill-health, to Whithorn in Galloway, dressed in green velvet and riding on a saddle covered with the pelt of a reindeer, accompanied by her ladies and the court musicians.
The king named the Scottish warship Margaret after her. The treaty of 1502, far from being perpetual, barely survived the death of Henry VII in 1509. His successor, the young Henry VIII, had little time for his father’s cautious diplomacy, and was soon heading towards a war with France, Scotland’s historic ally.
In 1513, James invaded England to honour his commitment to the Auld Alliance, only to meet death and disaster at the Battle of Flodden. Margaret had opposed the war, but was still named in the royal will as regent for the infant king, James V, for as long as she remained a widow.
Parliament met at Stirling not long after Flodden, and confirmed Margaret in the office of regent. A woman was rarely welcome in a position of supreme power, and Margaret was the sister of an enemy king, which served to compound her problems. Before long a pro-French party took shape among the nobility, urging that she should be replaced by John Stewart, 2nd Duke of Albany, the closest male relative to the infant prince, and now third in line to the throne.
John Steward, who had been born and raised in France, was seen as a living representative of the Auld Alliance, in contrast with the pro-English Margaret. She is considered to have acted calmly and with some degree of political skill. By July 1514, she had managed to reconcile the contending parties, and Scotland – along with France – concluded peace with England that same month.
In seeking allies Margaret turned more and more to the powerful House of Douglas. She found herself particularly attracted to the Earl of Angus, whom even his uncle, the cleric and poet Gavin Douglas, called a “young witless fool”. Margaret and Douglas were secretly married in the parish church of Kinnoull, near Perth, on 6 August 1514.
Not only did this alienate the other noble houses but it immediately strengthened the pro-French faction on the council, headed by James Beaton, Archbishop of Glasgow. By the terms of the late king’s will she had sacrificed her position as Regent of Scotland, and before the month was out, she was obliged to consent to the appointment of Albany.
In September, the Privy Council decided that she had also forfeited her rights to the supervision of her sons, whereupon in defiance she and her allies took the princes to Stirling Castle. In November, Margaret devised a code for letters sent to Henry VIII, saying that those signed “Your loving sister, Margaret R” would be genuine, and others might be the result of coercion by her enemies.
Escape to England
Albany arrived in Scotland in May 1515 and was finally installed as regent in July. His first task was to get custody of James and Alexander, politically essential for the authority of the regency. Margaret, after some initial defiance, surrendered at Stirling in August.
With the princes in the hands of their uncle, Margaret, now expecting a child by Angus, retired to Edinburgh. For some time her brother had been urging her to flee to England with her sons; but she had steadily refused to do so, fearing such a step might lead to James‘s loss of the Scottish crown.
However, once Margaret‘s two sons were in the custody of their uncle, Margaret secretly accepted her brother’s offer of her personal safety at the English Court. Pregnant with Angus‘ child, Margaret feared for her life under the rule of the Privy Council of Scotland. As queen dowager she was forced to beg permission from the Privy Council even to travel. She obtained permission to go to Linlithgow Palace for her lying-in.
She escaped to Tantallon Castle and then, via Blackadder Castle and Coldstream Priory, crossed the border to England. She left valuable costume and jewels behind at Tantallon, including several velvet hoods embroidered with pearls with jewel-set front borders called “chaffrons”, and a silk hat with a diamond jewel that had been a present from Louis XII of France. Her jewels were later collected by Thomas Dacre’s agent, John Whelpdale, the Master of College of Greystoke.
Margaret was received by Thomas Dacre, Henry‘s Warden of the Marches, and taken to Harbottle Castle in Northumberland. Here in early October she gave birth to Lady Margaret Douglas, the future Countess of Lennox and mother of Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, cousin and second husband to Mary, Queen of Scots, and father of the future James VI.
While still in the north of England, Queen Margaret learned of the death of her younger son, Alexander. Dacre hinted that Albany was responsible. Margaret, even in her vulnerable state, refused to accept this, saying that if he really aimed at securing the throne for himself the death of James would have suited his purpose better.
It was also at this time that she at last began to get the measure of Angus, who, with an eye on his own welfare, returned to Scotland to make peace with the Regent, “which much made Margaret to muse”. When Henry VIII learned that Angus would not be accompanying his sister to London he said, “Done like a Scot”.
However, all of Angus‘s power, wealth and influence was in Scotland; to abandon the country would mean possible forfeiture for treason. In this regard he would have had before him the example of his kinsman James Douglas, 9th Earl of Douglas, who had fled to England the previous century, living out his life as a landless mercenary.
In most essentials, Margaret remained an Englishwoman in attitude and outlook, and at root, she genuinely desired a better understanding between the land of her birth and her adopted home. Necessity demanded an alliance with Albany and the French faction, especially after the devastating border wars with England in the early 1520s.
But no sooner was Albany off the scene than she set about organising a party of her own. In 1524, the Regent was finally removed from power in a simple but effective coup d’état. With Albany once more in France, Margaret, with the help of Arran and the Hamiltons, brought James, now 12 years old, from Stirling to Edinburgh.
