The Year of Isabella I of Castile – Margaret of Austria, The pearl of Burgundy (Part three)

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Read part two here.

Soon, she had built a network of spies around René, and she managed to find evidence of treason, which she presented to her husband. Philibert was shocked, but the evidence was right in front of him. René was immediately relieved of his duties. An armed escort brought René to France, and a return to Savoy would be an immediate death sentence. Margaret wrote to her father, who rescinded René’s earlier legitimisation, and he also banned him from the empire. Margaret could now rule in her husband’s name.

With the right people around her, the castle of Pont d’Ain became the centre of politics. Margaret organised the efficient running of the duchy and made many reforms. Margaret was happy in her new position, but it was not to last. In September 1504, Philibert went hunting on a hot day, and he apparently caught a chill after drinking very cold water. He developed a raging fever, but even the beautiful pearls that Margaret had ground up as medicine could not save him. He died on 10 September 1504 in the very same room he had been born. He was just 24 years old.

Margaret fell into despair and locked herself in her room. Philibert’s heart was removed from his body, and Margaret kept the heart with her at Pont d’Ain. She cut her hair short, and she took to wearing the white hood and black dress of widowhood for the rest of her life. One of her husband’s last wishes was to have a convent built at Brou, and she set out to do that almost immediately. Both Philibert and his mother were eventually buried there. As she and Philibert had no children, Philibert was succeeded in Savoy by his half-brother Charles III. They had never gotten along well, but Margaret was determined to stay in Savoy. Margaret refused a marriage proposal from King Henry VII of England.

In 1506, the news reached her that her brother, Philip, had died. She was one of the few who did not believe that he had been poisoned by his father-in-law, Ferdinand. He left five young children, including his six-year-old heir, Charles. Joanna would give birth to a sixth child the following year. Joanna was considered to be unsuited to reign, although this may have been a narrative conveniently pushed to put her out of power. Joanna’s father, Ferdinand, continued to act as regent in Castile, but the Low Countries and the custody of the children were a different matter. Margaret was chosen as Governor of the Habsburg Netherlands and guardian of Charles. Two of the children, Ferdinand and Catherine, were in Castile, but Eleanor, Mary and Isabella also came into Margaret’s care. On 29 October 1506, Margaret left Pont d’Ain for a new phase in her life.

She arrived in Mechelen on 7 July 1507 after receiving the necessary power to act as Governor. Although she had a difficult start, her governorship was considered to be overall successful. She raised her nephew and nieces with the utmost care, and they came to see her as their “tante and bonne mere” (aunt and good mother).1 Several children from the nobility were also being raised at her court, alongside her nieces and nephew. This included Anne Boleyn, who would marry King Henry VIII of England in 1533.

Margaret knew her power would likely only last as long as Charles was a minor. On 5 January 1515, Charles was officially declared to be of age, a decision which was made without consulting Margaret. Several other issues also plagued her, and she was unjustly blamed for them. After a vigorous defence, Charles declared her to be innocent of any wrongdoing and thanked her for all she had done. However, he did relieve her of all her duties, much to her disappointment. When her father later asked her opinion on something, she replied, “From now on, I won’t get involved in anything anymore.”2 She had been deeply hurt.

Margaret feared having to move out of her residence in Mechelen, but Charles moved his court to Brussels. Eleanor had moved with her brother to Brussels, and she married King Manuel I of Portugal in 1518. Mary was recalled by her grandfather in 1514 to prepare for a marriage to the future King of Hungary. In June 1514, Isabella married King Christian II of Denmark by proxy in Brussels. As her court became more quiet, Margaret threw herself into her books and music.

Slowly but surely, the relationship between Charles and his aunt recovered. Margaret’s father insisted that Charles ask his aunt for advice. When King Ferdinand died in 1516, Charles was declared to be King of Aragon and Castile, and he travelled there in the summer of 1517. He would not return to the Low Countries until May 1520. Margaret was appointed as part of the regency council. The following year, she became the president of the regency council. It would take another year before Charles restored her full powers. In 1519, Charles was also elected as Holy Roman Emperor. Margaret had done a great deal to secure his election, and he thanked her for everything. In 1529, Margaret was part of the so-called Ladies Peace, which determined peace with France alongside her former sister-in-law, Louise of Savoy.

By then, Margaret had grown tired, and her health had declined. She wished to visit Brou one last time to see the progress of the convent, but it was not to be. She had to be carried around in a litter, and she was in a considerable amount of pain. An old wound on her foot had festered, and the infection had spread to the rest of her leg. Gangrene eventually set in, and physicians considered amputating her leg. She continued to work, and on the eve before her death, she was dictating a letter to her nephew. The physicians gave her a dose of opium, hoping to lessen the pain of the amputation. However, she would not wake up again, and she died in the early hours of 1 December 1530.

Her last letter read, “Monseigneur, the hour has come when I can no longer write to you with my own hand, for I feel so ill that I doubt not that my life will be short. With my conscience at rest and peace and resolved to receive all that it may please God to send me, without any regret whatever, excepting the privation of your presence and not being able to see and speak to you once more before my death, which is partly supplied by this my letter, though I fear that it will be the last that you will receive from me. I have named you my universal and sole heir, recommending you to fulfil the charges in my will. I leave you your countries over here, which, during your absence, I have not only kept as you left them to me at your departure but have greatly increased them and restore to you the government of the same, of which I believe to have loyally acquitted myself, in such a way as I hope for divine reward, satisfaction from you, Monseigneur, and the goodwill of your subjects; particularly recommending to you peace, especially with the Kings of France and England. And to end, Monseigneur, I beg of you for the love you have been pleased to bear this poor body, that you will remember the salvation of the soul and the recommendation of my poor vassals and servants. Bidding you the last adieu, to whom I pray, Monseigneur, to give you prosperity and long life. From Malines, the last day of November 1530. Your very humble aunt, Margaret.”3

  1. Margareta van Oostenrijk by Johan de Cock p.79
  2. Margareta van Oostenrijk by Johan de Cock p.109
  3. The First Governess of the Netherlands: Margaret of Austria by Eleanor E Tremayne p.287-288

About Moniek Bloks 2746 Articles
My name is Moniek and I am from the Netherlands. I began this website in 2013 because I wanted to share these women's amazing stories.

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