Margaret was born on 3 May 1446 as the daughter of Richard, 3rd Duke of York, and Cecily Neville. Her birthplace is unfortunately uncertain. She was their third daughter and sixth child out of twelve. Her father had a claim to the throne through both the second and the fourth son of King Edward III and was widely regarded as the heir-apparent. She probably passed some of her childhood at Fotheringhay Castle. She would grow up to be pious and very aware of her royal lineage.
As her father fought for what he believed to be his right to the crown, Margaret was growing into a young woman. She was still only 14 years old when he was killed in the Battle of Wakefield alongside his second son Edmund. In the five months between the disastrous Battle of Wakefield and her brother Edward’s victory at Towton and coronation as King of England, Margaret stayed with her mother in Londen, probably at Baynard’s Castle. When her brother became King Edward IV, her other brothers were made Duke of Clarence and Duke of Gloucester and Knights of the Garter. Together with her younger brothers, Margaret briefly went to live at Greenwich Palace. Her two elder sisters had already married, and so Margaret was the only unmarried Princess. She would need to wait it out, however, and a suitable match was not found for another seven years. During this time, she was maintained by her brother with an income paid out of the Exchequer. Margaret was present for the coronation of her sister-in-law, Elizabeth Woodville and she followed behind the Queen and her sister Elizabeth.
In October 1467, after two years of negotiations, Margaret appeared before the Great Council at Kingston-upon-Thames to give her formal consent to her marriage with Charles, Duke of Burgundy. On 18 June 1468, Margaret finally set out for her new life in Burgundy. She arrived at Sluis in the evening of 25 June, and although Charles was at Sluis, they did not meet right away. The day after her arrival she did meet the Dowager Duchess Isabella (born of Portugal) and Charles’s daughter from his second marriage to Isabella of Bourbon, Mary. Margaret dined in private with the Dowager Duchess. Two days after her arrival, she finally met Charles. They exchanged “reverent obeissance” and he “kissed her in open sight of all the people of both nations.” A week after her arrival, she took a barge to Damme, where they were married. For her joyous entry into Bruges, Margaret wore a gown of white cloth of gold, trimmed with white ermine and a cloak of crimson. She wore her hair down and wore a golden coronet.
It would seem that Margaret had expected to fall pregnant – her husband already had a daughter and two illegitimate children – but when this did not happen, she became anxious. She made several pilgrimages to shrines, such as the Black Virgin of Halle. From February to March 1473, she stayed at Soignes, known for its waters. Nevertheless, their marriage remained childless, which they presumably accepted as the will of God. As Duchess of Burgundy, Margaret spent a lot of time travelling around the various courts and was inevitably often away from her husband. Her stepdaughter Mary did spend a lot of time in her company, and they seemed to enjoy that. After 1471, Charles was away in the Low Countries even more often than before, and Margaret began to take a more prominent at court. In late 1470, Margaret’s brother was briefly dethroned by Margaret of Anjou, and he ended up exiled at his sister’s court. There was no public contact at first, though secret letters were exchanged. They finally met in January 1471. Margaret became very active for her brother’s cause and urged the cities to raise money to support him. He was restored to his throne following the Battle of Tewkesbury, where Edward, Prince of Wales, was killed. King Henry VI eventually died (or was killed) in the Tower, and Queen Margaret was eventually ransomed by the French King.
Margaret’s husband was killed at the Battle of Nancy on 5 January 1477 and was succeeded by his only legitimate child, Mary, now Duchess of Burgundy. Margaret was in a state of disbelief, but together with Mary, they were able to act swiftly to gain the support of the estates against the French invasion. At the end of January, Mary’s future husband, Archduke Maximilian of Austria, later Holy Roman Emperor, wrote to her assuring her of his intention to marry her. They finally married on 18 August 1477 in a simple affair with Maximilian wearing armour, indicating his intent to drive out the French. Margaret herself now depended on her dower lands, and while the papers on this were a mess, Mary gave a clear indication of her love for her stepmother. She was resolved to give Margaret her full dower and wrote, “And above all for the sake of the deep love and reverence that we have for our said lady and stepmother, and in consideration of all the great goodness, help and assistance that she has given us, when we were in her care, and we hope that she will give hereafter in all our affairs.” She also added that her stepmother was quite active in securing England’s help and was thus deserving.
Shortly after her stepdaughter’s marriage, Margaret settled in Malines (Mechelen), where she bought a house which became the local ducal palace. With her stepdaughter’s help, she had become one of the richest widows in Europe. The years to come would be one of the most troubled times for the Burgundian Netherlands. The war with France continued. Margaret remained loyal to Mary and her husband, Maximilian. She would only visit England once after her marriage, but she remained in contact. The arrest and execution of her brother George, Duke of Clarence must have been shocking for her – they had been close in childhood. The summer following George’s death, Mary gave birth to a son named Philip, and it was Margaret who carried him to his christening. She was also made his godmother. A second child, a daughter named Margaret, was born in 1480. Once again Margaret carried the child to her christening at the Cathedral of Saint Michael and Saint Gudula and became her godmother.1