Ever since researching the lives of historic women such as Isabel of Portugal, Charles the Bold’s daughter Mary and Philippa of Hainault, I’ve been interested in the Valois Dukes of Burgundy and the history of their empire. One day, while browsing the family tree of the Dukes, I discovered one of their ancestors was the English princess, Margaret Plantagenet, daughter of King Edward I. There are not a lot of examples of women from England marrying into the nobility of the Low Countries and I decided to check into this.
Margaret was born on March 15, 1275 at Windsor Castle. Her mother was Eleanor of Castile who had many children. Those who survived were Eleanor, Joanna, Alphonso, Margaret, Elizabeth and the future King Edward II. As a child Margaret lived in Windsor, Woodstock or the palace of Langley with her younger siblings. Other than on great occasions, Margaret would not have seen much of her parents until she was old enough to join the itinerant lifestyle of the court at about age eight.
When Margaret was three years old, she was betrothed to three-year-old John, heir to John I, Duke of Brabant. The Duke had a reputation as an accomplished and famous jouster in tournaments across Northern Europe. The betrothal required written confirmation from the Duke, his wife and his brother along with Brabaçon nobles and mayors of the principal cities in the duchy.
In addition, there was a list of castles, farms, villages, forests, rents, and windmills which were assigned to Margaret in the event of the death of her husband, with the rest of the estate going to their heirs. It is estimated that this portion of the estates was worth an annual income of 3,100 livres Tournois (about 800 pounds sterling in 1278 or £555,000 in today’s money). In return, King Edward I had to pay for Margaret’s dowry of fifty thousand livres Tournois, money that he most likely borrowed.
Margaret and her siblings travelled between the designated castles, usually being brought up by servants with occasional visits by their parents. They were given an education which was overseen by their mother and taught manners and the ways of the court so they could project the appropriate regality when they joined the activities of the court. They were given instruction in theology, logic and basic arithmetic, manners and courtesy and read secular and liturgical texts. Margaret was taught embroidery and there is historical evidence she owned a spindle, indicating she probably practiced weaving. The children were trained to ride and hunt, a pastime their mother enjoyed very much. They learned to appreciate music, and maybe even to play some musical instruments.
In August of 1284, Margaret’s brother Prince Alphonso died. Margaret and her sister Mary had spent a lot of time with him. That same year, Margaret’s fiancé John arrived from Brabant to be raised in England and complete his education. He was accompanied by his entourage which included a knight, horse master, tailor, falconer and a lute player. He showed a remarkable devotion to the art of the hunt and appears to have been more focused on courtly pursuits rather than learning statecraft.
The following year, Margaret’s sister Mary, aged six, took a vow of chastity and became a nun at the church of Amesbury. In 1286, King Edward and Queen Eleanor left England to go to their estates in Gascony in what is now France. Margaret left court and returned to the nursery where she was raised by governesses and aristocratic ladies who came to visit and instruct her.
Margaret spent this time learning how to project the image of the idealized, highly accomplished courtly lady. All the children spent these years at Langley which served as the official state residence while the king and queen were away. Everyone spent Christmas there in 1286, including Margaret’s fiancé. The king and queen returned to Dover in the fall of 1289 and Margaret and her siblings travelled to the coast to greet them.
While on the Continent, Eleanor of Castile had contracted a quartan fever which is a form of malaria. By early 1290, she was making plans for her own death and burial. Due to his wife’s illness, King Edward decided to fast-track the marriage of Margaret’s elder sister Joanna to Gilbert de Clare, 8th Earl of Gloucester and Margaret’s to John of Brabant so Eleanor could witness the weddings. When all the arrangements had been made, the family went to Winchester for a tournament and festivities to celebrate the marriages. Gilbert de Clare and John of Brabant participated in the events with King Edward paying John’s expenses. This was followed by a feast around an enormous round table, eighteen feet in diameter. It hangs on the wall of the great hall of Winchester Castle to this day.
Everyone made their way back to Westminster and Joanna was married the following week. Preparations were made for Margaret’s wedding. Margaret’s mother ordered several pieces of gold jewelry for her, including a silver crown for her wedding and a gold crown studded with three hundred emeralds and a gold chaplet covered in rubies and pearls with the heraldic leopard of England in sapphires. John’s father arrived for the festivities.
Married on July 8, 1290 amid great pageantry, King Edward was determined to impress the Duke of Brabant and his entourage. After the wedding, there was a feast at Westminster Palace with hundreds of guests and the party lasted into the wee hours of the night. It was meant to impress not only the Brabançons, but the English nobility too. King Edward viewed this marriage and the ceremonies as an investment in the expansion of English political and economic influence.
Margaret and John joined her parents on progress during the late summer. In September, the couple issued their first charter, a document forming a commission to look after her dower. John used his own seal and Margaret used her mother’s seal to verify the charter. Not long after this, John left to visit Brabant to continue his education in statecraft with his father. Margaret was probably with her mother on the fateful journey back to London when Eleanor of Castile died at Harby. She may have accompanied her mother’s remains back to London. There was a magnificent funeral and burial in Westminster Abbey for the Queen.
