Margaret of Brabant, Countess of Flanders

A 16th century depiction of Margaret of Brabant, Countess of Flanders (1323-1380) by French painter Arnould de Vuez

Margaret of Brabant, Countess of Flanders first came to my attention many years ago while reading a biography of Philippa of Hainault, Queen of England written in the early 20th century. The author recalls the tale of the near marriage of Philippa and King Edward III’s eldest daughter Isabella to Louis of Male, Count of Flanders. Louis jilted poor Isabella of England at the altar and proceeded to marry Margaret, daughter of John III, Duke of Brabant.

Not surprisingly, Louis was not a faithful husband to Margaret, having numerous mistresses and illegitimate children. The author of Philippa’s biography proceeds to tell an astonishing story. She says Margaret discovered one of Louis’ mistresses had given birth to a child (or twins, depending on the source) and proceeds to cut off the nose of the lover, resulting in her death. Of course, the author had not footnoted this, and I had to know more.

In researching the source of this tale, I could find very little information on Margaret of Brabant, let alone the mistress. Admittedly, my lack of knowledge of Dutch or German hindered my efforts. Periodically over the years, repeated attempts to find out more only yielded tantalizingly scant tidbits. But years of experience in historical research and the ability to translate articles finally allowed me to gather enough information to flesh out this fantastical story.

Margaret was born on February 9, 1323, the second daughter of Duke John III of Brabant and Marie d’Évreux, a granddaughter of King Philip III of France. Little is known of Margaret’s upbringing, but she would have received an education consistent with her rank. She had three brothers: John, Henry and Gottfried, an elder sister Joan and a younger sister Marie.

Margaret’s father had to navigate a complicated political situation between his feudal suzerain the Holy Roman Emperor and his trading partner of France. At the same time, the economy of Brabant relied on English wool for the essential industry of the manufacture of woolen cloth. His initial attempt to maintain independent neutrality from both France and England failed and neighboring sovereigns in the Low Countries became John’s enemies. He turned to France for support, leading him to break with the Holy Roman Emperor. War broke out between the princes of the Low Countries and Brabant, but the French king brokered a peace. As part of the agreement, John’s youngest daughter Marie was to marry Reginald III, Duke of Guelders.

Meanwhile, King Edward III of England decided to press his claim to the crown of France in 1337 thus inaugurating the Hundred Years War. Duke John, a first cousin of Edward, became his ally in the war. Edward promised to divert the wool trade from Flanders to the newly established wool exchange in Brabant. He also protected Brabançon merchants in England from arrest and confiscation of their goods. In addition, Edward promised to pay the enormous sum of £60,000 to make good on any losses of revenue that might be seized by the French king. In return, Duke John promised Edward twelve hundred men-at-arms for the English campaign in France, with Edward paying their salaries.

Edward landed with his troops at Antwerp in July 1338. Duke John received the promised subsidy in March 1339 and, in June, agreed to marry his second daughter Margaret to King Edward’s son and heir, Edward, Prince of Wales, also known as the Black Prince. But after two seasons of fruitless campaigning, King Edward had run out of money and went back home at the end of 1341. He never returned to the Low Countries.

Louis of Male, Count of Flanders from “Flandria Illustrata”, 1641, by Antonius Sanderus

Duke John applied for a papal dispensation for Margaret’s marriage to the Black Prince. By September 1345, the contract of marriage was broken when representatives of France and Brabant met at the Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye to negotiate a preliminary agreement. By June 1347, a treaty was completed at Saint-Quentin whereby Brabant became an ally of France. The agreement stipulated that Margaret of Brabant would marry Louis of Male, Count of Flanders, Nevers, and Rethel.

Louis’ ability to govern his Flemish communes was fraught with peril and he would be forced to deal with them during his entire reign. The Flemish cities relied on English wool for their economy, just as Brabant did. Personally, Louis had a rather unsavory character, but he was ambitious, diplomatically shrewd, and more than adequate in the miliary sphere, which served him well as he waged territorial wars and dealt with his rebellious subjects. In 1346, they tried to force Louis to marry Isabella, the eldest daughter of Edward III to maintain their good relations with England. Louis would have none of it and jilted Isabella at the altar. He would remain a staunch ally of the French king and he had promised him, as well as his own father, to marry Margaret of Brabant.

