Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Mary of Austria: "The Heart To Do Anything"

Mary of Austria, queen and regent of Hungary and Bohemia, regent of Hungary, and governor of the Netherlands (crowned queen of Hungary and Bohemia, 22 July 1515)


Born in 1505, Mary of Austria was the third daughter born to Juana of Castile and Philip of Austria--and thus a niece of the formidable Margaret of Austria, whom we have met before, on multiple occasions. Mary would find in her aunt a role model, but she would also experience the very real personal costs of following the model her aunt had set.*

Mary of Austria, c. 1519
When she was just six months old, on 17 March 1506, the infant Mary's grandfather, the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian concluded an agreement for her marriage to an as-yet unborn heir to the throne of Hungary and Bohemia. In September, after the death of Philip of Austria, Mary and her siblings (including Isabel of Austria) were transferred to the care of her aunt. The marriage alliance was confirmed in 1507 after the birth of Louis of Hungary, and in 1514, when she was eight years old, Mary left Margaret of Austria's court at Mechelen and traveled to Maximilian's court in Vienna in preparation for the conclusion of his proposed alliance. 

To that end, in the summer of 1515, Mary of Austria was betrothed to Louis. Maximilian, who had proposed a double alliance, originally planned that one of his grandsons (that is, one of Mary of Austria's siblings)--either Charles or Ferdinand--would marry Louis' sister, Anne of Bohemia, but instead he decided to marry the twelve-year-old princess himself. 

After the formal betrothal ceremonies, the two "little queens" remained together in Vienna. In 1516 Maximilian changed his mind about Anne and secured a papal dispensation that would allow his grandson Ferdinand to marry her instead. On 24 July 1516 the fourteen-year-old Anne knelt next to Maximilian, renounced her title as "empress," and was married by proxy to Maximilan's grandson. Following this ceremony, the "little queens," now sisters-in-law, were sent to Innsbruck.

Mary of Austria's marriage to Louis of Hungary and Bohemia was celebrated on 11 December 1520, and the following May, not yet sixteen years old, she left for Hungary along with her sister-in-law Anne. By 1524, the strong wife of a weak man, the new queen had negotiated considerable influence and authority for herself, and by 1525, in a "spectacular coup," she gained even more when she assumed control of one powerful political faction and put down the threat, for the moment, of another. A friend wrote to the humanist scholar Erasmus expressing the hope and regret of many: "If she could only be changed into a king, our affairs would be in better shape." 

 The Venetian ambassador at the Hungary court recorded a description of Mary: 
The most serene queen is about twenty-two years old, of diminutive stature, long and narrow face, rather comely, very spare, with a slight color, black eyes, her under lip rather thick, lively, never quiet either at home or abroad. Rides admirably, and manages a horse with as much address as the best horseman. She is a good shot with the crossbow, is intellectual, and has the heart to do anything.
But her active and intellectual nature seemed to endanger her "natural" role as a woman, however: "It is generally supposed that by reason of her natural volatility and from too much exercise and motion she will have no posterity." And despite a "heart" which promised she could "do anything," Mary could not unite the country, and when the Turks invaded, Louis of Hungary was killed. 

Mary of Austria, queen of Hungary
and Bohemia, 1520
On 30 August 1526, the day after her husband's death, Mary wrote to her brother Ferdinand, notifying him of the Hungarian defeat and sending him a warning: "I fear the Turk will not stop at my lord brother's borders." Shortly thereafter, an urgent message was sent to the archduke, urging him to come immediately to Hungary's aid--until he could arrive, troops were requested to support Mary "so that the kingdom does not fall away from us entirely and Your Serene Highness can the better come into Hungary with her help."

But Ferdinand was concerned with what was going on in Bohemia, where he had been elected king, and instead of coming himself he named Mary as his regent of Hungary. Throughout 1526 she worked to secure her brother Ferdinand's election to the crown of Hungary.

On 14 February 1527 she asked him to allow her to resign from her regency, but he preferred her to remain. She continued until the summer of 1527 when Ferdinand finally arrived in Hungary. On 29 October he was crowned king. 

Relieved of the responsibility of her position, what followed were years "of aimless wandering, of financial worries, ill health, and loneliness." In 1528 she rejected her aunt's proposal for a marriage to James V of Scotland, writing to the regent and to her brother Ferdinand that, having loved her husband, she did not wish another marriage; in 1530 she rejected another proposed husband, Frederick of Bavaria. 

In 1528 she also rejected Ferdinand's request that she resume her regency in Hungary: "such affairs need a person wiser and older than I am," she wrote. Drawn into Ferdinand's affairs in 1529, she still demurred, noting that she did not wish to act "like those women who interfere in many things which are not demanded of them."

But in 1530, after her aunt Margaret of Austria's death, Mary received yet another letter from her brother: "I advise you that it has pleased God to take to himself madam, our aunt, the first day of this month, God rest her soul." He concluded on a rather ominous note of warning: "And I think this might perchance cause your affairs to take a different course." 

