In popular history Douglas get barely a mention. She might as well be invisible. Douglas’ son Robert, the illegitimate son of Robert Dudley, would claim that his mother was secretly married to his father in May 1603 – Elizabeth I being safely dead. The case was heard in 1605 in the Court of the Star Chamber. Unfortunately all the witnesses were dead and she couldn’t remember the name of the cleric who married them. Douglas made a deposition to the effect that they had been married until Leicester tired of her and turned his attentions to Lettice Knollys. But who was Douglas?
Her father was William Howard, 1st Baron Howard of Effingham, making her a cousin of Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard. He brother She attended court during the first year of Elizabeth’s reign and then married John Sheffield. He died in December 1568. Inevitably accusations of poison were made. In any event Douglas returned to court as a gentlewoman of the privy chamber – Elizabeth liked to have her mother’s family around her.
By May 1573 she was in deep competition with her own sister Frances for the attention of Robert Dudley. Gilbert Talbot wrote about the pursuit and the falling out between the two sisters:
“There are two sisters now in the court that are very far in love with him, as they have long been; my Lady Sheffield and Frances Howard. They (of like striving who shall love him better) are at great wars together and the queen thinketh not well of them, and not the better of him”
By then Leicester knew that he was unlikely to succeed in his attempt to win Elizabeth’s hand. During their relationship Leicester wrote a long letter explaining how much he cared for Douglas but that if he married her that he would be ruined. He actually urges her to marry one of her other suitors to ensure her respectability. In August 1574 Douglas gave birth to her son Robert. Leicester referred to him as his “base son” but cared for the boy taking him into his own care.
Leicester married Lettice in 1578. The following year on 29th November 1579 Douglas married Sir Edward Stafford of Grafton in Staffordshire- an unusual act for a woman who later claimed to be already married. According to one source she became a bigamist in order to put a stop to Leicester’s threats to have her poisoned! Stafford became ambassador to the French court and the pair lived in Paris from 1583 where Douglas became a friend of Catherine de Medici. Douglas was sent home in 1588 due to the deteriorating political situation. Stafford was not a fan of the Earl of Leicester.
Sir Edward Stafford died in 1605 having told the Star Court that he married Douglas having ascertained beforehand that she was not married to Leicester on the explicit orders of Elizabeth I. Douglas died in 1608. She bore Stafford two sons but they died young.