The more I looked into the life of Eleanor of Austria, the more I felt she has not gotten her due. Born of illustrious parents, she was a valuable commodity on the marriage market and was considered as a bride for many European rulers. Her relationship with a man she truly loved was broken up by her brother and she ended up being queen of two countries. Although she wasn’t especially successful, she worked tirelessly to maintain peaceful relations between Spain and France
Eleanor was born in Leuven on November 15, 1498. She was the eldest child of Philip, Duke of Burgundy, (Philip the Handsome) and Juana of Castile (Juana the Mad). Her younger brother Charles would eventually become the Holy Roman Emperor and rule over large portions of Europe. Eleanor’s father died in 1506 and starting in 1509, her mother was declared mentally unstable and confined in the Convent of Santa Clara in Tordesillas, Spain until she died in 1555. Consequently, Eleanor and her siblings were raised by their paternal aunt Margaret of Austria in her refined court at Mechelen and received a stellar education.
Eleanor was described as a gracious and graceful Spanish beauty with long blond hair. Her paternal grandfather Emperor Maximilian wanted to marry her to a great foreign king and many marriages were discussed. A betrothal was made between her and Henry, the son of King Henry VII of England. But when King Henry VII died, the new King Henry VIII married Eleanor’s maternal aunt Katherine of Aragon instead.
There was talk of marrying her to King Louis XII of France after Queen Anne of Brittany died. Louis ended up marrying King Henry VIII’s sister Mary Tudor. A marriage to King Francis I of France was discussed as early as 1518. Francis’ wife Claude was pregnant at the time and it was feared she would die in childbirth but she did survive. Other possibilities were the Polish King Sigismund I and Antoine, Duke of Lorraine but none of these alliances ever materialized.
Eleanor was prone to believing in romantic love. In 1517, Eleanor’s brother Charles caught her reading a love letter from Frederick II, Elector Palatine. Frederick’s prospects were not promising and Charles did not consider him a worthy match for his sister. It is unclear if there was a serious relationship between the two but Charles made the couple swear before an attorney there was no secret marriage and then banned Frederick from court. When Eleanor’s maternal grandfather, Ferdinand of Aragon died in 1516, Charles was declared King jointly with his mother and he went to Spain in 1517. Eleanor followed him there.
There was talk of marrying Eleanor to Crown Prince John of Portugal. When this didn’t work out, Charles arranged for her to marry John’s father King Manuel I. This completed an alliance for Charles to neutralize any help Portugal might give Spain in a rebellion against him. They were married on July 16, 1518. Manuel had been married previously to two of Eleanor’s maternal aunts, was thirty years older and unwell. Eleanor had a son Infante Charles, born on February 18, 1520 who died a little over a year later. Eleanor’s daughter Infanta Maria was born on June 8, 1521. Maria never married and became one of the wealthiest heiresses of Europe. Manuel died on December 13, 1521. As Queen Dowager of Portugal, Eleanor returned to her brother’s court in Spain, leaving her daughter behind.
Again, many marriage alliances were considered for Eleanor. In July of 1523, Eleanor became engaged to Charles III, Duke of Bourbon as part of an alliance between her brother and Bourbon against France. In the spring of 1524, rumors were circulating that Queen Claude of France was dying. Charles wrote in his instructions to his emissaries a proposal for Eleanor to marry King Francis if Claude died. Claude did indeed die on July 26 of that year. Then on February 24, 1525 something nearly unthinkable happened.
King Francis had gone to Italy with a huge army in anticipation of gaining territory. He met up with the troops of Emperor Charles V and lost a decisive battle at Pavia. Francis was taken hostage by Charles and put in prison in Spain. Francis’ mother Louise of Savoy sent her daughter Marguerite to the court of Charles to broker a release of her brother. She met Eleanor while she was there and the two women got along well with each other. Marguerite promoted a view of her brother as a romantic hero hoping it would advance her cause. Francis even managed to convince his captor Viceroy Charles de Lannoy to deliver a love letter to Eleanor. Eleanor fell prey to his charms and was flattered and delighted by the attention.
Charles of Bourbon’s engagement to Eleanor was in danger of being broken. That summer, Bourbon sent an emissary to Eleanor in Toledo in an effort to dissuade her from marrying Francis. He used three arguments. First, he tried to persuade her that her future mother-in-law, Louise of Savoy was a terribly nasty woman. Next, he pointedly told her Francis was infected with syphilis. And lastly, he argued that Francis was incapable of being faithful to any woman and would have many mistresses. Eleanor responded that she would do whatever her brother commanded her to do.
