Mary of Burgundy – princess testament to doomed youth

The tragedy of Mary of Burgundy, snubbed heiress to one of Europe's great dynasties, echoes down the ages.
The tomb of Mary of Burgundy, beside that of her father, in the Church of Our Lady in Bruges
The tomb of Mary of Burgundy, beside that of her father, in the Church of Our Lady in Bruges
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The only child of Charles the Bold, Mary avoided becoming a pawn in Louis XI’s expansionist game by marrying Maximilian of Austria, a turning point in Europe’s fortunes with repercussions for centuries to come.

‘Queens have died young and fair.’ The Church of Our Lady in Bruges has two treasures. The first is a Virgin and Child by Michelangelo. Few of his sculptures found their way north of the Alps: this is possibly the finest of those that did. It is a poem of womanhood. The second is another poem in sculpture and although the lady in question bore three children, she has a virginal mien, as if she too were a handmaiden of the Lord. This is a poem of serenity and the transcendence of grief.

Mary of Burgundy, whose tomb it adorns, was a remarkable figure who had to struggle to control her own destiny. As the daughter and only child of Charles the Bold – Charles le Téméraire, Duke of Burgundy – she was the greatest heiress in Europe, and much coveted. Her aptly named father sought to consolidate his dominions, linking Ducal Burgundy with the county of Flanders. In pursuit of this, he tried to over-run Lorraine. That brought his quest to an end. In 1477, he was killed at the siege of Nancy.

Her father’s death led to a dramatic shift in Mary’s fortunes. Louis XI of France was devious, dislikeable, unscrupulous and ruthless. He was also one of the ablest medieval French monarchs. He saw an opportunity and seized it. Princess Mary was not quite eighteen. By the standards of the time, she was vulnerable. Louis demanded that she marry his heir, the Dauphin, and launched an invasion to enforce this: a rough wooing indeed. Mary was in desperate trouble. Her putative father-in-law thought nothing of her, only of her possessions. She would have been a prisoner at the French court. Had she proved truculent or otherwise inconvenient, her life expectancy would not have been great. Fortunately for her, she had an ally in Maximilian of Austria, one of her suitors. They married; he fought. While the French did take control of Ducal Burgundy, Flanders survived, and the dynastic and military union thrived. Though we know little of the inner lives of the two principals, the evidence suggests that necessity blossomed into love. Mary bore three children, (including Margaret of Austria, profiled in Engelsberg Ideas by Leonie Frieda).

Then came grief. The threat to Mary’s life did not only come from Louis XI’s poisoners. In 1482, while hunting in a forest near Louvain, she was thrown from her horse. Initially, she was defiant and actually rode back to Bruges. But it quickly became clear that her injuries were mortal. She spent her last weeks in devotions and in designing her tomb. Craftsmen were summoned, under the direction of Jan Bosman. Out of copper, gilt, enamel and stone, the face modelled on Mary’s death-mask, they produced a late glory of Burgundian art. If a tomb could convey earthly immortality, this one did.

Unbeknown to the stricken girl, she was about to become one of the most influential figures in European high politics for the next few centuries. This was due to the fruit of her womb. Her eldest son, Philip the Fair, inherited her lands and his father’s. He married Juana la Loca (Joanna the Mad), daughter and heir of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. Juana’s life was full of affliction, but she produced several children, including Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain. He ruled an empire large enough to threaten his neighbours, but too disparate to be wieldy. On his death, Charles divided it, which did not prevent conflict between the Hapsburgs and France becoming a principal factor in almost every European war until 1914. 

Contemplating Mary’s face at peace, portrayed as if she had died faithful to God and with goodwill to all men, it is hard to believe she would become the matriarch of battles. Such is the human condition, even in Burgundy.

Burgundy: the word is evocative, not only because of the wine, but of European high culture, and of a great might-have been. When Charlemagne divided his empire, he created a Middle Kingdom – which included ducal Burgundy – Lotharingia, named after Lothair, its first ruler. The names have a romantic quality. The history was far more troublesome. When France was not being subdued by the English, its kings often looked to expand their domains, frequently at Burgundy’s expense. The Burgundians were therefore often at war, and the course of Mary’s life was irrevocably altered. Even centuries later, there is something beguiling about the concept of a Middle Kingdom, based on the Rhine and stretching from Switzerland to the North Sea. The river would have become a conduit for trade and art. From the receipts of commerce and rich farmland great cities, castles, abbeys and other churches would have flourished along the route. Artists and musicians would have flocked to the court. All the aesthetic joys of Europe could have been encouraged and enhanced. The river would have been full of Rhine maidens, but no Alberichs, or dragons. Mankind would have been uplifted.

It was not to be. Instead of a conduit, the Rhine became a frontier. This did stimulate enhancement – of generalship and the materiel of war. Over the centuries, there were plenty of Siegfrieds, but even more dragons.  As if battles for territory were not enough, there were also wars of religion, accompanied by iconoclasm. Reading the histories, it seems surprising how many cultural artefacts survived; human creativity is almost indestructible. But modern wars have inflicted terrible damage, on men’s creations, and on their bodies. The laureate of twentieth century Flanders was not some troubadour, delighting Princess Mary and her ladies. It is Wilfred Owen and his Anthem for Doomed Youth. Those youths were often younger than Mary when they met their doom. Ezra Pound provided another anthem: 

There died a myriad,

And of the best among them,

For an old bitch gone in the teeth,

For a botched civilisation.

Those words are hard to gainsay amidst the battlefield cemeteries of Flanders. But somehow, I always find Mary’s tomb an antidote to the horrors of the twentieth century. This might seem an absurd paradox, given her embattled life, a legacy she passed on to her descendants, but for me, in its profound evocation of peace, her tomb has an almost mystical force. To whom or what I know not, but I am almost tempted to kneel in prayer. There has never been any suggestion that Mary was a candidate for sainthood – though if she converted me, that would surely count as one miracle.

Sanctity or not, I always find the tomb a sanctuary: a poem of girlhood, of chivalry and of grace. It is an assurance that despite all the historical evidence to the contrary, the destroyers of civilisation shall have no dominion. It is an enclave of protection against the troubles of our proud and angry dust.

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