Margaret of Austria, Duchess of Savoy – true to her own self

No matter how perilous her situation, Margaret of Austria lost neither her calm nor her composure, nor even her sense of fun.

'Diptych: Philip the Handsome and Margaret of Austria', c1493. Philip the Handsome (1478-1506) became Philip I of Castile. Margaret of Austria (1480-1530) became Regent of the Netherlands. Painting housed at The National Gallery, London.
'Diptych: Philip the Handsome and Margaret of Austria', c1493. Philip the Handsome (1478-1506) became Philip I of Castile. Margaret of Austria (1480-1530) became Regent of the Netherlands. Painting housed at The National Gallery, London. From The Connoisseur Volume LXXXVIII, edited by C. Reginald Grundy. [The Connoisseur Ltd, London, 1931] (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)

Margaret of Austria, Duchess of Savoy, perhaps, the greatest woman of the Renaissance period, was born in 1480 in Brussels, to Maximilian Habsburg, Archduke of Austria, and Mary, Duchess of Burgundy. She was the younger sister of Philip, later known as the ‘The Handsome’, who was born in 1478. Tragedy soon struck the family; shortly after Margaret’s birth, Mary of Burgundy fell from her horse while out hunting and suffered a broken back, dying soon afterwards. Step-grandmother and godmother Margaret of York, the Dowager duchess of Burgundy, would have to do as Mary’s Mother figure.

Margaret was betrothed while still a young child, and married at the tender age of three. Her union with her husband, the French Dauphin Charles, was cemented for purely pragmatic reasons.  The French king Louis XI had taken shelter at the court of Burgundy while he was still Dauphin, after causing his father Charles VII trouble for years. Eventually, after he committed an act of treason that Charles could not ignore, he escaped from his father’s troops and dashed across the border into Burgundy where he, his wife, and daughters were given a warm welcome.

Later, Louis’s way of repaying this hospitality and kindness was to declare war upon Burgundy as soon as his father died. He became King and Margaret’s marriage, aged three, to the Dauphin Charles, his son, was part of the peace treaty agreed at Arras between her father Maximilian Habsburg and Louis XI.

Louis was an unpleasant character, even by the debased standards of the time. He loathed most people and considered women particularly odious. The only exception to this widespread misanthropy was his elder daughter Anne of France who he called ‘la moins folle femme du monde’, ‘the least mad woman in the world’. Yet his nickname of ‘the spider king’ was well merited thanks to his patient weaving of ingenious plans. The marriage carried it with it a treasure trove of disputed territories as the Princess’s dowry. The dominions that filled Margaret’s wedding chest included Macon, Bar-sur-Seine, the County of Artois and much more. And, vitally, Margaret’s marriage provided an imperial and human pledge to peace between France and the Empire, fragile though it seemed at the time.

‘The least mad woman in the world’, meanwhile, took control of Margaret’s upbringing. She was to be brought up in a style befitting of a future Queen consort. Anne of France’s beauty was as imperious as her manner. She had flawless white skin, and arched brows with a pronounced widow’s peak of almost black hair peeping from under her head-dress. She was as ruthless as her father, but could be charming when the need arose. Anne proved to be a brilliant political tactician, a voracious reader and a superb huntswoman. One historian described her as a clinical killer. She was a huge influence on Margaret from their first encounter with the rest of the Habsburg party at the French frontier in the late spring of 1483.

Anne rode alongside Margaret for her triumphal procession through Paris. The tiny Habsburg princess had been dressed in superb black velvet studded with large fine pearls, and happily acknowledged the greetings of the wild throng of people welcoming the promise of peace, courtesy of her arrival, the future Queen of France. And on 22 June, Margaret met her future husband Dauphin Charles for the first time at the Chateau of Amboise. He was aged twelve, and she was three. If she had had any language, she would have been expected to follow in the traditions of earlier princely households of the Italian Peninsula, where the ruler’s children learned to make declarations and recite responses in a courtly manner.

There is no record of her first impression of the kindly twelve-year-old Dauphin, later known as ‘Charles the Affable’. His good nature was in contrast to his unfortunate physical appearance, thanks to his oversized head, bulging eyes and blubbery lips. Yet a formal betrothal took place soon afterwards before a huge crowd, and the couple were subsequently joined in marriage at the chateau’s lower church. The Dauphin slipped a tiny ring on his bride’s finger, thanked the nobles who had attended, and was said to be in high good humour. Meanwhile, his three-year old Dauphine probably needed a long nap after these unprecedented excitements.

