Margaret Clifford, Countess of Derby

Portrait of an Unknown Lady c.1565-8 by Hans Eworth active 1540-1573
Possible portrait of Margaret Clifford (

There was no shortage of female heirs, in remainder to the crown after the death of King Henry VIII.  He had passed over the children of his elder sister Margaret Tudor in favor of his own children, followed by the heirs of his younger sister Mary Tudor, Duchess of Suffolk.  Mary and her husband Charles Brandon had two surviving daughters.  Frances Brandon was the mother of the three Grey sisters, Jane, Katherine and Mary.  Eleanor Brandon had two sons who died in infancy and one surviving daughter, Margaret.

Margaret was born in 1540 to Eleanor and her husband Henry Clifford, 2nd Earl of Cumberland.  She would have spent most of her childhood at the family home of Skipton Castle where she received an education worthy of her rank.  She was later known for her love of letters (literature) and music.  After the death of her brothers, her mother spent some time at court but was mostly retired and lived at Brougham and Skipton.  Presumably, Margaret was with her until Eleanor’s death in 1547.  She would then have been under the care of her father.

With the death of her mother and the accession of King Edward VI, Margaret was considered sixth in line to the throne.  According to the will of King Henry VIII, his daughters Mary and Elizabeth came after his son Edward, followed by Frances Brandon and her daughters.  King Edward, in his ‘Devise’, bypassed his sisters and named the sons of Frances Brandon, then her daughters next.  Jane and Mary Grey were childless.  Katherine’s marriage was never proven and her sons were considered illegitimate.  They were followed by the children of Eleanor Brandon.

While Edward VI was in his minority, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland acted as regent.  Because of Edward’s ‘Devise’, there was a rush to marry Margaret and the Grey sisters so they could begin having sons.  Northumberland considered Margaret Clifford as a bride for his fourth son Guildford.  Her inheritance was considerable, with vast estates in the north where Northumberland was keen to become a great magnate and gain power and authority.

The Earl of Cumberland, Margaret’s father, had no desire to marry Margaret to a fourth son.  She was a descendant of Henry VII and therefore had a claim to the throne.  He made excuses to turn down the match but Northumberland would not take no for an answer and involved the king in matchmaking.  Edward VI wrote a letter to the Earl encouraging him to make good on the marriage proposal.  Her father must have been stunned by this.

The Earl held firm so Guildford Dudley married Jane Grey.  Other marriages were planned for Margaret, all of which were meant to bind the Duke of Northumberland to the Grey family and other potential heiresses to the throne.  There was even a proposition that Margaret marry Northumberland’s aging elder brother, Sir Andrew Dudley.   Sir Andrew sent Margaret some valuable fabrics for a wedding gown.

The marriage never happened.  King Edward died in the summer of 1553.  After the succession crisis involving Lady Jane Grey, Henry VIII’s daughter Mary became the new queen and she had the Duke of Northumberland executed and other Dudley family members imprisoned.  An agreement was made to marry Margaret to Henry Stanley, Lord Strange, the heir to the Earl of Derby.

The wedding ceremony took place in the Chapel Royal of Whitehall Palace on February 7, 1555.  Margaret had kept the material sent to her by Sir Andrew Dudley and had her wedding dress created from the fabric.  Queen Mary’s new husband, King Philip II of Spain had persuaded her to liven up the court with lavish entertainments.  After Margaret’s wedding, there was a full day of celebration with a feast and jousting, including a tournament on horse with swords.  Three of the sons of the now executed Duke of Northumberland participated.  The king himself played a new game introduced from Spain called jeu de cannes.

Margaret and Henry had four sons.  Edward died in infancy.  Ferdinando Stanley (1559-1594) became the 5th Earl of Derby.  William Stanley would succeed his brother as 6th Earl of Derby (c. 1561-1642).  The last son Francis died young.  Henry Stanley was a loyal servant to Queen Elizabeth I and espoused protestant theological views.  Margaret remained a Catholic her whole life.  The relationship between Margaret and Henry Stanley would be stormy and difficult.

