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Margaret Douglas, Duchess of Douglas

 

Margaret, Duchess of DouglasMargaret Douglas, duchess of Douglas (1714–1774), noblewoman, was the eldest daughter of James Douglas (formerly Campbell) of Mains, Dunbartonshire, a member of a cadet branch of the family of the earls of Morton, and his wife, Isabel, daughter of Hugh Corbet of Hardgray. She probably had very little formal education, and in later years was renowned for her lack of sophistication. Homely in appearance but shrewd and with an outspoken wit, Douglas (usually known as Peggy) remained unmarried for many years. About 1746, when a friend teased her about being an old maid, she retorted in typically jocular manner that she would never marry unless she could be duchess of Douglas. According to tradition, twelve years later she visited Douglas Castle in Lanarkshire to persuade the duke to grant her nephew an army commission. She was by then forty-three. Archibald Douglas, duke of Douglas (bap. 1694, d. 1761), was sixty-three, still a bachelor, and, according to C. K. Sharpe, ‘a person of the most wretched intellects—proud, ignorant and silly, passionate, spiteful and unforgiving’. However, ‘he possessed a handsome form’ (Wilson), and Peggy told him briskly that he needed a wife. Not long afterwards, on 28 February 1758, she drove up to the castle in a hired chaise for their wedding.

Within months there was trouble between them. A fire started in a small room next to the duchess's bedchamber, all her jewels were destroyed in the blaze, and the duke refused to replace them. They then became embroiled in a violent argument over the parentage of his sister's supposed twins. Lady Jane Steuart claimed that, at the age of nearly fifty, she had produced two baby boys. One had died, but she asserted that the other, Archibald Steuart, was her brother's heir. Peggy was inclined to believe the story but the duke did not, and they quarrelled so fiercely about it that they separated, he promising her £250 sterling a year on condition that she make no effort to see or speak to him. A few months later, however, they were reconciled and he replaced her jewels at a cost of more than £3000 sterling.

Peggy subsequently managed to convince the duke that Archibald was indeed his nephew. She and her husband had not agreed a marriage contract before their wedding, but they now signed a post-nuptial contract stating that, if there were no children of their own marriage, the Douglas estates should go to Archibald instead of the duke's kinsman, James George Hamilton, seventh duke of Hamilton, as he had previously intended. When he died in 1761, Peggy renewed her efforts on the young man's behalf, even visiting France in an attempt to prove that he really had been born there to Lady Jane. The prolonged legal struggle became famous as the ‘Douglas cause’, and when in 1767 the court of session in Edinburgh delivered a verdict in favour of the duke of Hamilton, Duchess Peggy and her lawyers immediately appealed to the House of Lords. After a dramatic debate, the Lords reversed the previous decision and found that Archibald was the true heir to the Douglas estates.

Duchess Peggy enjoyed her triumph for another seven years. In 1773, during the last months of her life, Boswell and Dr Johnson met her at a tea party in Edinburgh. As usual, she was ostentatiously clad, ‘with all her diamonds’ (Wilson), a fellow guest noticed, and although Johnson described her as ‘an old lady who talks broad Scotch with a paralytic voice and is scarce understood by her own countrymen’ (ibid.), he could not resist the attentions of a duchess and allowed himself to be monopolized by her all evening, Boswell struggling to translate ‘the unintelligible gaucherie of her ladyship into palatable commonplaces for his guest's ear’ (ibid.). She was remembered as ‘the last of the nobility to be attended by halberdiers when going about the country. When she visited she left her dress behind her as a present’ (GEC, Peerage, 4.440n.). Duchess Peggy died at Bothwell Castle, Lanarkshire, on 24 October 1774 and was buried beside her husband in a vault beneath the new church at Douglas. Her deliberately cultivated eccentricities had shocked and amused polite society, but Archibald Steuart's triumph in the courts owed much to her energy and determination.

 

 

 

See also:
1. Testament of Margaret, Duchess of Douglas
2. The Trustee on the Estate of Walter Monteath, against Colin Douglas and Others.

3. Case against Colin Douglas
4. Douglas Support



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This page was last updated on 20 December 2013

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