Marguerite of Austria: Life Story

Chapter 3 : Ci-gît Margot

The business of a noblewoman was to marry to her family’s advantage, and produce heirs. Maximilian was elected as Holy Roman Emperor in 1493, adding to Marguerite’s prestige, if not to her financial status (the Empire tended to cost more to control, than it ever yielded in income). As part of a general strategy by the other European powers to keep France confined, Maximilian arranged a double marriage for Marguerite and her brother Philip, with Juan and Juana, children of the joint sovereigns of Spain, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile. This arrangement allowed for a mutual eschewing of dowries.

The proxy marriage was celebrated on 4th November 1495, with the Spanish envoy, Francisco de Rojas, acting for Juan. In the usual fashion, he touched his bare leg to Marguerite’s to signify the consummation. Now formally Princess of the Asturias, Marguerite waited for the fleet that would bring Juana from Spain and take her away to her new life.  

The Spanish fleet, battered by storms, arrived at last, and the new bride was welcomed at Antwerp by Marguerite and Margaret of York. The wedding of Philip and Juana was celebrated at Lille with a tournament – Juana’s knights challenging Marguerite’s, who sported her badge of the white daisy.   The marriage of Philip and Juana would prove disastrous to the mental health and well-being of Juana, and even in the early days his unkindness was apparent – he refused to pay her servants, or give her the income promised her to pay them herself, and many of the men who had sailed with Juana died of illness or malnutrition.

The outward journey of the fleet had been so beset by storms, that many ships were lost, and some months were spent in refitting it before Marguerite could embark. She perhaps spent the time learning Spanish from her new sister-in-law and finding out about the Spanish court, where, as in France, the dominant political figure was a woman – Isabella I of Castile, probably the single most powerful woman Europe has ever seen.

Eventually, all was ready, and Marguerite embarked at Vlessingen in January 1497, accompanied once again by her chief lady, Madame de Bouzanton.  It being winter, the  English Channel was subject to violent storms – so fierece that Marguerite, fearing she would drown, composed her own epitaph:

‘Ci-gît Margot, la gentil’ Damoiselle;
Qu’ eut marys, et si mourut pucelle’

(Here lies Margot, the noble lady, who had two husbands, but died a virgin). 

The fleet put into Southampton, England, and Marguerite, as courtesy demanded, sent a letter to the court of King Henry VII, to announce her arrival on his shores, and request protection. Henry immediately sent his cousin, Sir Charles Somerset, to greet Marguerite, and to promise her anything she might need or want. He even wrote a post-script to the official letters in his own hand, bidding her be as cheerful as if she were already in Spain, and to stay anywhere she liked within his realm, as though it were Spain. He suggested that she wait in port for more favourable weather, and to let him know her plans, so that he could come to meet her, if she remained.

The wind changed, and Marguerite set sail again, without, so far as is known, meeting Henry. Tossed and turned as she was by the sea, Marguerite was doubtless glad to arrive at the port of Santander on 8th March 1497, before travelling to Reinosa where she found her husband and father-in-law waiting for her, along with a train of mules, laden with tapestries and plate.

The royal party proceeded to the great cathedral city of Burgos, ancient capital of the kingdom of Castile, where Queen Isabella and her daughters, Isabella, Dowager-Princess of Portugal, and the Infantas Maria and Catalina (Katharine of Aragon) awaited them.   

If Marguerite had had any secret misgivings about whether she would be humiliated and jilted again, these were swiftly put to rest. The final wedding ceremony took place on Palm Sunday, 3rd April 1497, presided over by the primate of Castile, the Archbishop of Toledo, in the presence of the nobility and city representatives of all the kingdoms and provinces under the rule of Ferdinand and Isabella

This marriage was intended to found a great dynasty that would rule a united Spain, allied to Burgundy, to Portugal (the Dowager-Princess Isabella of Portugal was about to return there for a second marriage) and to England – Infanta Catalina was promised to the son of Henry VII.  France would be surrounded. 

Marguerite of Austria

Marguerite of Austria

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