Marguerite of Austria

Archduchess Marguerite of Austria was the second of the two children of Mary, Duchess of Burgundy, and Maximilian, later Holy Roman Emperor. When she was two, her mother was killed, leaving Marguerite’s brother Philip (later known as Philip the Fair) as her heir, and Maximilian as regent of her territories.

This occasioned strife within the Burgundian lands, and with neighbouring France, under Louis XI, who sought to take control of some of the Burgundian provinces. A treaty was agreed at Arras, in late 1482, under which Marguerite was to be married to Louis’ son, the Dauphin Charles, with the counties of Artois and Franche-Comté as her dowry.

Accordingly, the following year, the little girl travelled to France to be brought up alongside her future husband. She entered Paris to great acclaim, before being taken to Amboise for her betrothal. Marguerite lived in France for ten years, under the care of her husband’s sister, Anne of Beaujeu, Duchess of Bourbon. Anne was the most powerful woman in France, leading the government during the minority of Charles, who became king shortly after his betrothal to Marguerite.

Having gone to France so young, Marguerite grew up speaking French, and expecting one day to be queen of the country, but her expectations were dashed in 1491 when Charles VIII renounced their betrothal to marry the heiress to Brittany, Anne.

Marguerite should have been sent home immediately, but was held in France for another two humiliating years, exiled to a minor chateau, and never knowing if she would be allowed to return to her family. Finally, following the Treaty of Senlis, Marguerite, and her dowry, were handed back to her brother, Philip, Duke of Burgundy, and her father. She took up residence with her step-grandmother, Margaret of York, at Mechelen.

Although Marguerite would probably not have remembered her family, having been sent to France aged only three, she quickly became fond of them, and it is apparent from the conduct of all of them over the rest of their lives that they were genuinely attached.

In 1494, a double marriage was agreed. Marguerite and Philip were to marry the son and daughter of the joint sovereigns of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella. Philip’s bride, Juana, arrived in the Low Countries in 1495 and the couple were swiftly married – a union that was to produce six children but was to be profoundly unhappy.

A few months later, Marguerite set sail for Spain. Forced to put into the English port of Southampton, for shelter from the Channel storms, the archduchess eventually arrived in Spain in early March 1497. She was met en route from Santander to Burgos by her husband-to-be, eighteen-year-old Juan, Prince of the Asturias. The couple were married a few days later in the cathedral at Burgos, in the presence of all of Juan’s family (except, of course, his sister, Juana.)

Marguerite was quickly assimilated into the Spanish royal family, and seems to have been a general favourite. Her husband was delighted with her, and it was feared that he was undermining his health by over-exertion in the marital bed. Despite the advice of his doctors, with which his father agreed, Juan and his mother did not believe that the young couple should be parted. Within six months, Juan was dead (presumably from some cause other than sexual exertion) and Marguerite was a pregnant widow.

Castile recognised female inheritance, so any child of Marguerite’s would automatically become heir to the Castilian throne – the position in Aragon was more ambivalent. Sadly, however, Marguerite miscarried.  Marguerite remained in Spain for another two years, much comforted in her sorrow by her mother-in-law, and building a friendship with her sister-in-law, Catalina (Katharine), who in 1501 sailed to England to marry Arthur, Prince of Wales.  

Marguerite herself returned to the Low Countries in 1499, and spent two years with her step-grandmother, the Dowager-duchess of Burgundy, Margaret of York. In 1501, a marriage was arranged for Marguerite with Philibert II, Duke of Savoy. Savoy was an independent duchy, straddling what is now the French-Italian border. She travelled to meet Philibert in the autumn of 1501. Marguerite was fortunate in her second marriage, too – she and her husband fell in love, and spent several happy years together, during which Marguerite played an active role in politics – strengthening the position of Savoy as an Imperial territory, against French claims. Sadly, the marriage was all too short – she was widowed again in 1504, when Philibert was killed in a hunting accident.

