In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries the Netherlands were ruled by a quartet of women: Margaret of Austria, Mary of Hungary, Margaret of Parma and Isabella Clara. These four women were remarkable not only because they ruled at a time when the idea of women’s rule was anathema to most but also in the effective and in most areas positive manner in which they ruled.
Margaret of Austria, period of rule 1507-1515, 1519-1530
Margaret of Austria the daughter of Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor and Mary of Burgundy, co-sovereigns of the Low Countries, was born in 1480. She was betrothed to Charles, the son of Louis XI of France in 1482. In that same year her mother died and Margaret was transferred to the guardianship of King Louis XI of France and was educated at the French court. Despite the betrothal Charles renounced the agreement and married Margaret’s stepmother Anne, Duchess of Brittany as a more profitable political alliance. (The Duchess of Brittany had been married to Margaret’s father by proxy but their marriage was annulled). Margaret’s father arranged marriage with John, prince of Asturias, sone of Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon. Margaret and John married in 1497 but John died only six months later. After delivering a still born daughter Margaret returned to the Netherlands in 1500 where she was godmother to her brother’s new born son Charles of Austria. In 1501, Margaret married Philibert II, Duke of Savoy who died three years later. The marriage was childless.
In 1506 Margaret’s brother, Philip, died and in November she was elected ruler by the representative assembly of Franche-Comté (the title was confirmed in 1509). Her father Emperor named her governor of the Low Countries and guardian of her young nephew Charles (the future Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor) in 1507.
Margaret was a skilful regent. Caring deeply for her subjects she frequently pressed their case with the Emperor, her father. She also negotiated with the English on behalf of Flemish cloth merchants and obtained a treaty of commerce that was extremely favourable to the interests. Margaret was also interested in politics across Europe and played a role in the formation of the League of Cambrai in 1508.
In 1515, Margaret’s nephew, Charles, gained his majority and dismissed her as regent. However, within four years Charles recognised Margaret’s value and reappointed her as regent. Margaret continued to infleunce politics across Europe and in 1529, together with Louise of Savoy, she successfully negotiated the Treaty of Camcrai, the so-called Ladies’ Peace.
In addition to the economic and relative political stability that typified Margaret’s rule she added patronage of the arts. Margaret was musical, well read and wrote poetry.She encouraged humanists and artists to her court at Mechelen, where she has amassed a large library with several missals, historical and ethical treatises.The library held several musical manuscripts including works by Josquin des Pres, Jacob Obrecht, Pierre de la Rue and Johannes Ockeghem. Her court was also frequented by artists such as Pieter van Conixloo and Master of the Legend of the Magdalen.
Margaret died in 1530 at Mechelen. She is buried at Bourg-en-Bresse.