Marguerite of Austria: Life Story

Chapter 15 : The Hostage

Contrary to the disappointing outcome of the Anglo-Burgundian attack, Charles was having far more success against France in Italy. After weeks and months of campaigning, and the destruction of lives and crops, the Imperial forces scored a mighty victory at the Battle of Pavia on 24th February 1525 – Charles’ 25th birthday. His triumph was crowned with the capture of François himself, who was swiftly taken to Spain as a hostage.

François was permitted to write immediately to his mother, Louise of Savoy, who had been Marguerite’s companion forty years before in the household of Anne of Beaujeu, and also her sister-in-law, during Marguerite’s marriage to Philibert. As was customary, the two women had corresponded over the years, and this relationship was soon to come to the fore.

Marguerite learnt the news of her nephew’s great victory within a few days, and gave orders for fireworks to be lit and thanksgiving ceremonies performed throughout the Low Countries.  For her, the great hope was that the negotiations for François’ ransom would enable the areas of Charles the Bold’s territories which France had taken back in the 1480s to be returned – Charolais and the duchy of Burgundy.

Charles was less publicly exuberant than his aunt. In what might a rather hypocritical response, he prohibited fireworks and processions, on the grounds that it would not be seemly to rejoice when a Christian king had fallen into such misfortune.  He was not so deprecating in his letters to his brother-in-law, King João of Portugal, who had recently married Charles’ youngest sister, Archduchess Catherine of Austria.  In that letter, he was certain that God had given him the victory in recognition of the justness of his cause.

Marguerite and Henry VIII were both anxious to follow up the victory by a new invasion of France, but shortage of money prevented any attack. The next element of the alliance with England to fall by the wayside was Charles’ betrothal to Henry’s daughter, Mary, now nine years old. Just as Henry had written to Marguerite in 1514 about the wardrobe of his sister, Mary, to prepare for her marriage to Charles, he now wrote to Marguerite on the same topic, asking her advice as to what should be prepared for the little girl. What he would not agree to, however, was the dispatch of the princess to Spain, until she was old enough for marriage.

Charles was desperate for money. He could not follow up his advantage in Italy without cash, and if his young English bride and her dowry could not be sent to him, he would have to find another way to raise it. He found a new bride, who was both of age, and extremely well-dowered – his cousin, Isabella of Portugal, who would became his empress in 1526.

Another factor in the weakening of the Anglo-Burgundian alliance that Marguerite had striven for so hard, was the decision of Henry VIII to seek an annulment of his marriage to Katharine of Aragon. Leaving aside the personal element of the humiliation of her sister-in-law, the main concern for Marguerite was the fear that Henry would marry a French princess: the idea that he was going to marry her former maid-of-honour, Anne Boleyn, was not initially recognised – both because it was not Henry’s starting point, and also because such an idea would have seemed quite outlandish.

Marguerite anticipated that there would be further conflict, and pressured the extremely reluctant States-General to grant yet more money and men. She also received an envoy from Louise of Savoy, begging her for a six-month’s truce so that François’ ransom could be agreed. Perhaps mindful of the limits of her treasury, she agreed, and sent a copy of the agreement to Charles.

Despite his many protestations of trust in her, and the apparent authority he had given her, Charles reacted angrily to Marguerite’s action, writing her a stiff letter, saying he found her actions most unsatisfactory, and that, since the truce had been entered without his knowledge or consent, he would inform the ambassadors of France and England that he would not ratify it. Instead, she must adopt the alternative arrangements that he has made.

Negotiations for the French king’s released waxed and waned. Eventually, in the Treaty of Madrid of January 1526, François accepted that the price of his freedom was marriage to Marguerite’s niece, Eleonora, the widowed dowager-queen of Portugal, with her dowry of Macon, Auxerre and Bar-sur-Seine to be bestowed on their children. The duchy of Burgundy would be returned to Charles and François would give up any hopes of Milan. François also had to agree to hand over his sons as sureties before being permitted to return to his capital, on the understanding that if Burgundy were not restored, he would return to captivity.  

Marguerite was informed of the treaty within days, and requested to pass on the details to the States-General.

It is difficult to know whether Charles thought François would keep his word – as a knight and a man of honour, he should have done, but as a king, he had to consider the welfare of his country. The Estates of France would be unlikely to accede to the disgorging of the duchy of Burgundy, and he himself would never give up his desire for the duchy of Milan. No sooner had he crossed the border into France, with his sons being handed over as hostages, than he repudiated the treaty, as made under duress.

Amongst all the business that these negotiations and discussions created for Marguerite, she had also to attend to a more personal matter – the death of her niece, Isabel, Queen of Denmark, who died at the age of twenty-five, leaving her three children to Marguerite’s care. A more positive family event was the marriage of Charles to Isabella of Portugal – a match that proved extremely happy. Marguerite sent her congratulations, and wished that Isabella could visit the Low Countries.

Marguerite of Austria

Marguerite of Austria

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