Margaret of Austria, Duchess of Savoy and Regent of the Netherlands

Margaret of Austria by the Master of Moulins, aged 10

Margaret of Austria by the Master of Moulins, aged 10

Margaret’s Motto: Fortune, Infortune, Fortune pretty much sums up her extraordinary life. Married three times with another marriage discussed, she refused to take a fourth husband. Her father eventually called upon her to be his representative and she spent most of the rest of her life as Regent of the Netherlands and foster mother to her nieces and nephews. She was a formidable force in the politics of her era.

Margaret was born on January 10, 1480 in Brussels. Her father was the Archduke Maximilian of Austria (later Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I) and her mother was Mary, Duchess of Burgundy, the daughter of Charles the Bold. In March of 1482, Margaret’s mother died after falling from a horse. Margaret and her brother Philip the Handsome were in the care of their step-grandmother, Margaret of York, essentially beholden to the citizens of Ghent. At that point, Maximilian had no bargaining power. Louis XI, King of France was threatening war and the Estates were unwilling to fund a campaign. Louis offered terms to the Estates. Margaret was to be betrothed to Louis’ eleven year old son, the Dauphin Charles with her dowry including the territories of Franche Comté and Artois along with other lordships. Maximilian was forced to accept the Louis’ conditions.

The terms of the Treaty of Arras, ratified in December of 1482, stipulated that Margaret was to be sent to France to be brought up away from the anti-French influence of her father. It was agreed the actual consummation of the marriage would not take place until Margaret was of sufficient age. In April of 1483, Margaret departed from Ghent under armed guard to prevent her father from trying to rescue her. The trip lasted a little over two weeks with a delay for the French to arrive at Hesdin where Margaret was greeted by Louis XI’s elder daughter Anne de Beaujeu. There was a short engagement ceremony and Margaret was officially delivered over to the French.

Margaret of Austria's first husband, King Charles VIII of France

Margaret of Austria’s first husband, King Charles VIII of France

King Louis made sure Margaret made a magnificent progress through France and a formal entry into Paris. She travelled to Amboise where she was betrothed to Charles in a ceremony. Charles was not particularly attractive. He was thin, under-grown with a hollow chest, crooked legs and a head that was too big for his body. But Margaret was three and probably didn’t notice his appearance. The next day, the marriage was consecrated.

Margaret lived in the beautiful castle of Amboise. Louis died shortly after her marriage and Anne de Beaujeu was regent for the new King Charles VIII. Anne appointed Madame de Segré as Margaret’s governess. Margaret’s time at Amboise was pleasant. She studied, played with dolls, and performed official duties, all dressed in dignified and tasteful clothes. She was taught the fine arts like drawing, painting, singing and how to play the lute, dancing and embroidery. All in all, it was a happy childhood for Margaret, full of warm affection.

In September of 1488, the Duke of Brittany died leaving his only daughter Anne as his heir. Anne and her inheritance made her an extremely attractive potential bride for many men but Margaret’s father Maximilian won her hand and they were married by proxy in 1490. When Margaret’s husband laid siege to Rennes in Brittany, Maximilian did not come to the aid of his new wife Anne. Anne was defenseless and forced to make a choice between keeping her duchy and title and marrying Charles VIII or leaving Brittany to go to her unknown husband. She chose to keep her title and marry Charles. They were married on December 6, 1491. Maximilian had lost his wife, Margaret had lost her husband and all of King Louis XI’s best laid plans for annexing Brittany into the kingdom of France had come to fruition.

When Margaret got word of what happened she knew it was a disaster. She did not want to go back to Flanders and Charles did not want to lose the territories he had gained from her dowry. Charles was soon distracted by the thought of conquest in Italy and he needed to make peace with Margaret’s father before he left to fight. The Treaty of Senlis was signed in May of 1493 releasing Margaret and giving her territories back to her father.

