Margaret of Austria, Duchess of Savoy
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Margaret of Austria, Duchess of Savoy
Margaret of Austria
Princess of Asturias
Duchess of Savoy
Portrait of Archduchess Margaret of Austria, Duchess of Savoy (1480-1530), in widow's dress, by Bernard van Orley.jpg
Portrait of Margaret as a widow painted by Bernard van Orley
Governor of the Habsburg Netherlands
PredecessorWilliam de Croÿ
SuccessorMary of Austria
Born10 January 1480
Died1 December 1530(1530-12-01) (aged 50)
Mechelen, Duchy of Brabant
(m. 1497; d. 1497)
(m. 1501; d. 1504)
FatherMaximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor
MotherMary, Duchess of Burgundy
ReligionRoman Catholic
SignatureMargaret of Austria's signature

Archduchess Margaret of Austria (German: Margarete; French: Marguerite; Dutch: Margaretha; Spanish: Margarita; 10 January 1480 - 1 December 1530) was Governor of the Habsburg Netherlands from 1507 to 1515 and again from 1519 to 1530. She was the first of many female regents in the Netherlands.

Childhood and life in France

Margaret was born on 10 January 1480 and named after her stepgrandmother, Margaret of York. She was the second child and only daughter of Maximilian of Austria (future Holy Roman Emperor) and Mary of Burgundy, co-sovereigns of the Low Countries. In 1482, her mother died and her three-year-old brother Philip the Handsome succeeded her as sovereign of the Low Countries, with her father as his regent.

The same year her mother died, King Louis XI of France signed the Treaty of Arras, whereby her father promised to give her hand in marriage to Louis' son, Dauphin Charles. The engagement took place in 1483. With Franche-Comté and Artois as her dowry, Margaret was transferred to the guardianship of Louis XI, who died soon after. She was raised as a fille de France and prepared for her future role as Queen of France.

Portrait of Margaret aged ten by Jean Hey, c. 1490

Under the supervision of her governess Madame de Segré, and Charles' sister, regent of France Anne de Beaujeu, Margaret received a fine education alongside several noble children, amongst whom was Louise of Savoy.[1]

Although their union was political, the young Margaret developed a genuine affection for Charles. However, he renounced the treaty in the autumn of 1491 and forcibly married Margaret's former stepmother Anne, Duchess of Brittany, for political reasons. The French court had ceased treating Margaret as their future queen but she could not return to her ex-stepmother's (Anne of Brittany) court until June 1493 after the Treaty of Senlis had been signed in May that year. She was hurt by Charles' actions and was left with a feeling of enduring resentment towards the House of Valois.


Princess of Asturias

Pieter van Coninxloo, Philip the Handsome and Margaret of Austria, c. 1493-1495. Betrothal diptych, National Gallery, London.

In order to achieve an alliance with Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon, Maximilian started negotiating the marriage of their only son and heir, John, Prince of Asturias, to Margaret, as well as the marriage of their daughter Juana to Philip. Margaret left the Netherlands for Spain late in 1496. Her engagement to the Prince of Asturias seemed doomed when the ship carrying her to Spain hit a storm in the Bay of Biscay. In haste, she wrote her own epitaph should she not reach Spain:

"Here lies Margaret, the willing bride,
Twice married - but a virgin when she died."

However, Margaret actually married Prince John on 3 April 1497 in Burgos Cathedral. Tragically, John died of a fever after only six months, on 4 October. Margaret was left pregnant but gave birth to a premature stillborn daughter on 2 April 1498.[2]

Duchess of Savoy

In 1501, Margaret married Philibert II, Duke of Savoy (1480-1504), whose realm played a decisive role in the rivalry between France and the Habsburgs in Italy on account of its strategic position in the Western Alps.

By 1504, Philibert died of pleurisy. Grief-stricken, Margaret threw herself out of a window, but was saved. After being persuaded to bury her husband, she had his heart embalmed so she could keep it with her forever.[3]

Her court historian and poet Jean Lemaire de Belges gave her the title "Dame de deuil" (Lady of Mourning).[4]

Governor of the Habsburg Netherlands

Engraving of Margaret of Austria as Governor of the Netherlands

Queen Isabella died in late 1504, and Philip and Juana went to Castile to claim the crown. After Philip's death, Charles was the new sovereign of the Low Countries, but he was young and alone. Juana could not return to act as regent because her unstable mental state and her Castilian subjects would not allow their [5] ruler to abandon the kingdom. Preoccupied with German affairs, her father, ruler of the Holy Roman Empire Maximillian I, [6] named Margaret governor of the Low Countries and guardian of Charles in 1507, along with her nieces Eleanor, Isabella and Mary. She became the only woman elected as its ruler by the representative assembly of Franche-Comté, with her title confirmed in 1509.

