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.

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