My Uncle, the King: Henry VIII and His Nieces

Today, I would like to welcome author Susan Higginbotham on this blog. She had her book on Jane Grey, Her Highness the Traitor, out on 1st June, and I am sure it is going to be a good read. I am delighted that she accepted the offer of doing a guest post for our Henry fans during her blog tour. So here goes, a synopsis of Henry’s relationship with his beloved nieces. Thank you, Susan!

My Uncle the King: Henry VIII and His Nieces by Susan Higginbotham

Though much has been written about the women in Henry VIII’s life—his queens, mistresses, and daughters—his nieces have come in for less attention. Here’s a brief introduction to the three women who called Henry their uncle.

Henry had two surviving sisters, Margaret and Mary. Margaret married James IV of Scotland and thus became his queen consort. After James’s death, Margaret made a controversial second marriage to Archibald Douglas, Earl of Angus. In 1515, while fleeing turmoil in Scotland for her brother Henry’s court, she went into labor and had to stop at Harbottle Castle in Northumberland. There, on October 8, 1515, she gave birth to a daughter, Margaret Douglas. The mother and daughter paid Henry VIII an extended visit until heading back to Scotland in 1517.

Following her short-lived marriage to Louis XII of France, Mary, Henry’s younger sister, married Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. On July 16, 1517, she gave birth to her oldest daughter, Frances.

Henry’s only surviving daughter by Catherine of Aragon, Mary, was born on February 18, 1516. Thus, Henry had two nieces, Margaret Douglas and Frances Brandon, close to the age of his own daughter Mary. A third niece, Eleanor Brandon, was born within several years of Frances, probably around 1520.

Only one of Henry’s nieces, Margaret Douglas, played a prominent role at his court. Margaret’s parents had always had a tempestuous relationship, and when they became estranged for good, Margaret remained in her father’s custody. When the Earl of Angus was driven out of Scotland, the teenage Margaret was sent to the safety of her uncle’s court. For a short time, she lived in the household of Princess Mary, but when the princess’s household was broken up, Margaret ended up at court with Henry’s new queen, Anne Boleyn.

Effigy of Margaret Douglas

Described by the French ambassador as “beautiful and highly esteemed,” Margaret flourished in Anne Boleyn’s lively household. Like several others in Anne’s circle, she had a taste for poetry. The so-called Devonshire manuscript, a collection of verses complied by a group of male and female courtiers, contains a number of entries and notations in Margaret’s own hand.

Henry contemplated arranging a marriage for his niece, but nothing came to pass. Instead, Margaret fell in love with Lord Thomas Howard, a younger brother of the Duke of Norfolk. Around Easter 1536, the pair made a contract to marry.

The year 1536, unfortunately, was not a wise one in which to annoy Henry. When the match came to light in July 1536, Henry was furious and sent both Margaret and Lord Thomas to the Tower as prisoners. Although it is unlikely that the couple had any ulterior motives behind their match—after all, when they made their contract, Anne Boleyn’s daughter Elizabeth was still considered legitimate—Henry accused Lord Thomas of seeking to gain the throne through his marriage to Margaret. Lord Thomas was attainted by Parliament and sentenced to death.

While in the Tower, the couple wrote verses to each other, which are preserved in all of their passionate misery in the Devonshire manuscript. Margaret fell ill in the autumn of 1536 and was tended by her uncle’s own physician, Dr. Butts. She was then moved to Sion Abbey, where she was allowed to receive visitors and to have a luxurious chair made. Lord Thomas, however, had no such luck. Under sentence of execution, he remained in the Tower, where he died of illness in October 1537. His death and the birth of the future Edward VI made Margaret’s continued confinement unnecessary, and she was released—just in time to participate in Jane Seymour’s funeral.

Meanwhile, Henry’s other nieces, Frances and Eleanor, had been living far less tumultuous lives. Frances had married Henry Grey, the young Marquis of Dorset, probably in the spring of 1533, shortly before her sixteenth birthday. Henry is said to have attended the wedding, but I have yet to find any evidence of this. (There is no reason to think he would have avoided it, however.) Nothing indicates that either Frances or Eleanor was part of Anne Boleyn’s circle, although Frances’s new husband was at court during this time. When Mary, Duchess of Suffolk, died in June 1533, Frances was her chief mourner, and Eleanor the second mourner, at her funeral that July.