On July 1, 1347, Margaret and Louis were married at Vilvoorde in Brabant. There was a seven-year difference in their ages, with Louis being seventeen and Margaret twenty-four. She gave birth to their only surviving child, also named Margaret, on April 13, 1350. Margaret did not indicate any interest in developing an independent, political profile, only performing the usual duties of the wife of a Flemish nobleman.

Louis’ reign would be one long struggle for political supremacy with the Flemish communes, especially the town of Ghent. His subjects resented his arbitrary methods of government and the heavy taxation imposed upon them to pay for his extravagance and love of display. As competent as Louis was in dealing with public affairs, he was enthusiastic in his private life, favoring French musicians, singers, and comedians. Exceedingly devoted to women, he sired at least eighteen illegitimate children, all of whom were diligently provided for by their father.

Margaret’s status would change upon the death of her father on December 5, 1355. Her three brothers had all died, leaving her elder sister Joan as her father’s heir. Duke John did everything in his power to guarantee Joan would inherit all his principalities and domains as his sole successor. Margaret was to receive a payment of 120,000 thalers and Marie, a payment of 80,000 thalers, an arrangement the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV confirmed in the spring of 1354. In addition, Margaret would receive an annual income of ten thousand guilders.

Joan’s husband was Wenceslaus of Luxembourg, brother of Holy Roman Emperor and son of King John of Bohemia by his second wife. The couple came to an agreement with the Brabant estates whereby they would abide by the rule of law with a ‘Joyous Entry’ which ensured Joan and Wenceslaus a peaceable admission into their capital in return for settling her inheritance on her “natural heirs,” those being her sisters Margaret and Marie. The women were more acceptable to the burghers of Brabant than the House of Luxembourg.

However, Louis of Flanders had other ideas and began to call himself Duke of Brabant by right of his wife. Marie’s husband, Reginald III, Duke of Guelders also claimed part of the duchy on behalf of his wife. A meeting took place to discuss the situation and the Brabançon estates refused to allow the duchy to be divided. Wenceslaus made numerous promises, declaring he would function as regent during his wife’s lifetime, and after her death, Brabant would go to the rightful heir. Louis and Reginald were offered great sums of money to drop their claim. Louis declared he would not sell his wife’s inheritance and would do everything in his power to claim his rights. He demanded possession of Mechelen, which he asserted was his by rightful inheritance. The Prince-Bishop of Liège had sold the lordship of Mechelen to Louis’ father in 1333.

The War of the Brabantian Succession ensued. Louis made a military incursion into Brabant in 1356. Neither party wanted open battle, so negotiations were conducted at Wenceslaus’ insistence. The terms agreed Margaret should be assigned the seigniory of Mechelen or some equivalent possessions within Brabant. Louis was satisfied for the moment and returned to Flanders.

Hostilities broke out once again and in the following year. Joan and Wenceslaus negotiated another settlement and they signed the humiliating Peace of Ath on June 4, 1357. Mechelen, given independence and ceded to Louis, permitted Margaret to now call herself mistress of the enclave. Margaret acquired the fief of the town of Antwerp and its dependencies, according her significant income from the Antwerp estates. In return, Louis recognized Joan’s legitimate right to the duchy of Brabant.

In 1351, in an agreement with the king of France, Margaret’s daughter was betrothed to the nine-year-old Philip of Rouvres, Duke of Burgundy. The wedding took place in 1355 but the couple were children at the time and never consummated the marriage. Philip would die in 1361, either from the plague or a riding accident. Since he had no legitimate heirs, there was a vacancy for the title of Duke of Burgundy, and it was up to King John II of France to decide who would succeed him. John II named his youngest son Philip as the new Duke of Burgundy in 1363. He earned his moniker of the ‘Bold’ for his bravery in the Battle of Poitiers in 1356.

