Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Saturday, January 10, 2015

Margaret of Austria: A Formidable Politician and Peacemaker

Margaret of Austria (born 10 January 1480)

Margaret of Austria,
about 1490
In an age of politically powerful women, Margaret of Austria is among the most adept, experienced, and influential--though she remains surprisingly little known.* An accomplished ruler--she was regent of the Netherlands for some twenty years--she also nurtured and shaped a generation of younger women whom she trained at her court and for whom she herself was to provide a model of female sovereignty. 

Named after her step-grandmother, Margaret of York, duchess of Burgundy, the younger Margaret was born on 10 January 1480. When her mother, Mary of Burgundy, died on 27 March 1482, at the age of just twenty-seven, her daughter was just two years old. Three days before her death, Mary had signed a will naming her children as her heirs and appointing her husband, Maximilian of Austria, as "guardian, governor, and regent" of Burgundy and of her two children: her son and heir, Philip, and her daughter, Margaret.

But when the Estates General of Flanders met the following month, instead of recognizing Maximilian as guardian and regent, they pursued a course of reconciliation with France. In an effort to settle his on-going conflict with Burgundy, the French king, Louis XI, offered the Estates a treaty of peace which included a proposed marriage between Margaret of Austria and his son and heir, Charles. Despite the vigorous opposition of both Maximilian and Margaret of York, the Estates agreed to the offer, and by the time Margaret of Austria was three years old, she had been sent off to the French court. On 2 June 1483, at Amboise, she was betrothed to the dauphin Charles, then aged thirteen; they were "married" the following day. 

After Louis XI died on 31 August 1483, his son Charles became king of France and, as his "wife," Margaret of Austria, just three years old, became la petite reine, "the little queen." Throughout her childhood and adolescence, her education and training were supervised by Anne of France, then governing France as regent on behalf of her brother, Charles.

But by 1491, French political interests had changed, the alliance with Burgundy was put aside, and la petite reine was replaced. The eleven-year-old Margaret discovered that her "husband" would marry another little princess, Anne of Brittany, on 6 December 1491. For more than eight years Margaret of Austria had been Charles's "wife," raised to be and treated as the queen of France; suddenly, at age eleven, she was no longer a French queen, but neither was she sent home. She could no longer remain in the royal residence of Amboise, but she was not returned to Burgundy either. Instead, she was sent to the castle of Melun where she remained a hostage in France for two years. 

When Charles VIII decided to pursue his conquests in Italy, he needed peace with Maximilian. By the terms of the treaty of Senlis, signed in May 1493, Margaret of Austria was returned to her father. Margaret of York awaited her and greeted her upon her arrival in the Flemish city of Cambrai. The two returned to the dowager duchess's court at Mechelen, where the younger Margaret would remain for the next four years. 

While his daughter had been in France, Maximilian had regained control of all of his Austrian possessions and of his wife's duchy of Burgundy and possessions in the Netherlands; as his daughter Margaret returned from France, he had been elected Holy Roman Emperor following his own father's death. In 1494, as Charles VIII invaded Italy, the new emperor allied himself with the pope, Spain, Venice, and Milan in the "Holy League" against the French. In 1494, to strengthen his Spanish alliance, Maximilian arranged for the marriage of his son (Margaret's brother), Philip of Burgundy, to Juana of Castile, while his daughter Margaret of Austria, one-time "queen" of France, would marry the son and heir of Ferdinand and Isabella. 

Philip's marriage to Juana took place first; the ships that brought the Spanish princess to Flanders would, on their return voyage, take Margaret of Austria to Spain. But before she left Mechelen, a ceremonial marriage by proxy was celebrated. On 5 November 1496, Margaret of Austria was married to the Spanish infante, Prince Juan. She was sixteen years old.

