The most famous Queen of Scots is the ill-fated Mary, who I wrote about here. Mary’s whole life was dripping with melodrama and action, the sort of thing that makes for entertaining films, novels, and TV series but probably not a very fun life to live. Her whole claim to the throne came because although she was the heir to the throne of Scotland, her paternal grandmother was Margaret Tudor, the elder sister of Henry VIII.
Margaret had also been the Queen of Scots, and her life was nearly as action-packed as her more famous descendant. Luckily for her, she also seems to have had a lot of fun between coup d’etats, going on the run, and marrying a series of terrible husbands. Let’s learn about the woman whose marriage provided Mary’s later claim to the throne of England!
Born on November 28, 1489, Margaret Tudor was the oldest daughter of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, making her the granddaughter of both Elizabeth Woodville and Margaret Beaufort, after who she was named. Although the elder Margaret hoped her namesake would grow up to be as pious and religious as her grandmother had become in her later years, the younger Margaret was far more interested in fashion and dancing than she was in prayer. However, being raised with Beaufort as a role model clearly provided her with a sense of just how a woman could wield power in a royal court. Margaret Tudor wasn’t much interested in scholarly or religious pursuits, but the political skills she learned through careful study would prove much more helpful to her later in life.
As a girl in 15th century England and as a Princess, she learned from a young age that her main role in life was as a pawn in an arranged marriage. The precarious and still-new reign of her parents meant that alliances needed to be solidified with many other countries, which is how she found herself — at five years old — the subject of a potential arranged marriage to the 21-year-old King James IV of Scotland. Like most countries with shared borders, England and Scotland seem to have always been in an ongoing war/peace cycle, with the respective Kings of each country regularly trying to take over the land of the other. And when Margaret’s marriage to the Scottish King was first discussed, it was in response to James’s public support of a man named Perkin Warbeck, who was actively attacking England and trying to take over as King. Margaret’s parents hoped that the prospect of marriage to the English King’s eldest daughter might make James cool off with the invasions.
I mean, nice try, but this plan did not work out. In fact, the Perkin Warbeck scenario exacerbated the hostility between England and Scotland to a point that marriage between Margaret and James became impossible. While the adults waited to see if James married anyone else or if they could find another suitable match for Margaret, the young girl busied herself with dresses, music, dancing, and squabbling with her younger brother Henry who, even as a child, was probably terribly obnoxious. With her older brother Arthur off in a different castle being groomed to be the next King, Henry was the only boy around and, in this patriarchal and misogynistic culture, was offered far more educational opportunities than Margaret or her younger sister Mary. If Margaret had been a different sort of girl, she may have been able to sit in on some of Henry’s lessons and learn a thing or two. But, frankly, that wasn’t her style and power to her. You do you, Margaret.
When Margaret was 11 years old, a marriage treaty was signed promising her to James, who was still unmarried and 30 years old by this time. The marriage agreement was part of a larger document called the the Treaty of Perpetual Peace between England and Scotland. Marriage between the Tudor princess and the Stuart king was meant to solidify a new alliance between their countries. Remember how Margaret’s grandmother was married off at age 12 and then nearly died in childbirth at age 13? Well, Margaret Beaufort remembered that too and, together with Elizabeth of York, made both Kings agree that Margaret wouldn’t be sent to Scotland to be James’s wife until she was older and better physically equipped to deal with pregnancy. Margaret and James were officially married in absentia from one another, with stand-ins at each palace, so they were legally married but still hadn’t met each other, and wouldn’t for a few more years.
What this meant was that the 11-year-old Margaret, still living at home with her parents and siblings, was now treated accordingly to her new role as Queen of Scotland. This meant she got to sit in a place of honour at meals, that she got to have lots more dresses made and jewels provided to her, got a new set of rooms to live in (which she got to redecorate), and her brother Henry totally lost his shit. He’d been the most special Tudor kid for years, and now had to bow to his own sister. You know she loved it. She had all the perks of being a Queen without the husband or actual responsibilities to deal with. She got to live out this lovely lifestyle for three years, only being sent to Scotland when she was 14 years old.
Now, Margaret wanted to really make a statement with her trip up North. Accompanied by her father (for safety, and also to ensure that James didn’t renege on the deal), she headed out in an extravagantly jewelled carriage and brought along numerous trunks containing all of her newly commissioned fur-lined outfits. The whole procession moved incredibly slowly because of all the cargo they were carrying, and Margaret made it wait longer because she sometimes could get out and change outfits to make sure she was always the best-dressed person wherever they went. This meant that they were nowhere near arriving in Scotland on time, and the impatient James headed down to meet them halfway. He first met her during one her stops in England, where he came in and chastely kissed her goodnight. Her first thoughts upon meeting him were: my God that is an ugly and long beard on his face. And she wasn’t wrong: James had a truly hideous, gross, long beard.
