Archduchess Margaret of Austria, Cultural and Political Queen

Margaret of Austria was one of the most famous and most respected female rules of the late Medieval period, and for good reason. She was not only well-connected to the principle ruling families in Europe, she was politically astute and had a knack for arranging international trade agreements that benefited all parties.

Margaret_of_Austria by Pieter_van_Coninxloo

Such was her renown that she was the first and only woman ever to be elected ruler by the representative assembly of her dowry property, Franche-Comté, in 1506 and was made the was Governor of the Habsburg Netherlands by her father, Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian of Austria in 1507. Her father also appointed her guardian of his heir, her nephew Charles of Austria (the future Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor). When Charles was 14 and wanted to assert his newfound manliness, he dismissed his aunt as governor of the Low Countries in 1515, but by 1517 he had begged her to resume her role, making it once more official in 1519. After that, Margaret continued to administer to the Netherlands for her nephew until her until her regrettably early death in 1530.

This remarkable woman was born on 10 January 1480, the only surviving daughter of Emperor Maximillian and his first wife, Mary of Burgundy. She was named after her mother’s stepmother, Margaret of York, the sister of King Edward IV and King Richard III of England. When she was only a toddler her father and King Louis XI of France arranged her betrothal to the 13 year old Dauphin, Charles, and she was sent to the French court in 1483 to be raised as fille de France.

Margaret of Austria c. 1490

Although her intended groom became King Charles VIII shortly after her arrival in his homeland, he was still so young that his elder sister, Anne of France, would act as his regent for the next few years. She decided to put off her brother’s wedding until the bride was a little closer to her teens and the possibility of consummation. This would let the kids get to know each other first; perhaps they would even fall in love? However, before they were old enough to marry for real all the poo hit the fan on 19 December 1490 as a result of Margaret’s newly widowed father marrying Anne, Duchess of Brittany, by proxy.

Brittany was a huge chunk of prime real estate boarding France with access to the Atlantic, and France wanted to make it a part of the kingdom rather desperately. Thus, in the spring of 1491 Margaret’s intended groom laid siege to the Breton city of Rennes, eventually capturing Margaret’s would-be stepmother, and forcing Anne to wed him instead. With her theoretical stepmother now married to her theoretical husband, Margaret was held as a kind of de facto hostage (albeit a well treated one) until her father stopped trying to get the Pope to scupper Anne of Brittany’s new marriage to Charles VIII. Only after Emperor Maximillian agreed to the Treaty of Senlis in June of 1493 was the 12 year old Margaret allowed to return to her father and brother in Austria.


Margaret, understandably bitter toward the King of France, was soon contracted to marry another future monarch, John, Prince of Asturias, the son and heir of Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon. In turn, their daughter, Juana, would marry Maximillian’s only son and heir, Philip the Handsome. The teenaged Margaret married John on 3 April 1497, becoming the sister-in-law to Katherina of Aragon, future wife of King Henry VIII.

Margaret’s first marriage would only last half a year before she was widowed in early October. That was sad enough, but added to the tragedy was the fact that shortly after her husband’s death she gave birth to her only child, a stillborn daughter, on the day before what would have been their first wedding anniversary. The widowed princess went to live with her brother and his wife in the Netherlands 1500, while another marriage was arranged for her, this time to Philibert II, Duke of Savoy.


The groom is a funny looking dude to the modern eye, he was known as Philibert the Handsome in his day. Margaret and Philibert soon fell in love. Philibert spent most of his time hunting and having fun, while Margaret ran the duchy and played her part in international politics. They had three happy years together before her second husband died on September 10 1504, from what was probably a burst appendix but what believed to have been the folly of drinking cold water after becoming overheated.