Ferdinand's letter was quickly followed by a letter dated 3 January 1531 from her brother Charles, now the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V; the emperor requested that she assume the regency of the Netherlands. As her biographer Jane de Iongh states Mary's dilemma, on the one hand she could remain a queen "without a country, without a crown, without money," but with some measure of independence. On the other she could assume the regency of the Netherlands which offered action, responsibilities, and power--but no independence. 

In her response of 29 January, Mary agreed to take over the regency for Charles. In October she was invested with the power to uphold the law, to receive petitions, to supervise legislation and finances, to command the army, and to head the various governors of the provinces: "In short, she received the right to perform everything that could serve to maintain the sovereign's authority and the welfare of the country."

She was also to help the emperor in arranging the marriages of her nieces, for Charles, like his Habsburg grandfather, decided to follow the course of "happy Austria" in using marriage to effect in arranging political alliances. His sister Isabel's two daughters, Dorotea and Christina, had been at Margaret of Austria's court when the old regent died, and Mary, in turn, became their guardian. In 1532 an envoy from the duke of Milan arrived to arrange a marriage with Dorotea, but Charles tried again to form an alliance with James V of Scotland. Since his sister Mary had refused the king, Charles hoped James could be persuaded to accept his niece instead, but the king refused, preferring an alliance with France. 

The duke of Milan, meanwhile, changed his mind about Dorotea and proposed a marriage with the younger Christina, then eleven years old. Charles agreed not only to a marriage by proxy but to an immediate consummation once Christina could travel to Milan. At this, Mary of Austria responded, for once, as her biographer notes, abandoning "the humble attitude of modest pupil" which she had adopted with her brother and speaking with "a conviction and a confidence in her own judgment that cannot have escaped Charles despite the careful terms in which her letter was couched": 
I reply to Your Majesty . . . only to unburden my conscience . . . and to warn you of the difficulties I think I discern. . . . I am of the opinion that it contravenes the law of God and all reason to have her marry so young, before she is twelve years old. . . . I hold it not only contrary to God's command, but I am moreover convinced that you may endanger her life, should she become pregnant before she is altogether a woman. It has often happened that in such cases neither the mother nor the child has survived the birth.
Monseigneur, I am aware that I have said more about this matter, and that I express myself more clumsily, than is desirable. I beg you to forgive me, for my conscience and the love I bear the child compel me to it.
Charles refused to consider his sister's objections to the marriage, but Mary managed to delay. She put off the marriage by proxy first by telling the Milanese envoy that Christina was ill, and then by leaving for "serious affairs" in another part of the Netherlands. The ceremony was finally celebrated on 28 September 1532, but Mary postponed the girl's departure. In early 1533, after Christina's twelfth birthday, the regent could delay no longer, and she was forced to send her niece to Milan on 11 March. The regent immediately fell ill and requested that she be relieved of her position, but Charles refused. 

A more sober Mary of Austria,
minus a jaunty hat!
A little more than a year later, Dorotea was married to Elector Palatine Frederick and left her aunt, but Mary was not to remain alone for long. Within a few months, Christina, a widow at the age of fourteen, returned to her aunt. Henry VIII immediately sought her hand in marriage, but once again Mary objected to the proposed alliance.

This time her delaying tactics were more effective; although her brother urged her to negotiate with the English king, by 1539 Henry had been excommunicated, ending any chance that Christina of Denmark would become Henry VIII's fourth wife.

Until 1555 Mary of Austria served her brother Charles as regent, determined "to centralize the government of the provinces," and she succeeded in achieving among them a greater internal unity and for them some measure of independence from France and the empire. 

Throughout her tenure she also struggled "with the military threats and financial burdens laid on the Netherlands by the European politics of Charles V." In 1535 she and her sister Eleanor, who had been married to Francis I of France, attempted another "ladies' peace" of the sort negotiated by their aunt and Francis's mother, Louise of Savoy, in 1529. To end the on-going war between their brother and Eleanor's husband, they met at Cambrai, but unlike their predecessors, they could find no solutions. 

Like her aunt, Mary of Austria sought peace for the Netherlands, but, in de Iongh's words, as "representative of the Emperor, who paid scarcely any attention to her problems," as "regent versus her subjects, who refused to keep the treasury filled and instead threatened revolt," and as "a woman versus her generals, who did not wish to take notice of her commands," she struggled, forced into war in 1537 against the French and from 1538 to 1540 facing a revolt in Ghent. On 14 October 1540, after he subdued the rebellion, Charles renewed Mary's appointment as his regent. 