Their hasty marriage proved to be a timely one. On 30 August 1483, a mere two months after the nuptials, Louis XI died, and the newlyweds became King and Queen of France.

The true power now lay with Margaret’s guardian, Anne of France. She had also been given care of the young King which made Anne, also known as ‘Madame la Grande’, the de facto ruler of France, even if she was not formally regent. Although Charles had reached the age when the French considered their monarch fit to rule, he was immature, and it was universally agreed that he needed a few more years before he could take on the cares of kingship without guidance.

Anne now channelled her father’s ruthlessness and successfully battled the most senior princes who felt she had usurped their right to a regency council. As long as she had the King with her, her soldiers and her will prevailed, despite the ill feeling that this caused. She oversaw the young royals’ education, and their households. Soon, a whole school of royal children lived at court. Her impoverished niece and nephew, Louise and Philibert of Savoy, also came to live at the French court and became part of the royal circle, all of whom received a rounded education sans pareille. Yet this did not translate into personal warmth when it came to the young Margaret. Anne had much to occupy her, and apart from ensuring that Margaret received the treatment and household befitting a queen of France, there was little amicability.

Margaret’s upbringing at the French court was generally a happy one. Charles played with his young wife and she was petted by the aristocrats with whom she was brought up. Louise of Savoy became her friend, as did Louis of Orléans, later Louis XII of France. When not studying, the young royals spent their time playing games and hunting, something that Margaret, like Madame la Grande, excelled at. Yet in 1490 Margaret’s father Maximilian, by this time King of the Romans, married again, this time to fourteen-year-old Anne, Sovereign Duchess of Brittany. After the proxy nuptials took place, Margaret must have noticed a tense atmosphere at the French court, as Maximilian’s marriage violated a treaty which duty bound him to consult Charles ‘the affable’, now Charles VIII, about a marriage to Anne of Brittany.

As a result of this union, the young King of France reluctantly repudiated Margaret as his wife. This was undoubtedly Anne, Madame la Grande’s doing, as her fear was that France would be left strategically insecure, and surrounded by Habsburg territories. Charles explained to a tearful Margaret that she must be sent away, and that she could no longer consider herself his wife nor Queen of France.

Living in dour surroundings with a drastically reduced household, Margaret nursed her own sorrows. While she was not in the thick of the political outrage that dominated Europe, she wrote aggrieved letters to Madame La Grande complaining that a lady of her birth should be reduced to living in squalid surroundings. She was particularly angered that Charles had ordered her sole companion to leave, ‘she is my only friend, when I have lost her I shall not know what to do.’ Yet adversity strengthened her. At table, Margaret showed spirit when two French gentlemen of her household remarked that the wine was not good that year because the weather had been too cold. Sardonically, she mocked the king’s promises by commenting ‘it was not surprising if the vines (sarments de vigne) were green this year, as vows (serments) were of no value either.’ She was referring to the king’s promises.

After the Pope granted the double dispensation freeing Charles from Margaret, Europe was plunged into a two-year war. Maximilian wanted his daughter and her vast dowry back. At the conclusion of the war, the Treaty of Senlis was signed in 1493, satisfying Maximilian’s demands, and Margaret finally arrived back in Mechelen, along with a coif and other small golden objects that had been sent with her by Anne of Brittany.

Margaret behaved with complete composure and thanked her French escort for bringing her home, assuring them that she ‘bore them no ill-will’ diplomatically. Her good wishes did not extend to France as a whole. Maximilian became Holy Roman Emperor in 1493 and Margaret continued her education living with her former tutor, Margaret of York. At six foot tall, the dowager Duchess was a towering figure, and one much beloved by her late husband’s people. She continued to wield political and diplomatic influence where her late husband had once ruled.

As for Margaret of Austria, it was time for her to be married once more. Her father’s court was known as the ‘marriage agency for the Habsburgs’. He finalised plans for Margaret to marry the Crown Prince, son of King Ferdinand II of Aragon, Juan of the Asturias, and for Margaret’s brother Philip to be united with Joanna (later known as La Loca). The eighteen-year old Margaret had grown into a beautiful young woman ‘waving golden hair, a brilliant complexion, soft brown eyes and a narrow face’. She was a likeable figure, and it did not take long for those around her to perceive her quick wit and intellectual gifts. Both Juan and his parents felt enchanted by Margaret. The couple married on 3 April 1497, she soon became pregnant, but this was disrupted by tragedy. Juan died of a fever on 4 October, and Margaret’s daughter was born stillborn nearly a year after their marriage, on 2 April 1498.

