The Women around an Emperor: Margaret of Austria

By Natalie Anderson

The previous two features in this series on the women I discovered while researching the life of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I have focused on his wives, the idolised Mary of Burgundy and the hapless Bianca Maria Sforza. In this entry, I shall now turn my attention to his only daughter, Margaret, who became known to history as Margaret of Austria.

Margaret of Austria as a child, c. 1490

Born to Mary of Burgundy and Maximilian in 1480, Margaret was named after Mary’s beloved stepmother, Margaret of York. Just two years later, in 1482, Margaret’s mother was fatally injured while out hunting, leaving behind her and her older brother Philip as heirs to a vast and often unwieldy collection of territories. The ever-canny Maximilian realised that he had to act fast to secure his future stability through the advantageous marriages of his children.


When she was just three, Margaret was engaged to the dauphin of France, Charles, son of Louis XI. Margaret’s dowry that she would bring to her marriage with the dauphin was to include the all-important county of Burgundy. Thus, as happened to many young women of the time, she was sent off to live and be raised in the French court, in order to prepare her for her future life as the queen of France.

Yet this was a future that was not to be for Margaret. In 1491, Charles, who was ten years older than Margaret, broke off their engagement in order to pursue an even more advantageous match with Anne of Brittany. Margaret, still a child, had to live two more years in France before she was sent to the court of her step-grandmother and namesake, Margaret of York, in the Netherlands.

This was just the beginning of Margaret’s bad luck when it came to marriage. In 1497, she married Juan, the son of Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon. Her brother Philip married their daughter, Juana (their other child was Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon). Margaret moved to Spain to be with her new husband, but he died after only six months.


Next, in 1501, Margaret married Philibert II, Duke of Savoy. The couple had no children, and, after just three years of marriage, Philibert died. Margaret was twice a widow at the age of twenty-four.

This was the end of marriages for Margaret, but the beginning of her ascendency as a powerful political figure. Her brother Philip, Maximilian’s only son and heir, died suddenly in 1506 – possibly from poisoning, according to rumour. Margaret now found herself in an unexpected position of power. Maximilian named her governor of the Netherlands and guardian of Philip’s young son Charles (the future Emperor Charles V), for whom she acted as regent. Margaret built a new palace, the Hof van Savoye, in the Belgian city of Mechelen, and based her court there (for a short time, her court was home to a young woman by the name of Anne Boleyn).

From Mechelen, Margaret led the Netherlands through a period of prosperity. She was a lover of reading, kept a substantial library, and was a great patron of literature and the arts. Even after Charles V reached adulthood, he kept his aunt in the post of governor of the Netherlands, which she retained until her death in 1530. In 1529, she helped to negotiate peace with France on behalf of Charles in what became known as the Paix des Dames, or Ladies’ Peace, as her counterpart in the negotiations was Louise of Savoy, mother of the king of France.


Unlike her mother, Mary of Burgundy, and her stepmother, Bianca Maria Sforza, Margaret achieved power and autonomy as an independent ruler and strong political leader. The life in which she found herself clearly suited her, as she later turned down an offer of marriage from King Henry VII of England. Although she is not as well-known, her accomplishments merit a place alongside the other female rulers of the sixteenth century, such as Elizabeth I of England or Mary, Queen of Scots, whose names are more familiar to modern ears but whose lives are no more extraordinary.

Margaret of Austria’s tomb in Bourg-en-Bresse, France.

Recommended further reading: There is at least one popular history biography of Margaret: Shirley Harrold Bonner’s Fortune, Misfortune, Fortifies One, originally published in 1981 and recently re-released. (The title is a reference to Margaret’s rather apt personal motto.) For those who really want to dig deep and gain a personal insight into Margaret’s life, however, I cannot recommend highly enough the Correspondance de l’empereur Maximilian Ier et de Marguerite d’Autriche, edited by André Joseph Ghislain le Glay, 2 volumes (Paris: Société de l’Histoire de France, 1839). These two volumes contain the letters exchanged between Maximilian and Margaret, and offer an immediacy and intimacy that no modern work of scholarship can.

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