Marguerite of Austria: Life Story

Chapter 6 : Return to the Low Countries

Sadly, Marguerite was not to enjoy marital happiness for long. On 10th September 1504, Philibert, who had fallen ill during a hunting expedition, died – perhaps of pleurisy or even a ruptured appendix – a pain in his side is mentioned.  Marguerite was beside herself with grief – her attendants feared she was so distraught she might fling herself from a window, but the first violent grief eventually subsided.

In memory of her husband, (and to fulfil a vow made by Philibert’s mother, Margaret of Bourbon, who was also Marguerite’s great-aunt) Marguerite founded a monastery at Brou, near Bourg. There, she later appointed a splendid tomb for Philibert, that she intended to share in the fullness of time.

With Philibert dead, René sought to claim the duchy, but Marguerite put paid to that – Maximilian recognised the youthful Charles III, another half-brother, but legitimate. Soon, Marguerite and Charles III were in conflict over money. She was due a dower of 12,000 crowns, but there were other women whom Charles was obliged to support – the Dowager-duchess Bianca of Montferrat, widow of Duke Charles I, his own mother, Claudine de Brosse, dowager of Duke Philip II, and Philibert’s sister, Louise of Savoy, who had been granted the income from Chablais as dowry.

Charles pleaded poverty, but Marguerite was determined to have her rights. She travelled to Strasboug to ask Maximilian to intervene, and eventually, having been informed that the money was required to fulfill the late duchess Margaret of Bourbon’s vow as well as her own, Charles had no option but to acquiesce. On 5th May 1505, in an agreement made in Strasbourg, Charles ceded the county of Villars and the lordship of Gourdans to Marguerite to rule, and receive income. Having gained her point, Marguerite returned to Savoy.

The widowed duchess was now extremely comfortable financially – she still received her Spanish dower, and now she had lands as well. This made her a desirable match, and feelers were put out by the widowed Henry VII of England for a marriage. Henry was losing interest in the Spanish alliance, as it became clear that Ferdinand’s strength was abated by the loss of Isabella. With Castile shortly to be in the hands of Marguerite’s brother, who had no idea of letting his wife, Juana, rule her own kingdom, an alliance with the Hapsburgs looked desirable.

Events played into Henry’s hands when Juana and Philip were shipwrecked in England. They were entertained honourably, but there was no prospect of Henry letting them leave until Philip had agreed a treaty. Part of it was for the marriage of Marguerite to Henry, with a dowry of 300,000 crowns (with a crown reckoned as 4s stirling) and the payment to Henry of both her Spanish and Savoyard incomes.  In addition, Henry’s daughter, Mary, was to marry Philip and Juana’s son, Charles, now heir to the kingdom of Castile as well as to the Low Countries.

Maximilian affected to be delighted at the idea of his daughter marrying the English king, and requested Henry to dispatch ambassadors, but the marriage was dependent on Marguerite’s consent, Marguerite was now twenty-six and twice-widowed. She could not be married at her brother’s command as a young girl could be.

Unsurprisingly, Marguerite was completely opposed to the idea of marrying Henry, nearly twenty-five years older than her, and in indifferent health. She had had two young husbands whom she had loved, and she did not wish to marry again. Maximilian sent envoys to her in Savoy, but she returned the answer that, although she was a dutiful daughter, she would never agree to such an unreasonable marriage.

Maximilian wrote to Henry that he would endeavour to persuade his daughter in person, but, whether or not he was serious, or would have prevailed if he had been, can never be known. Duty was about to call Marguerite in another direction.  

After leaving England, Philip and Juana (along with their second son, Ferdinand) had continued their journey to Spain, where Philip died unexpectedly. This left Juana in possession of her kingdom, but, it seems, not entirely in possession of all her mental faculties. Ferdinand took over the regency of Castile, on his daughter’s behalf, and she was confined for the rest of her life.

Juana was pregnant, and gave birth to her final child, Catherine of Austria, in Spain. Catherine remained there, along with her brother Ferdinand. The older children, Eleonora, Charles, Mary, and Isabella had remained in Flanders.  Maximilian had no desire to repeat the struggles of the 1480s by imposing his own regency on the recalcitrant citizens of the Low Countries, although some of the provinces had voted to appoint him, so Marguerite was now called back to her native country to act as regent on behalf of five-year-old Duke Charles (also referred to as the Prince of Castile). In March 1507, the States-General of the Low Countries met at Louvain/Leuven and recognised Marguerite as Governess-General and guardian of the ducal children.

Marguerite of Austria

Marguerite of Austria

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