Margaret returned to Cambrai where she was greeted by Margaret of York. The old Duchess found the blond young woman she greeted to be well brought-up, elegant, witty, and dignified with wonderful self-control. Maximilian began at once to work on another marriage for Margaret. In an effort to thwart the ambition of King Charles VIII of France, Maximilian and Ferdinand of Aragon formed a league. Part of the alliance involved marriages for Maximilian’s two children. Margaret’s brother Philip was to be married to Ferdinand’s daughter, Juana and Margaret was to marry Ferdinand’s eldest son and heir, Juan, Prince of Asturias.

Margaret's second husband, Juan, Prince of Asturias

Margaret’s second husband, Juan, Prince of Asturias

Juana travelled to the Low Countries to marry Philip. At Malines on November 5, 1496, Margaret was married by proxy. On January 22, 1497, the ships that brought Juana to Flanders left with Margaret and headed for Spain. The weather on the Channel was treacherous and after delays and dangerous conditions were overcome, she eventually landed in Santander. She rode inland and met her new husband for the first time. It was love at first sight. The couple travelled to Burgos and met Queen Isabella and spent a quiet week together. Margaret and Juan had a public wedding ceremony on April 3, followed by weeks of festivities. The couple lived in happiness but trouble was looming.

Juan had never been in good health. All the festivities and travelling had drained what little strength he had. He succumbed to a fever and died on October 4, 1497 at the age of nineteen. Margaret was devastated. She was also pregnant. She gave birth to a daughter prematurely and the child died shortly thereafter. It was the only child Margaret would ever bear. Margaret remained in Spain for two years in the entourage of Queen Isabella and left in September of 1499 to return to the Low Countries. Margaret arrived in Ghent in March of 1500 to a tremendous greeting from the people. She took part in the celebrations for the birth of a prince, Juana and Philip’s baby boy named Charles. Margaret would play a huge role in the life of her nephew.

Margaret spent some time with her family while Philip had the Chateau of le Quesnoy prepared as her residence. Margaret was still known as the Princess of Castile but her brother and father were diligently looking for a new husband. Some of the potential candidates were King Louis XII of France, Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, King James IV of Scotland, the Hungarian King Vladislav and even Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales. Margaret’s father hesitated in making a decision but her brother finally settled the matter. With the death of Juan, Philip’s wife Juana was the heir to the kingdom of Spain and he needed to travel there to have himself recognized as the ruler of Castile and Aragon.

In order to make this trip, Philip needed to make peace with France. To seal the peace, he betrothed his newborn son Charles to Claude, the recently born daughter of King Louis XII of France. And Margaret was to marry Duke Philibert of Savoy. Margaret was not pleased but she was not courageous enough to actively oppose the marriage.

Margaret's third husband, Philibert II, Duke of Savoy

Margaret’s third husband, Philibert II, Duke of Savoy

Philibert was a few months younger than Margaret and was known as “the Handsome” just like Margaret’s brother. He was a perfectly built athlete who reveled in festivities like tournaments, hunting parties, balls and banquets. He couldn’t be bothered with governing his realm and left those duties to his illegitimate half-brother René. The marriage contract was signed in Brussels in September of 1501. Philip gave her a huge dowry and Philibert promised her a handsome annuity if she survived him. Once again, Margaret left her home to travel through France to an unknown husband.

Margaret was married by proxy in a simple ceremony shortly after her arrival in November with Philibert’s brother René standing in for him. She was now the Duchess of Savoy and shed the mourning clothes she had worn for four years. Shortly after this church ceremony, Margaret and Philibert celebrated their marriage at a convent near Geneva. This was followed by many feasts, receptions and dancing. Margaret and Philibert toured their duchy and she learned a lot. Philibert fell in love with her.

When they finally settled down, Margaret surveyed her situation. She found her husband had no control of his government which alarmed her greatly. She swiftly exiled René from court and started to exercise her authority, immersing herself in affairs of state and foreign policy. Her chateau at Pont d’Ain became the center of political life in Savoy. She surrounded herself with capable secretaries and councilors. She knew all the political players of Europe and used this opportunity to study the alliances and clashes going on.

