This Week In History: Margaret of Austria, a life lived large

January 8-14

Margaret of Austria cannot be contained within the mere 500 characters of a Mastodon post – so I wanted to give her a little more room here!
Margaret was born 10 January 1480 to the royal house of Habsburg. Her father, Maximilian, was elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1508. Her mother, Mary, was the duchess of Burgundy in her own right (and also incredibly wealthy).
Margaret was the second child born to her parents – her other brother Philip was born in 1478.
Much like many other girls born to wealthy or noble families, Margaret was used as a marriage pawn from an early age. After her mother died in 1482, little Margaret’s hand was signed away by her father to the king of France, so she would wed his son, Charles the dauphin. Her brother became the titular ruler of the Low Countries (having inherited it from their mother), though their dad was the actual power. Of course, Margaret and Charles were far too young to actually get married, but she was sent away from her home to go and live in France, to be brought up as a dauphine. She was educated well in France, and got along well with Charles. However, she was dumped for her stepmom, Anne of Brittany (Anne was only 15 at the time, having been married to Maximilian for a couple of years and then married at army-point to Charles).

After Charles’ marriage, Margaret was forced to stay in the French court in the background as a pseudo-sort of ghost. She was no longer dauphine-to-be and did not have a proscribed place in the very strict hierarchy of the royal court. Once the political ramifications of the Great Wife Swap of 1492 concluded she was able to go home.

Portrait of Margaret (taken from wikipedia) by Jean Hey c. 1490

Little Margaret was, very quickly, used as a marriage pawn again by her father. This time, instead of marrying her to the French heir, he married her to the Spanish heir and the marriage actually happened this time! When Margaret was 17, she was shipped off to Spain to marry Juan, Prince of Asturias, the only son of Isabel I of Castile and Fernando II of Aragon (the Catholic monarchs). Her brother also got a bride in the bargain, as he married Juana, a middle daughter of Isabel and Fernando. Juana left to live in the Low Countries and Margaret sailed to Spain.

This time, it seems like Margaret was actually excited and was old enough to really take part in the marriage. Along the way, her ship was hit by a major storm (as seems to happen most ships bearing royal brides in the Renaissance) and she wrote a poem lamenting her impending death:

Here lies Margaret, the willing bride,
Twice married – but a virgin when she died.

It was around this time that Isabel and Fernando were lining up the marriage of their youngest daughter, Catalina (Katherine of Aragon), to Arthur, Prince of Wales in England. When Margaret’s ship blew ashore in England (as many of these boats often d0) Henry VII, in a bid to show hospitality and to impress Isabel and Fernando (so that they’d want to keep the betrothal of Katherine and Arthur), ensured that Margaret wanted for nothing during her unexpected stay in England.

Screencap from the Calendar of State Papers Online of a translation of a letter from Henry VII to Margaret in February 1497 (it says 1496 in the letter as New Years was celebrated in March in England, not January 1).

After managing to safely land in Spain, Margaret lived very happily with her husband for about six months before he died. Apparently his parents thought that they’d been having too much sex and it weakened his immune system and that’s why he died. It’s likely that it was tuberculosis and not a teenager’s sex drive that killed him, but it’s partly the reason why Isabel and Fernando were cautious when advising Katherine on how to have just the right amount of sex to have royal babies but not die (this is one of the reasons why it’s highly plausible that Katherine and Arthur hadn’t actually gotten around to consummating their marriage in 1501 as Arthur may have been a somewhat sickly young man and Katherine’s brother had died from potential sexual over-exertion, so of course they would take it slow, they were young and seemingly had all the time in the world).

Poor Margaret was left pregnant, but her daughter died prior to birth. Margaret stayed on in Spain for a little while, while she recovered and became very close friends with Juan’s sister Katherine. It’s likely that Margaret taught Katherine French before she left for England – French was spoken widely at the royal court (and it’s possible that Margaret also tutored her in some English. Having grown up with Margaret of York as a step-grandma, Margaret would have learned the language from a native speaker).
For a little while, Margaret was able to live at home, but her father once again used her as a marriage pawn in 1501, when she was sent to Savoy to become its duchess. This marriage, too, ended up being a love match (Margaret was very easy to love, she was clever, caring, and capable). So much so that after her husband Philibert died in 1504, she threw herself out of a window in grief.

It was in this marriage that Margaret began to find her footing and wield her power. Her husband had no aptitude for government and had left the management of Savoy largely in the hands of his brother. This was an untenable situation for Margaret, and she removed Rene from power and centered the administration within the ducal couple (which meant in her own hands). She did well, having been tutored in the art of authority at the feet of Margaret of York, Anne of France, and Isabel of Castile. She had contacts in the leading families of the Continent and was not afraid to use them.

After Philibert’s death, she stayed in Savoy as regent for his successor, his younger brother. She’d had a taste of power and had been widowed twice in her short life – she refused to ever be made a pawn for someone else’s marriage games ever again. It wasn’t long after Philibert’s death that her brother and father tried to marry her off again, this time to the newly widowed Henry VII of England.

Margaret refused.

Philip, Margaret’s brother, died, which left a power vacuum in Burgundy and the Low Countries. Juana and Philip had left for Castile anyway, but now there was no one running the show there. Margaret, with her aptitude for rule, was tapped as Governor of the Low Countries, and also was tasked as guardian for her nephew Carlos (the future Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor). She was later elected governor in 1509, the only woman to have been honored so. She was ruler of the Netherlands from 1507-1515 and again in 1519-1530. She did so well that she was tapped by both her father and her former father-in-law to represent them (as well as herself) in peace negotiations and forming the League of Cambrai. She also was one of the major players in the Ladies Peace of 1529, wherein she negotiated with Louise of Savoy and Marguerite of Angouleme for the release of Francois I from Spain.

After becoming an adult, having been married thrice, Margaret learned how to play the game of politics and win. She ruled successfully, lived life on her own terms, and left behind a legacy for other capable and intelligent women to follow.

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