Margaret’s grandmother, the Dowager Queen Eleanor of Provence, died in June 1291. Life went on as usual for Margaret and John returned to England. In September of 1293, Margaret’s elder sister Eleanor married Henri III, Count of Bar. That spring, in 1294, Margaret and her brother Edward were stricken with a dangerous fever. Both were bedridden for two weeks, but the fever eventually broke and they survived.
Shortly after her recovery, her sister Eleanor left England to go live with her husband Henri. In May, there was a welcoming tournament in Bar and Margaret’s father-in-law, while participating in the jousting, suffered a fatal injury and died. Her husband was now John II, Duke of Brabant and Margaret was Duchess and John was summoned home.
Margaret was nineteen and had been married for four years with not even a hint of pregnancy. The pressure to produce an heir was now on and in reality, there was no reasonable argument for her and John to remain in England. John sailed from Harwich in June of 1295 without Margaret. Perhaps she rebelled at leaving home and was apprehensive about meeting the expectations of taking up the honors and duties as Duchess. She may have been anxious because she didn’t speak any Dutch. Whatever the reasons, it definitely appears she was in no hurry to go to Brabant and neither her father nor her husband pressed the issue.
In the end, she crossed the Channel and finally arrived in Brussels in February of 1297 with a large and costly trousseau. By Christmas, King Edward was in Ghent where his army had gathered to fight the French. He was joined by Margaret’s sister Elizabeth, who had married the Count of Holland, as well as Eleanor, Countess of Bar. Margaret and John celebrated Christmas and New Year’s with the family. King Edward knighted John on Christmas Day. Margaret and John left in February to return to Brabant and she hosted her father in Brussels later that winter.
After ten years of marriage and at the age of twenty-five, Margaret at last was pregnant. A son, named John after his father was born in late 1300. Her husband had several mistresses and at least four illegitimate sons, all named John. Margaret kept her distance from court while he carried on these affairs. She built a castle at Tervuren, replacing an earlier royal hunting lodge and Duke John seemed to enjoy the time he spent there while indulging his passion for hunting.
In early 1306, there were rising tensions in Brabant between the weavers and the aristocratic merchant class. The weavers revolted in Brussels and vandalized many of the merchant’s homes, before moving on to threaten the ducal palace of Coudenberg where Margaret resided. Instead of fleeing to safety, Margaret spoke to the weavers, persuading them to disband and return home. While we don’t know exactly what she said, the mob did refrain from attacking the palace. After returning to Coudenberg from a hunting expedition at Tervuren, Duke John and his men chased the weavers from the city. He then reconfirmed the privileges of the merchant class.
In July 1307, King Edward I died and the special favor Margaret and her sisters received on his behalf dissipated. The political climate in England changed drastically upon the accession of Margaret’s brother King Edward II. In January 1308, Margaret, her husband and her son, along with a large retinue, traveled from Brussels to Boulogne-sur-Mer where they were installed in a large house within the walls of the city. Her brother, King Edward II was coming to marry Isabella, daughter of King Philip IV of France. There were several days of celebrations and feasts.
Margaret took this opportunity to renew her relationship with her brother and they remained on friendly terms from that point forward. The entire entourage then made their way to Wissant to sail to England to witness the double coronation of Edward and Isabella in Westminster Abbey on February 25, 1308. In early March, Margaret and John returned to Brabant. She never saw England again. In 1311, when Edward II’s favorite Piers Gaveston was exiled, he spent time at the court of the Duke and Duchess of Brabant.
In 1312, Duke John enacted the Charter of Kortenberg. This established a ruling council of nobles and townsmen for Brabant to oversee his rule. He apparently felt this limiting of his own authority was appropriate. Duke John died on October 27, 1312. Margaret’s son was only twelve and she could have pressed her case to act as regent for him until his majority. However, she played no formal role in her son’s government and appears to have lived quietly outside the ducal court. There is evidence she was still alive in 1333 at the age of fifty-eight, living on her dower estate. After that, her name disappears from the historical record. She was buried next to her husband in what is now the Cathedral of St Michael and St. Gudula in Brussels.
What is Margaret’s relationship to the Valois Dukes of Burgundy? Her son, John III, Duke of Brabant married Marie d’Évreux, a member of the House of Capet, the royal family of France. They had three surviving daughters, Joanna, Margaret and Marie. The second daughter, Margaret of Brabant, married Louis of Male, Count of Flanders and their surviving daughter, Margaret of Male, married Philip the Bold, the first Valois Duke of Burgundy.
Further reading: “Daughters of Chivalry: The Forgotten Princesses of King Edward Longshanks” by Kelcey Wilson-Lee, “Medieval Flanders” by David Nicholas, “Eleanor of Castile: The Shadow Queen” by Sara Cockerill, “Eleanor of Castile: Queen and Society in Thirteenth Century England” by John Carni Parsons