Margaret was destroyed by the grief, and some sources claimed she had tried to commit suicide so she could be buried beside him. It seems unlikely, though, considering how devoutly religious she was. Her sorrow was very real, nonetheless. She would never remarry, wear only mourning clothes, and remain devoted to Philibert’s memory for the rest of her life. Margaret had her husband’s heart embalmed and kept it with her always as a monument to her loss, inspiring her court historian and poet Jean Lemaire de Belges to give her the sobriquet “Dame de Deuil” (Lady of Mourning).

Margareta of Austria

Philibert’s duchy was inherited by his cousin, Charles III of Savoy, but the new duke was smart enough to leave Margaret in charge while he was adjusting to his new role. When Margaret’s brother Philip died unexpectedly on 25 September 1506 of what is suspected to have been typhoid fever, Maximillian likewise turned to Margaret to help him run the empire in the name of Philip’s small son. Margaret gladly returned to the Low Countries, taking her six year old nephew Charles to raise as her own son and setting up the Hof van Savoye (Court of Savoy) at Mechelen in what is modern-day Belgium.

She did an excellent job as governor from the start, soon negotiating “a treaty of commerce with England favorable to the Flemish cloth interests” and helping form the League of Cambrai in 1508. When she wasn’t busy running the government of one of Europe’s trade hotspots, seeing to the education and needs of Charles V, and turning down tentative marriage proposals from several august men, including the recently widowed King Henry VII, Margaret spent her time turned Hof van Savoye into a epicenter of art and learning.

Her court would eventually become what historian Eric Ives would describe as “Europe’s premier finishing school” for young women of the nobility and peerage. While he was the English ambassador to the Low Countries, the wily and charming Thomas Boleyn managed to secure a place at Margaret’s court for his comparatively low-born youngest daughter, Anne. Margaret was so impressed with “the little Boleyn” (who was probably around 12 years old at the time) that she wrote Thomas to tell him, “I find her so bright and pleasant for her young age that I am more beholden to you for sending her to me than you are to me.”

Her time as one of Margaret’s “filles d’honneur”certainly had a profound effect on Anne Boleyn’s life. Under the example and tutelage of the archduchess, Anne not only learned the best possible manners and mannerisms for courtly life, she developed a refined taste for music, art, and literature that would allow her to blend in with the most cultured ladies in Europe. She also because superbly fluent in French, which is why she was chosen to be one of Mary Tudor’s entourage went she left England to marry the King of France in 1514.

While in attending Mary during her brief time in the French court, Anne Boleyn made such a favorable impression on Claude of France that she was invited to stay in Queen Claude’s household after Mary’s elderly royal husband died in 1515. Queen Claude and Anne were roughly the same age, and Anne was so pleasant and educated and charming  after her time in Archduchess Margaret’s Court of Savoy that Claude would encourage the youngest Boleyn sister to stay in France with her for more than six years. Anne would even attend the Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520 in Calais as the French queen’s interpreter and one of her ladies-in-waiting. Anne only returned to life in England the following year because her father had thought to orchestrate her marriage to James Butler in order to settle the dispute over who would inherit the Earldom of Ormond.

Anne and King Henry VIII had officially become an international item by 1529, when Archduchess Margaret performed her last major piece of political peacemaking, the Treaty of Cambrai. After negotiating with Louise of Savoy to remove France from the League of Cognac, her nephew Charles V was able to successfully settle an agreement with Pope Clement VII and defeat the Italian city-state of the Republic of Florence.

A little more than a year after resolving the Treaty of Cambrai for her nephew, Margaret reportedly cut her foot on a piece of broken goblet and developed an infection in the wound. The infection spread, and by the end of November the doctors were prepared to amputate. On 1 December 1530 Margaret reportedly died of an accidental overdose of the pain-killing opium given to her prior to the operation.

Archduchess Margaret of Austria and Savoy was buried next to her husband Philibert at Bourg-en-Bresse. In England, her former protégée, Anne Boleyn, began remaking her new holding of Whitehall Palace into a reasonable facsimile of the most beautiful manor she could imagine – the Hof van Savoye, where the archduchess had shown the future queen just what elegance and civility should mean.

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