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 Parma, period of rule 1559 – 1567, 1578 – 1582
Margaret of Parma, was born on the 28 December 1522 – 18 January 1586)
Margaret of was Parma was born on the 28 December 1522. She was the illegitimate daughter of Charles V and Johanna Maria van der Gheynst. While her father was the Holy Roman Emperor her mother was a servant of Charles de Lalaing, Seigneur de Montigny. Although illegitimate and a girl Charles placed under the care of her great-aunt, the Archduchess Margaret of Austria, and her aunt Mary of Austria. Both of whom had been governors of the Netherlands.
Margaret spent her childhood in the palace of her aunts in Mechelen. In 1526, Charles V arranged a political marriage for Margaret. Charles had ambitions in Italy and proposed a marriage between Margaret and Alessandro de’ Medici, Duke of Florence and the nephew of the Pope Clement VII (born Giulio di Giuliano de’ Medici). The de’ Medici family agreed the match and in 1527, when Margaret was five years old she was officially engaged to Alessandro. The marriage contract was signed by Charles and Pope Clement VII in 1529. Once the marriage contract was officially signed Charles publicly acknowledged Margaret as his daughter and she was given the title Margaret of Austria.
In 1533, Margaret left Mechelen for Italy and was educated in the courts of Florence, Parma and Rome. In 1538 the marriage finally took place between the fifteen year old Margaret and the twenty eight year old Alessandro. The marriage was short-lived however. In 1537, Alessandro’s cousin Lorenzino de’ Medici, ‘Lorenzaccio’ (bad Lorenzo), assassinated him. Lorenzino had promised Alessandro sex with his sister Laudomia, a noted beauty. On arriving at the assignation point, Alessandro was stabbed by Lorenzino.
Charles, angered at the murder of Alessandro and its effects on his political machinations in Italy then proposed a wedding between Margaret and Ottavio Farnese, Duke of Parma. Margaret attempted to defy her father and stated she would not remarry so quickly or to a man whom she disliked. However, her father brought pressure to bear and she eventually married Ottavio on 4 November 1538. The marriage was a deeply unhappy one as the couple disliked each other and the political arguments over control of Parma between the Pope and the Emperor put a great deal of stress on the couple. In 1545, Margaret gave birth to twins sons, Charles and Alexander, Charles died in infancy. Having ‘done her duty’ and provided a male heir, Margaret and Ottavio agreed to live apart, maintaining separate households. By 1555, the political situation in Parma had come to a head and the Farnese family were officially recognised as rulers of Parma by Spain in exchange for the custody of Alexander. Margaret then left Italy and travelled back to the Netherlands. Alexander was given in to the care of Margaret’s half-brother Philip II.
After the death of Mary of Hungary in 1555, Phillip has assumed his rule over the Netherlands. However, by 1559 his main ambitions lay in Spain and he appointed Margaret as governor of the Netherlands. The country that Margaret was to govern was in turmoil. The imposition of the Inquisition and the form of rule from Spain which disregarded many of the old laws and authorities of the provinces were deeply resented. To add to Margaret’s troubles, the form of governorship which Philip had given her had little actual authority. Rule and law came from Spain and Margaret was merely in place to ensure that such rule was complied with in Philip’s absence. In addition Philip had put Cardinal Antoine Perrenot de Granvelle in position in the Netherlands as a leading minister to ensure Philip’s edicts were carried out. Granvelle was so disliked in the Netherlands that even Philip was forced to recall him to Madrid in 1564. In 1565, the continuation of Philip’s harsh rule resulted in the formation of an opposition party. Margaret met with the leaders of the party and listened to their complaints which mainly centred on religious repression. Margaret understood the reality of the situation; the opposition party was strong with widespread support and she lacked force with which to subdue them. Pragmatically she agreed to stop the religious repression.
In 1566, Iconoclastic riots took place all across the Netherlands. Margaret managed to stop them, but Philip, angered by development in the Netherlands decided to send a military force under the the Duke of Alba. Margaret warned Philip that Alva’s tactics would merely exacerbate an already tense situation and probably lead to disaster. When Alva finally arrived in 1567, Margaret discovered that his power of authority from Philip was greater than her own. Margaret resigned the governorship and retired to Italy.
Once in Italy Margaret was appointed governor of Abruzzo, where she had inherited a domain from her late husband. In 1578, Philip appointed Margaret’s son Alexander as governor-general of the Netherlands. Philip approached Margaret and asked her to become co-governor with Alexander. It was thought that Margaret’s experience and Alexander’s enthusiasm would prove a good balance and allow the Netherlands to reach an equilibrium between its different religious communities. However, the joint arrangement proved unworkable. Alexander proved unable to accept his mother’s advice preferring the autocratic style of Philip in many of this dealings with the Dutch. He was unwilling to accommodate religious plurality seeing it as a challenge to Spanish Habsburg rule. In 1582, Margaret resigned her post as co-governor and the following year Philip gave her permission to return to Italy. She died in Ortona in 1586 and was buried in the church of S. Sisto in Piacenza.