When she arrived in Spain in March, she was greeted by Ferdinand and her new husband, Prince Juan. "If you could see her," the Spanish chronicler Peter Martyr wrote, "you would believe that you were contemplating Venus herself." Together they traveled to the city of Burgos, where Margaret of Austria met her new mother-in-law, Isabella of Castile. Her formal wedding with Juan took place on 3 April 1497. Just as Maximilian had arranged the marriage to secure his allies and to further his dynastic pursuit, Isabella and Ferdinand hoped, by this marriage, to expand their own power: Castile and Aragon were now doubly linked to the Holy Roman Empire.

Margaret of Austria as a widow
Margaret of Austria proved to be much healthier than her Spanish prince. By 9 October, just six months after his marriage, Prince Juan was dead, and Margaret of Austria was a widow. She was also pregnant for what turned out to be the first and only time in her life. Late in 1497 or early in 1498, she gave birth to a daughter, stillborn.

Margaret of Austria had been forced to remain in France after her first marriage was dissolved, a discarded "wife" but a valuable hostage. She also remained in Spain after Prince Juan's death as well, perhaps as a treasured "daughter," perhaps as, yet again, a political hostage.

Whatever the circumstances of her life in Castile after Juan's death, Margaret spent her time profitably, both teaching and learning. She tutored her sister-in-law Catalina of Aragon, betrothed to Prince Arthur of England, in English, while she herself learned practical lessons in politics and government from her "mother," the queen of Castile.

Eventually, though, Margaret of Austria was returned to Burgundy. She arrived in the Netherlands in September 1499, spending much of the next two years once more with Margaret of York at Mechelen. Already her father was planning to use her again to further his political ambitions. Many candidates for her remarriage were proposed: with Lodovico Sforza, duke of Milan; with the king of Scotland; with Arthur, Prince of Wales (who was already been betrothed to her sister-in-law Catalina of Aragon); and with the king of Hungary, among others. 

While Maximilian deliberated, his son Philip of Burgundy decided the matter. With the death of Prince Juan of Castile, Philip's wife Juana had become the heir to the crowns of Castile and Aragon, and Philip was interested in having himself recognized as the future ruler of Spain. To this end, he wanted peace with France. He suggested yet another double marriage: his son and heir Charles would be married to Claude, infant daughter of the French king, while his sister Margaret would be married to Philibert of Savoy, the French king's nephew. The duchy of Savoy, bordering France and Milan, was strategically located. (Louise of Savoy, who had been one of Margaret's childhood companion during her days as "queen" of France, was Philibert's sister.)

On 26 September 1501, Margaret of Austria again left Flanders. She set off for a proxy marriage, accompanied once more by Margaret of York. The ceremony took place late on 28 November, the marriage with Philibert taking place shortly thereafter, on 4 December. 

After her arrival in Savoy, Margaret recognized that her husband, the duke, had no interest in government and no political influence. Having had the best of models in Margaret of York, Anne of France, and Isabella of Castile, Margaret of Austria for the first time became more than a wife and political pawn. 

As she began her political career, interested not only in domestic affairs but in foreign policy, Margaret of Austria had a distinct advantage over the rulers who were her "colleagues." Although young and as yet unpracticed, she was neither sheltered nor inexperienced: her marriages and her travel had brought her into contact with all the European powers. Her father was archduke of Austria and the Holy Roman emperor. Her brother was duke of Burgundy and was married to Juana, heir to the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon. She had spent eight years in France, and knew Louis XII, Anne of Brittany, and Anne of France. Louise of Savoy, by then the mother of the heir-presumptive to Louis' French throne, had been her childhood companion while Margaret was at the French court, and now was her sister-in-law. She had spent three years in Spain with Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon.

Although Margaret's tenure in Savoy was to be brief, it was to be important for her future career. She would never again be a wife, but she would be a ruler. In Savoy, having identified and appointed trustworthy advisors and assistants, many of whom would serve her throughout her life, she began to apply the lessons of politics and government she had learned in France and Spain. But by September of 1504 Philibert was dead.

Margaret's first reaction to the loss of her husband was to try to throw herself out a window. Her attempt at suicide thwarted, she threw herself into passionate grieving instead, refusing to be separated from Philibert's body. Although she was eventually convinced to bury her husband, she had his heart embalmed so she could keep it with her. She withdrew from society and, six months later, began the construction of a mausoleum for Philibert's interment. 

