The Devonshire MS: Women and Literature

The Devonshire MS is a folio of poetry that was produced predominantly by three women of the nobility in the 1530s and 1540s: Mary Fitzroy, Margaret Douglas and Mary Shelton. Although over twenty different hands have been detected within the work itself, these three women are the most prominent and they composed and copied most of the poems in the folio. This includes copies and extracts of poetry by Thomas Wyatt and Geoffrey Chaucer, along with original poems that are attributed to the women and other authors themselves. The manuscript is attributed to Mary Fitzroy due to the initials ‘M.F.’ being stamped on the front, and it is suggested that she received it from her husband, possibly as a wedding gift, in 1533. The three women’s presence in the household of Anne Boleyn from 1533 to 1536 allowed the easy circulation of the text between them and each contributed a number of copied and original poems. The women’s work on the Devonshire MS has been severely overlooked as an example of Tudor love poetry, but also of women (sometimes working with men) compiling and composing poetry in this period.

The Authors

 The identity of these three women and their relationship to each other and their contemporaries at the Tudor court is integral to understanding the composition of the folio. Mary Fitzroy, the original owner of the folio, was born into the politically prominent Howard family, was daughter to the Duke of Norfolk, and cousin to Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s ill-fated second wife. In 1533, aged just 14, Mary was married to the King’s illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, until his premature death 3 years later. Margaret Douglas was also an important figure in the court as she was the niece of Henry VIII, being the daughter of his sister Margaret. She was brought up with the royal family and installed in Anne Boleyn’s household when she became Queen in 1533. It was here that she developed a relationship with Lord Thomas Howard, the brother of Mary Fitzroy, and became secretly engaged to him. The King quickly ended this when Anne Boleyn and her relatives, the Howards, fell from power in 1536 after her execution. He had not given permission for their marriage and did not want his family now associating with the disgraced Howards. Mary Shelton also had a close relationship to Anne Boleyn, being another one of her cousins, and she was an important member of the Queen’s household. It is suspected she had an affair with the King himself in the mid-1530s, despite her familial relationship to his wife.

These three women formed a close friendship within the court of Henry and Anne, each being a lady-in-waiting to the Queen and linked by a close relationship to the royal household. They had tumultuous lives dictated by political circumstances and their own personal relationships, but united by their shared friendship they produced a literary work that not only sheds light onto their own personal lives but also female involvement in the production of poetry in the sixteenth century.

 The Literature


Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox

Fitzroy, Douglas, and Shelton each added their own content to the folio across the 1530s and 1540s, and it exchanged hands between the three multiple times. Margaret Douglas was the most prolific author, followed by Mary Shelton and then Mary Fitzroy, who appears to have added less after the early 1540s. Other authors, such as Lord Darnley (Margaret Douglas’s son), Lord Thomas Howard, Sir Edmund Knyvet (Mary Shelton’s brother-in-law), and a number of unidentified hands are present in the folio to a much lesser extent than the three women. Some scholars have even suggested that Anne Boleyn’s own hand is present, due to a few scribblings, one of which says ‘Ana’; the evidence is tenuous at best, and is a theory based in wishful thinking rather than in any strong evidence. What is clear, though, is that the authors of the folio were all closely related, whether by friendship, kinship or romantic involvement. It is likely that they were all at one time present at court, which allowed the transfer of the text between the multiple authors, and that its creation was fuelled by their communication and collaboration.


Largely, the poems are anonymous, although some have been identified as copies of Chaucer and some as Sir Thomas Wyatt’s poetry, including one of his most popular poems, ‘They Flee from Me.’ However, poems have been attributed to the women themselves and a poem in folios 6 and 7 has been seen as authored by Mary Shelton, as the first letter of each line spells out ‘sheltvn.’ Margaret Douglas added a note to the poem saying ‘forget thys’ and Mary Shelton retorted ‘yt ys worhy.’ This suggests that the composition of poetry by the women was very much a collaborative activity, and that they were not afraid to critique each other’s work. There is also evidence that both Margaret Douglas and Mary Shelton were adapting existing poems to change their meaning.  One such poem in folios 67-68, which contains both the women’s handwriting, has been adapted from the original; there a cruel mistress had been complained of using the pronoun ‘she’, and they replaced ‘she’ for ‘the’, taking away any gender in the poem. Suggestions have been made that they did this to take away from the misogynistic tone of the poem, but also to change the gender view so it is instead a woman addressing a man. Not only were Shelton and Douglas collaborating on poetry together, but also giving existing poetry a female voice.

 The Fate of the Folio


Mary Shelton

Following the death of Mary Fitzroy’s husband in 1536, she retired to her father’s estates in Norfolk and appears to have left the folio in the care of Mary Shelton, who remained at court. During this time both Mary Shelton and a number of other courtiers added to the text, suggesting it passed through many different hands. Mary Fitzroy returned to court in 1539 and both her and Mary Shelton appear to have shared the folio. It was then passed to Margaret Douglas in 1540 whilst she was under house arrest for attempting to contract another illicit marriage (shockingly to Lord Thomas Howard’s nephew), and she added extensively to the folio in this time. After being passed between them again, it ended back with Margaret after her marriage in 1544, and then belonged to her son Henry, Lord Darnley, the husband of Mary, Queen of Scots. Somehow, after passing frequently between many different people, it entered the possession of Bess of Hardwick (possibly whilst Mary, Queen of Scots was under house under the supervision of Bess and her husband) and there it stayed in Chatsworth House in the collection of the Dukes of Devonshire, from where it received its name, until purchased by the British Library in 1848.

This folio is an extremely overlooked text. It reveals a friendship between three prominent noblewomen in the court of Henry VIII, their personal feelings towards love, but also their ability to copy and compose poems of courtly love, a practise usually viewed as a male pastime in this period. The varying authors of the folio shows that poetry was not only the practice of revered poets such as Sir Thomas Wyatt, but that other men and women of the court were composing work, often in collaboration with each other. The folio’s journey between many different people from Fitzroy, Douglas, and Shelton to Mary, Queen of Scots and Bess of Hardwick highlights that it was passed between some of the most important women of the Tudor age, and its female authorship means it is one of the few examples of female involvement in literature in the Henrician period.

Written by Jessica Ayres


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