The summer of 1504 had been scorching hot. It was too hot for any outdoor activities but by early September, Philibert was bored. He begged Margaret to go hunting and she relented. He planned a boar hunt and rode incessantly the whole morning. When his entourage finally broke for lunch, Philibert lay down and called for glass after glass of ice cold water. He ate his meal but before it was over he had an agonizing stitch in his side. He was writhing in pain and his companions brought him home. By September 10 he was dead. Margaret was overcome with grief and depression.

Margaret was overwhelmed but she was still the ruling head of Savoy. Philibert’s younger half-brother Charles was his heir but everyone looked to Margaret to keep the government running. Philibert had made Margaret promise she would bury him next to his mother at the Benedictine cloister at Brou and restore the ruins. Six days after Philibert’s death, Margaret had his remains buried there. Margaret would spend the next twenty five years restoring the cloister she would never see, in preparation for her own burial. She also wore widows clothing the rest of her life.

Margaret of Austria as a widow by Bernard van Orley

Margaret of Austria as a widow by Bernard van Orley

Margaret managed to make an agreement with Duke Charles to continue her authority in the government of Savoy. In the autumn of 1506, Margaret’s brother Philip died suddenly in Spain. Her father Maximilian had been named regent for Philip’s son, the Archduke Charles. Charles’ new empire was large and unwieldy. Maximilian would have a difficult time ruling all of it. He was looking for a regent to govern the Low Countries and he resolved the issue by choosing Margaret. She accepted without hesitation and headed back home.

Margaret established the “Court of Savoy” at her newly renovated palace called Mechelen in Malines near the old home of Margaret of York, where she would live the rest of her life. She began her work administering the Netherlands. Two years into her role, she extracted from her father a mandate for her authority. She now had the independence she had always wanted. Her father was again talking of marriage. This time the possible groom was the widowed King Henry VII of England. Margaret now had the courage, independence and authority to refuse the offer.

Margaret's palace of Mechelen in what is now Belgium

Margaret’s palace of Mechelen in what is now Belgium

Margaret spent her years as regent handling the day to day workings of government, negotiating trade agreements, making war and peace and taking care of her nieces and nephews. It was during this time, probably in 1513 that Anne Boleyn was sent by her family from England to work in Margaret’s household. In 1514, Charles’ tutor, Chièvres, was lobbying Maximilian for the emancipation of the fourteen year old Archduke. Maximilian agreed. Margaret felt betrayed by her father but agreed to the emancipation. Charles took his place at the head of the Privy Council. Margaret continued some work until she basically resigned her position in August of 1515.

Charles began to realize he had lost his wisest councilor and asked Margaret to return to the council in 1517. After a few important members died, Charles allowed Margaret to sign all state papers and to control the finances. He also gave her an annuity of twenty thousand pounds. She eventually regained the title of Regent. A campaign was begun to name Charles Holy Roman Emperor. Margaret cajoled and bribed the Electors. In January of 1519, Margaret’s father Emperor Maximilian died. By June, Charles was elected Holy Roman Emperor as Charles V. Margaret was now his deputy. She had to deal with insurrection, lack of funds and war. She did her best to keep the Low Countries out of costly conflicts. She had to deal with the Protestant Reformation and its consequences. All the hard work and loneliness had taken its toll on Margaret’s health, mind and body. She was having some trouble with her leg and had to surrender some of her authority to other councilors.

In November of 1530, Margaret’s leg was tormenting her with pain. The doctors thought she had gout and treated her accordingly. But this just made the leg worse and she succumbed to a fever. The doctors opened the leg to release the humors and at first this seemed to help. But then, signs of infection appeared. Margaret realized she would not survive. She called for her confessor and her notary. She signed a number of legacies over to her servants and dictated her final farewell to Charles, recommending peace. She died in the night of November 30, sometime between midnight and one o’clock. The tomb at Brou was not yet ready so she was temporarily buried at the convent of Our Lady of Seven Sorrows at Bruges. In May of 1523, her body was taken to Brou to be buried beside Philibert.

Tomb of Margaret of Austria at Brou Photo by Zairon

Tomb of Margaret of Austria at Brou
Photo by Zairon

Sources: “Margaret of Austria: Regent of the Netherlands” by Jane De Longh, “Margaret of York: Duchess of Burgundy 1446-1503” by Christine Weightman

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