The Women around an Emperor: Mary of Burgundy

The Women around an Emperor: Mary of Burgundy

By Natalie Anderson

Mary of Burgundy, c. 1490.

During the course of doctoral research, it is inevitable to come across numerous tantalising side-paths, which you wish you had the time (and word count) to explore. Readers of my previous features may have noticed a certain proclivity for tournaments, as well as the frequent appearance of that fifteenth-century figure, Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, the combination of which two subjects were the basis of my PhD thesis. However, as I was spending my days reading everything I could about Maximilian, his empire, and his tournaments, I became more and more fascinated by the women in his life – not just for their influence on him, but for their own complex personal histories.

Thus I thought I would take this opportunity to highlight some of these women; to bring them out of the context in which I originally discovered them, i.e. their relation to Maximilian, and to hopefully encourage people to go out and learn more about them.


The natural starting point in this endeavour is Maximilian’s first wife, Mary of Burgundy. Mary was born in 1457, the only child (by all accounts legitimate and illegitimate) of Duke Charles the Bold of Burgundy and his second wife, Isabella of Bourbon. Isabella died when Mary was just eight, however, and Charles soon re-married, which meant that the young Mary grew up primarily with her stepmother, Charles’ third wife, Margaret of York, the sister of King Edward IV of England. The two were reportedly very close, with Margaret providing advice and guidance to her stepdaughter, who carried a great weight of expectation on her shoulders.

As the daughter of Charles the Bold, Mary was the heir to one of the richest and most powerful territories in fifteenth-century Europe (she was sometimes known as ‘Mary the Rich’). This, naturally, also made her one of the most desirable marriage prospects. But before any marriage plans could be officially declared, Charles was killed at the Battle of Nancy in 1477, when Mary was only twenty. Mary now faced pressure to marry as quickly as possible. Although she had several suitors vying for her hand, including the dauphin of France, Charles, son of Louis XI, she eventually settled on the eighteen-year-old Archduke Maximilian of Austria, future Holy Roman Emperor.


Mary of Burgundy on horseback, from the Excellente Cronyke van Vlaenderen, Fol. 372v

Remarkably, Mary and Maximilian’s marriage seems to have been one of those rare medieval royal matches that grew into true affection. The young couple shared many interests, including a love of animals, hunting, falconry, horseback riding, and the outdoors and other physical pursuits. Maximilian was fascinated by the Burgundian court culture, with its legacy of grand tournaments, and his time spent in Mary’s court following their marriage appears to have been one of the happiest times of his life.

Juan Luis Vives, a Valencian scholar and author of the sixteenth-century manual The Education of a Christian Woman, used Mary and Maximilian as a positive example of marriage. In it, he wrote:

‘Mary the wyfe of Maximilian the emperour / whiche had by her father of inheritance all Flanders and Pycatdye / and the people set nought by the symple and softe disposition of Maximilian / and sewed for all theyr matters vnto Mary his wyfe / yet wolde she neuer determyne nothyng without her husbandes aduise / whose will she rekened euer for a lawe / though she myght well inough haue ruled and ordened all as she lyst / with his good wyll: whiche vsed to suffer of his mylde stomacke any thing yet she lyst / vnto his good and prudent wyfe / & that in her owne goodes. So Mary by obeynge her husbande / and regardyng hym so well / brought hym in to great auctorite / and made the people more obedient vnto them both / as though their powers were increased and ayded either by other.’

Vives portrays Mary as a good wife due to her deference in all things to her husband. Yet he also reveals that the Burgundian people were not keen on the young archduke; they preferred to turn to Mary, their rightful ruler, with their troubles. It was only through Mary publicly recognising Maximilian’s authority that he achieved some level of respect.


Mary and Maximilian had two children who survived to adulthood: Philip ‘the Fair’ (1478-1506), future Duke of Burgundy and father of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, and Margaret (1480-1530), whom we will encounter again in a few weeks. Yet sadly Mary and Maximilian’s marriage was short-lived. In 1482, while out hunting with her husband, Mary was thrown from her horse. She died several weeks later from her injuries; she was only twenty-five. It is also possible that she was pregnant when she died.

Maximilian was, by all accounts, broken-hearted by Mary’s tragic death. In his later years, he strove to immortalise Mary and their romance through works like Theuerdank, a fantastical account of his wooing and winning of Mary in which he takes on the role of the heroic young knight undertaking a noble quest to attain her hand. The ghost of Mary looms large over the rest of Maximilian’s life as well as over his second marriage to Bianca Maria Sforza of Milan, whom we will meet next week.

Maximilian and Mary in Maximilian’s allegorical biography ‘Weisskunig’.

Recommended Further Reading: Unfortunately, to my knowledge no thorough, modern biography of Mary exists (this may become a theme over the upcoming weeks…). Of course, she features heavily in many scholarly works on Maximilian and in histories of medieval Burgundy, but this lady really deserves a book of her own. She did, at least, get her own conference in 2015. In the meantime, those who wish to learn more could check out Olga Karaskova’s article, ‘“Unq dessoir de cinq degrez”: Mary of Burgundy and the Construction of the Image of the Female Ruler’, in Authority and Gender in Medieval and Renaissance Chronicles, edited by Juliana Dresvina and Nicholas Sparks (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars, 2012).


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