On this day in history Margaret of Austria was born. She was youngest sister of Philip “the handsome”. Her parents were Mary Duchess of Burgundy and Maximilian Habsburg. As a result, she was one of the most sought-out brides. Both she and her brother grew under the supervision of their step-grandmother Margaret of York, Duchess Dowager of Burgundy who had married Charles “The Bold” their grandfather in 1468. After he died, their mother had become the ruling Duchess but greedy nobles sought to ally themselves to France and France itself, believed that it could take advantage of the situation and claim Burgundy for his own but to the surprise of everyone, Margaret proved to be made of sterner stuff. Her father’s daughter after all, she took charge of the duchy and arranged for her stepdaughter’s marriage to none other than Maximilian. (Previously, there had been talks to marry her to France, and her older brother, George Duke of Clarence after he had become a widower. Edward IV opposed this match and proposed his brother in law, Lord Rivers instead. Though Margaret was fond of Anthony, having chaperoned her to Burgundy when she went to marry Charles, and staying with him before her visit to England in 1480 concluded ; and sharing a passion for letters, religion and the arts; she felt that he was not the ideal choice for her stepdaughter who was after all one of the most sought out royals.)
“The duchy of Burgundy was rich in trade and culture. It had also once been huge, originally straddling much of the northeastern France and most of what we now think of as the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg. Geography alone made Burgundy and France uneasy neighbors…” (Fox)
Mary of Burgundy unfortunately died in 1482 when Margaret (named after her step-grandmother) was only two and her brother three. Her death left Margaret of York in a weak position since she believed she was better equipped to be regent for her step-grandson who was now Duke of Burgundy but her stepson-in-law won the upper hand and with little support from her brother Edward IV who had signed a treaty with France at the time, Margaret had no choice but to see her beloved new home be signed over to the French. But luckily for her, her step-granddaughter’s betrothal to Louis XI’s son Charles did not last. Maximilian was then kidnapped and had to be ransomed, and although the two reached a truce and split their duties, ruling the duchy in the name of Philip; Margaret Habsburg was sent to France so she could be reared to become the future Queen of France. However once Charles became King, he abandoned the match in favor of Anne of Brittany and Margaret was returned to Burgundy along with her dowry (which included some of the lands that had been ceded to France) and her education was once again under the supervision of her indomitable step-grandmother.
Around this time, the 1490s, Margaret and her brother became betrothed to King and Queen of Aragon and Castile’s offspring, Juan and Juana. While Juana was sent abroad to marry Philip, Juana was sent to Spain to marry her charming husband, Juan, the heir of the Catholic Kings.
“It was these children [Margaret and Philip] who Ferdinand and Isabella thought would be suitable partners for Juan and Juana … Conveniently sited on France’s doorstep, Burgundy was a promising ally for Spain, and Maximilian hoped to count on formidable support should the French attack those lands that remained.” (Fox)
In addition, Margaret was asked to help her youngest sister in law whom she instantly formed a friendship with, Katherine of Aragon, to practice her French since Elizabeth of York advised the Queen of Castile that it would be easier for their offspring to communicate .
“In July 1498, the Spanish ambassador reported, “The Queen and the mother of the King wish that the Princess of Wales [Catherine] should always speak French with the Princess Margaret who is now in Spain, in order to learn the language, and to be able to converse in it when she comes to England. This is necessary, because these ladies do not understand Latin, and much less, Spanish.” (Gristwood)
The match was a happy one. It was later said that Juan who was always weak, died because of the number of times the couple had sex. This is likely false, but at the time it was believed that too much sex could weigh down on the couple, especially on a young man. After Juan’s death, the Catholic Kings were devastated since he was their only son. They made Margaret stay since she was not Dowager Princess of Asturias and was pregnant wit their grandchild. Unfortunately the child was a stillborn girl. Margaret returned home, devastated. However she soon recovered, putting on a brave face for her brother and his wife Juana whom she seemed to be good friends with. But Juana unlike Margaret who had enjoyed a happy (albeit short) union with her brother; did not have that luxury wit Margaret’s brother. Philip was not only abusive but he also sent home more than eighty of her servants after she became his wife and locked her up and had one of his former nannies and governesses abuse her by giving her complete mastery over his wife’s household. He cut back on her expenses and at one point, even Isabella of Castile was worried that he could be physically abusing her though Juana was careful not to say anything to her mother’s confessor.
In spite of this, the couple had many children and Margaret was present during her nephew Charles’ christening and presided over many of the ceremonies celebrating his birth.
Her second (third if you count her betrothal to Charles before he was King) marriage was to the Duke Philibert of Savoy. There she became an influential figure, the one she has come to be known by now. At Mechelen she established a great court and was known for being a great religious matron and matron of the arts and letters as her step-grandmother and namesake had been.
When he died in 1504, she continued to rule his dukedom and two years later when her brother died, she took up the mantle of Charles’ protector and Regent. As one of the most learned women of her day, she held one of the greatest European courts in Savoy in the renovated palace of Mechelen. Anne Boleyn was sent there in 1513 to be part of her household. And it was here where Anne first learned about refinement and started her education; but she was eventually recalled by her father after England had severed its ties from Spain temporarily in favor of France.
Margaret died in November 30, 1530 at the age of fifty.
- Blood Sisters by Sarah Gristwood
- Sister Queens: The Noble and Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile by Julia Fox
- The Anne Boleyn Files and On This Day in Tudor History by Claire Ridgway
- Freelance History Writer blog