Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Isabel, Infanta of Portugal and Duchess of Burgundy

Isabel of Portugal, Duchess of Burgundy (died 17 December 1471)


Isabel of Portugal was the only daughter of João of Aziz, the illegitimate son of Pedro I, king of Portugal. When Pedro died in 1367, he was succeeded by his eldest (legitimate) son, Fernando, who became king of Portugal as Fernando I. But when Fernando died in 1383 without a male heir, his half brother, João of Aziz, claimed the throne for himself.* After a two-year period of conflict, he was ultimately successful--by the time Isabel was born on 22 February 1397, her father had been king of Portugal for a dozen years.

Isabel of Portugal, duchess of Burgundy,
c. 1450, workshop of Rogier van der Weyden
Isabel's mother was Philippa of Lancaster, the daughter of John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster (third son of King Edward III), and his first wife, Blanche of Castile. In the war to secure the Portuguese succession, the English had proven to be a useful ally of Portugal, and the marriage of John of Gaunt's daughter and the new king of Portugal in 1387 secured the political alliance.

At the time João and Philippa were married, the Portuguese king already had three children with his mistress, Inês Pere**--but the children to whom Queen Philippa gave birth were a remarkable group. In his epic history of Portugal, the poet Luís Vaz de Camões would call them the Ínclita geração, the "Illustrious Generation."

The only daughter in this "illustrious" group of Portugese royal children, Isabel was raised in a manner similar to her brothers. Along with them, she studied science, mathematics, and languages. Proficient in Latin, she also learned English, French, and Italian, languages that would prove very useful in her later career. Like her brothers, she learned to ride and to hunt, aristocratic pursuits. And along with her brothers, she was also introduced to affairs of state by her father.

But, unlike most royal daughters, Isabel was not used by her as a political pawn, married off as soon as she was old enough. A marriage with the English king Henry V (grandson of John of Gaunt) was considered in 1415, when Isabel was eighteen, but the negotiations did not result in a marriage.

It wasn't until 1428, when Isabel was thirty-one, that a second marriage alliance was considered, this time with Philip of Burgundy. The duke had been widowed two times, but had no children. (Or, rather, he had no legitimate children--he seems to have had at least eighteen illegitimate children [and perhaps as many as fifty!!], several of whom were born during his first two marriages.)

And so Isabel of Portugal became the third wife of Philip "the Good," duke of Burgundy, the two married by proxy in 1429 and then married on 7 January 1430 when the Portuguese infanta finally arrived in Bruges.

Just weeks short of her thirty-third birthday at the time of her marriage, Isabel must have arrived at the ducal court with her considerable political and administrative skills already well developed. Isabel would prove to be a critical aide to her husband in managing his extensive territories: he was not only duke of Burgundy, but duke of Brabant and Limburg; count of Flanders, Artrois, Franche Compte, Hainault, Holland, Zeeland, Namur, and Charolais; marquess of the Holy Roman Empire; and lord of Friesland. He was also, as Aline Taylor notes, "wealthier than any other European monarch."

Following their marriage ceremony, the duke and his new duchess went on progress throughout his territories. Isabel quickly proved that, in addition to the assistance she would provide to her husband in governing his vast holdings, she could also fulfill another crucial role: she became pregnant almost immediately.

She gave birth to her first child, a boy, on 30 December 1430, and a second son in April of 1432, although both would die in infancy. Particularly touching--Isabel's eldest child, died in February, just weeks before her second child, who lived just a few months. A third son, Charles, was born on 10 November 1433--he would survive, succeeding his father as duke of Burgundy in 1467.

Throughout her marriage, at least until their estrangement in the late 1450s, Isabel of Portugal carried out her husband's economic and political policies, though there was a persistent tension, with Isabel recommending closer ties to the English and Philip frequently siding with the French. As duchess of Burgundy, Isabel raised money and troops for her husband when he needed them, and in her role as her husband's representative, she restored peace in rebellious towns and negotiated settlements between merchants and trade guilds. 