In August, Parliament declared the regency at an end and James was elevated to full kingly powers. In practice, he would continue to be governed by others, his mother above all. When Beaton objected to the new arrangements, Margaret had him arrested and thrown into jail. In November, Parliament formally recognised Margaret as the chief councillor to the King.
Margaret‘s alliance inevitably alienated other noble houses. Her situation was not eased when her brother, Henry VIII, allowed Angus to return to Scotland. Both of these factors were to some degree beyond her control. The most damaging move of all was not. She formed a new attachment, this time to Henry Stewart, a younger brother of Lord Avondale.
Stewart was promoted to senior office, angering the Earl of Lennox, among others, who promptly entered into an alliance with her estranged husband. That same November, when Parliament confirmed Margaret‘s political office, her war with Angus descended into a murderous farce.
When he arrived in Edinburgh with a large group of armed men, claiming his right to attend Parliament, she ordered cannons to be fired on him from both the Castle and Holyrood House. When the two English ambassadors present at court, Thomas Magnus and Roger Radclyff, objected that she should not attack her lawful husband she responded in anger, telling them to “go home and not meddle with Scottish matters”.
Angus withdrew for the time being, but under pressure from various sources, the Queen finally admitted him to the council of regency in February 1525. It was all the leverage he needed.
Taking custody of James, he refused to give him up, exercising full power on his behalf for a period of three years. James‘ experience during this time left him with an abiding hatred of both the house of Douglas and the English.
Margaret attempted to resist but was forced to bend to the new political realities. Besides, by this time her desire for a divorce had become obsessive, taking precedence over all other matters. She was prepared to use all arguments, including the widespread myth that James IV had not been killed at Flodden.
Despite the coup of 1524, she corresponded warmly with Albany, who continued his efforts on her behalf in Rome. In March 1527, Pope Clement VII granted her petition. Because of the political situation in Europe at the time it was not until December that she learned of her good fortune.
She married Henry Stewart on 3 March 1528, ignoring the pious warnings of Cardinal Wolsey that marriage was “divinely ordained” and his protests against the “shameless sentence sent from Rome”.
In June 1528, James V finally freed himself from the tutelage of Angus – who once more fled into exile – and began to rule in his own right. Margaret was an early beneficiary of the royal coup, she and her husband emerging as the leading advisors to the king.
James created Stewart Lord Methven “for the great love he bore to his dearest mother”. It was rumoured – falsely – that the Queen favoured a marriage between her son and her niece Mary, but she was instrumental in bringing about the Anglo-Scottish peace agreement of May 1534.
The central aim of Margaret‘s political life – besides assuring her own survival – was to bring about a better understanding between England and Scotland, a position she held to through some difficult times. James was suspicious of Henry, especially because of his continuing support for Angus, a man he loathed with a passion.
Even so, in early 1536 his mother persuaded him to meet with her brother. It was her moment of triumph and she wrote to Henry and Thomas Cromwell, now his chief advisor, saying that it was “by advice of us and no other living person”. She was looking for a grand occasion on the lines of the Field of Cloth of Gold, and spent a huge sum in preparation.
In the end it came to nothing because there were too many voices raised in objection and because James would not be managed by his mother or anyone else. In a private interview with the English ambassador, William Howard, her disappointment was obvious – “I am weary of Scotland”, she confessed. Her weariness even extended to betraying state secrets to Henry.
Weary of Scotland she may have been: she was now even more tired of Lord Methven, who was proving himself to be even worse than Angus in his desire both for other women and for his wife’s money. She was once again eager for divorce but proceedings were frustrated by James, whom she believed her husband had bribed.
As so often in Margaret‘s life, tragedy and unhappiness were closely pursued by intrigue and farce. At one point she ran away toward the border, only to be intercepted and brought back to Edinburgh. Time and again she wrote to Henry with complaints about her poverty and appeals for money and protection – she wished for ease and comfort instead of being obliged “to follow her son about like a poor gentlewoman”.
In the first months of 1536 Henry VIII sent her £200 and a parcel of luxury fabrics including lengths of purple cloth, tawny cloth of gold tissue, russet tinsel, satin, and velvet. The fabric was for costume to wear to welcome her son’s bride Madeleine of Valois.
Margaret welcomed Mary of Guise, James‘s second French bride to Scotland in June 1538. These two women, among the most formidable in Scottish history, established a good understanding. Mary made sure that her mother-in-law, who had now been reconciled with Methven, made regular appearances at court and it was reported to Henry that “the young queen was all papist, and the old queen not much less.”
Margaret died at Methven Castle on 18 October 1541. Henry Ray, the Berwick Pursuivant, reported that she had palsy (possibly resulting from a stroke) on Friday and died on the following Tuesday. As she thought she would recover she did not trouble to make a will. She sent for King James, who was at Falkland Palace, but he did not come in time.
Near the end she wished that the friars who attended her would seek the reconciliation of the King and the Earl of Angus. She hoped the King would give her possessions to her daughter, Lady Margaret Douglas. James arrived after her death, and he ordered Oliver Sinclair and John Tennent to pack up her belongings for his use.
Margaret was buried at the Charterhouse in Perth. The funeral ceremony itself was possibly not as elaborate as that held in Edinburgh for Madeleine of Valois in 1537, but James V and his household were provided with expensive black clothes for a mourning period.