The couple would have what Margaret described as several “breaches and reconciliations”.  The Earl was a notorious spendthrift, always short of money.  Margaret was equally reckless, squandering many pounds.  In 1567, the Earl was forced to sell lands worth £1500 to pay Margaret’s debts.  He transported all of their goods and plate to London to sell, raising funds to pay her creditors.  That same year, when he filed for a separation, one of the reasons given was Margaret’s inability to run their household.

Henry Stanley, 4th Earl of Derby

The separation was finalized leaving Margaret with many debts.  There is evidence the privy council wrote to the Lord Mayor of London in an effort to persuade creditors not to hassle her in 1579 and forbear her debts until she was restored to favor at court.  They also appointed a commission to decrease her debts in 1581.  In the following year, Queen Elizabeth permitted her to sell her inheritance.

The Earl of Derby made a common-law marriage around 1570 to an acquaintance name Jane Halsall of Lancashire.  They managed to have four children and his debts got completely out of hand.  Derby died on September 25, 1593.

After the death of the three Grey sisters, and with Katherine Grey’s sons declared illegitimate, Margaret Clifford, Countess of Derby became Queen Elizabeth I’s heir, according to the will of King Henry VIII.  Beginning in 1578, negotiations were initiated for Queen Elizabeth to marry the Duke of Anjou, brother of the French King Henri III.  Anjou was the only one of Elizabeth’s foreign suitors to court her in person.  Margaret was opposed to the union as it threatened her own possible accession to the crown. She was overheard discussing the proposed marriage in a negative fashion and was arrested.

Two weeks after the death of Lady Mary Grey in April of 1578, Margaret was accused of employing a magician to cast spells on the Queen, as well as poisoning her.  At the time, even predicting the death of the sovereign was a capital offense so Margaret was put under house arrest.  The so-called magician was a well-known physician named Dr. William Randall.  Margaret wrote to Sir Francis Walsingham claiming that Randall was in fact her doctor.  He had been staying with her for several months in an effort to cure her of the sickness and weakness of her body.

Randall was tried and executed.  Margaret was never charged but Elizabeth banished her from court.  She wrote the queen’s minister Sir Christopher Hatton, asking him to intercede with the Queen for her.  Margaret repeatedly wrote to Queen Elizabeth, saying she was in a “black dungeon of sorrow and despair” and “overwhelmed with heaviness through the loss of your majesty’s favour and gracious countenance”.  As ever, she was hounded by her creditors.

It was rumored that Margaret harbored Catholic sympathies.  Queen Elizabeth finally had her placed in the custody of a series of jailors, just as Katherine and Mary Grey had been.  She remained in this state until her death in Cleveland Row, Middlesex on September 29, 1596.  She was never allowed to leave custody and never returned to court.  She was buried in Westminster Abbey on October 22.  Her son Ferdinando had died in 1594 after suffering from a violent bout of vomiting.  There were rumors he was poisoned.  Margaret was survived by Ferdinando’s daughter Anne Stanley and by her son William who married Elizabeth de Vere, a grand-daughter of Queen Elizabeth’s principal advisor, William Cecil, Lord Burghley.  There was no question William was legitimate and people did try to convince him to make a claim for the succession.  Prudently, he declined to get involved.

Further reading:  “The Sisters Who Would Be Queen: Mary, Katherine, and Lady Jane Grey” by Leanda de Lisle, “Elizabeth:  The Forgotten Years” by John Guy, entry on Henry Stanley, fourth earl of Derby in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography written by Louis A. Knafla, entry on Henry Stanley in the Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 54 written by Albert Frederick Pollard, “From Strange’s Men to Pembroke’s Men: 2 “Henry VI” and “The First Part of the Contention”, Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 54, No. 3 (Autumn, 2003), pp. 253–287 written by Lawrence Manley