After her husband's betrayal of his alliance with England in 1435, for example, Isabel negotiated a deal in order to resume the lucrative cloth trade with the English. Perhaps her most significant diplomatic accomplishment was the conference she arranged between the French, English, and Burgundians in Gravelines in 1439. Although no final agreements were reached, she did manage to broker a trade agreement with the English and, in 1443, a treaty of peace with England.

In her role as duchess of Burgundy, Isabel arranged marriages to the end of making and maintaining political relationships. Most notably, it was she who persuaded her son to marry Margaret of York, sister of Edward IV, king of England. (Richard III was also her brother.)

Although tensions between Philip and Isabel led to her retreat from court, when the duke suffered a stroke in 1458, she nursed him through his various illnesses until his death. In the mean time, she played an influential role for her son, Charles, her granddaughter, Mary of Burgundy (daughter of her son's second wife, Isabelle of Bourbon), and her daughter-in-law, Margaret of York, her son's third (and final) wife. 

Surviving portal of monastery of Chartreuse de Champmol,
Dijon, France, showing kneeling Philip, duke of Burgundy,
and Isabel of Portugal, duchess of Burgundy
(photo by Christophe.Finot)
Isabel of Portugal, duchess of Burgundy, died on 17 December 1471. Her son built a tomb for his parents in a chapel at the monastery of Chartreuse de Champmol in Dijon, then the capital of Burgundy. 

The monastery was dissolved in 1791 during the French Revolution, the tombs vandalized and destroyed by 1793. (Some effigies were reconstructed in the nineteenth century and are now in Dijon Cathedral.)

The most complete account of Isabel of Portugal's life in English is Aline S.Taylor's Isabel of Burgundy: The Duchess Who Played Politics in the Age of Joan of Arc, 1397-1471. If you can read French, I recommend Monique Somme's 1998 biography, Isabelle de Portugal, duchesse de Bourgogne: Une femme au pouvoir au XVe siècle.

Also extremely engaging is Manuela Santo Silva's "Princess Isabel of Portugal: First Lady in a Kingdom Without a Queen," in Elena Woodacre, ed., Queenship in the Mediterranean: Negotiating the Role of the Queen in the Medieval and Early Modern Eras (hugely expensive, so perhaps inter-library loan?).


*Fernando I's daughter, Beatrice of Portugal, attempted to claim the throne of Portugal, but she was ultimately not successful.

**A daughter died shortly after birth, but the surviving two, Afonso of Braganza and Beatrice of Portugal, both of whom were raised and educated by Philippa of Lancaster, were pretty illustrious too.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Christina of Denmark, Duchess and Regent of Lorraine

Christina of Denmark, regent of Lorraine (died 10 December 1590)


Those obsessed with all things Tudor might have come across a reference to Christina of Denmark in their reading--before Henry VIII's "great matter" erupted, the young Danish princess was considered (by Thomas Wolsey, at any rate) as a possible match for Henry's illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy. But there was no reason why the girl's uncle, the Emperor Charles V, would find such a match acceptable, and no match was made.

Years later, after the death of his third queen, Jane Seymour, Henry VIII again considered Christina of Denmark, this time deciding that she might make an excellent wife for himself. Rather than being flattered by the English king's interest, the young woman is said to have responded, "If I had two heads, one should be at the King of England's disposal." Henry persisted for over a year until he was convinced by his ambassador that he should "fix his most noble stomach in some other place." (In this case, "stomach" meant "desire," but given Henry's eventual girth, it's an especially funny comment.)

Christina of Denmark,
portrait by Hans Holbein
It's interesting to think about what might have been if the young woman had become Henry's fourth queen.

In 1521, Christina of Denmark was born into a family of politically astute women--she was the great granddaughter of Isabella of Castile and the granddaughter of Juana of Castile. Christina's mother, Isabel of Austria (Juana's daughter) was married to King Christian II of Denmark and Norway--and during the king's absence (he briefly held the throne of Sweden), Queen Isabel served as regent of Denmark.

Christian II never quite gained control in Sweden, and he soon lost Denmark as well. When he was forced off the throne and into exile in 1523, the king, his wife, and his family took refuge in the Netherlands with Margaret of Austria, who was Isabel of Austria's aunt. The young Christina of Denmark thus came under the influence of her politically experienced aunt, who governed the Netherlands as regent for twenty years.