Attempts by Marguerite’s father and brother to marry her to Henry VII of England were steadily resisted by her. As she was now twice widowed and in her mid-twenties, she had far more control over her life than she had had as an unmarried girl.

Eventually, the project was given up – partly because Maximilian had a new role for his daughter. In 1506, Marguerite’s brother died, and she was appointed to deputise for Maximilian as regent in the Low Countries for her six-year old nephew, Charles, Duke of Burgundy and heir to the kingdoms of Spain, as well as the most likely person to succeed Maximilian as emperor.

From 1506 to 1515, Marguerite fulfilled her role admirably, building the Anglo-Burgundian alliance, and bringing up Charles and three of his sisters – the other siblings, Ferdinand and Catherine, were brought up in Spain. During those years, Maximilian entered various leagues with other foreign rulers, including Marguerite’s father-in-law, Ferdinand, and she was frequently required to represent their interests in negotiations with other powers.  Her greatest disappointment was when Maximilian and Charles repudiated the previously agreed betrothal of Charles to Mary of England, throwing Henry VIII of England into a league with France.

In 1515, Charles took control of his territories, and Marguerite stepped back, leaving the Lord de Chièvres as Charles’ chief advisor. After an initial period of distrust, during which Marguerite was accused of financial irregularities - an accusation she was able to refute - she was restored to Charles’ trust.

In 1516, Charles became King of Spain (in theory, jointly with his mother, Queen Juana). After a delay of some months, he set sail for his new kingdom, leaving Marguerite once again in charge. The next two years were taken up with Marguerite and Maximilian paving the way for Charles to add the title of Holy Roman Emperor to his collection – something that was eventually achieved in 1519, after Maximilian’s death.

The early 1520s were another period of shifting alliances. Henry VIII of England was persuaded that the old alliance with Spain and Burgundy was preferable to an alliance with France, a rapprochement that was helped by a meeting at Gravelines, and then at Calais, between Henry and his wife, Katharine of Aragon (Marguerite’s sister-in-law), and Marguerite and Charles. It was secretly agreed that, if the Anglo-French treaty collapsed, Charles would marry Henry’s daughter, his cousin, Princess Mary.

Following this meeting, Marguerite and Charles went first to Maastricht, where she was once again sworn in as Governess, and then to Aachen, where she witnessed his coronation as King of the Romans.

The betrothal with England finally took place in 1522, and Charles and Henry undertook a joint attack on François I of France - Charles in the disputed territories in Italy, and Henry, in the person of his brother-in-law, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, in the northern part of France, bordering Marguerite’s territory. She raised soldiers and money for the campaign, but it proved fruitless – Suffolk being unable to follow up his early victories.

Charles was infinitely more successful, capturing King Fran­çois at the Battle of Pavia on 24th February 1525, soon after which Charles again broke a betrothal with England, to marry the fabulously wealthy Isabella of Portugal. The next few years brought unremitting war in Italy, including the Sack of Rome in 1527, by Charles’ unpaid troops.

Eventually, in summer of 1529, it was agreed that Marguerite and her sister-in-law, Louise of Savoy, would negotiate a final settlement. They spent two weeks together hammering out the Treaty of Cambrai, which became known as the Ladies’ Peace. It was largely advantageous for Marguerite’s family, not surprisingly, considering that Charles had marginally more resources than François, but gave enough to France to be acceptable. It did not, of course, last long.

Marguerite returned to her palace at Mechelen, where she had spent much of her regency – a patron of painters, scholars and musicians and a respected and loved role model for her nieces.  She might have looked forward to many happy years ahead, but she accidentally trod on a piece of broken glass: the wound became infected, and she died either of septicaemia or the opium administered in preparation for an amputation.

She was buried in the fabulous memorial chapel she had commissioned for herself and her much-loved second husband, Philibert of Savoy, at Brou, near Bourg-en-Bresse.