Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Monday, January 19, 2015

Isabel of Austria: A Promising Queen Who Did Not Live Long Enough to Fulfill Her Promise

Isabel of Austria, queen and regent of Denmark (died 19 January 1526)

The daughter of Juana of Castile and Philip of Burgundy, Isabel of Austria lived a life quite different from that of her youngest sister Catherine of Spain, who was confined with her powerless mother in the convent of Tordesillas, as we have seen.* By contrast, Isabel was one of the Habsburg children raised in the Netherlands by the formidable regent, Margaret of Austria

Margaret of Austria was to arrange the marriages of her many Habsburg nieces to advance the empire's political strategies, Isabel's among them. In July of 1514, just a few days before her thirteenth birthday, the young Isabel was married by proxy to Christian II, king of Denmark and Norway, twenty-two years her senior, who had a rather frightening reputation as the "Nero of the North." 

Because of her youth, Isabel remained in the Netherlands for another year, finally arriving in Copenhagen in August 1515 to begin her married life as queen of Denmark. Upon her arrival, however, she found that the Danish king's court was dominated by his long-time mistress, Dyveke Sigbritsdatter, and her mother, Siegebritte Willems, who was the king's closest advisor--one historian has called Willems "the real ruler of Scandinavia."

Isabel of Austria, c. 1515
Isabel's awkward and isolated situation was a source of conflict between the Habsburg emperor Maximilian and Christian. Isabel's situation improved after Sigbritsdatter's death in 1517; Willems remained at court, however, and Isabel's first child, a son born in 1518, was placed in her care.

But by 1520, while her husband was in Sweden (Christian II was briefly king of Sweden), Isabel was able to act as regent, governing Denmark and Norway on his behalf. In 1523, Christian's Danish subjects rebelled, and he was deposed. Isabel fled to Mechelen with her husband, taking refuge there with Margaret of Austria. She died in 1526, not yet twenty-five years old.

Margaret of Austria refused to let Christian leave Mechelen with his children, his son and heir John, and two daughters, Dorothea and Christina. She "bought" them by offering him a yearly payment and kept them with her, influencing yet another generation of Habsburg heirs.

Isabel's two daughters would both become claimants to the throne of Denmark. Dorothea of Denmark would marry Frederick II of the Palatinate in 1535. Christina of Denmark was married first and briefly to Francesco Sforza, duke of Milan; after his death, she married Francis, duke of Bar and Lorraine in 1541. When Francis died in 1545, she was regent of Lorraine until 1552, when Lorraine was invaded by France, and she was forced to flee for her safety.

There is no full-length biography of Isabel of Austria. The best information comes from Jane de Iongh's Margaret of Austria, Regent of the Netherlands, trans. M. D. Herter Norton (1953).

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