Miniature of the marriage of Margaret of Male to Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy

On June 19, 1369, Philip the Bold married the nineteen-year-old Margaret of Male. She was destined to inherit the County of Flanders, the Duchy of Brabant through her Aunt Joan, as well as the County of Artois and the Free County (Franche-Comté) of Burgundy through her paternal grandmother, thereby passing these principalities on to her husband. Louis of Flanders would call on his son-in-law for assistance several times when dealing with his unruly subjects.

On September 26, 1371, Margaret of Brabant and her mother-in-law, Margaret of France, Countess of Artois, as well as their attendants, were guests of Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy for a supper in Lens. Soon afterwards, Margaret left Flanders to reside permanently, far from the Flemish court, in Château-Regnault, at Bogny-sur-Meuse in the country of Rethel. She died there sometime after Easter in April 1380.

So, this brings up the question: Why did Margaret desert the Flemish court, something Belgian historians have debated for years. It seems an unknown chronicler from Bruges, in 1430, is the instigator of the report of Margaret cutting off the nose of Louis’ lover. He wrote this sixty years after the alleged event. It is entirely possible he spoke with someone who knew the truth of the matter from oral tradition. It is also possible he made up the entire scenario. Since then, a chronicler restated the story in 1531 and popular historians have repeated it down through the ages. Since we do not know the name of the Bruges chronicler, or his source, it is difficult to determine the truth.

Another myth that grew from the chronicles declared Louis imprisoned Margaret and hid her in the cellar of one of his castles. However, this legend was debunked in the twentieth century. Historians have stated the reasons for Margaret’s exile from court must have come down to either mental illness, or due to some sort of family drama. Was Margaret fed up with Louis’ womanizing? Did Louis tire of his older wife, i.e., like Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon? Louis never sought a divorce and he never remarried but this could be because he didn’t want to give up on acquiring the duchy of Brabant. We will never know the truth unless hidden historical writings are found.

Tomb of Margaret of Brabant, Countess of Flanders, Louis of Male, Count of Flanders and their daughter Margaret of Male, Duchess of Burgundy

Louis of Male founded a chapel in the collegiate church of Notre Dame in Kortrijk in 1372. He originally elected to be buried there but just before his death, he revoked this clause in his will and chose the chapel of Notre-Dame de la Traille in the collegiate church of St. Pierre at Lille. A tomb made of gilded brass was erected there. The monument consisted of a long square with three recumbent figures, decorated on four sides with twenty-four copper statues, eighteen inches high, surrounded by various emblems and the princes and princesses of Louis’ and Margaret’s relatives and ancestors. Once the tomb was finished, his wife Margaret’s remains were transferred there at the behest of her daughter.

Recumbant figures from the tomb of Margaret of Brabant, Louis of Male, Count of Flanders and their daughter Margaret of Male

Louis died on January 30, 1384, at St. Omer. Philip the Bold arranged for a lavish funeral in honor of his deceased parents-in-law in March and Louis’ remains were buried next to his wife. Their daughter Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy would join them upon her death in 1405. The church as destroyed during the French Revolution, but the tomb escaped destruction and was moved to the old town hall of Lille. It is now visible at the Museum of Fine Arts in Dijon. With the death of Louis, Count of Flanders, his daughter Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy’s inheritance was absorbed into the Burgundian Empire.

Further reading: “The Princely Court: Medieval Courts and Culture in North-West Europe” by Malcolm Vale, “The True Chronicles of Jean le Bel 1290-1360”, Warfare in Medieval Brabant” by Sergio Boffa, “Medieval Flanders” by David Nicholas, “Philip the Bold: The Formation of the Burgundian State” by Richard Vaughan, “Philippa of Hainault and Her Times” by Blanche Christabel Hardy, “The Promised Lands: The Low Countries Under Burgundian Rule 1369-1530” by Wim Blockmans and Walter Prevenier