Although her mother was a previous sovereign of the Netherlands, Margaret was always considered a foreigner because of her childhood at the French court. The Governess served as an intermediary between her father and her nephew's subjects in the Netherlands from her newly built palace at Mechelen. During a remarkably successful career, she broke new ground for women rulers.[7]

A letter by Charles V to his aunt, Margaret of Austria, 19 October 1518, after she had returned to her previous position as his governess for the Netherlands

In 1520, Charles made Margaret his governor-general in gratitude for her services. She was the only regent he ever re-appointed indefinitely from 1519 until her death in on 1 December 1530.[8]


The Palace of Coudenberg from a 17th-century painting. Brussels served as one of the main revenues of the Imperial court of Charles V in the Low Countries.

Margaret had an aptitude for business, and maintained the prosperity of the Netherlands. She negotiated the restoration of Intercursus Magnus with England, which was favorable to the Flemish textile interests and brought huge profits.[9][10] Because of the trade, industry and wealth of the regions and cities she oversaw, the Low Countries was an important source of income for the Imperial treasury.

Margaret provided funds and war supplies for her nephew's troops, especially against King Francis I of France and the German Protestants. In following years, Habsburg forces consolidated their hold over Tournai, Friesland, Utrecht, and Overijssel, which became part of the Netherlands.

Internal conflict

Although the Low Countries was not previously centralized, Margaret's reign was a period of relative peace for the Netherlands. The exception was the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, especially in the north. The first martyrs were burnt at the stake in 1523.

Foreign policy

Louise of Savoy, with whom Margaret negotiated the terms of the Treaty of Cambrai.

Margaret soon found herself at war with France over the question of Charles's requirement to pay homage to the French king for the County of Flanders (which was outside the Empire; and while a long-standing portion of the inherited Burgundian titles & provinces, legally still within France). In response, she persuaded Emperor Maximilian to end the war with King Louis XII. On November 1508, she journeyed to Cambrai to assist in the formation of the League of Cambrai, which ended (for a time) the possibility of a French invasion of the Low Countries, redirecting French attention to Northern Italy.[9][10]

After Maximillian I's death in 1518, Margaret and young Charles (all of 18) began to negotiate the latter's election as Holy Roman Emperor despite the opposition of the papacy and France. The Governess instead supported her younger nephew Ferdinand. However, Charles refused to withdraw. Using a combination of diplomacy and bribery, Margaret played a crucial role in the election of Charles as Holy Roman Emperor in 1519, defeating the candidacy of King Francis I of France, who from this day forward became Charles' great rival in the struggle for pre-eminence in Europe.[9][10]

As Emperor, Charles V inherited the long-running disputes with the Kings of France over possession of the Duchy of Milan and the Kingdom of Naples. Though Charles preferred the Netherlands to many of his possessions, his many kingdoms (and many wars) required him to travel throughout Europe. His great victory at Pavia over Francis I in 1525 (Battle of Pavia) in which he took the French King prisoner and then freed him in exchange for his sons as hostages, led once more to French invasion of the Low Countries. Francis reneged on promises to renounce overlordship of Artois, Flanders and the Franche-Cômté, much less return the much-desired Burgundian core territory, the Duchy itself centered at Dijon (Duchy of Burgundy) as soon as he was safely back in France.

Once again, Margaret proved a remarkably capable ruler of the Netherlands, holding off the forces of the League of Cognac -- i.e. the French (1526-29) and then negotiating the "Paix de Dames/ Ladies Peace". Journeying to Cambrai again, Margaret reunited with Louise of Savoy, her sister-in-law and mother of Francis I. They negotiated the end of a war that France could no longer sustain; the Hapsburgs lost Burgundy proper forever, but France gave up its claims to legal overlordship of Flanders, Artois and the "Free County" of Burgundy (Franche-Comté).[11]

Patronage of the arts

Inner courtyard of Margaret of Austria's Palace, an early 16th-century building in Mechelen, Belgium. It was one of the first Renaissance buildings in northern Europe.

Once she was declared Governor of the Netherlands, Margaret purchased the Hof van Savoye, located in the Korte Maagdenstraat (Virgins Short Street). She found the residence too small and started an ambitious expansion campaign in 1507. From 1517 to 1530, the architect Rombout II Keldermans furthered the project along the Keizerstraat (Emperor Street) and modified what became the rear wing, which faces the Palace of Margaret of York. The Governess kept several painters at her court, including the Master of the Legend of the Magdalen and Pieter van Coninxloo.

