The Importance of Margaret of Austria

Between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries in Europe, dynastic politics dominated the ruling hierarchies of nation-states. Instead of the democracies we know of today, hereditary families ruled the realms that make up modern-day Spain, England, France, and Austria, among many others. While these ruling families faded through time, either through war or the lines ending, there was one that persevered: the Habsburg family. By the early sixteenth century, the Habsburgs ruled as the monarchs of Spain, the Low Countries, Austria, and held a monopoly on the title of Holy Roman Emperor. The family found success in their dynastic ambitions by having children reach adulthood and expanding their power through creating marriage arrangements. One of these children was Margaret of Austria (1480-1530). Her importance to the Habsburg dynasty helped create an alliance with the Trastámara dynasty, calm unrest in the Low Countries and became a political figure for the Habsburg dynasty.

From birth, Margaret embodied dynastic aspirations. She was descended from two of the most powerful dynasties at the end of the fifteenth century, with each family controlling different portions of the European continent: The Habsburgs, from her father, and the Valois Dukes of Burgundy, from her mother. The Habsburg dynasty controlled modern-day Austria, some portions of Czechia, and Hungary. The Burgundian dynasty ruled over an assortment of territories from modern-day pieces of France and the Low Countries. Margaret's mother was Mary of Burgundy (1457-1482), and her father was Maximilian (1459-1519) of the Habsburg dynasty. The marriage between Mary and Maximilian came about through negotiations between Mary's father, Charles the Bold (1433-1477), and Maximilian's father, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III (1415-1493). The marriage between the two dynasties made strategic sense as they both bordered a common enemy, France. In addition to defense, the union would also bolster each dynasty's importance on the mainland. The Habsburgs wanted to improve their prestige to become a European power, not just an eastern and central European dynastic family (Boehm, 1979). As for Charles, he wanted to become a king, and only an emperor could assist him in his quest (Fichtner, 2014).

Figure 1. Unknown. (nd). Maximilian I. [Painting]. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.

(Retrieved from

While Charles and Frederick agreed to the marriage, tragedy struck as Charles died before Mary and Maximilian were officially married. However, when Mary inherited the throne she ultimately decided to marry Maximilian to keep with the original marriage agreement. Their marriage unfortunately did not last as Mary died after a horse accident. Before she passed, she had two children, Philip (1478-1506) and Margaret. At the time of Mary's death, Philip was three and Margaret was two. They were too young to rule as the Burgundian namesake of the Valois Dukes of Burgundy. The only logical person that could oversee until either was of age was Maximilian, who had minimal success as he was technically a foreigner and not of Burgundian blood.

With the new lands acquired due to the untimely death of his wife, Maximilian searched for a marriage alliance for his children, especially Margaret. Ruling families sought out multiple potential matches for any progeny ready for marriage. In Maximilian's case, he sought out a double marriage to create an alliance. Continuously challenged by France, Maximilian looked to Isabella (1451-1504) and Ferdinand of Spain (1452-1516) as an ally and partners in two unions for his children (Fichtner, 2014). Previously, in 1482, Maximilian had signed the Treaty of Arras with Louis XI of France (1423-1483) to put an end to some of their struggles. The treaty recognized the duchy Burgundy returning to France, but Louis conceded the counties of Burgundy and Artois and the lordships of Auxerre and Mâcon by acknowledging these lands as part of Margaret's future dowry (Saenger, 1977). The unions benefitted Maximilian because the marriage and union created an alliance surrounding France on the European continent. The partnership set a political tone in the home realms each dynasty ruled. France knew that any incursions into either de jure lands of Burgundy or Spain would result in war on multiple fronts. With the alliance, the Habsburg-Burgundian line would ultimately merge with the Spanish Trastámara and control the largest composite European realm since Charlemagne, and provide a strong defense against France (Eichberger & Beaven, 1995).

Figure 2. Map of the Valois Dukes of Burgundy Territory [Map].

(Retrieved from

Philip married Juana of Castille (1479-1555) in 1496 and stayed in the Low Countries. Margaret's marriage to Juan (1478-1497), the potential future king of Spain, followed in 1497 when she moved to Spain (Atreed, 2012). Unfortunately for Margaret, this marriage ended in an untimely death, Juan passing away that same year. Even though this marriage did not last, the alliance between the two dynasties continued as Philip and Juana produced six children that survived into adulthood. Margaret's first marriage ended in tragedy, but her importance from a dynastic marriage perspective remained. In 1501, she married the Duke of Savoy, Philibert II (1450-1504). Royal marriages were a premier method of continuing alliances, and Margaret's family lineage still gave her a lot of influence and bargaining power. The House of Savoy made an important alliance partner as they also bordered France, which created another defensive boundary for the Habsburgs. France was now surrounded by enemies in the north, south, and east.

