Margaret was born on 28 December 1522 as the illegitimate daughter of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and Johanna Maria van der Gheynst, the daughter of a carpet manufacturer. Johanna Maria worked as a maid for the Governor of Oudenaarde, who hosted the then 22-year-old and unmarried Charles for six weeks. Margaret was named for her great-aunt, Margaret of Austria. She was entrusted to the De Douvrin family in Brussels, where she lived until the age of 10. She had very little actual contact with her father.
Margaret moved to Italy in 1533 where she grew up under the guardianship of Madame de Lannoy. In 1529, she was recognised by Charles and received the right to be called “Margaret of Austria.” Despite being illegitimate, she was considered to be an excellent candidate for marriage as she was a wealthy heiress. Also in 1529, Charles negotiated a marriage contract with Pope Clement VII for a member of the de’ Medici’s and Margaret. Margaret married Alessandro de’ Medici, Duke of Florence in 1536 under the condition that the marriage would not be consummated until Margaret was 16 years old. The marriage would not last long as Alessandro was assassinated in 1537.
Margaret left for Rome in 1538 where she married again on 2 November 1538 to Ottavio Farnese, a grandson of Pope Paul III. The marriage began with aversion but grew over time. They would go to have twin boys, of which one survived to adulthood. She became Duchess consort of Parma and Piacenza in 1547. In 1556, Margaret’s half-brother King Philip II tried to assure himself of the Farnese family loyalty by sending her son to the court in Spain.
From 1555, Margaret spent a lot of time in the Netherlands. In 1559, she was named Governor of the Netherlands, and she formed a court in Brussels, where she was joined by her son. Her half-brother needed his family members to help rule his vast empire. She took over from her aunt who had ruled with an iron thumb, but Margaret herself was pretty inexperienced as a ruler. She was left with a pretty limited authorisation from her half-brother and was told to let herself to be guided by Antoon Perrenot, Lord of Granvelle. It made it difficult for her to rule, as Philip sometimes went months without contacting her.
In 1565, Margaret’s son married Infanta Maria of Portugal in Brussels during which several Dutch noblemen decided to ally themselves to enforce tolerance of the Protestant religion. Margaret panicked, but she had no army and had to concede. In 1566, a storm of violence known as the beeldenstorm or statue storm destroyed and plundered many churches and convents. Philip decided to intervene with the military, but Margaret knew this would only make things worse. She immediately resigned as Governor of the Netherlands and departed for Italy. She returned as Governor in 1578 but left again in 1582. In 1583, she was granted permission to return to Italy for health reasons.
She died in Ortona on 18 January 1586 after a painful sickbed. Her husband died the following September, and he was succeeded as Duke of Parma by their son.1