Marguerite entertained the hope that Eleanor would have some influence on Charles in getting Francis released but she was sadly mistaken. Charles was not inclined to listen to his sister. He even had Eleanor sent away so she could have no further contact with Marguerite. Marguerite was forced to capitulate and left the Spanish court in January 1526. Louise of Savoy finally surrendered to Charles’ main sticking point, the return of Burgundy and agreed to the Treaty of Madrid. However, this treaty required that with the release of Francis from captivity, his two eldest sons would be exchanged and taken hostage. In addition, Francis was required to marry Eleanor. Her engagement to Bourbon was broken and he was furious.
On January 20 1526, Eleanor and Francis were betrothed by proxy. Francis was recovering from a near fatal illness and was pale and sickly. By mid-February he was well enough to meet with Charles and travel to Illescas for his first formal meeting with Eleanor. Eleanor was hopeful that her marriage to Francis would be loving and happy.
Eleanor stood on the last step at the bottom of the great stairs in the great hall of the castle. She was flanked by Germaine de Foix, the dowager Queen of Aragon and Charles’ mistress, and Don Hernandez Velasco, Constable of Castile. Eleanor began to kneel and kiss Francis’ hand but he stopped her, insisting on an embrace. Francis then took her hand and led her into the hall where four thrones were assembled. Francis and Eleanor sat together and Charles sat with Germaine as they dined. The next day, Charles asked Eleanor to dance before Francis which she did in the Spanish style.
Eleanor began to call herself Queen of France and discarded her mourning attire to dress regally. Francis returned to France and his sons were sent to Spain. It was believed at the time that Eleanor and Francis would marry immediately but this was not the case. Francis had no intention of honoring the terms of the Treaty of Madrid as he didn’t want to cede Burgundy to Charles. He made it very clear he was only interested in marrying Eleanor to get his sons back. The two boys spent three wretched years in Spain.
When Francis returned home he broke off relations with his prior official mistress Francoise de Foix whom his mother had never liked. His mother introduced him to a young woman named Anne de Pisseleu d’Heilly. Francis fell in love with her instantly. In 1534, he gave her the county of Etampes and later ennobled her to ducal status. She would dominate Francis and his government until he died. In the meantime, Francis considered marrying Mary Tudor, daughter of King Henry VIII.
War broke out between Francis and Charles in February of 1528. Francis’ sons were moved to stricter confinement in Segovia and all their French servants were dismissed. Eleanor was so distraught at this news that she retired to a nunnery for a time. The stalemate between Francis and Charles was only broken when Louise of Savoy and Margaret of Austria brokered the Ladies Peace of Cambrai in August of 1529. An enormous ransom was raised and the money was exchanged for the princes who were accompanied by Eleanor. They entered France at Bidassoa on July 1, 1530. On July 3, Francis and Eleanor met at Roquefort-de-Marsan and were married on the 4th in the chapel of the adjoining monastery of Beyries.
The boys and Eleanor were heartily welcomed in many cities along the way. Upon their return to Paris, Eleanor met her redoubtable mother-in-law. Louise was ill but rose and dressed to meet her. Louise greeted her warmly and the two women spoke for a while. Eleanor’s arrival at court was celebrated with a series of extravagant ceremonies and she was heralded as a peacemaker. All those around her were enchanted. She was seen as having a sweet dignity, graceful manners and frankness.
Francis could be civil, gracious and cordial to Eleanor when required. But he could also be extremely rude. He rarely slept with her and seldom spoke openly to her. Life at court was miserable for Eleanor despite her household being populated by many Spaniards. She had to compete with her mother-in-law, her sister-in-law and the Duchess D’Etampes.
Eleanor was crowned on March 5, 1531 at St. Denis. She wore a purple velvet mantle decorated with bands of gold and a bodice embroidered with pearls and an overdress trimmed with ermine. The Dauphin and the Duke of Orleans accompanied her along with Louise of Savoy, Marguerite of Navarre and the king’s two daughters Madeleine and Marguerite and many other noble ladies. Francis failed to appear at her coronation, a sign of profound disrespect. After the coronation, Eleanor made her official entry into Paris on March 17. Francis rode to the house of the Duchess D’Etampes and sat with her in a window observing the ceremonies.
When Francis’ mother Louise died on September 22, 1531, Francis named the Duchess D’Etampes a lady-in-waiting to Eleanor and made her the governess of his children. She had essentially taken away all the public and private roles that were rightfully Eleanor’s. Also with Louise’s death, Diane de Poitiers, mistress of Francis’ son Henri, also became her lady-in-waiting.
Henry VIII of England came to Calais in October of 1532 with Anne Boleyn but none of the noble French ladies would agree to meet with her. Henry made it clear Eleanor was not to be there as she was the sister of Emperor Charles and therefore Katherine of Aragon’s niece. Katherine may have sought Eleanor’s help in her contentious divorce proceedings and Charles asked Eleanor to speak to her husband in Katherine’s favor. However, Eleanor couldn’t be in Calais anyway as she had suffered a miscarriage in September of 1532. Francis did come to her bedside and spent several days with her before leaving for Calais. On October 28, 1533, the marriage of Francis’ son Henri and Catherine de’Medici was celebrated. Queen Eleanor and her ladies led the two fourteen year olds to their elaborately decorated nuptial chamber.
