In 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.