Like her first marriage to Juan, Margaret's marriage to Philibert did not last as he died in 1504. With herself a two-time widow, she refused to marry a third time, when there were marriage discussions between Maximilian and Henry VII (1457-1509) (Eichberger & Beaven, 1995). For all purposes, Margaret was determined to play the role of the widow in her duty to the family's dynastic relationships. Her relationship with the Savoys fractured after his death. The two sides fought over Margaret's claims to the family dowry and territory gained from the marriage (Eichberger & Beaven, 1995). The region gained from the union would ultimately become part of the Habsburg dynasty.

Figure 3. Mostaert, J. (nd). Portrait of Philibert II, Duke of Savoy. [Painting]. Museum Hof van Busleyden, Mechelen, Belgium.

(Retrieved from www.

While she no longer had any input in creating alliances through marriage, Margaret helped quell any unrest in the Low Countries due to her lineage. When Maximilian assumed the territory after the death of Mary, he had significant issues. Maximilian dealt with uprisings and was even thrown in prison in Bruges on a visit to the city. When both of his children came to power, they did not have those problems. Both Margaret and Philip were direct Burgundian descendants. When Margaret came of age and a governor, the ruling class of the Low Countries considered her a princesse naturelle, which provided her the necessary recognition and support to rule (Eichberger, 2005). Her importance in this role grew after the death of her brother, Philip. When Philip died in 1506, and her sister-in-law, Juana of Aragon-Castile, was unable to rule due to her mental illness, so Margaret became the regent of the Netherlands proper. She received the title of "Gouvernante" (Eichberger & Beaven, 1995).

The idea of women in power is a modern myth, as the act created an impression of passive or apathetic women in society (Hufton, 1983). While it is true that widows generally did not become active members of the community, let alone diplomatic governors, Margaret was far from being a passive person. As regent, she represented her interests but also the concerns of the Emperor (Eichberger, 1996). Due to these concerns, she was one of the leading Habsburg officials with diplomatic ties to Henry VII of England (1457-1509). Margaret was the focal point between her father, Maximilian, and Henry. Her efforts with Henry formed the foundation for her diplomatic abilities (Attreed, 2012). In 1510, when there was a need to renew the Habsburg alliance with England, now under the rule of Henry VIII (1491-1547), Maximilian instructed Margaret to wait until his advisors arrived to confirm the treaty (Fichtner, 1967).

Figure 4. Holbein, H. (nd) Portrait of Henry VII [Painting]

(Retrieved from

Margaret would rule the Low Countries as governor until she died in 1530. The dynasty continued to rule in the Low Countries but never did so with the ease that Margaret received when she ruled the region. Her impact on her family lasts to this day. She is well known as a contributor to the significance of the city of Mechelen, where she governed the Low Countries from. Dynasty was an essential aspect of Early Modern Era politics, and Margaret of Austria exemplified the idea of a family dynasty, as she played a substantial role in growing, stabilizing, and governing for the Habsburg family.

Bibliographic Sources

Attreed, L. (2012). Gender, Patronage, and Diplomacy in the Early Career of Margaret of Austria (1480-1530). Meditteranean Studies, 20(1), 3-27.

Boehm, L. (1979). Burgundy and the Empire in the Reign of Charles the Bold. The International History Review, 1(2), 153-162.

Eichberger, D. and Beaven, L. (1995) Family Members and Political Allies: The Portrait Collection of Margaret of Austria. The Art Bulletin, 77(2), 225-248.

Eichberger, D. (2005). Margaret of Austria: A Princess with Ambition and Political Insight. In D. Eichberger & Y. Bleyerveld (Eds.), Women of Distinction: Margaret of York and Margaret of Austria (49-55). Lamont.

Eichberger, D. (1996). Margaret of Austria’s Portrait Collection: Female Patronage in the Light of Dynastic Ambitions and Artistic Quality. Renaissance Studies, 10(2), 259-279.

Fitchner, P.S. (2014). The Habsburgs: Dynasty, Culture and Politics. Reaktion Books.

Fitchner, P.S. (1967). The Politics of Honor: Renaissance Chivalry and Habsburg Dynasticism. Bibliothèque d’Humanisme et Renaissance, 29(3), 567-580.

Hufton, O. (1983). Women in History: Early Modern Europe. Past & Present, 1983(101), 125-141.

Saenger, P. (1977). Burgundy and the Inalienability of Appanages in the Reign of Louis XI. French Historical Studies, 10(1), 1-26.

Visual Sources

Article Cover. van Orley, B. (nd). Painting of Margaret of Austria. [Painting].,_Duchess_of_Savoy

Figure 1. Unknown. (nd). Maximilian I. [Painting]. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.

Figure 2. Map of the Valois Dukes of Burgundy Territory [Map].

Figure 3. Mostaert, J. (nd). Portrait of Philibert II, Duke of Savoy. [Painting]. Museum Hof van Busleyden, Mechelen, Belgium.

Figure 4. Holbein, H. (nd) Portrait of Henry VII [Painting].

Author Photo

Nathan Hepp

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