Margaret possessed a rich library, consisting mostly of missals, poetry, historical and ethical treatises, which included the works of Christine de Pizan and the famous illuminated Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry.[12] She possessed several Chansonniers[13] which contained works by Josquin des Prez, Johannes Ockeghem, Jacob Obrecht and Pierre de la Rue, who was her favourite composer.

Margaret ended up raising her nephew and nieces in her palace. Her court was visited by the great humanists of her time, including Erasmus, Adrian of Utrecht (later Pope Adrian VI), and Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa.[14][15] Agrippa dedicated his arguably feminist work "Declamation on the Nobility and Preeminence of the Female Sex" to her.[16] The Governor was so impressed with diplomat Thomas Boleyn's charm that she offered his daughter Anne Boleyn (future Queen consort of England) a temporary place in her household. She reported to the English nobleman that the little girl was "so presentable and so pleasant, considering her youthful age, that I am more beholden to you for sending her to me, than you to me."

Margaret ordered several splendid music manuscripts from Pierre Alamire to send them as gifts to her relatives and political relations.[17] She had one of the earliest collections of objects from the New World. Hernán Cortés had presented Charles V with treasures received from the Aztec King Moctezuma in 1519. Several of these treasures were sent to Mechelen as a gift from her nephew in 1523.[18]


Death and Burial

Tomb of Margaret of Austria, Monastery of Brou, Bourg-en-Bresse

She was buried alongside her second husband at Bourg-en-Bresse, in the mausoleum of the Royal Monastery of Brou that she previously commissioned.[19] There is a statue of the Governess next to the Cathedral of Mechelen.


Depiction in media

Margaret of Austria is portrayed by Spanish actress Úrsula Corberó in the TV show Isabel.[20]

A fictionalized version of Margaret can be found in the play The Unhappy Penitent by Catharine Trotter, where she appears as the character 'Margarite'. In the play, Margarite is in love with René II, Duke of Lorraine, although this may be a historical inaccuracy since there is no indication available today that the two ever met. Also, the Duke of Brittany is in love with Margarite, but this likely another historical inaccuracy since he died in 1488, three years before Anne came to France to marry Charles VIII; her father's death is what spurred the various betrothals of Anne.



  1. ^ Diana Maury Robin, Anne R. Larsen and Carole Levin (2007). Encyclopedia of women in the Renaissance: Italy, France, and England. ABC-CLIO, Inc. p. 43.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
  2. ^ N. de Aragón in: [retrieved 7 October 2015].
  3. ^ Jansen, Sharon L. (2002). The Monstrous Regiment of Women: Female Rulers in Early Modern Europe. p. 88.
  4. ^ Gonkdo, Michal (2006). Dame de Deuil. Musical Offerings for Marguerite of Austria (1480-1530), 3. CD Booklet KTC 4011
  5. ^ "Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor". Wikipedia. 18 September 2021.
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  12. ^ Schreurs, Eugeen; Vendrix; Philippe (2005). The sweet melancholy of Margaret, translated by Celia Skrine, 11. CD Booklet MEW 0525.
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  14. ^ Tremayne, Eleanor E. (1918). The First Governess of the Netherlands, Margaret of Austria. Library of Alexandria. p. 379. ISBN 9781465517579.
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  16. ^ LeGates, Marlene (2012). In Their Time: A History of Feminism in Western Society. Routledge. p. 111. ISBN 9781136779039.
  17. ^ Kellman, Herbert (ed.) (1999). The Treasury of Petrus Alamire. Music and Art in Flemish Court Manustricpts 1500-1535. Leuven, Die Keure.
  18. ^ MacDonald, Deanna (2002). "Collecting a New World: The Ethnographic Collections of Margaret of Austria". The Sixteenth Century Journal. 33 (3): 649-663. doi:10.2307/4144018. JSTOR 4144018.
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  32. ^ O'Reilly, Elizabeth Boyle (1921). How France Built Her Cathedrals. London: Harper Brothers Publishers. p. 265. The present choir of Moulins Cathedral, originally the chapel of their palace, was built by Agnes of Burgundy, daughter of Jean sans Peur [John the Fearless]


Margaret of Austria, Duchess of Savoy
Born: 10 January 1480 Died: 1 December 1530
Political offices
Preceded by
Governor of the Habsburg Netherlands
Succeeded by
Italian nobility
Preceded by
Duchess consort of Savoy
Title next held by
Beatrice of Portugal

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