Eleanor married Henry, Lord Clifford, the Earl of Cumberland’s heir, in 1535. In 1536, she was called upon to be chief mourner at Catherine of Aragon’s funeral.

The birth of the future Edward VI in October 1537 gives us a rare glimpse of Frances’s activities during Henry VIII’s reign. A servant reported to Henry VIII that there had been plague at Croydon, where Frances’s mother-in-law, the dowager Marchioness of Dorset, was staying with her son-in-law Lord Matravers. The king wasted no time barring the dowager and her family from attending the christening of his long-hoped-for son, even though Frances’s husband protested that he had not been with his mother, but at Stebbing (a Grey manor), and that Frances had been staying with Lady Derby. Henry, however, was taking no chances, and Frances and her in-laws had to miss the christening.

Tomb of Frances Brandon

Like Margaret Douglas, Frances played a prominent role at Jane Seymour’s funeral, where their cousin Princess Mary (now bastardized and known as the Lady Mary) was the chief mourner. The funeral would have been a reunion of sorts for Margaret Douglas and Princess Mary, who after a long estrangement from her father had returned to court while Margaret was still a prisoner.

Frances and Margaret were among the ladies appointed to welcome Henry’s next queen, Anne of Cleves, to England. Margaret remained in Anne of Cleves’ household and that of the next queen, Katherine Howard, as well.

It was during Katherine Howard’s brief tenure as queen that Margaret Douglas fell into another romantic misadventure—this time with Charles Howard, a brother of Katherine Howard’s. This relationship does not seem to have been as serious as the last, for Margaret was merely confined at Sion Abbey, while Charles Howard escaped abroad and eventually returned to England. Margaret herself had to leave Sion when the disgraced Katherine Howard was sent there following accusations of adultery. Henry’s niece was sent to Kenninghall, a manor of the Duke of Norfolk. Thomas Cranmer was instructed to send Margaret off with a reminder about her two transgressions with Howard men and a warning to “beware the third time.”

Margaret was back at court by July 1543, when she was one of the guests who witnessed Henry’s sixth marriage. A little less than a year later, another royal wedding took place, this time with twenty-seven-year-old Margaret herself as the bride. This time, her marriage had the sanction of the king. Her groom was Matthew Stewart, Earl of Lennox, a Scottish nobleman who had been given her hand in marriage in exchange for his support of Henry VIII. Margaret spent some time in Katherine Parr’s household before moving to Temple Newsam in Yorkshire, which had been granted to her husband.

Frances and Eleanor, meanwhile, also appeared in Katherine Parr’s household, where they were both listed in 1546 as one of the “ladies ordinary” attendant upon the queen. In his Treatise of Three Conversions of England, published in 1604, Robert Parsons claimed that the Protestant Anne Askew was accused of finding “meanes to enter with the principall of the land, namely with queene Catherine Parre herselfe, and with his neeces the daughters of the duke of Suffolke.” As other ladies in the queen’s household were connected with Anne Askew, it is possible that Eleanor and Frances were indeed approached by her, although nothing indicates whether either sister was receptive.

Margaret Douglas certainly would not have been receptive. Her Catholic beliefs became more marked over the years, and one source claims that she quarreled with her uncle over her religion. Whatever truth there is in that, when Henry VIII outlined the succession in his will in 1546, Margaret and her heirs were passed over, as was Mary, Queen of Scots, the daughter of Margaret’s half brother, James V. Instead, the king provided that after Henry’s children Edward, Mary, and Elizabeth, the crown would pass to the heirs of Frances, then to the heirs of Eleanor. Why Henry passed over Frances and Eleanor themselves is unknown.

Henry’s youngest niece, Eleanor, died late in 1547, the same year as her uncle. Frances died in 1559, following the ill-fated attempt in 1553 to divert the succession from Mary and Elizabeth to her daughter Jane Grey. Margaret Douglas succeeded in marrying her son Henry, Lord Darnley to Mary, Queen of Scots. She died in 1578, too early to see her grandson, James VI of Scotland, succeed to the English throne after the death of Elizabeth as James I. Ironically, as much as Henry had railed against the dynastic implications of the match Margaret had made for herself with Thomas Howard, it was the match that Henry himself made for his niece that would bring the Stuart dynasty to the throne.

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7 thoughts on “My Uncle, the King: Henry VIII and His Nieces

  1. How sad for Margaret and Thomas. Henry seems to have been quite paranoid at times, but then I suppose being king had its worries! Great post Susan and thanks Kavitha for this enlightening post.

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