On 13 February 1457, Mary of Burgundy was born as the daughter of Charles the Bold, future Duke of Burgundy, and his second wife, Isabella of Bourbon, at Coudenberg Palace in Brussels. Family tensions had created an awkward situation surrounding her birth. Charles had gone hunting as soon as the labour began, and his father, Philip the Good, chose to ignore the entire event and asked not to be disturbed unless the newborn turned out to be a boy.1 Isabella was being supported by her mother-in-law Isabella of Portugal. King Louis XI of France, then Dauphin of France and banished from the French court, stood outside the door. When Mary was born, her delighted grandmother carried her to the waiting dauphin, who asked her to be named in honour of his mother, Marie of Anjou. And so, she was.2
Mary’s baptism took place on 17 February in the chapel of Coudenberg Palace. The Dauphin stood as godfather and carried her to the baptismal font. Her grandmother Isabella was also her godmother. Her grandfather chose not to attend as “it was only for a girl.”3 Her early childhood was spent at several castles, at Gorinchem, Le Quesnoy, Ghent, Bruges and Mechelen, and it appears she lived mostly with her mother until her mother died suddenly at Le Quesnoy on 25 September 1465.4 Another source states that Isabella died in Antwerp.5 In any case, she was buried in St. Michael’s Abbey in Antwerp, but her tomb does not survive.
The eight-year-old Mary had remained her parents’ only child, and shortly after her mother’s death, she moved to Ghent, where she arrived in early October. Mary would spend a lot of time in Ghent, and there were some years when she did not leave the city at all. Mary remained in the care of Philipotte de Rochebaron, who had been her wetnurse and continued in her service as a kind of governess. After Philipotte de Rochebaron’s death in 1468, several women successively cared for Mary. Her aunt Catherine of Bourbon was also with her in Ghent until her death in 1469.
On 15 June 1467, Mary’s grandfather died, making her father the new Duke of Burgundy and Mary his heiress. With his newfound title, Charles also sought to marry again. The chosen bride would be Margaret of York, sister of King Edward IV of England. Mary’s new stepmother was only 10 years older than her. Mary first met her new stepmother on 26 June 1468, alongside her grandmother, as Margaret arrived in Sluis. There is no record of what was said at that first meeting, but the two had several shared interests, such as reading, riding, hunting and falconry. On 3 July, Margaret married Charles in the city of Damme before the court moved on to Brussels. Margaret and Mary remained in Brussels while Isabella returned home to La-Motte-au-Bois. Isabella died on 17 December 1471 at the grand age of 74. Perhaps Margaret had expected to fall pregnant quickly, but she never did. She did make several pilgrimages to shrines, such as the Black Virgin of Halle.
Mary and Margaret would have a close relationship as they lived in close quarters for the following nine years. As her father’s heir, Mary received an excellent education. Despite her age, several marriages were being considered for her from a young age, but she was destined to remain unmarried during her father’s lifetime. Mary was 19 years old when her father died at the Battle of Nancy on 5 January 1477.
Margaret and Mary continued to have hope that the rumours of his death were false, and it appears that Margaret did not assume full mourning for her husband until the middle of January. It was a turbulent time for them as the French King invaded their lands, and there were internal troubles as well. Margaret, who now had considerable experience in government, would be her stepdaughter’s strongest ally and adviser during this time. Mary was compelled to sign a charter of rights known as the Great Privilege on the occasion of her formal recognition as her father’s heir.
Mary’s marriage was soon one of the most important topics. The French King demanded that she would marry his son, the future King Charles VIII of France, who was then only six years old. Mary much preferred Archduke Maximilian, the only son of Frederick III, Holy Roman Emperor and Eleanor of Portugal, who had been seriously considered during her father’s lifetime. As the situation deteriorated, Mary desperately wrote to Maximilian to come to her aid.
On 22 April 1477, Mary and Maximilian were married by proxy, which was made public six days later. The estates approved the marriage on the condition that Maximilian would confirm the Great Privilege. Maximilian left Vienna on 31 May and did not reach Maastricht until 5 August. He arrived at Ghent on 18 August, and they were married in person the following day. Mary was not only Duchess of Burgundy, but she would likely become an Empress in time.
Mary was pregnant by the end of the year, and she gave birth to her first child – a son named Philip – on 22 June 1478. His christening took place on 28 June, and it was Margaret who carried him to the font and who acted as godmother. Rumours that the newborn was a girl were dispelled by Margaret when she undressed him and showed him to the people. Maximilian, who was away on campaign, did not see his newborn son until August. The French forces threatening Burgundy were defeated by 1479.
On 10 January 1480, Mary gave birth to her second child – a daughter named Margaret for her step-grandmother. Once more, Margaret carried the child to her baptism and acted as godmother. A third child was born to Mary in September 1481, but the little boy – named Francis – died when he was just a few months old. But more tragedy was to come.
In March 1482, her Master of Horse had organised a falcon hunt in the marshes of Wijnendaele. Mary was a very competent horsewoman, but somehow she was thrown from her horse on 13 March. She was not visibly injured but was in a great deal of pain, and she was carried back to Bruges in a litter. Mary lived for two more weeks in great pain – probably due to a broken back. Margaret rushed to be by her side with the relic of the Holy Blood, but nothing could be done to help her. Mary begged Margaret to take care of her two children, who were only four and two, respectively. In her will, she named Maximilian as the sole governor of the heir and Regent of Burgundy. Mary died on 27 March 1482 – still only 25 years old.
- Isabel of Burgundy by Aline S. Taylor p.149
- Isabel of Burgundy by Aline S. Taylor p.150
- Isabel of Burgundy by Aline S. Taylor p.150
- Isabel of Burgundy by Aline S. Taylor p.184
- Maria van Bourgondië in Hof Ten Walle. Over een jonge prinses en haar Gentse residentie (1465-1475) p. 147
- Read also: Margaret of York by Christine Weightman and Macht, vrouwen en politiek 1477-1558 by Monika Triest