After Isabel of Austria's death in 1526, the Danish king eventually made an ill-fated attempt to retake his throne. Christian was "persuaded" to leave his children behind, in Margaret of Austria's care, by the regent's offer of a generous annual payment.*

Under the influence of the Habsburg regent, Christina of Denmark was educated with a generation of women who learned much about politics and power from Margaret of Austria. (Among these young women was, interestingly, Anne Boleyn, who arrived at Margaret's court in 1513 and spent at least a year there.)

After the regent's death in 1530, she was followed by yet another Habsburg regent, Mary of Austria, Christina of Denmark's aunt (her mother Isabel's sister). But Christina's period of tuition was brief--by the time she was twelve years old, she was married off, one more useful pawn in the Habsburg game of using marriage as a way to increase influence.

On 23 September 1533, Christina of Denmark was married in Brussels by proxy to Francesco II Sforza, duke of Milan (he was the son of Beatrice d'Este). When she arrived in Milan in May 1534, a second marriage ceremony was celebrated. By October 1535, her husband was dead, leaving Christina of Denmark, duchess of Milan, a widow at the age of thirteen.

Christina of Denmark returned to the Netherlands and Mary of Austria's court in 1537. A few months after her return, Hans Holbein was in Brussels, painting Christina's portrait for Henry VIII. Now all of sixteen, the young widow was sought by many--among those who hoped to arrange a match (aside from the English king), was William of Cleves, the brother of the woman who would become Henry VIII's fourth wife, Anne. (Another fix for the Tudor fan!)

Christina had her own views--having made a political match, she preferred a love match and wished to marry René of Chalon, Prince of Orange. While her aunt raised no objections, the Habsburg emperor had his own plans, and in 1540 he insisted that René marry Anne of Lorraine and that Christina marry the brother of the woman who married the man she loved--got that? 

On 10 July 1541, Christina of Denmark married Francis, duke of Bar. In 1544, Francis succeeded his father as duke of Lorraine. Despite her hope to marry René of Chalon, Christina found happiness in her marriage to Francis.

But the marriage was not a long one--by 1545, she was a widow again. During the brief years of her second marriage, she had given birth to two children (Charles, in 1543; Renata, in 1544). A third child, a daughter named Dorothea, was born after her husband's death.

Francis of Lorraine left his wife, Christina, as regent for his son and heir. She remained as regent until 1552--despite her efforts to secure assistance from the emperor, Lorraine was invaded by the French king, who took custody of Charles and relieved her of her duties. 

She was eventually exiled from Lorraine and made her way to the court of her aunt, Mary of Austria, regent of the Netherlands. 

Christina of Denmark, duchess (and regent) of Lorraine, remained a very desirable marriage prospect, though she never married again. She was eventually reunited with her son, and in 1560 she once again stepped in as regent of Lorraine, this time for her son. 

After the death of her father in 1559, Christina's childless sister ceded her claim to the Danish throne to her younger sister, and Christina styled herself as "Christina, by the grace of God Queen of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway." She also thought to arrange the marriage of her daughter, Renata, to Frederick II of Denmark (despite Christina's claims to be the rightful queen, he was the reigning monarch of Denmark). 

But none of these plans were to succeed. In 1578, Christina of Denmark left Lorraine for Tortona, a small territory in the duchy of Milan where she had been granted sovereign rights by her first husband, Francesco Sforza. There she "ruled" until 1584, when the Spanish decided she could stay but her role as "sovereign" had to go. 

Christina of Denmark, regent of Lorraine (among many other titles), died in Tortona on 10 December 1590. 

It's hard to believe that there is not a recent biography of Christina of Denmark, but Julia Cartwright's massive 1913 Christina of Denmark, Duchess of Milan and Lorraine, 1522-1590 is available from Internet Archive (click here).


*Christian II of Denmark's efforts failed; he surrendered to his uncle and rival in 1531 and was held in captivity until his death twenty-seven years later, in 1559. Christina and her older sister, Dorotea, petitioned their uncle, Charles V, to negotiate their father's release, but the emperor declined.