Mary of Austria was born at the Coudenberg Palace in Brussels on 15 September 1505 as the daughter of Queen Joanna of Castile and King Philip I of Castile. She was their fifth child and her elder brother Charles, the future Holy Roman Emperor, was the centre of their world. A sixth child – a daughter, named Catherine – would complete the family. Mary’s father would die the following year, and so she would never know him. Her mother would – labelled as Juana La Loca, the mad Queen – would be incarcerated from 1509 until her death in 1555. Mary and her three of siblings – Eleanor, Charles and Isabella – were raised at the court in Mechelen with their aunt Margaret while Ferdinand and Catherine would grow up in Spain. Catherine would spend her youth as a companion of her mother.
Mary and her siblings received the best education available, and she learned Latin, Greek, history, poetry, theology, mathematics, French, Dutch, Spanish, German and Italian. Mary learned to play the clavichord. Mary would always enjoy playing music.
Her marriage was planned from an early age. She was betrothed at the age of six months to the as of yet unborn child of Anne of Foix-Candale, the future Louis II of Hungary. Two years later it was decided that one of her brothers would marry Louis’ elder sister Anne. A double marriage would guarantee peace and stability. The Hungarian nobility did not want a stranger ruling the land, and so the 10-year-old Mary was supposed to be brought to Buda. However, the city was considered unsafe, and she would live in Vienna for now. Louis too came to Vienna, where he and Mary were married in the St. Stephen’s Cathedral on 22 July 1515. Just a few months later, Louis’ father died, and Louis and Mary became King and Queen of Hungary, but Mary was forced to flee to Innsbruck to escape the war violence that followed. She was accompanied by her sister-in-law Anne. In Innsbruck, the two young girls were entertained by Mary’s grandfather Maximilian who taught them about hunting and warfare. Mary was devastated when her grandfather died in 1519, and she wrote to her brother Ferdinand – whom she barely knew – that she was the “saddest lady in the world.”
Mary now, at last, travelled to Buda despite being warned of the dangers. She and Louis turned out to be a harmonious couple, and she would often help him and accompany him. She would even review troops. A courtier wrote, “If she could only be changed into a king, our affairs would be in better shape.” On 11 December 1521, she was finally crowned Queen of Hungary, and they embarked on a sort of honeymoon period. Their spending caused anger among the Hungarian people, but Mary and Louis were happy. Louis’ health had never been robust, and Mary soon took charge. She learned a lot and also had contacts with learned men such as Erasmus and Luther. When Luther dedicated a book to Mary, Ferdinand was livid.
When Louis headed to war with the Turks in July 1526, Mary followed him as far as she could before seeking safety in Pressburg (Bratislava). She would never see him again. Louis was killed at the Battle of Mohács on 29 August – he was still only 20 years old. Mary was devastated and lost all purpose in life. They had had no children together. The Hungarians began to treat her with contempt, even stealing from the ships carrying her clothes. Ferdinand, who had married Louis’ sister Anne, now had his eyes on the Hungarian crown but there was John Zápolya who also claimed the crown and even dared to ask for Mary’s hand in marriage. She refused him and was named regent of Hungary by her brother. After Ferdinand took up arms, he managed to secure the Hungarian crown for himself and Anne. Mary decided to leave Hungary and also to never remarry.
No matter how many proposals were thrown her way by her brothers, Mary resolutely refused to remarry and remained a widow. When her brother asked her to once again assume the regency of Hungary, she declined and said: “that such affairs need a person wiser and older.” Mary headed for Vienna where her brother once more requested that she take up the regency. This time she agreed, and she quickly faced financial difficulties. In 1530, her aunt Margaret died, leaving the governorship of the Netherlands wide open. Both Charles and Ferdinand asked Mary to take up this post, despite her young age – she was still only 25. Mary accepted the post out of duty. She wrote, “I promise to obey and serve both the Emperor and you until my dying day.”
Mary had been wandering from castle to castle, mostly hunting, in the area of the Donau but now she would return to the home of her youth. She soon threw herself in her new role, and Charles gave her leeway to make her own decisions, except where the military was concerned. This was a source of frustration for Mary because she often knew better, but she would be forced to wait a long time for Charles’ response. She chose Brussels as her residence and sold her aunt’s palace in Mechelen to the city. Mary and Charles did not always see eye to eye, and she was forced to carry out his commands even if she did not agree with them. She did, however, receive all the criticism. Once she had made him so angry, he wrote to her, “You are a woman. You are not allowed to speak of such things.” Mary’s personal opinions on religion reform often clashed with her brother’s views. Even where the family was concerned, they would sometimes clash. Charles wanted to marry their young niece Christina to the 38-year-old Duke of Milan, but Mary tried to stop the match because of the large age difference. Charles told her to defer to the men in robes “where this business belongs.”
The governorship had made Mary lonely, and she was often depressed. Yet, she remained dedicated to her task and her brothers, despite their differences of opinion. In 1539 during a revolt, she was forced to call on her brother for help, and the revolt exhausted Mary mentally and physically. Still, she held on to the governorship.
When Charles informed her that he wanted to abdicate in 1555, Mary too decided to resign her position. She was urged to stay in her position, but she refused and told them of the difficulties she had faced and the difficulties she saw ahead with the new King Philip II. Charles finally allowed her to resign and she formally announced the decision on 24 September 1555. She remained in the Netherlands for one more year before leaving for Spain. She was joined there by Charles and their sister Eleanor. Eleanor died in her arms on 25 February 1558, followed by Charles on 21 September 1558. During Charles’ illness, Mary finally agreed to take up the governorship again, but he died just as she was getting ready to depart. The grief-stricken Mary suffered two heart attacks the following month, and she died just a few weeks later on 18 October 1558.
Mary saw her governorship as a failure and blamed it partly on her sex. She wrote, “How could I have been so reckless to think that I am capable of leading this government, or any government, as a woman no less, and as such incapable of the important acts of government?” She seemed to have forgotten that both her grandmother and her mother ruled in their own right, admittedly with varying degrees of success, but still. Mary underestimated herself, and even the people of the Netherlands knew they had lost a great leader.1