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.
Isabella Eugenia, joint rule with her husband 1601 – 1621, rule as sole regent 1621-1633
Isabella Clara Eugenia of Austria was born on the 12 August 1566 in Segovia. She was the daughter of Philip II of Spain and his third wife Elisabeth of Valois and was the granddaughter of Emperor Charles V. When Isabella was barely two years old her mother died and in 1570 her father married his niece Anna of Austria. Just after her mother’s death Philip concluded a marriage contract with Maximilian II, the Holy Roman Emperor, for Isabella to marry the Emperor’s son Rudolf II. Rudolf was also Isabella’s cousin. Around 1588 the adult Rudolf declared he did not want to marry anyone and the contract was broken.
In 1589, Isabella’s uncle, Henry III of France, was assassinated and Philip claimed the French crown on her behalf despite French Salic Law, which forbade cognatic succession. In addition, Elisabeth of Valois had ceded any claim to the French crown when she had married Philip. However the Parlement de Paris, for religious and political reasons declared Isabella as ‘the legitimate sovereign’ of France. The Catholic nobility were concerned about the claim to the crown by the protestant Henry III of Navarre. Despite the proclamation of the Parlement, Henry pressed his claim under traditional French inheritance laws. The Parlement, and eventually, the Catholic nobility realised that to reject Henry’s claim was to reject French tradition which could undermine their own authority. A compromise was reached and Henry’s claim was accepted, he converted to Catholicism and was crowned in 1594.
Philip then turned to another possible marriage for Isabella. He decided that Archduke Albert of Austria, Rudolf’s younger brother. At the same time as arranging a marriage Philip was attempting to consolidate his power in Spain. As always in the European power politics on the early modern era the wealthy, but stubbornly different, northern provinces needed delicate handling. Philip decided to cede the Spanish Netherlands to Isabella. He was confident that she could handle the needs of his northern subjects while freeing him to concentrate on Spain.
Philip decreed that Isabella and Albert were to jointly reign over the Netherlands as duke/count and duchess/countess. In addition to his secular title as an Archduke of Austria, Albert was also the Archbishop of Toledo. In proposing the match, it was understood that Philip would bear the cost of pleading with Pope Clement VIII to release Albert from his religious commitments. The was by no means guaranteed and would cost a considerable sum of money, not only in the cost of sending emissaries to Rome but in the donation that would be required to release Albert.
While Philip was arranging matters with the Pope he became ill. Initially thought to be merely a combination of various complaints including gout, arthritis and a stomach ulcer, Philip was finally diagnosed with cancer. Isabella returned to her father’s side and nursed him for the next three years. Philip died in September 1598 having renounced all his rights to the Spanish Netherlands in favour of Isabella. On 18 April 1599, Isabella married Albert. The marriage, although arranged for political reasons, proved to be a happy one.
In 1601, Isabella and Albert assumed rule of the Spanish Netherlands. The country had endured some four decades of religious and economic war and all sides longed for peace. Isabella and Albert were both of a pragmatic mind and recognised that while no-one wanted a continuation of the previous years of conflict a reconciliation that satisfied all sides would take a long time to achieve and would be unlikely to achieve everything that everyone wanted. This recognition allowed them to operate in the fractured politics of the Spanish Netherlands. Under Isabella and Albert rule, the economy of the Spanish Netherlands was stabilised and previous anti-Spanish sentiments were reduced. However, Isabella and Albert were aware of the resentment felt by the loss of the northern provinces in 1581. Many in the Spanish Netherlands blamed the authoritarian rule from Spain for the loss of the provinces north of the rivers. Others felt that Spain had not been sufficiently ruthless in dealing with the northern rebels. Religious divisions also remained. While the majority of those in the Spanish Netherlands were Catholics some were Protestant. Resentment over any concessions given to the minority continued to rankle with many devout Catholics. The main bone of contention was, however, economic. The northern and southern provinces had always had different trade outlets to the north and south but a large percentage of their trade had been with each other including access to their respective foreign markets. This issue, above all others, was Isabella and Albert’s prime concern.
They addressed this by rejecting any notion of an independent country for the Spanish Netherlands and worked for the reincorporation of the Southern Provinces into the Spanish monarchy. A reincorporation that, in Isabella and Albert’s mind, would revitalise the economy of the Spanish Netherlands. They encouraged the development of artistic endeavours most notably in the Baroque,which had been popularised in the wake of the Catholic Reformation. Thus resulted in the creation of the Flemish Baroque painting.
They patronised several artists such as Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Coebergher, Peter Paul Rubens, the Van Veens and the De Nole family. Isabella and Albert used the arts to promote the Spanish Netherlands as an artistic and political centre. They encouraged artists to visit and work there and then used the lure of the art produced to bring political and philosophical thinkers. This developed a momentum such that the court at Brussels became a centre for political thought. Isabella and Albert also used their connections to invite family members and friends to court such that Brussels became a key link in the chain of Habsburg Courts.
Between 1601 and 1621 Isabella and Albert rescued the Spanish Netherlands from the disaster that had been the independence of 1581. They revived its fortunes and created a vibrant artistic and political entity. However, that had been built on the strength of Isabella and Albert’s personalities and connections. It was not, yet, fully embedded but needed a few more years of continuity. In 1621, Albert died and the country could well have fallen into disarray. Philip III, King of Spain, recognising the danger appointed his half-sister as Governor of the Spanish Netherlands. Continuity guaranteed the country continued to flourish under Isabella’s rule but with one slight change. After Albert’s death, Isabella joined the Third Order of St Francis and continued her role as Governor of the Netherlands while keeping to the precepts of the Franciscan order. She continued to promote the arts and the production and trading of luxury items while leading an increasingly simple life within her palace in Brussels. The contrast between the luxury of her surroundings and the simplicity of her life heightened her reputation as a patron who genuinely appreciated artistic effort and enhanced the reputation of her court as somewhere politics might take place free of the taint of corruption.
Isabella died in 1633, the last of the Four Great Regents. She was succeeded as Governor by Cardinal-Infante Ferdinand, the third son of her half-brother Philip.