Known for: governor of Habsburg Netherlands 1507-1515 and 1519-1530, not as a mother or wife. Her life is marked with connections with three generations of complicated political intermarriages.
Titles: Princess of Asturias (first marriage); Duchess of Savoy (second marriage)
Dates: January 10, 1480 – December 1, 1530

Background, Family:

  • Mother: Mary of Burgundy, daughter of wealthy heiress Isabella of Bourbon and of Charles, Duke of Burgundy. Mary of Burgundy was, in her own right, Duchess of Burgundy from 1477 until her death in 1482.
  • Father: Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor from 1493 until his death in 1519. He was the son of Frederick III, Holy Roman Emperor, and Eleanor of Portugal, daughter of Eleanor of Aragon and Edward, King of Portugal. Edward’s mother, Philippa of Lancaster, was a daughter of John of Gaunt who was a son of Edward III of England.
  • Siblings: Margaret’s brother was Philip I of Castile, who extended the Habsburg empire to include Spain by marrying Joanna of Castle (called Juana the Mad), a daughter of Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand V of Aragon.
  • Margaret had relatives in most of the royal families of Europe: Spain, France, England, Portugal, Germany and others.

Marriage, Children:

  • betrothed to: the future Charles VIII of France
  1. husband: John, Prince of Asturias (married April 3, 1497; heir-apparent to Castile and Aragon)
    • one stillborn daughter
  2. husband: Philibert II, Duke of Savoy (married 1501)
    • no children

Biography

Margaret was one of two children of the future Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor, and his wife Mary, Duchess of Burgundy. Maximilian and Mary ruled the Low Countries, which had come under Habsburg control with Mary’s marriage. Mary died in 1482. Mary’s brother Philip, only three years old, became sovereign of the Low Countries at his mother’s death; their father was his regent.

In the Treaty of Arras in 1482, Margaret’s father, then King of the Romans, agreed with Louis XI of France that Margaret would marry Charles, Louis son, the future Charles VIII. Louis had previously tried to arrange a marriage of Charles with Margaret’s mother, Mary of Burgundy, but she had chosen Maximilian instead.

Margaret and Charles

Margaret was 2 years old and Charles was 12. A betrothal was celebrated the following year, and then Margaret was sent to the French court to be raised in her future home. Louis died, and Charles older sister, Anne, was his regent.

But in 1488, the Duke of Brittany died in an accident, leaving a young daughter, Anne, his heiress. First, in 1490, Anne of Brittany arranged to marry Margaret’s father, the Emperor Maximilian: she would thus become Margaret’s stepmother. Their marriage took place by proxy, but was not completed with the requisite second ceremony in person.

Charles achieved his majority and took the reigns of government. He had his troops invade Brittany to prevent the marriage of Anne of Brittany to Maximilian from becoming final, and instead arranged for Anne to marry him in 1491. Charles of France married Anne, and then had her marriage to Maximilian annulled.

Margaret, by that time ten years old, remained at France initially, with Charles apparently thinking that he could arrange a different marriage for her, to his advantage. Margaret was increasingly upset with her situation, and threatened, in a letter home, to escape from France in her nightgown. Her father arranged for her to return home. Both Margaret and her dowry were returned in 1493.

Spanish Marriages

Maximilian began marriage negotiations with Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain. Margaret was to marry their son and apparent heir, John, Prince of Asturias, and Philip, Margaret’s brother, to marry John’s sister Joanna. That would have meant Margaret would become Queen of Spain (a united Castile and Aragon) when John inherited those crowns. In the face of French attempts (with the Popes permission) to take Naples, ruled by a relative of Isabella and Ferdinand, the parties sought an alliance. They agreed to the two marriages in early 1495.

Joanna left Spain and married Philip in late 1496. Margaret was married to Prince John in early 1497. (At one time, arrangements had been in process for John to marry Anne of Brittany who had displaced Margaret in France.) John and Margaret apparently felt a real attachment. Margaret was quickly pregnant. They traveled to the wedding in Portugal of John’s older sister, and suddenly John took ill and died in October of 1497, only nineteen years old. In December, Margaret’s child was stillborn.

Duchess of Savoy

In 1500, Margaret returned to live in the Netherlands. She became godmother to her new nephew, Charles, the future Holy Roman Emperor as Charles V, and the future Charles I of Spain. The following year Margaret was married to Philibert II, Duke of Savoy; they were both about 21 years old. Charles VIII, who had taken then lost Naples, died; his heir, Louis XII, conquered Naples, which bordered Savoy. Thus an alliance of Savoy with the Habsburgs made sense. But Philibert also died young, in 1504. There were no children born of that marriage. Margaret apparently swore off of marriage after Philibert’s death.

Governor of the Low Countries

Margaret’s brother, Philip, died suddenly in 1506. Their father, Maximilian, appointed Margaret the guardian of her nephew Charles, with his father, Philip, dead and his mother, Joanna, considered mentally unstable. He also appointed Margaret as governor of the Low Countries in 1507, the lands brought into Habsburg control through his marriage to Margaret’s mother.

When Charles was of age in 1515, he removed Margaret from her role as guardian and governor. When his maternal grandfather Ferdinand died in 1516, Charles also became the first joint monarch of both Castile and Aragon. When his paternal grandfather Maximilian died in 1519, Charles became Holy Roman Emperor.

Charles, now with the vast domains of the Habsburg empire to rule, reinstated his aunt, Margaret of Austria, as governor of the Netherlands. She ruled on and off for her nephew. Beginning in 1529, Charles’ wife, Isabella of Portugal, served as his regent during his absences.

Treaty of Cambria

Battles between the Habsburgs and France had continued. Charles and his counterpart, Francis I, had both left their nations in the hands of female regents. Louise of Savoy was serving as regent for Francis I and Margaret for Charles V. ┬áLouise was the sister of Margaret’s second husband, Philibert II of Savoy. Margaret and Louise, with the help of Louise’s daughter Marguerite of Navarre, negotiated the Treaty of Cambria, signed August 3, 1529, halting the fighting in Italy between France and the Habsburgs, and giving control of Italy to the Habsburgs.

This treaty, called the Peace of the Ladies (Paix des Dames) for the roles women played in negotiating it, also arranged yet another dynastic marriage to seal the peace: Charles sister, Eleanor of Austria, was promised to Francis I.

Margaret was also known for her patronage of the arts including poetry, painting, music and writing. She had books by Christine Pizan, sometimes called the first feminist writer, in her library. Among the ladies sent to her court to be educated was the young Anne Boleyn in 1513.

Margaret died in 1530, appointing her nephew Charles V her sole heir.