The King’s Niece and the Fall of Anne Boleyn – Guest Article by Leanda de Lisle

Margaret DouglasIn the spring of 1536, King Henry’s niece, the ‘beautiful and highly esteemed’ twenty-one year old Lady Margaret Douglas, would sneak into the chamber of her friend, Mary Fitzroy. Mary’s uncle, Lord Thomas Howard, would then follow. He and Margaret had become lovers and met regularly to talk privately, kiss and exchange gifts. But there was a warning to secret lovers recorded on the opening page of the book of verses they wrote in and shared with their friends:

Take heed betime lest ye be spied
Your loving eyes you cannot hide
At last the truth will sure be tried
Therefore take heed!

It may have been written about the King and his once hidden love for Anne Boleyn. But now it was for Margaret and Lord Thomas to take heed. At Easter, 16 April 1536 when, after months of courting, they became secretly betrothed, tensions were high at court. Rumours were raging over the worsening relationship between the King and Anne Boleyn, who had been his Queen now for almost three years.

From the close quarters of the Queen’s Privy Chamber Margaret could see that Anne was extremely angry with her husband over his flirtation with another of her ladies in waiting, Jane Seymour. Anne’s brother, George Boleyn, would spend time with his sister laughing with her about the clothes the King wore and the ballads he wrote. George let slip once that Anne had even complained about Henry’s abilities as a lover, telling him that had her husband had neither talent nor vigour in bed.

With Anne complaining that Henry was such a poor sexual performer some believed that she might have a lover. Then, just over a fortnight after Easter, the day after May Day jousts, the Queen was arrested and taken to the Tower. She was accused of having committed adultery with several men, including her own brother, and plotting with them to kill the king.

Anne’s downfall was to be completed with shocking speed. On 17 May Anne’s supposed lovers went to their executions on Tower hill and Archbishop Cranmer annulled Anne’s marriage to Henry, bastardizing their daughter, Elizabeth. On 19 May, Anne was executed and a mere eleven days after that Henry married again; Margaret Douglas was obliged to carry Jane Seymour’s bridal train.

Even so the terrors of the summer were far from over for Margaret. With the King’s daughters Mary and Elizabeth both now declared illegitimate, Margaret’s half brother, James V of Scots became Henry’s heir under the usual rules of primogeniture, with Margaret next in line of succession. It was, however, possible – even probable – that if Margaret were to be married to an English nobleman her claim would be preferred in England over that of the Scottish James.

It was 8 July, when Henry learned of Margaret Douglas’s betrothal to Thomas Howard, a younger brother of the Duke of Norfolk, uncle to Anne Boleyn. Henry knew his daughters, illegitimate and unmarried, would make weak claimants to the throne: far weaker than the legitimate Margaret Douglas if married into the powerful Howard family. Even if Henry had a legitimate son with Jane Seymour, the boy would be vulnerable until he reached adulthood. Henry ordered the couple arrested and taken to the Tower.

In their youthful naivety the couple hoped that when the King’s anger had abated their promise of marriage would be recognised. After all, they had not committed any crime under prevailing law. In the Tower, the twenty five year old Thomas Howard composed romantic verses describing the pain of seeing ‘her daily whom I love best in great and intolerable sorrows’. Margaret, in turn, celebrated having, ‘the faithfullest lover that ever was born’ and kept a couple of Thomas Howard’s servants to wait on her, as a mark of her good faith.

But on 18 July a Bill of Attainder proclaimed Thomas Howard had planned to usurp the throne, trusting people would prefer the English-born Margaret, to her half brother, the King of Scots, ‘to whom this Realm has, nor ever had, any affection’. Thomas Howard was condemned to death. Margaret believed Cromwell was responsible for the King’s decision not to have her condemned also. She was careful, therefore, to now listen to Cromwell’s advice. She sent away Thomas Howard’s servants and promised she would ensure that no one thought ‘that any fancy remains in me touching him’.

In November, when Margaret fell ill in the Tower, Henry VIII was sufficiently mollified to permit her to be released into the care of the nuns at nearby Syon Abbey. The following month he also allowed parcels to be sent of ‘deep crimson silk’, ‘fringe of silver’ and ‘crimson velvet’ to upholster a suitable chair for her. Margaret Douglas was at last freed the following November of 1537. But far from being happy about this she was in a state of misery. Only days earlier, on 31st October, Thomas Howard, had died ‘of an ague’ in the Tower. It was said that she had taken the news ‘very heavily’ and indeed she was almost suicidal. In her last entry into her collection of poetry she expressed the hope she would soon be with ‘him that I have caused to die’.

In fact Margaret would recover and go on to witness and survive the fall of another of Henry’s Queens, despite another illicit love affair. Indeed she would live well into the reign of Queen Elizabeth and become a consummate plotter, one who matched the achievements of her ancestress and namesake, Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII the future Tudor King. Just as Henry VIII had feared, it would be Margaret’s descendents and not his who would come to inherit the Tudor throne, with her grandson James VI&I becoming the first Kings of Scots and England too.

