Margaret Douglas’s Verse-Fashioning in the Henrician Court

Like most scholars I know, there is very little I can say about my field without immediately wanting to append, “…but that’s not quite right” or “from another perspective, though….”. This post focuses on Margaret Douglas’s place in Henrician courtly literary production — clear enough. But then:

Margaret Douglas (1515-1578) was the beloved niece of Henry VIII, so prominent at court that, as Rosalind K. Marshall outlines, Henry seems at some points in the 1530s to have considered Douglas herself a potential heir.[i] She served in the households of Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard, and Katherine Parr, and her political influence lasted well into into Elizabeth’s reign, decades during which Douglas bounced in and out of the Tower, not least due to her intrigues on behalf of her son, the infamously murdered Lord Darnley. 

An 1873 replica casting by Domenico Brucciana of Margaret Douglas’s 1578 effigy. Creative Commons license from the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Or: Margaret Douglas was the daughter of Margaret Tudor and her second husband, Archibald Douglas. Margaret’s first marriage, to James IV of Scotland, had ended when her husband was killed at Flodden. Her daughter must have been keenly aware of not only that recent family history, but also of the unreconcilable tensions of her parents’ union: Margaret Tudor and Archibald Douglas had separated when their daughter was three, and she seems to have been used as something of a pawn in their ongoing arguments before being placed in the princess Mary’s household as a teenager.

Or, again (and let’s see where we can go with this one): Margaret Douglas was a victim of the same toxic court culture that caused the deaths of Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard, among dozens of others. While those executions offer plenty of tragedy of their own, that cultural moment also led quite directly to the lesser-known tragedy that Henry VIII’s ire and instability would make of Douglas’s marriage. In 1536, Douglas secretly married Thomas Howard, an unfortunate alliance at an ill-fated time. Henry imprisoned both lovers in the Tower, and, while Douglas was allowed to move to Syon Abbey, Howard ultimately died in the Tower from illness.

Douglas and Howard’s union — and its fallout — has been immortalized in the Devonshire Manuscript, a collection of courtly verse which includes poems generally understood as epistolary exchanges between the lovers, as well as poems which seem to address Douglas’s grief at Howard’s passing.[ii] The Devonshire Manuscript has also, though, become one of our exemplary texts for understanding communal manuscript writing at the Henrician court. Douglas’s role in this manuscript’s production then has implications for broader verse production at court. Her strategies of response, revision, and composition are passed around the court and shape the practices of other courtly writers.

One example of such influence may be available in the works of Katherine Parr. Janel Mueller’s edition of Parr’s works has pointed to the ways that Parr’s practices in alteration, appropriation, and revision draw on patterns in other religious texts,[iii] but another likely source for Parr’s practice is courtly verse production. While Parr was not at court for most of the period in the 1530s when work on the Devonshire, specifically, seems to have been most intense, she was, socially, quite connected to Douglas and, as her writing shows, aware of and responsive to courtly writing cultures. Parr’s works, like those of Douglas and her collaborators in the Devonshire, show a sophisticated understanding of the capacity for revision practices to constitute original composition. Through choices in deletion, repetition, and (often minor) alteration, Parr and Douglas both appropriate works by men to accommodate a woman’s voice, frequently in ways that alter key themes — and that often challenge readings based on preconceptions about early modern gender roles.

The Devonshire also points to one fairly straightforward bridge between Douglas and the more-studied Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. One of Douglas’s collaborators in the manuscript was Mary Fitzroy (née Howard), Surrey’s sister; in fact, one of the poem’s Fitzroy contributes to the volume is a version of ‘O Happy Dames that May Enbrayes’, a verse usually attributed to Surrey. Like Douglas’s and Parr’s works, Fitzroy’s version of her brother’s poem invites us to reconsider the gendered nature of the work, showing the capacity and flexibility of early modern verse. In this poem, we can see one immediate connection between shared manuscript production and Surrey’s work.

An image of the first stanza of Mary Fitzroy’s transcription of ‘O Happy Dames that May Ebrayes.’ This Creative Commons image of the Devonshire Manuscript was created by the editorial group for the online, open-access A Social Edition of the Devonshire Manuscript (BL Add. MS 17492).

Margaret Douglas has a further involvement with Surrey, though: her great-uncle, Gawin Douglas, wrote the first British language translation of the Aeneid: the 1513 Scots Eneados. Florence Ridley’s edition of Surrey’s translations of Books Two and Four offer especially useful notes on the influences from Gawin Douglas’s earlier, Scots version.[iv] At this distance, we’ll likely never be able to know whether Margaret Douglas herself might have shared her uncle’s work with Surrey. But we can see enough of the interconnection of Surrey’s and Margaret Douglas’s composing worlds and of Gawin Douglas’s place in his niece’s life to acknowledge the possibility, certainly.

At last year’s meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America, the excellent panel on “Feminist Debates and Early Modern Studies” included a brilliant illustration, from Vanessa M. Braganza, of the gaps we leave in our literary histories when we neglect women writers (and, by extension, the gaps that already inhere in many textbooks and anthologies that have not yet restored women’s writing to its appropriate place). Douglas’s work offers one particularly useful and reasonably widely available opportunity to better understand a poet’s work through her courtly connections, with important implications for understanding Henrician verse and composition practice.

By Rebecca M. Quoss-Moore, University of Central Oklahoma, USA.

Rebecca is an assistant professor of Early Modern British Literature at the University of Central Oklahoma. Her research focuses on women’s writing and gender in early modern literature, particularly Henrician verse. Her work has appeared in Explorations in Renaissance Culture and Appositions, as well as in The Palgrave Handbook of Shakespeare’s Queens. This blog post summarizing Douglas’s contributions to the literary culture and norms of the Henrician court in the 1530s and 1540s represents a synopsized version of arguments she makes in her manuscript on Gender and Position-Taking in Henrician Verse, currently under contract at Amsterdam University Press.


[i] Marshall, Rosalind K., ‘Douglas, Lady Margaret, countess of Lennox (1515–1578), noblewoman,’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004).

[ii] London, British Library, Add. MS 17492 – The Devonshire Manuscript, 1525?-1567?.

[iii] Mueller, Janel, ed., Katherine Parr: Complete Works and Correspondence (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), p. 3.

[iv] Ridley, Florence H. (ed.), The Aeneid, trans. by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963), p. 42.


OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
courtstudies (February 8, 2023). Margaret Douglas’s Verse-Fashioning in the Henrician Court. The Court Observer. Retrieved July 17, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/n6uk


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