Marguerite of Austria, The Great Mother of Europe

For Marguerite of Austria it was not her own choice to travel. Her constant movements were her father’s decision, the Emperor Maximilian I of Habsburg. Showing great equanimity, the princess obeyed her father’s will and filled her life with commitments as if she were an expert in time-management.

Orphaned from her mother, Mary of Burgundy, at the age of three, she went to France where she married the Dauphin, Charles VIII, who was eleven years old. At four, she became the Queen of France but, seven years later, her marriage was dissolved because the Dauphin, upon succeeding his father, decided to commit to a more suitable candidate.

Humiliated, Marguerite remained at the French Court for two years, until Maximilian decided to bring her back to the Netherlands. She was thirteen years old. Two years later, the Emperor decided to send her to the Court of Ferdinand and Isabella to marry their only son, the Infante John, so she prepared to become the future Queen of Castile and Aragon. After six months of married life, the Infante died due to his delicate health and Marguerite became a widow at fifteen. She remained at the Court of “los Res Cattolicos” for a while as her father didn’ t need her immediately.

Then in 1501 the Emperor decided to give her a new husband, the duke of Savoy, Filiberto, who was his ally. So the princess moved to the Court of Savoy and the young couple appeared to be happy despite not having children. This gave the opportunity to the dynamic Marguerite to become the true ruler of Savoy because her husband was more interested in hunting than in his obligations. Unfortunately this happy situation lasted only three years as Filiberto suddenly died and the young duchess, a widow once more, cut her golden hair and vowed to devote herself to the reconstruction of the Brou church, where her husband was buried, carving an inscription above the door: “Fate is very cruel to women”.

However, her fate was not to be one of isolation because her brother, Duke Philip of Burgundy, died and she became the official guardian of his children, of whom the eldest son was Charles V, the future Emperor. So the archduchess went back to the Netherlands and became Regent, the first woman to occupy this title. She organized her court in Mechelen, in Flanders, where her father bought her a mansion that she named Hȏtel de Savoie, in memory of her beloved husband.

While she tried to make her time in the Netherlands one of peace and neutrality, the eventual King of England, Henry VII, sent his proposal to marry her, with the consent of her imperial father. Despite the many princely gifts, she rejected his proposal politely, responding that should she change her mind, he would be her first choice. In contrast, her response to her august father was much less sweet: she wrote to him that after having been sent around Europe, as a forgotten orphan and abandoned for years, she would no longer allow herself to end up in such a situation again. Period!

So she remained in Mechelen, surrounded by her refined Court, as refined as the Court of her ancestors in Burgundy. This Court was visited by many travellers for its famous collection of works of art, especially Flemish paintings, but also exotic items arriving from the New World, creating for the first time in Northern Europe a sort of Cabinet of Curiosities, much like those created by the princes of the Italian Renaissance.

Besides her passion for art, Marguerite had an astute political mind. She was the key person in the formation of the League of Cambrai, which united Europe against the Venetians and, because of her great experience, she was later considered an important figure in a Europe dominated by three young monarchs: Henry VIII of England, Francis I of France and Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire.

An observer of that time said: “This woman had the talent of a man in the conduct of business.  In fact, she was even more capable than most men because her talent matched the charm of her sex, as she had been educated to hide her feelings.”

And me, as an observer of the female mind, I ask myself: through which channel could she express her feelings? Maybe by opening her little painting box, covered with blue velvet, and by picking up one of the seven silver brushes? Did she use colours instead of words?

Portrait of Marguerite of Austria aged ten by Jean Hey, c. 1490

Portrait of Marguerite of Austria aged ten by Jean Hey, c. 1490

Barbara Athanassiadis