The return of Margaret’s dowry led to a tussle between Ferdinand of Aragon and Maximilian. Ferdinand did not relish the return home of his new daughter-in-law: he wished to keep the Princess on the Iberian peninsula and to find her a husband within his own sphere of influence. Maximilian demanded his daughter be returned, with her dowry. Matters were not helped by Margaret’s spendthrift brother Philip, who felt less than ecstatic about his sister’s reappearance: he had enjoyed considerable benefits derived from managing Margaret’s maternal inheritance during her absence.

Philip and his crowd of cronies were eager to come into possession of the fabulous inheritance due to his wife Joanna. The death of Margaret’s husband had changed Joanna, the Spanish Princess Infanta’s prospects beyond recognition. Philip treated Joanna cruelly. Although she provided him with six children, he repaid her with a mocking disgust.

On 24 February 1500, shortly after Margaret’s return home, Joanna gave birth to a son named Charles, heir to the thrones of Spain and the Habsburg Empire. Once joined, it would be the largest empire in Europe. The Habsburg Princess could not share in the celebrations over the future inheritance that her husband’s death and the birth of a male heir promised her dynasty. The discord that had existed from the beginning even between the Spanish and Habsburg households led to a deeper and far more sinister development. Joanna had always been mentally frail, but her miserable marriage, living far from her mother Queen Isabella whose approval and physical proximity she craved, drove the Infanta to periods of madness.

The elders of both Spanish and Habsburg households petitioned for Margaret’s intervention to bring about an understanding between the couple and their followers. Margaret found herself prevented from helping or speaking to her brother. Unable to intervene and powerless to improve matters, she withdrew and moved into her castle and estates at Le Quesnoy. The Spanish Ambassador Fuensilada wrote: ‘She [Margaret] is returning to her own lands now because she is not able to suffer here the things that she sees before her own eyes.’

After a short and happy third marriage to Philibert, Duke of Savoy, Margaret returned home a widow barely three years later. In 1505 Philip’s sudden death in Spain left his widow Joanna incarcerated under her father’s auspices for apparent insanity and the couple’s six children were officially placed in their aunt’s care; Margaret’s court became a true Ecole Princière. The most significant of her charges was Charles, later Charles V Holy Roman Emperor.

After the tumultuous early decades of her life, Margaret became a legendary figure, not only as the greatest influence upon Charles of Habsburg and the official Governess of the Netherlands, but also as an exemplar for the many women rulers and regents who came to power after her death, particularly those sovereigns and regents of the Early Modern Period. Today, she is barely written about and remains a mostly forgotten figure, while Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots and Catherine de Medici retain their renown, if not always for the right reasons.

Perhaps it is the unusual lack of drama and controversy with which she managed to navigate her way through the many sorrows, difficulties and reversals she had to endure throughout her life. No matter how perilous her situation, Margaret lost neither her calm nor her composure, nor even her sense of fun. After being schooled in humiliating rejection as Queen Consort of France, and later being charged with mismanagement, if not theft, during her first tenure as Regent of the Habsburg Netherlands, and consequent dismissal from office, for which she was acquitted and her reputation restored.

Her contributions to culture and history are immeasurable: the Renaissance glory of Margaret’s palace at Mechelen; or the Savoyard Church at Brou which she had enlarged as well as remodelled to fit her own tomb with that of her late husband Duke Philibert. She was able to exert her power and influence as a woman on her own terms, rather than be subjugated to the men around her. It is a mark of Archduchess Margaret of Austria, Princess of Burgundy, Dowager Duchess of Savoy, Dowager Princess of the Asturias, and the former ‘Petite Reine’ de France’s enduring success that she remains pre-eminent in her period.

Yet she herself would not have wished to be regarded as an exemplar, but merely as a committed public servant of her dynasty. When she appeared in public, to the cheers and lionisation of the crowd, who shouted ‘Long live Margaret’, holding up her hand she acknowledged and hushed her admirers: ‘Rather, cry ‘Long live Burgundy.’’

Perhaps, she would have considered her personal disappearance from public memory a mark of good breeding and good manners.


Leonie Frieda