Margaret remained in Savoy for two years after Philibert's death, conducting affairs for Philibert's brother and successor, still a minor, and struggling to obtain her dower income. For a time it looked as if she might once again be a marital pawn in her father's hands, a match arranged for her with the recently widowed Henvy VII of England, but this time Margaret's refusal was determined. But before Maximilian could try to persuade his daughter into a fourth marriage, fortune intervened. On 25 September, just a day after Maximilian wrote to Henry VII, Margaret's brother Philip of Burgundy died. His death meant that Margaret was once more on her way back to the Netherlands 

In 1506 Margaret of Austria was twenty-six years old; she had been married three times, repudiated once and widowed twice. Although Philip's wife Juana would survive her husband by nearly fifty years, she was not to act as guardian for the four children she had left behind in the Netherlands--Eleanor, Charles, Isabel, and Mary--nor was she to serve as regent for her son. Instead Maximilian looked to his daughter to act as regent for Charles, Philip's heir in Burgundy (and Juana's heir in Spain). Margaret left Savoy on 29 October 1506, and on 18 March 1507, her father signed a document naming Margaret of Austria as regent of the Netherlands. 

She would serve as regent for nearly twenty years. Her first appointment extended from 1507 to 1515, her second from 1519 to 1530. As regent, she acted as guardian for Philip's children and arranged for their education. More importantly, she would manage the government of the Netherlands for the six-year-old Charles until he came of age: Margaret set up her court at Mechelen, where her step-grandmother Margaret of York, who had died in 1505, had established her own ducal establishment. One of Margaret's first decisions as regent was to travel with the young Charles throughout the provinces of the Low Countries. 

Although she had rejected Henry VII's offer of marriage, she negotiated new trade relations with him quite successfully. Less successfully, she was forced into the "Gelderland war," which she managed to settle in October of 1508 with the assistance of Louis XII, once her youthful companion and now the French king. The next month, in November, she traveled to Cambrai, where she represented both her father Maximilian and her former father-in-law, Ferdinand of Aragon, in a series of international negotiations.

Maximilian did not seem to have complete faith in his daughter, warning her that she could be duped--but, despite her father's hesitancy, Margaret proved herself an able negotiator; "Madam Margaret," one chronicler reported, "has seen and experienced more at her youthful age . . . than any lady on record, however long her life." Another noted, "This princess had a man's talent for managing business; in fact she was more capable than most men, for she added to her talents the fascination of her sex, brought up as she had been to hide her own feelings, conciliate her opponents, and persuade all parties that she was acting blindly in their interests." Still another, noting how well she dealt with one powerful representative, commented that she was "so successful in charming him that he could refuse her nothing." 

The treaty was concluded on 10 December 1508. Publicly, peace was declared between Maximilian and Louis XII, and Louis was invested with the duchy of Milan. But a secret treaty was also negotiated, one that united Maximilian, Louis XII, Ferdinand of Aragon, and Pope Julius II against Venice; the kings England and Hungary were also invited to join the League of Cambrai. While each of the men who were parties to the agreement had territorial and personal ambitions, Margaret had her own as well, for she aimed to secure peace in the Netherlands. 

Throughout the years of war that resulted, Margaret maintained peace in the Low Countries. Working with a council that included advisors who had accompanied her to Mechelen from Savoy, she assured the continued success of trade. She supervised the education of the children in her care. She also pursued her "womanly" responsibilities, spinning, weaving, and sewing, modelling herself, it seems, upon Isabella of Castile. She sent her father "good linen shirts"; "I have received by this bearer some beautiful shirts . . . which you have helped to make with your own hand," Maximilian wrote, "for with which I am delighted." She sent him recipes and remedies for his health, for which he was thankful, but also some political advice, carefully constructing her role as a woman and his "one and only daughter" rather than as his equal and an experienced politician in her own right. Maximilian was less pleased by her political "prescriptions" than her advice about his health. 