Leanda’s book Tudor: The Family Story is released in the UK today and you can read my review of it on my book review site – click here.

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16 thoughts on “The King’s Niece and the Fall of Anne Boleyn – Guest Article by Leanda de Lisle”
  1. Did not know about the continued poetry writing once they had been arrested. But, wasn’t Mary Howard Fitzroy Thomas Howard’s niece as she was the daughter of his half brother the Duke of Norfolk?

    1. I think you’re right, Diane, I think this Thomas Howard was the 2nd Duke of Norfolk’s son and therefore uncle to Mary Howard and Henry Howard. So many Thomas Howards!

      1. Yes, sorry, my slip! Could you correct that for me Claire? There are some missing words too – shld be ‘a warning’ in first par’ and ‘rumors were raging’ in par 3, par six ‘Margaret D was obliged’, par 8 shld be ‘younger brother’, ‘ My brain is addled at the moment. Instead of baby brain I have ‘given birth to book’ brain

        1. Done! Don’t worry, I know what it’s like, I’ve only just got back from holiday and my brain is addled from reading old French!

      2. Thomas Howard, third duke of Norfolk,was the son of the second duke by his first wife Elizabeth Tilney; Anne Boleyn’s mother and Katherine Howard’s father were also children of this couple.

        After Elizabeth’s death the second duke married her young cousin Agnes Tilney, who was the step-grandmother sent to the Tower for not revealing Katherine’s imperfect past to Henry before he made her his queen.The Thomas Howard who fell for Margaret Douglas was a son of the second duke and Agnes Tilney.

  2. Its so sad even back then it was not aloud I still think Henry had a hard time trying to be king as best as he could maybe the more he tried the worse things came out well we will never know how he really felt about all of the scandle of he’s wife and he’s daughter who later became queen of England

  3. Dear Leander,

    I was really pleased to see this article, and am looking forward to reading the book. Margaret Douglas is a fascinating character who seems to have had an almost fatal attraction to Howard men – I believe she subsequently became briefly romantically involved with Thomas’s half-nephew Charles Howard, a brother of Queen Katherine, but was soon warned off.

    I have been researching Katherine Howard and her step-grandmother’s connections with Norfolk House in Lambeth for several years now with the view to publishing a book. Claire has been kind enough to feature articles from me on this site from time to time. Other writing has always got in the way of completing the research, but I am definitely going to publish within the next twelve months.

    I cannot believe that the Howards, Duchess Agnes in particular, were brimming over with glee at the prospect of young Katherine being taken to the Royal Bosom. Is it not more likely that Agnes, the second Howard duke’s second wife and mother of the lovelorn Thomas, would have been quaking in her boots, bearing in mind Henry’s recent history, especially with her knowing Katherine was not the pure little girl he thought he was getting? In the space of a decade the Dowager had seen her son-in-law Rhys ap Griffith executed in 1531, her niece Anne Boleyn elevated to the greatest height and then destroyed with incredible speed, and her own son, the Thomas who fell for Margaret Douglas, left to die in the Tower in 1537.

    Add to that Henry’s recent record of atrocities and I believe that, in spite of the further advancement and preferment Katherine becoming Queen might bring to the already great ducal family, the Dowager was old enough and wise enough to know that the Howards were skating on thin ice. Of course on the surface she had to appear to be elated, and no doubt did entertain the King at Norfolk House amid great splendour, but I think she would have breathed a sigh of relief at the end of every day that came and went without Katherine’s racy past having come to light.

    I would be interested to hear what you think.

    Marilyn Roberts

  4. Thank you, Leanda, for this wonderful piece on Margaret Douglas…she is, indeed, fascinating. And Marilyn, I look forward to your book, too. It does get very confusing with all the Thomas Howards and thank you for explaining them. Great read!

  5. Some researchers claim that Lady Margaret Douglas and Lord Thomas Howard had a son named Robert Howard, born at Seon Abbey. Lady Margaret was released from the Tower due to illness and sent to the Abbey. Is it possible that she was pregnant? They were, afterall, engaged to be married. It seems that records from the Abbey no longer exist, or maybe they were moved to another place, for instance to Sweden.

  6. Since Syon monastery in England was founded by the Brigittines of Vadstena, with Birgitta of Vadstena leading the nuns, I talked to a nun at the monastery and she told me that their records had been sent to Poland, but did not say when. End of conversation. Birgitta was pronounced a Swedish saint. Then I looked up on the internet Sir Robert Howard of Syon House and saw that he was the father of John Howard whose son was Matthew Howard, b.. ca. 1609, Norfolk Co. England. The mystery is: Who was the Robert Howard, b. Jan. 1537, at Syon Abbey, at the same time that Lady Margaret Douglas was resting there by order of the King? Anyway, I descended from John Howard, whoever he was…

  7. I am descended from the Robert Howard born at Syon. Does anyone know if there is any way to get a copy of the records to see who he really is?

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