Francis and Charles were at war again in 1536 but after much fighting, neither of them could claim victory. In 1538, the pope brokered peace between the two and a meeting was set at Aigues-Mortes on July 14. Eleanor was given the task of acting as arbiter between her husband and brother and she relished her role. She took many important ladies with her to the meeting and was eager to see her brother.
Eleanor came to the palace for the meeting by barge. Imperial and French ships hoisted their flags in greeting and fired their guns. Charles stood on a temporary wooden pier erected specifically for the meeting and greeted and kissed all the ladies as they disembarked. When he saw Eleanor, he eagerly stepped forward to take her hand. As she stepped off, he kissed and warmly embraced her. While they remained in each other’s arms, crowds pressed forward causing the pier to collapse. Charles and Eleanor fell into the knee deep water. Sailors came forward to help them and they laughed at the ridiculous appearance of all the wet ladies. Charles led Eleanor by the hand and the crowd walked to the palace where dry clothes were ordered for all.
Eleanor was honest in telling her brother how miserable she was and how she had to defer to her husband’s mistress. She begged her brother to acknowledge the Duchess D’Etampes so everyone would notice his attention. It was humiliating but a necessary evil. Eleanor knew how much influence Anne had over Francis. If the Emperor neglected to pay his respects, it could possibly put the newly formed peace in jeopardy.
The Emperor did what was necessary but Spain and France still remained at odds. In 1539, Charles traveled from Spain to France. The entire court greeted him and there were two months of festivities. Although the Emperor promised they could overcome their differences, he suggested unacceptable terms infuriating Francis.
In 1541, three of Eleanor’s ladies were dismissed for speaking ill of the Duchess D’Etampes. Eleanor was forced to be nice because she needed the Duchess’ approval to influence foreign policy. In 1539 and again in 1541, Eleanor had a chance to bring her daughter, Maria of Portugal to France but she didn’t want Maria to become the political pawn of Francis. Instead she wanted Maria to go live with her brother but this never transpired.
In 1544, Henry VIII began a siege of the city of Boulogne. At the same time, Charles was threatening to attack Paris causing panic in the city. Boulogne surrendered on September 14. This resulted in a peace treaty signed at Crépy ending an alliance that had existed between Charles and Henry. Eleanor was ecstatic as she always desired peace between her husband and her brother. She left France to meet with Charles and reinforce the peace accompanied by the Duchess D’Etampes. This time Charles snubbed the Duchess, incurring her wrath. From that point on, the Duchess worked to improve relations between Francis and Henry VIII.
By 1547, Francis was very ill and on his deathbed. He called his heir Henri to his side. He spoke movingly of Eleanor and urged Henri to treat her fairly. Francis expressed remorse in his own conduct, saying she did not deserve such bad treatment as she had always been kind, obedient and loving toward him. Francis died on March 31, 1547. Eleanor was staying at the convent of Poissy near Paris. Henri sent his wife Catherine de’Medici and his sister Marguerite to tell her. She had been kept in the dark about his illness so the death came as a surprise. Eleanor was visibly pale and very upset. We don’t’ really know how she felt about his death as her feelings were not recorded.
After Francis’ death, what amounted to a palace revolution transpired. Henri dismissed many of his father’s favorites in disgrace. Several of them sought refuge with Eleanor in her household but she only took in two of them. Henri was exceedingly ungracious to Eleanor after his father’s death. He associated Eleanor with her brother Charles and with the unfavorable terms of the Treaty of Crépy. Eleanor left France in November 1548. Henri seized her dowry in 1551 and gave it to Orazio Farnese, however, she got it back five years later.
In January 1555, Eleanor sat with Charles as he abdicated his position as King of Spain to his son Philip. In 1557, she tried to persuade her daughter Maria of Portugal to join her and live in Spain. Maria did not accept as she wanted to marry Philip. But Philip had chosen to marry Queen Mary Tudor so Maria stayed in Portugal. Maria met Eleanor at Badajoz in 1558 and Eleanor tried to convince her to live with her. Again Maria refused. She resented being abandoned by her mother and most likely had no emotional bond with her.
Eleanor became ill while returning from Badajoz. She died of asthma on February 25, 1558. Her brother was devastated to learn of her death and he himself died seven months later. She was originally buried in Llieda but her remains were later moved to the monastery of the Royal Site of San Lorenzo de El Escorial.
Further reading: “Golden Age Ladies: Women Who Shaped the Courts of Henry VIII and Francis I” by Sylvia Barbara Soberton, “Francis the First” by Francis Hackett, “Renaissance Warrior and Patron: The Reign of Francis I” by R.J. Knecht, “Queens and Mistresses of Renaissance France” by Kathleen Wellman