James sort of trailed along after her procession, maybe trying to encourage them to speed up. This meant he was on the scene when a fire broke out in a stable they were using, and two of Margaret’s beloved horses were killed. Apparently, he went to console her and gave her gifts to try and cheer her up, so he’d perhaps noticed that the way to this girl’s heart was through both kindness and jewels, so good on him. The whole parade finally ended with Margaret’s arrival in Scotland, where the two had a new marriage ceremony, one which they both attended, on August 8, 1503. As a wedding gift, he lavished her with a castle and gowns and jewels. And she gave him… a giant pair of scissors. He was like, “Wait, what?” and then she and one of her ladies-in-waiting forced him to cut off his beard. Amazing. She may have been sixteen years younger than her husband, but she wasn’t about to let him take control of their relationship (or make his own facial hair decisions anymore.)
Now, these two didn’t have their first child for four years. I like to think that Margaret just kept brushing him off as long as possible, though perhaps it’s just that she didn’t start menstruating until then (girls often didn’t get their first periods back then until later, due to nutritional reasons). This first child died in infancy, and over the next few years, Margaret lost two more children shortly after giving birth. Their fourth child, a boy named James, survived infancy, and was the new heir to the throne. Great news, right? Well, maybe if you were Scottish. But if you were Margaret, things were about to get even more challenging. And that’s because back in England, her older brother Arthur had unexpectedly died, followed by her mother, followed by her father. She was suddenly an orphan and also her younger brother Henry was now, at age 17, the new English King as Henry VIII. And Henry? Hated Scotland and wanted to take it over.
Brother vs. Sister
James set out with forces to fight against the English in battle… where he, James, died. So Margaret was now a widowed, orphan, single mother, Queen, at age 24. Before James had left on this fatal mission, he’d created paperwork dictating that Margaret would serve as regent for Baby James, in case Adult James were to die. Although that was what her late husband had wanted, the Scottish privy councillors were not big fans of this plan for two reasons. 1) They didn’t think women should have any amount of control, power or authority and 2) They didn’t want Margaret, specifically, to have any control, power, or authority because she was the sister of the English King who was actively going to war against Scotland at this time.
But James had reasons for putting her in power, and chiefly among them was that he knew how canny, smart, and prepared she was to take on a role like this. While she hadn’t paid much attention to her brother’s religion or math lessons, she had been paying close attention to how to run a kingdom. Remember, she’d been Scottish Queen in England for three years — long enough to pick up on some useful skills and strategies. She had her work cut out for her, though, as the Scottish lords who hated her also hated one another, and there was constant in-fighting among the different groups. But Margaret was good with the glad-handing and the politicking and, by 1514, she had aided in a new peace treaty between Scotland and England. BUT.
In the course of finding allies among the courtiers, Margaret fell under the charismatic spell of a man named Archibald Douglas, the Earl of Angus. How poor a decision was it to fall for Archibald? Well, when the man’s own uncle (who was a famous poet) described him as a “young witless fool,” you may have some idea. But Archibald must have had that Big Dick Energy because our gal Margaret was smitten.
Even though she knew getting married would mean the end of her getting to be her son’s Regent, Margaret couldn’t quit Archibald and secretly married him on August 6, 1514. While this may have been a good decision for her emotionally, it was pretty disastrous politically. All of the other noble houses of Scotland were mad at her for favouring the Douglases, which made the non-Douglas groups team up against her. Facing heaps of pressure from the others, she finally chose a man named John Stewart, Duke of Albany, to be her son’s new regent. Everything was fine now, right? WRONG.
Just one month after her secret sexy wedding to Archibald, those asshole Scottish privy councillors came out with a law saying she could no longer supervise Baby King James or her other son, Baby Prince Alexander. Margaret was like, “Oh yeah?” and grabbed both her sons and took off with Archibald to hang out at Stirling Castle. She was on good terms again with her brother Henry VIII, who encouraged her to bring the boys with her and come live in England.
