Isabella of Burgundy was a Portuguese princess who as Duchess of Burgundy played an important role in the political and economic policies of Burgundy in the 15th century.
Isabella was the only surviving daughter of John I of Portugal and his wife Philippa of Lancaster. Philippa was the daughter of John of Gaunt of England, the son of Edward III. Isabella was very close to her mother who raised her to believe in faith and education. Throughout Isabella’s life, she showed a marked preference for England due to her mother’s influence.
Isabella was 30 years old when she received an offer of marriage from Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. Previously Henry V of England had offered for her, but the negotiations had fallen apart. In both cases, the Portuguese ties to England were what made Isabella a desirable bride.
Isabella’s trip from Portugal took 11 weeks, and most of her flotilla and her trousseau were lost at sea during severe storms. She and Philip were married on January 7, 1430. Shortly thereafter they entered Bruges where elaborate festivities took place. At the final event, Philip first created the Order of the Golden Fleece, a chivalric order based on England’s Order of the Garter.
Isabella and Philip had three children, but only their son Charles survived childhood.
Isabella was intelligent, and she quickly became an important part of the financial and economic rule of the Duchy. Her husband gave her much independence to deal with tax collectors and economic policy regarding the thriving weaving business. Her policies were grounded in the understanding that the wealth of the Burgundian counties in Flanders was dependent on the English wool that they imported, and that therefore close ties to England were imperative.
In 1435 England, Burgundy and France held a conference in Arras, a city in Flanders, to try to resolve the hundred years war. Isabella’s uncle, the English Cardinal Beaufort, was the chief negotiator for England. Isabella was hoping to use her personal connections to mediate among the parties. However, while Isabella was dining with the English, her husband and the French were making deals behind England’s back. The treaty of Arras resolved (for the moment) the longstanding feud between Burgundy and France, with Charles VII of France apologising for the murder of Philip’s father. However, the English left in anger and the Burgundian English alliance was broken. Trade between England and Burgundy ceased, and rebellions broke out. Philip turned to Isabella to both raise funds for his armies and to negotiate with the angry merchants.
The next few years Isabella continued to try to repair the problems caused by her husband’s policies and was eventually successful in finalising a trade treaty with England. She also negotiated and raised the ransom for the release of the French Prince Charles of Orleans who had been held in England for 25 years.
Over time, however, her husband became more and more influenced by courtiers who were in the pay of the French and less reliant on Isabella. She transferred her attention to finding an English bride for her son. Although she was born a Lancaster, she supported the York cause in England, knowing that the Lancastrian queen, Margaret of Anjou, had no love for Burgundy. (Philip had held Margaret’s father prisoner for many years.) Once again she was thwarted by her husband who married their son to his niece, a French noblewoman, while she was negotiating for a York daughter.
Excluded from governance, and faced with her husband’s constant infidelity, she spent more and more time at her home in the country, La Motte-au-Bois, and focused on establishing hospitals and religious homes. In 1458 Philip suffered a stroke, and Isabella returned and nursed him during his final years. After his death, and with her son, a widower, she was finally able to negotiate the marriage for her son that she had dreamt of: with Margaret of York, sister of Edward IV of England.
Her final years were spent advising her son Charles as they tried to maintain the delicate balance between England, France and Burgundy. Her son’s acceptance of the Order of the Garter from Edward IV gave the French King the reason he needed to declare war on Burgundy. Although she and Charles supported Edward IV in his battles with the Lancastrians, outwardly she pursued a policy of appearing neutral in the English war and sheltered Lancastrian cousins who were exiled from England.
When Edward IV did vanquish the Lancastrians, she became one of the last still alive to represent a Lancastrian claim to the English throne. Shortly before her death in 1471 she formally transferred her claim to her son Charles. Charles died in 1477, leaving the Lancastrian field open to Henry Tudor.
The Burgundy she lived in was the wealthiest and most sumptuous court in Europe, and she played a major role in its governance for 40 years. Within ten years of her death, and with the death of her son and granddaughter(Mary of Burgundy), it had been broken up between France and the Holy Roman Empire and was never again the wealthy independent Duchy it had been in her lifetime. 1