She also prepared for the future by arranging political marriages for her nieces. This "trade in princesses" began when a Portuguese match was suggested for Eleanor, Isabel, or Mary. Nothing was settled with Portugal, but a match was arranged for Isabel with Christian II, king of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, who had a rather frightening reputation as the "Nero of the North." A double alliance would be made with Bohemia and Hungary as well; Mary of Austria would marry Louis, the crown prince of Bohemia and Hungary, while Ferdinand of Austria would marry Louis' sister Anne. Eleanor was to be reserved for a match with France or England. 

By 1515, Charles of Ghent, son and heir of Philip of Austria and Juana of Castile, was fifteen years old. He was declared of age by Maximilian, who apparently did not consult with Margaret before he made his decision. In letter to the estates of Flanders the young man announced his "emancipation." He also received a letter from Maximilian who reminded the newly "emancipated" young man "to remember the way [your aunt and regent] laboured during your minority in the administration of your country" and advised him to "communicate your chief and most arduous business to her, and . . . take and use her good advice and council," noting that from her the young Charles could count on "more comfort, help, and support than from any other." He concluded his letter with a touching reminder to Charles: "you are her whole heart, hope, and heir." 

But Charles's new counselors were eager to raise the young man's suspicions against his aunt, and there is little doubt that during her tenure as regent she had angered many--like her male contemporaries, she had not hesitated to use her power and authority, sometimes arbitrarily. She had at times insulted members of the Estates, on one notable occasion angering the nobles of the powerful Order of the Golden Fleece: "Ah, Messeigneurs! if I were such a man as I am a woman, I would make you bring your statutes to me and make you sing out passages from them!" 

Her nephew wisely reconsidered, dismissing the suspicions that had been raised about Margaret's regency. When his grandfather Ferdinand of Aragon died on 23 January 1516, Charles became king of Aragon, Naples, and Sicily, and regent of Castile for his "mad" mother, Juana. Before he left for Spain to claim his inheritance and his titles, he needed to appoint a regent, and Maximilian advised him to turn to Margaret of Austria once more. In a letter to Charles Maximilian reminded his grandson that he, his daughter, and Charles were "one and the same thing corresponding to one and the same desire," and in February 1517 he travelled to the Netherlands to make sure that his daughter and his grandson were reconciled. It was agreed among them that Margaret of Austria would once more become regent of the Netherlands. 

Charles confirmed Margaret in her regency and on 8 September, accompanied by his sister Eleanor, he departed for Spain. On his arrival, one of his first duties was to visit his mother in Tordesillas--once there, he attempted to remove his youngest sister, Catalina, but witnessing his mother's grief, he left her there. On 24 July 1519, from Saragossa, he issued an edict giving Margaret the authority to act in the Netherlands in his name. 

While Charles was in Spain, the Emperor Maximilian's health began to fail. In August 1518 he called together the electors of Rome to secure the imperial title for his grandson. But on 12 January 1519, before he could complete his task, he died, and it was left to Margaret of Austria to ensure her nephew's election. Her campaign on behalf of her nephew was vigorous, even brutal--and ultimately successful. On 28 June 1519, the seven electors named Charles of Austria and Burgundy, King of Spain, Naples, and Sicily as Holy Roman Emperor.

On 1 July 1519, in Barcelona, Charles praised the "great, inestimable, and praiseworthy" service of the "very dear lady and aunt, Lady Margaret." For the last ten years of her life, until her death on 1 December 1530, Margaret of Austria would continue to serve her nephew as regent of the Netherlands. During her second tenure, under constant threats of war with the French and in spite of economic pressures, she extended Habsburg territories in the Low Countries: by 1524, Friesland had been brought under control and Gelders had been subdued; by 1528, she had annexed the bishop of Utrecht's lands. 