After weighing her options, Margaret opted to stay in Scotland as she suspected that if she brought James to England, the asshole Lords would do something assholish like say he wasn’t King anymore. So she was stuck there, but at least she had the love of a good man. Right? WRONG. HAVE YOU BEEN PAYING ATTENTION? EVERY MAN IN EVERY ONE OF THESE STORIES IS THE WORST
Margaret vs. The Lords
Meanwhile back in Scotland, the Duke of Albany — the new regent for Baby King James, remember? — had one main priority and that was: get the Baby King back from Margaret. And Margaret had one main priority which was: keep the Baby King and her other son the fuck away from the privy councillors. And so she kept her babies with her as long as she could, but finally she was out of options and handed the two boys over to Albany and the others. She was also pregnant now, with her first child with Archibald, and so the nativity-esque family headed to Edinburgh for some nesting time. OR SO SHE WANTED EVERYONE TO THINK. In fact, Margaret had secretly contacted her brother Henry and accepted his offer of safety in England. Her plan was so run away to join him there, so as to avoid the way that Albany and the others kept looking at her all murder-y.
But because patriarchy has never not been the worst, Margaret had to get permission from Albany and the privy councillors to travel anywhere. She was like, “No big deal, but I’m planning a lil vacation to this random Scottish town near the English border,” and the lords were like, “Sure, what could go wrong with that?” and so Margaret rode off, hopped over the border, and got herself into safety in England. Smell you later, Albany and the Scottish Lords!!
Henry set Margaret up in her own private castle, where she gave birth to a daughter she named Margaret, because I think we all know by now that anyone with that name is going to be the greatest. (This girl is Lady Margaret Douglas, and she grew up to be, in fact, the greatest). But her joy was mixed with sadness, as news arrived to her at around this same time that Baby Prince Alexander had died. And just like salt in the wound, Margaret herself had started to notice that her husband Archibald was… yes you guessed it, the worst.
Honestly, it’s not like Archibald did much to disguise his innate horribleness. Not only did he flee their English castle to return to Scotland, but once he got back to Scotland, he made a deal with Albany and the Lords. Henry VIII, already not a fan of Scottish people in general, heard of Archibald’s flight and was like, “Done like a Scot,” like burn, Henry VIII.
Henry was happy to have his sister Margaret back in town, and got her newly single self (like, she was still married to Archibald but was basically a single mum at this point) set up in Scotland Yard which, fun fact, used to be a castle before it became police HQ. Margaret spent some time doing self-care and, I like to think, designing herself new dresses and dancing and playing music and low key bonding with her daughter, Lady Margaret.
And yet, after just about a year like this — and secure in the knowledge a new treaty of reconciliation had been signed between England and Scotland — she decided to take her baby and head back to Scotland to retrieve her other child, the now Little Boy King James and reunite with her awful husband, Archibald. But wouldn’t you know, the Scottish Lord were like, “Like Hell we’re going to let you visit with the Child King you very recently kidnapped, lady,” and Archibald was like, “Oh hey there! Meet my mistress, who I’m now living with, and also I’ve been spending all of your money without telling you!” So like: things were not great in Scotland for Margaret Tudor.
I think Margaret herself put it best in this letter, sent to her brother Henry:
“I am so minded that, an I may by law of God and to my honour, to part with him, for I wit well he loves me not, as he shows me daily.”
In other words, Margaret was highly interested in the idea of divorcing Archibald’s useless ass, and who can blame her? Actually, you know who did blame her? Henry VIII! Because this was all happening ages before Anne Boleyn affected everything, and Henry VIII was a conservative religious guy who was morally opposed to divorce in every instance. But not just that, it turns out that Archibald could be a handy ally to have around to help offset the pro-French Scottish faction, who were also of concern to Henry and to England. And so Margaret, grossed out by her brother’s point of view, did that whole “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” scenario and decided to cozy up to Albany and the Scottish Lords. YAS! DO WHAT YOU NEED TO DO, MARGARET! I BELIEVE IN YOU!
Unfortunately, Albany himself was actually living in France, drinking wine and eating cheese, and didn’t much feel like heading back to Scotland. So he was like, “Margaret darling, why don’t you just take over as regent again yourself?”
Things got even more confusing with the introduction of another man in Margaret’s life. James Hamilton, the Earl of Arran. Hamilton was Archibald’s arch-nemesis, and Margaret used their rivalry to pit them against each other. She played mind games, siding with one, then the other, and it was all quite frustrating for everyone for about three years, when finally Albany put down the Merlot and dragged his ass back to Scotland to sort things out.
She’s Got The Power
Picture it: Scotland, 1521. Margaret is 32 years old, Albany has maybe a new French accent and a taste for frog’s legs. They warmly greet one another, and everyone is like, “Wait, weren’t you enemies like extremely recently” and then everyone was like, “Hold up, are these two having le affair?? Oh mon dieu! Le scandale!!” But there wasn’t any proof or evidence they were having an affair, and in fact Margaret may have been pretending they were just to fuck with everyone’s minds because by now she was getting really tried of all this Scottish Lord bullshit. And the fact that Albany was good friends with the Pope, and might be able to help her in her ongoing quest to get a divorce from Archibald was maybe like the benefit of this friendship.
