Lady Margaret Shelton or “Pretty Madge”

Posted By on January 3, 2012

Today, we have a guest article by Anne Boleyn Files visitor and author Anne Clinard Barnhill. Many of you will know Anne from her comments, her posts in the forum and also from The Anne Boleyn Fellowship. I want to take this opportunity to thank Anne for the support and encouragement she’s given me in running The Anne Boleyn Files and to also congratulate her as today sees the release of her first historical novel “At the Mercy of the Queen: A Novel of Anne Boleyn”, which I have just reviewed over on our Review website – see At the Mercy of the Queen: A Novel of Anne Boleyn

Lady Margaret Shelton or “Pretty Madge” as she was known at court

Lady Margaret Shelton was one of ten children born to Sir John and Lady Anne (Boleyn) Shelton, according to In Z.F.Shelton’s family history, The Sheltons, only nine children are listed.

The date of Lady Margaret’s birth is unknown, but is stated as coming sometime after 1501. We know her mother, Lady Anne, was 21 when she married Sir John in 1497 and we know one of her last children born, Thomas, was born in 1520 when Lady Anne was 44. We can only guess which year Margaret was born. It is thought she was older than her sister, Mary, with whom she is often confused.

Though we do not know the exact date of her birth, we do know when her first cousin, Anne Boleyn, was crowned queen, Lady Margaret was at court to serve as lady-in-waiting. In the family history book, there is a note by her name which says, “Madge was attendant at the Court of her cousin Queen Anne Boleyn and was instructed by her to distract the attention of King Henry VIII when he was making love to Jane Seymour.” Of course, we have no way of knowing whether Anne Boleyn instructed Margaret or not. But we do know that for a brief period of about six months, Pretty Madge had the king’s attention. Was their affair merely a play on courtly love? Or was it consummated? Again, we will never know for sure.

We know Lady Margaret was an attractive young woman. Besides her nickname, Pretty Madge, we have other descriptions of her. In David Starkey’s The Queens of Henry VIII, he writes that John Hutten, the English agent in the Netherlands, told Henry that Anne of Cleves, the woman he was considering for a wife was, indeed, beautiful and she ‘resembleth much one Mistress Shelton, that sometime waited in Court upon Queen Anne (Boleyn).” Hutten also said Anne of Cleves “excelleth” Christina of Denmark in beauty, “as the golden sun excelleth the silvern moon.”

Antonia Fraser, in her book, The Wives of Henry VIII, says “Madge Shelton must have been extremely appealing; a few years later when the noted beauty Duchess Christina of Milan was being investigated as a possible royal bride, it was declared in the Duchess’ favor that she ‘resembleth much one Mistress Shelton, late of the queen’s chamber, who had dimples–‘pits’-in her cheeks, and was ‘very gentle of countenance’ and ‘soft of speech.'”

We also know that Lady Margaret attracted the attentions of several courtiers besides the king himself. Two of the incriminating speeches Cromwell used against Anne Boleyn were in regard to ‘Pretty Madge.’ The first, an argument of some sort with Henry Norris, Groom of the Stool, has Anne egging Norris on to marry Madge, to whom he was betrothed. He says, “I would tarry a while longer.” No one knows why this put Anne into a rage but, as Eric Ives suggests in Anne Boleyn ,because of Anne’s increasingly weak position, Norris might have wished to get out of marrying into Anne’s family. This snub may have infuriated Anne and she spoke the damning words, “You look for dead men’s shoes. If aught came to the king but good, you would look to have me!” Immediately after, she sent Norris to her almoner to swear she was a good woman.

The Madge of "The Tudors"

The second event actually took place about a year prior to the one mentioned above. This time, Sir Francis Weston is the man seemingly infatuated with Pretty Madge. According to Ives, Weston was ignoring his wife in order to pursue Lady Margaret. The queen chided him about this and he said he did not love his wife and there was one there he came to see and loved above Madge–the queen herself! Again, this sort of banter was part of the courtly love tradition where the unworthy man seeks and loves a woman above him, who rejects him though he continues to “serve” her in all he does. Henry VIII loved this kind of chivalrous behavior and practiced it himself. After all, this is how he began his love affair with Anne. But for Weston, the consequences of his flirtations would be more dire.

So, we know Lady Margaret (Pretty Madge) Shelton served at her cousin’s court, carried on at the least a flirtation with the king in February, 1535, was very attractive and of interest to several men besides the king. What about the confusion with her sister, Mary? Where does that confusion come from?

It depends on which historian one reads as to which woman is the one with whom the king had an affair. Eric Ives writes in The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn concerning Madge and the Devonshire Manuscript, a compilation of poems passed around at court, a book to which Queen Anne herself is rumored to have contributed. Those involved in creating this written monument to courtly love were, according to Ives, Sir Thomas Wyatt, Mary Howard (Anne’s cousin and soon-to-be wife of Henry Fitzroy) Margaret Douglas, the king’s niece and Madge Shelton. He is skeptical about Anne’s involvement. To further corroborate that Margaret is the sister involved, there is an episode where Anne becomes very angry with Madge for writing “idle poesies” in her prayer book, an indication that Margaret was literate and possibly interested in writing. The queen’s admonishment is directed to Madge, not Mary. I believe this makes Margaret the likely sister who took part in the making of the Devonshire manuscript, as well as the woman who caught the king’s attention.

One reason for the confusion between Margaret and Mary Shelton is there was also a Mary Shelton at the court of Elizabeth I, a very prominent woman, one of the three most influential ladies in the queens apartments, along with Blanche Parry and Kat Ashley. It is easy to see how one generation could get confused with another.
Another possible reason for the mix-up is that, if Margaret were to abbreviate her name–MARG–it would be easy to read as MARY and thus, adding more confusion. It is likely she did use such abbreviations, especially in the Devonshire manuscript, to differentiate between her work and the other Margarets included in the book. Alison Weir refers to the woman caught scribbling in her prayer book as “Madge or her sister, Mary.” So, her true identity is muddled further. Kelly Hart, in her book, The Mistresses of Henry VIII, believes it is Mary, rather than Margaret, who is both the king’s lover and the author of the Devonshire manuscript. I suspect this is based on the William Latymer (Anne Boleyn’s chaplain) letter which speaks of Mary, rather than Margaret Shelton.

However, because of her age (Margaret being the older and therefore, more likely to be selected to attend the queen) and the consistent use of the name Madge (which is an nickname for Margaret, not Mary), I believe the woman who was, for a time, involved in some way with Henry VIII, to be Lady Margaret Shelton.

And, as you can see, I have been fascinated with her for a very long time, reading all I could about this one woman who lived so long ago. Now, in my novel, AT THE MERCY OF THE QUEEN, I have told her story, given her a voice, so that she is more than one of the named mistress of Henry VIII. I hope I have brought her to life in a way she would have liked. And, I hope you like it, too.

Click on the book cover above to order the book from or click here to read a review and see more details.


  • Chapman, Hester W., The Challenge of Anne Boleyn
  • Denny, Joanna, Anne Boleyn: A New Life of England’s Tragic Queen
  • Fraser, Antonia, The Wives of Henry VIII
  • Hart, Kelly, The Mistresses of Henry VIII
  • Ives, Eric, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn
  • Ives, Eric, Anne Boleyn
  • Shelton, Z.F., The Sheltons
  • Somerset, Anne, Ladies in Waiting
  • Starkey, David, Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII
  • Weir, Alison, Henry VIII: The King and His Court
  • Weir, Alison, The Six Wives of Henry VIII
  • Warnicke, Retha, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn