Margaret Wotton: Unnatural Mother

Written by Rebecca Larson

Motherhood isn’t necessarily for every woman. Some are better caretakers and givers than others. Some have a way of nurturing their children and teaching them how to be the best person they can. Motherhood does not come with a handbook. There is no step by step process that teaches us the things we should do to make our children good people.

This is the story of Margaret Wotton, Marchioness of Dorset and mother of Henry Grey, 1st Duke of Suffolk.

In 1530, Margaret’s husband, Thomas Grey, Marquess of Dorset died – after his death Margaret managed all of his property until their eldest son Henry came of age.

Margaret was an important lady at the Tudor court. She rode in Anne Boleyn’s coronation procession in 1533 and was also present at the baptism of Princess Elizabeth as one of her godmothers.

The arguments between Margaret and her son Henry began when he refused to marry the woman he had been betrothed to – Catherine Fitzalan, the daughter of William Fitzalan, 17th Earl of Arundel. For this refusal he was fined £4000 for breach of contract.

Because of this enormous, unexpected financial burden, Lady Margaret, who had custody of all her husband’s property during Henry’s minority, feared she would “not be able to set forth my daughters in marriage, neither continue in the keeping of my poor house.” Insisting that her husband’s estate was “right small” in comparison to his debts and the cost of supporting herself and their children, she tried to limit her expenses for Henry to the allowance specified in his father’s will.¹

After her son’s refusal of marriage to Catherine Fitzalan she attempted to restrict his allowance throughout his minority which caused much alarm from her peers – they labeled her actions as “unmotherly”.

Margaret, however, agreed to Henry’s marriage with Lady Frances Brandon on the condition that her father, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk support the couple until Henry reached his majority. Brandon was niece to Henry VIII through his sister Mary and her husband Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk.

Once Henry Grey came to his majority is when Margaret Wotton began writing letters to Thomas Cromwell, Lord Privy Seal.

In July 1538, Henry Grey, Marquess of Dorset shows up in Henry VIII’s grants:

‘Henry VIII: Grants in July’, in Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 13 Part 1, January-July 1538

The following letter is believed to have been written in 1539 because on the 10th of July 1538, the young Marquis of Dorset – Henry Grey, became of age to claim his inheritance.

Margaret, Marchioness dowager of Dorset, to Lord Cromwell

My very good lord, my Lord of the Privy Seal –

After my right hearty recommendations to your good lordship remembered. Where I lately received your loving and gentle letter concerning a reasonable end to be made by the lord chancellor and your lordship between my son Marquis and me; my lord, notwithstanding that I know no such variance between him and me, but that we might end the same among ourselves, without troubling any other between us, yet undoubtedly I am no less glad to have our matters ended by the said lord chancellor and your lordship than my said son is, and especially by your lordship, who hath always borne so good heart towards my lord my late husband, whose soul Jesu pardon, that I doubt not you do now the same towards all his children indifferently. which is right well approved by your goodness now shewed to my son Thomas, for whom I most heartily thank your lordship; heartily requiring you to continue good lord and master unto him, and to call sharply on him for his diligent service towards you; whereby your lordship shall do him more good than that little living left unto him by my lord his father shall be worth.

My lord, there goeth many untrue and light reports of my unnatural and unkind dealing towards my son Marquis, much to my slander and rebuke, which troulbel me not a little, considering how good mother I have always been towards him in heart and deed, and what pain and troulbel I have sustained, and what bonds I have brought my friends into, since the death of my good lord his father, only for his commodity and wealth. Wherein I have this only comfort, that I know well neither your lordship, nor any other of my lords of king’s council, of your great wisdom, will give credit to any suchlewd and false reports, till you have heardthe answer thereof. Of truth, my lord, I never reckoned that little portion which my son Marquis, by the order of the laws of the realm, shall now enjoy, to be meet or sufficient to maintain his estate: wherefore I have always been, and am at this present, conteneted to enlarge it with such part of the lands liable to the last will of my said lord my late husband, as the lord chancellor and your lordship shall think convenient, reserving always to myself my jointure and dower; whereof I doubt not your lordshiops of your honours will in no wise minish or abate any part from me. And as touching the baluations of my son Marquis’ lands, I know not but he hath as much thereof as I can help him unto. I have at this time sent unto my son Medley to make good search for such things as may do my said son Marquis any pleasure in the suite of his livery; and have also commanded my said son Medley to attend on your lordship with my counsel for the knowledge of your farther pleasure in these matters; heartily beseeching you, my good lord, to give farther credence to my son Medley, this bearer, trusting verily that there shall be nothing determined in these things without min assent thereto; beseeching you, my lord, to be good lord unto me, a poor widow, in these matters, and in all other that I shall have to do with your lordship, as you have been always. As knoweth Almighty God, who send you good lordship good life and long, to his pleasure.

Written at Sir Richard Clement’s Moat, in Kent, the 8th day of February.

Your lordship’s assured during my life,

Margaret Dorset

Margaret, Marchioness dowager of Dorset, to Lord of the Privy Seal, 8th March, 1539

My very good lord,

It may please you to be advertised that where it pleased your lordship to write for my son Marquis to come up for the determination of mine accompt, remaining yet undiscussed; I heartily beseech you, my lord, if it may so stand with your pleasure, to take some good order between him and me now at this time; and if so be that, for the great and weighty causes of the king’s highness, your lordship cannot at this time be at leisure to have the hearing and to determine an end between us, my humble request is to you, my good lord, that the revenues of those lands which be liable to the wills of my late lord my husband, and my lady Cecil, my lord’s mother, be no longer received by my son Marquis; for he payeth no debts, neither to the king’s highness nor no other. And every term I am importunately called upon for them. Wherein I beseech your lordship to be good lord to me, a poor widow, that now, in my old age, I may live in some rest and quietness, which I am sure never to come to but through your lordship’s only help; besseching your lordship to farther credence to this bearer; for if I were in case able to ride or go, I would have given attendance upon you myself, but unfeighnedly,my lord, I am so troubled divers ways I am not able to endure the pain of any labour. As knoweth Almighty God,who send your lordship good life and long, to his pleasure.

At Christchurch, my lord chancellor’s house in London, the 8th day of March.

Your lorship’s assured to my power,

Margaret Dorset

Margaret, Marchioness dowager of Dorset to Lord Cromwell

In honour of our Lord’s passion, my lord, I beseech you to be my good lord,and consider me, a poor widow, how unkindly and extremely I am handled by my son Marquis, that I cannot be suffered to have mine own stuff out of mine own house. I think there is few mothers alive so handled by my children: wherefore I beseech you, my very good lord, for the love of God, cause my son to send down his letter to his servants that I may have my said stuff delivered; for there lies all this while my servants and their men, with their carts and horses, which stands me in no little money. And much it will be to my rebuke and shame, if they should come and leave that behind them that they were sent for. My lord, if I had a loving child and a good obedient child of my son Marquis, as I have even clean the contrary, he would not strive with me for my stuff, nor nothing else that of right I ought to have, considering my years and sickness, with continual aches and pains. I know that he knows full well I have whereby it may well be perceived, that my time cannot be long to keep him from that thing that he ought to have – wherefore I eftsoons beseech you, my good lord, help me to this letter, with all the speed that may be, for their long tarrying there hinders me sore. My lord, I beseech you let me have justice at your hand, as you be a nobleman and a knight of the garter, so helm me in rights, and defend me, a poor widow, against all them that would do me wrong, as your lordship is bounden by that noble order of the garter that you have received. My lord, I beseech you of pardon, how boldly or rudely soever I have written to you, for I assure you, my lord, this unkind handling of my son Marquis troubles me so, that almost I wit never what I do nor what I say; but ever I pray you, my lord, help me that I take not this open rebuke and shame in the country at my son’s hand. And thus I take my leave of you, my very good lord, praying Almighty God to send your lordship good life and long.

By your own assured to my power,

Margaret Dorset

What is your impression of Margaret Wotten? Do you think she had a right to do what she did with her son’s inheritance?


¹ Harris, Barbara Jean; English Aristocratic Women, 1450-1550: Marriage and Family, Property and Careers; page 1115

Everett Wood, Mary Anne; “Letters of royal and illustrious ladies of Great Britain, from the commencement of the twelfth century to the close of the reign of Queen Mary”; Volume III

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History Margaret Wotton

3 Comments Leave a comment

  1. It’s very easy from the point of view of the 21st century to condemn a widow who denied the money her son was entitled to, but she can argue that he was not old enough or sensible enough and that she has other dependents to provide for. Women had few rights but they were entitled to certain protection from a husband in the case of his death or her family as a bride. While her husband controlled her money, she was entitled to receive her dowry back and dower lands and her jointure and if she was not well provided for, then it was natural to try to rectify that. Lady Wotton sounds quite fiesty and a thinking woman and I don’t blame her for trying to provide for her family, even if she wasn’t entirely legally entitled to this particular source of her son’s inheritance. Women had to work harder to survive, so I don’t blame her.

  2. From the perspective of a woman living in times when women had no rights to property, or anything else, for that matter. It is possible she thought that the money was rightly her, since it had been her husband’s and she had daughters to care for. She most likely used her son’s situation as a reason to deny him the money, thinking that he could probably do well on his own, compared to her. I look at her as a survivor. Not nice to do, but she had her reasons. Just my opinion.

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