Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Margaret of York and the "Marriage of the Century"

Margaret of York (duchess of Burgundy, from 9 July 1468)


Born on 3 May 1446, Margaret of York was the daughter of Cecily Neville, whom we have met before, and Richard, duke of York--Margaret was the sister of both Edward IV and Richard III of England.*  In 1468, in what her recent biographer, Margaret Weightman, has called "the marriage of the century," Margaret of York became the third wife of Charles the Bold, whose lands included, besides Burgundy, a "vast agglomeration" of French fiefs, imperial territories, and several imperial cities and states in the "Pays d'Embas," or Low Countries. 

Margaret of York, c. 1477
The extent and complexity of Burgundy are indicated by the titles Margaret acquired after her marriage: she became duchess of Burgundy, of Lotharingia, of Brabant, of Limbourg, of Luxembourg, and of Guelders; countess of Flanders, of Artois, of Hainault, of Holland, of Zeeland, of Namur, of Zutphen, and of Burgundy (Franche Comté); and the lady of Friesland, of Salins, and of Malines [Mechelen], among others.

Although she failed to provide a male heir for Charles, as duchess of Burgundy Margaret of York functioned superlatively as a political adviser and diplomat for the duke and as a mother for his daughter and heir Mary.

After her marriage to the duke, Margaret of York also developed a strong relationship with her husband's mother. The dowager duchess, Isabel of Portugal, was a Lancastrian, the daughter of Philippa of Lancaster and João of Portugal, the granddaughter John of Gaunt--but she was also a relative of the Yorkist Margaret.

Like Margaret of York, Isabel of Portugal was descended from Edward III of England. Although she was nearly seventy years old when Margaret arrived in Burgundy, the dowager duchess was still politically active, "well able," as Weightman notes, "to take charge of the marriage negotiations and to receive important diplomatic embassies on behalf of her son."

In Burgundy, Margaret of York played an active role not only in court life but in politics and government as well. Just as Charles's mother, for example, had acted as regent of Burgundy, had functioned in the administration of the duchy, had negotiated treaties, and had helped to formulate policy, by 1472 Margaret herself was also involved in the administration of Burgundy.

Among Margaret's responsibilities as duchess were regular progresses around the Low Countries; while her husband visited his possessions and campaigned to extend his territory, Margaret also traveled, her progresses an important means of representation of Charles's ducal position. During the first seven years of her marriage, she spent, by Weightman's calculations, only about a year with her husband; between 1475 and Charles's death in 1477, they did not meet at all.

Margaret of Burgundy and her stepdaughter traveled and lived together. Mary of Burgundy's early education had been supervised by her father's half-sister Anne, but after 1468 it became Margaret of York's task to guide, support, and educate Charles's heir.

Charles of Burgundy died in battle in 1477, and Margaret of York was forced to move quickly and forcefully to protect Mary. In the crisis that followed the duke's death, the thirty-one-year-old Margaret, experienced in government, advised her twenty-year-old stepdaughter and negotiated on her behalf. To guard against further French encroachment--Louis XI claimed a woman could not inherit the duchy of Burgundy--Margaret of York and Mary of Burgundy turned to Maximilian, then archduke of Austria and eventually Holy Roman Emperor, offering him, as the dowager duchess wrote, "the word of a princess" in support of a marital alliance with Mary of Burgundy.

The original marriage contract, as Weightman reports, "cut Maximilian out of the succession, leaving all the Burgundian lands to the children of the marriage and specifying that all Burgundian possessions must be under Burgundian rule."

Margaret of York before the risen Christ,
from a book commissioned by
the duchess of Burgundy,
shortly after her marriage in 1468
Later, in an act signed by Margaret, her stepdaughter Mary, and Maximilian--and only one Burgundian official--this provision was eliminated, and Mary's inheritance was left to Maximilian in the event of her death. This decision proved to be critical. After five short years--and the births of two children--the young duchess of Burgundy, pregnant with her third child, died in a hunting accident.

When Mary died in 1482, Margaret of York was to have assumed the role of guardian of her stepdaughter's heirs, Philip, then four years old and Margaret, age two. But the Estates General of Flanders refused to turn the children over to Maximilian and the dowager duchess.

While Margaret prepared troops to gain possession of them, the Estates signed a treaty with Louis XI, sending the infant Margaret of Austria to the French court, while still refusing to relinquish the heir to the dowager duchess or to his father. Maximilian eventually regained control of Philip in 1484; he then entrusted Margaret of York with the boy's guardianship and education. Margaret established her court in the city of Mechelen, in Brabant, one of her dower possessions; during her stepgrandson's minority, her court there became the de facto ducal palace.

The relationship between Maximilian and the dowager duchess, was complementary: Margaret of York needed the support of Maximilian in order to retain control of her dower properties, but Maximilian needed Margaret of York's experience and administrative capabilities. Throughout Philip's minority, Margaret remained her Charles's "most loyal subject": "her support and advice were an invaluable asset to Maximilian in his government of the Low Countries."

Margaret was forty-eight years old when her stepgrandson Philip of Austria came of age in 1494, inheriting his mother's titles and possessions. Upon his accession, he confirmed the dowager duchess's possessions, in recognition, as he proclaimed, 
[of her] good and honest conduct towards our late lord and grandfather, and the great love that she clearly bore towards our late sovereign lady mother and to all her lands and lordships both before and after her marriage, and equally towards our lord and father, and towards us in our minority, how after the death of our late lady mother, she behaved towards us as if she was our real mother . . . and moreover because she has suffered inestimable damange rather than abandon us . . . and because of many other great reasons and considerations.
Although Margaret of York never gave birth to a child of her own, she staunchly and faithfully defended the inheritance of her stepdaughter and her stepdaughter's children. She was to serve the next generation as well, for Madame la Grande, as she was known, retained her considerable influence during her stepgrandson's rule, welcoming foreign visitors to his court (including his bride, Juana of Castile), selecting administrators and counselors for him, and presiding over many ceremonies, including the christening of Philip and Juana's first two children, Eleanor and Charles. 

Margaret of York's spectacular crown,
now in the Aachen Cathedral Treasury
Margaret of York played an important role in the life of Margaret of Austria, her step granddaughter, though the younger Margaret spent relatively little of her childhood with the older Margaret. Nevertheless, as Weightman notes, the younger Margaret "inherited much from her step-grandmother, acquiring both her personal treasures and her public servants"; but "the young woman seems to have inherited much more than material goods and servants from her namesake."

Under the influence of her female role models--Margaret of York, as well as Anne of France and Isabella of Castile, about whom I'll post later this year--Margaret of Austria was to become one of the most accomplished rulers of the early modern period. She was to serve as regent of the Netherlands for twenty years, at the same time shaping another generation of women whom she trained at her court and for whom she herself was to provide an influential model of female sovereignty.

Christine Weightman's Margaret of York: Duchess of Burgundy, 1446-1503, originally published in 1989, was republished in 2009 with a horrible title, Margaret of York: The Diabolical Duchess. Why? Not why the republication, but why the obviously tabloidization of the title?

*This post has been adapted from The Monstrous Regiment of Women: Female Rulers in Early Modern Europe (Palgrave Macmillan).