But if she is known at all, the achievement for which Margaret of Austria is most remembered is the so-called "Ladies' Peace" of 1529, which settled years of strife. On 24 February 1525, while he campaigned against the Emperor Charles in Italy, Francis I, who had succeeded Louis XII as king of France, was captured at the battle of Pavia. He was sent to Spain. During his imprisonment, his mother Louise of Savoy became regent of France. In August she wrote to her childhood companion and former sister-in-law, Margaret of Austria, for a truce so that she could negotiate for her son's release, a request to which Margaret agreed, though she earned an angry reaction from Charles, whom she had not consulted. Francis's release was finally negotiated by the treaty of Madrid; among its other provisions, the agreement aimed at securing the peace between Charles and the French king by a double marriage. Charles's sister, the recently widowed Eleanor, would marry Francis, whose first wife, Claude, had also just died. Eleanor's infant daughter Maria of Portugal would marry Francis's son and heir, the French dauphin, another Francis. The French king was released from captivity on 17 March 1526. 

But he had no intention of keeping to the terms of his treaty which, besides his marriage to Eleanor, had committed him to serious territorial loss and had sent his two sons to Spain as hostages. Once back in France, he renewed his war with Charles; on 22 May 1526 Francis allied himself with Venice, Milan, England, and the pope. The League of Cognac aimed at Charles, targeting his Italian possessions. War broke out once more. It dragged on for two more years, until May of 1528, when Margaret of Austria, in what would be one of her last acts as regent of the Netherlands, conceived of a plan to end it. 

In 1529, three women--Margaret of Austria, Louise of Savoy, and Louise's daughter Marguerite of Angoulême--planned to meet at the neutral city of Cambrai. Before she left, Margaret was warned not to go because the French king would take her hostage, as her nephew had taken him hostage. But Margaret rejected such an idea, saying "she had no mistrust or fear of any sort as regarded Madame Louise or the king, and that if any of her councillors or courtiers were afraid, they might go home."

The regent arrived in Cambrai on 5 July at three o'clock in the afternoon; Louise and her daughter arrived two hours later. The two older women, although they had been sisters-in-law, had not met since Margaret had begun her journey to Savoy for her wedding with Philibert. On a personal level, the terms of the agreement they reached arranged for the ransom of Louise's grandsons from their captivity in France, and Francis agreed to celebrate his marriage to Margaret's niece, the widowed queen of Portugal. Further, the agreement they reached confirmed most of the territorial advantages the treaty of Madrid had awarded to the empire. Margaret of Austria once again proved her skills as a negotiator--and her willingness to use whatever means necessary, including bribery, to get the terms she wanted. The "Ladies' Peace" was formally concluded on 5 August. But the two "ladies" had agreed that they would continue their negotiations, securing their peace still more firmly by arranging double marriages between Louise's grandchildren and Charles's children. They never completed their plans, however. 

Back in the Netherlands, Margaret grew increasingly ill. She knew she was dying, and she wrote to her nephew Charles on 30 November 1530: "I have no regrets whatever, save for the privation of your presence, and that I can neither see nor speak with you once more before my death. . . . I turn back to you the government of [your lands], in which I believe I have loyally acquitted myself. . . . I particularly commend to you peace . . . ."

She died the next day, 1 December 1530. She was buried in Savoy, next to her third husband Philibert. Although she did not have any children, she would prove to be a formative influence on long and successful line of political "daughters."  

Margaret's tomb at the Royal Monastery of Brou,

For a biography of Margaret of Austria, see Jane de Iongh, Margaret of Austria, Regent of the Netherlands, trans. M. D. Herter Norton (1953), a clear and readable narrative, if undocumented and somewhat romanticized (the book is out of print, but used copies are readily available). Eleanor E. Tremayne's 1908 The First Governess of the Netherlands, Margaret of Austria is an excellent and carefully documented work focusing principally on Margaret's later years as regent; reprint copies are available on Amazon. Both biographies are also available through the Internet Archive (click here).
*This post has been adapted from The Monstrous Regiment of Women: Female Rulers in Early Modern Europe (Palgrave Macmillan).