In 1543, war with France began again, with further recurrences in 1551, 1552, and 1553. Mary was also forced to mediate between her brothers when Ferdinand objected to Charles's intention to resign as emperor and place the government of the Netherlands in the hands of his son Philip II. When she learned of her brother's intentions, Mary let him know that she, too, would resign her role, sending him a thoughtful analysis of her reasons for her decision and, more generally, of the difficulties faced by women in power: 
I . . . have sufficient experience (beside the fact that the books, Holy Scripture as well as others, are full of it) to know that it is impossible for a woman in peacetime, and even more in time of war, to do her duty as regent towards God, her sovereign, and her own sense of honor. For in peacetime it is unavoidable, in addition to all the meetings and cares of daily affairs which any government brings with it, that whoever guides the government of these provinces must mix with as many people as possible, in order to win the sympathy of both nobility and middle classes. . . . For a woman, especially if she is a widow, it is not feasible to mix thus freely with people. Of necessity I myself have had to do more in this respect than I really wanted. Moreover, a woman is never so much respected and feared as a man, whatever her position.

If one is conducting the government of these countries in time of war, and one cannot in person enter the battle, one is faced with an insoluble problem. One receives all the blows and is blamed for all mistakes made by others, and is reproached if one does not carry out what everyone thinks he can demand. All the complainants can be heard throughout the entire country. But the accused stands alone and cannot answer for herself everywhere at once. And if things then do not go as expected, it is not difficult to make the people believe that the woman who heads the government is to blame for everything, and for this reason she is hated and held in contempt by the people.
But the emperor and his son both urged her to continue as regent despite her determined and well-considered decision. Once more she wrote about her role as a woman in power. "I regard my release . . . as an unalterable fact," she began, continuing: 
My conscience is troubled by carrying on this function without satisfying all its demands. The more experience I have of it, the more I have realized that I am unable to accomplish my task properly

I am of the opinion that whoever acts as regent for a ruler must have more understanding of affairs than the person who governs on his own account and is therefore only responsible to God. If he does whatever lies within his power, he has done his duty. But a regent has to account not only to God, but also to his sovereign and his sovereign's subjects.

And even if I possessed all the aptitudes necessary to govern well, and I am far from doing so, experience has taught me that a woman is not suited to the purpose, neither in peacetime nor in time of war. . . . I have often done more than was fitting for my position and vocation as a woman, out of eagerness to serve you and accomplish my task as well as possible. Your Majesty also knows what insurmountable difficulties we would have met with if you had not been in the country yourself during the last war. Difficulties which I could not have removed, because as a woman I was compelled to leave the conduct of war to others.
Beyond the difficulties and uncertainties, Mary also appealed to her age. She loved her nephew Philip, she wrote, but would hate to start over by trying to serve a new "master"; "it is difficult for someone like me, who has served you till the end, to have to think in my old age of learning my ABC all over again." She continued, "It is suitable that a woman of fifty who has served for at least twenty-four years," should be "content" with having served "one God and one master." She couldn't face the prospect of "a young generation" to whose "ways I cannot and would not wish to accommodate myself."

Continuing, she appealed to her brother for permission "to arrange my life as a private person." Her sister Eleanor, the queen of France, had again been widowed, and Mary wanted to retire with her to Spain, near her brother, where she would be able to "withdraw from all affairs of government"--if she stayed in the Netherlands, she feared she would be once more "drawn into" politics "more than I wish."

She expressed fear about leaving the Low Countries, however; although she was the daughter of Juana of Castile, who had just died at Tordesillas, Mary had never lived in Spain. If her Eleanor were to die, she wrote, "I would be all alone in a country where I know nobody, where the way of life is different from what I am used to, and where I might feel a stranger." Nevertheless, "the advantages are greater than the drawbacks," and in the event that she could not adjust to the country "and its ways," she would still "have the time . . . to be able to go back to the Netherlands."

Charles V finally agreed to his sister's resignation of the post she had held so long. She announced her decision on 24 September 1555, dismissing her household on 1 October. On 25 October, authority was transferred to her nephew Philip. Her departure for Spain finally took place a nearly a year later; with Charles and her sister Eleanor, she sailed from Ghent on 15 September 1556. 

Her happy retirement did not last long. Her sister Eleanor died early in 1558. Mary was "so much affected," wrote one observer, "that it is a heart-rending sight." In her grief she travelled to her brother Charles, apparently to ask his advice about how she should arrange her life after her sister's death. Charles had one answer: he wanted her to return to the Netherlands to resume her role as regent. He promised her a home and a sizable income, but she refused. From the Netherlands, her nephew Philip sent a memorandum to an advisor urging him to convince his aunt to return: "Explain to her how great the necessity is. Remind her of the love and devotion she has always shown. . . . Explain to her what a support her presence will mean. . . ." 

And the bottom line: "Finally offer her a large income and great authority and give her hope that there will be peace and that this will last a long time, as the rulers are all exhausted." Her brother added his urging to his son's request and, when he became ill in August, she finally relented. She would assume the regency once more.

But Charles died on 21 September. His death affected Mary profoundly. She died within a few weeks, on 18 October 1555. 

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