Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Saturday, September 12, 2015

Isabel Clara Eugenia, Regent of the Netherlands

Isabel Clara Eugenia of Spain, archduchess of Austria and regent of the Netherlands (born 12 September 1566)


The daughter of Philip II, king of Spain, and his third wife, Elisabeth of Valois, Isabel Clara Eugenia is yet another of the remarkable Habsburg women who served as regents for their fathers, nephews, and brothers.

Isabel Clara Eugenia,
archduchess of Austria
Born in Segovia on 12 September 1566, Isabel Clara Eugenia is related to a number of women we have already met or whom we will soon meet--her paternal grandmother was Isabel of Portugal (1503-39), who had acted as regent of Spain for her husband, the Habsburg emperor Charles V, and her maternal grandmother was Catherine de' Medici, queen and regent of France. 

Although Isabel Clara Eugenia had been betrothed at the age of two to Rudolph II, who would ultimately become the Holy Roman Emperor, she remained in Spain with her father. As Philip grew older, he had come increasingly to rely on his daughter to assist him.

In March of 1588, the ministers of Henry III of France, his contemporary, announced that King Philip was "mad": "The grand chancellor assured his awed dinner guests in Paris that while Philip's councillors debated state affairs, his eldest daughter, Isabel, was signing documents and in control of government." 

This "scandalous" announcement derived from reports made by Philip's ambassador in Paris, who had told the French king's mother, Catherine de' Medici, about the significance of Isabel's role in her father's government. Rumors were also spreading in Spain that, if Philip were "incapacitated," it would be Isabel who would "take control of the government" of her father's kingdom, and not her half-brother Philip III.

Her potential to function for her father as a "regent" had been noted as early as 1574, when an eight-year-old Isabel was suggested as regent of the Netherlands. She obviously would have been a figurehead then, but from an early age she had been extremely close to her father, who had played a "direct role" in raising her and her sister Catherine Michelle. 

Isabel, in particular, had emulated her father, and he had allowed her "to take part in his office work." By 1586, she was able to be a significant help and adviser to her father; she "read him the letters and despatches he had to deal with, adding her suggestions on how they should be answered." He "even gave her access to the most important papers of state."

In 1592, Philip proposed Isabel for the throne of France, not as a bride for a ruling king but as queen regnant--the last Valois king of France had died, and Isabel, through her mother Elisabeth of Valois, had a claim to the throne.

As a Catholic, she was preferable to the closest male claimant, Henry of Navarre, a Protestant, but as a woman she had a distinct disadvantage. A challenge to French Salic law, which excluded women from inheriting the throne, never had to be made, however, since Henry converted to Catholicism and assumed the French crown as Henry IV.

As his death neared, Philip might have been well advised to name his daughter Isabel as his successor in Spain, for his son Philip (the child of Philip II and his fourth wife, Anne of Austria) had no preparation for or experience with the responsibilities of government. The king "had made no previous attempt to bring him into the process of government, an attitude which contrasts with the confidence he had place in . . . Isabel when she was even younger." 

Despite the fact that Philip was, by all reports, "very childish," in poor health, knew nothing "of matters of state," and "appeared to have little intellectual capacity," his sex seemed to determine his father's choice of Philip as his successor. But, while she would not take her father's place in Spain, Isabel would have a role in government nonetheless. 

In 1598, Philip II arranged for his daughter's marriage to her cousin Albert of Austria, and "the two would become joint rulers" of the Netherlands. On 11 September 1598, as Philip lay dying, he told his daughter that he was sorry he would not live to see her marriage, but he asked that she "govern the Netherlands well" with her husband's help. Philip II died two days later. 

Isabel Clara Eugenia, 1625,
garbed as a Franciscan tertiary
but still acting as governor of the Netherlands
On 18 April 1599, when Isabel Clara Eugenia was thirty-three years old, she married the archduke of Austria, as her father had arranged, and after the ceremony, the two took up their positions in the Netherlands.

By then, the seven northern provinces (the United Provinces) of the Low Countries had become independent; from April 1599 until Albert's death in 1621, the two governed the ten southern provinces of the Netherlands as regents for Isabel's brother Philip III.

When Albert died in 1621, Isabel joined the Third Order of St Francis, but she retained her role as governor of the Netherlands, which she continued administer on her brother's behalf until her death in on 1 December 1633.

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