They whipped things into shape and Margaret was like, “Albany, I can take it from here,” and he headed back to France. And the minute he left, she staged a full on COUP D’ETAT to seize power for herself and her son!! YES! GO, DO IT, QUEEN!! Tween King James had been living away from court, and Margaret had him brought back. Then they struck a new law stating that James didn’t need a regent at all anymore, and could rule on his own as King. But he was still just twelve years old, meaning that someone older and wiser needed to be there to help him out. And this is how Margaret Tudor was formally recognized as the King’s Chief Councillor. The way she just played all these Lords against one another, using them and discarding them, all with the long game of getting herself back in power is like… breathtaking.
So the thing is, Margaret (and her son) were now in charge of Scotland. And her brother Henry VIII was still in charge of England. And Henry still wanted to take over Scotland and had always been a jerk to his sister, so it may come as no surprise to hear that the next twist in the story is Henry teamed up with Archibald to try and bring down Margaret. Honestly, is there no situation that Henry VIII’s involvement didn’t make a lil bit worse? And the thing is, as gloriously politically savvy and clever as Margaret was, she also had not very good taste in husbands because just when things were going OK for her, she makes another misguided romantic decision. She and Henry VIII were sort of alike this way, just diving head-first into ill-conceived love affairs that led to their entire countries turning into romantic collateral.
So, Margaret fell fast and deeply in love with a guy named Henry Stewart. Yes, she was still married to Archibald, but I do not blame her for seeking companionship elsewhere. But her crush on Steward manifested in her appointing him to a senior position he wasn’t qualified to do (not unlike how her niece Elizabeth I got dickmatized by Robert Dudley and Robert Devereux, like there are some strong genes at work in this family tree). The Scottish Lords, always looking for any excuse to turn on her again because they hated smart women in power positions, saw this as an opportunity to remove her from power. And so, it pains me to say this, they teamed up with Archibald to take down Margaret.
Archibald marched to Edinburgh with a bunch of allies and demanded to be let into Parliament. When he was en route, Margaret was busy throwing a party because that’s just who she is and she refused to let her useless estranged husband ruin her plans to dance the night away. She ordered cannons to be aimed and shot at him from two different castles, and frankly if there had been a third castle nearby, she’d likely have ordered cannons from there too. Two English ambassadors were at the party and they were like, “Maybe don’t fire cannons from two directions at your husband?” and she was like (and this is a direct quote):
“Go home and not meddle with Scottish matters.”
Because in Scotland, we settle our marital problems with cannons! And if you have a problem with that we’ll point our cannons at you, too, laddie!!!
Archibald wasn’t feeling like being cannon fodder that day, so he and his troops withdrew before Margaret actually fired on him. She’d won the night, but not the battle, because the Lords wouldn’t stop whinging at her to give Archibald a second chance. Just to shut them up, she finally allowed him back on the scene in February 1525. And did Archibald behave politely and appreciatively toward his wife and stepson for being so forgiving of him? OF COURSE HE DID NOT! Because what he did was to kidnap Teen King James and refused to give him back for three years, during which time Archibald made everyone treat him as regent. Quite understandably, Teen King James emerged from this nightmare with a lifelong hatred of England (because Archibald had conspired with Henry VIII to do this) and also a hatred of the Douglas family (i.e. Archibald’s family).
In the face of this seventh-fifth RED FLAG about her husband’s terribleness, Margaret’s desire for divorce went to the next level. Despite everything, she and Albany were still on good terms, so she got him to promote her cause with the Pope and the Catholic authorities in Rome. FINALLY, in March of 1527, she was granted her petition of divorce. But because mail took a long time to travel and literally everyone was at war with everyone else, she didn’t learn that this had happened until December which is just like nine months of unnecessary misery. But once she got the happy news, she didn’t pause before marrying Henry Stewart. Her brother Henry VIII was like, “Margaret! You can’t get a divorce! Marriage is a Godly thing and is meant for life!” and she gave him the stinkiest of stink eyes and ignored him.
And all of this is the reason why, when Henry VIII was mapping out who his heirs would be, chose to completely ignore Margaret’s entire line of descendants. Because he hated Scotland, he hated Margaret, and he hated Margaret’s Scottish children. And partly because of Henry’s hatred of this whole branch of the family tree, is why we wound up with the whole Lady Jane Grey scenario and why Mary Queen of Scots‘s life wound up like it did, so really Henry VIII is yet again patient zero for generally a lot of misery in a lot of women’s lives. Thanks, Henry VIII.
