The Four Great Regents – Mary of Hungary

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.

Mary of Hungary, period of rule, 1531-1555

Mary of Hungary, who was also known as Mary of Austria was born on 15 September 1505 to Queen Joanna and King Philip I of Castile. When she was ten years old she was married to King Louis II of Hungary and Bohemia.

During her time in Hungary, Mary became aware of the teachings of Martin Luther. Highly intelligence she read widely and discussed the issues surrounding the new teachings. This attracted the interest of Martin Luther, who dedicated four psalms to her in 1526. This interest in the new religious teaching gave rise to severe disapproval from Mary’s family, most notable her brother Ferdinand. Under pressure from Ferdinand Mary turned to her court preacher, Johann Henckel, who led here back to the core Catholic beliefs. Despite this Mary continued to hold Martin luther and his basic teachings in high esteem.

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King Louis died at the battle of Mohács in 1526 and Mary’s brother Ferdinand I was proclaimed the new king.  The lands that Ferdinand had inherited were deeply troubled due to the actions of the  pretender to the throne, John Zápolya. In order to further consolidate his power Ferdinand concentrated on subduing the nobility of Bohemia and asked Mary to act as his regent in Hungary. By 1530, Ferdinand’s power was secure and Mary stepped down from her role as regent. However, her time in Hungary had demonstrated her political acumen and when her aunt, Margaret of Austria, died in 1530 Emperor Charles V, Mary’s older brother, asked her to take over the governorship of the Netherlands. Mary was reluctant to do so as, despite her success in Hungary, she disliked the role of political leader. Nevertheless she took over as governor of the Netherlands in January 1531.

The governance of the Netherlands was fraught with difficulties at that time. Mary faced the disruption felt across Europe from the Reformation. In addition, the Netherlands was frequently caught in the political rivalry between the Emperor and the King of France. Although she never enjoyed governing Mary proved to be an extremely competent ruler.  So much so that the Emperor granted her greater powers than those enjoyed be her aunt. The style of the two women was in stark contrast. Margaret had been known to rule as many female regents; she was feminine, flexible, adaptable, witty, flirtatious and charming. Mary’s rule was compared to that of a man. She was authoritarian, exercising might more than mercy. She was known to be singleminded, determined and seldom swayed by emotion. Although this allowed her to deal with the many problems that beset the Netherlands, Mary felt her lack of femininity or ‘power as a woman’ as a personal failing. In addition to her personality Mary was not a great beauty and it was felt that her lack of physical grace was the reason for her lack of feminine charm.

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To add to Mary’s burdens the regency of the Netherlands also meant that she assumed the guardianship of her nieces, Dorothea and Christina of Denmark, the daughters of her older sister, Queen Isabella of Denmark, who had died in 1526. This further involved her in the machinations of the Emperor as he sought to place the girls into politically advantageous marriages. In 1532, the Emperor agreed a marriage for Christina to Francesco II Sforza, the Duke of Milan. Mary felt that Christina, who was only eleven 11 years old, was too young for the marriage. Defying the Emperor Mary managed to delay the marriage until March 1533.

In religious matters Mary was personally tolerant towards Protestants but under pressure from the Emperor suppressed Protestantism across the Netherlands. She was also initially challenged by several of the leading noble families. The families received their positions through the patronage of the regent.Several of the families had started to build support in specific geographic areas and worked to ensure their sons received their positions after them. Mary recognised the danger to the Emperor’s authority should the families cement the support. Mary solved this by giving the families the coveted court position but in different regions. She faced the wrath of the families but was eventually supported by the Emperor who recognised her wisdom and loyalty in protecting his interests.
In 1555, Charles decided to abdicate as emperor in favour of his brother Ferdinand and gave the governorship of the Netherlands to his son Philip. Mary decided to resign from her post and although Charles and Philip urged her to remain in the post she formally transferred her authority to Philip in October 1555.  In 1558, Charles and Philip asked Mary to consider resuming her regency in the Netherlands but Mary declined. However, in August of the same year Charles became ill and Mary changed her mind, she would become governor once again.

In September 1558, Charles died. Mary had two heart attacks in October and on 18 October 1558. Mary was first buried in the Monastery of Saint Benedict in Valladolid. Fifteen years after her death, Philip ordered that the remains be transferred to El Escorial.

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