Margaret Throws In The Towel
But that’s not the end of the story yet. In June 1528, Teen King James V finally escaped from Archibald’s clutches and claimed full power of being King all for himself. He sent his hated stepfather back into exile, which is frankly where he belonged, I hope he never comes back. James also bestowed upon her mother’s new crush, Henry Stewart, the title of Lord Methven, so perhaps he liked this new guy better than her mother’s previous partner. Margaret continued to advise her son, and her main cause was trying to secure peace between England and Scotland. Her hard work seemed to be paying off when, in 1534, a new peace agreement between England and Scotland was created. Yay, right? … Right?
Well, the thing is that James was still full of raging hatred for the English people due to Henry VIII’s connection to the whole being kidnapped by Archibald for three years situation. And Henry VIII still just frankly hated the Scottish people, and also hated his sister. Margaret used every ounce of skill and cleverness she had to try and convince the two kings to meet each other face to face to solidify the new peace agreement. But everyone’s least favourite supporting characters in this sage, the Asshole Scottish Lords, sabotaged her both intentionally and just by virtue of their constant in-fighting and uselessness, and things got so complicated and messy that the two men were never able to actually meet.
And Margaret, who had spent most of her adult life trying to make peace between these two countries, was like, “Know what? I’m out.” That’s right: she had run out of fucks to give. She told an advisor in a private conversation that she was weary of Scotland, and just started giving her brother Scottish state secrets because she just didn’t give a fuck about Scotland, or politics, or anything anymore.
Adding to her midlife ennui was the fact that, yet again, she had chosen a husband who was also a terrible person because SURPRISE: HENRY STEWART SUCKED. Like Archibald, Henry Stewart’s main hobbies seemed to be spending Margaret’s money without asking her, and hooking up with other women. Margaret was like, “Hey, I got one divorce form the Pope, what’s one more?” But this time, a new terrible man was standing in her way: her now fully-grown son, King James. James, who was likely being bribed by his new stepfather to act against Margaret, refused to allow her to get a divorce. THANKS FOR NOTHING, JAMES. Margaret tried her old trick of running away to England, but she was intercepted at the border and sent back to Edinburgh. She was trapped.
In June 1538, Margaret made a new friend when her daughter-in-law, Marie de Guise, arrived on the scene. Marie is another fascinating woman who I’m sure I’ll write about at a later date, but all you need to know for now is that these women quickly realized they were the two smartest and most capable people in the country, and agreed to help each other and to be friends. Women supporting women. Love it..
Three years after Marie’s arrival, Margaret had a stroke. As her condition worsened, she called for her son to come and visit her, but he didn’t, because it turns out he really sucked. As it became clear that she may not get better, Margaret — who hadn’t written out a will — made the request that her possessions be given to her daughter, Lady Margaret Douglas. Margaret Tudor passed away on October 18th, 1541, at age 51. And when her son finally arrived to find her dead, he ignored her request and kept her stuff for himself. EVERY MAN IN HISTORY IS THE WORST.
So, despite Henry VIII’s hatred of Scotland and his sister exclusing them from the line of succession, eventually so many Tudors died off that there was nobody else to turn to to be the new King. When Elizabeth I was reaching the end of her life, she chose Margaret Tudor’s great-grandson, James VI of Scotland (every man in this family was called James) to inherit the English throne. And so this new James became known as James I of England, and united the two countries — the very thing that his great-grandmother had devoted much of her life to trying to achieve.
There is shockingly little written about Margaret Tudor, and no movies about her story that I know of. Even The Tudors TV series had a character called Margaret but they gave her the plotline of Henry VIII’s sister Mary, so that doesn’t really count as a filmic treatment of Margaret herself. I found lots of great information in the biography Margaret Tudor, Queen of Scots: The Life of King Henry VIII’s Sister, by Sarah-Beth Watkins. It’s very readable and digs into all the interesting details of this fascinating woman’s wildly interesting (and bizarrely little-known???) life story. Why aren’t there more books and/or movies about her???? Someone write one please thx
Edit: a previous version of this essay mistakenly reversed the order in which Elizabeth of York and Henry VII died. Elizabeth of York died on February 11, 1503; Henry VII died on April 21, 1509.
Ann Foster is a writer and historian with a research interest in the intersection of women, history, and pop culture, especially the lives and stories of figures both well-known and half-forgotten. patreon.com/annfosterwriter