politics women leaders

Margaret of Austria

This weeks Illustrated Women in History was submitted by Hannah Powell and will be included in the next Illustrated Women in History zine!

Margaret of Austria

Margaret was born in 1480, her father was the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I who ruled over large swathes of western Europe, including Austria and the Netherlands. Her mother, Mary of Burgundy, was exceedingly wealthy as the ruler of the duchy of Burgundy. Mary died when Margaret was only three years old. Her father, keen to keep the Burgundian inheritance in the family, betrothed three year old Margaret to the heir to the French throne, son of King Louis XI, Charles. This, he hoped, would end the French conflict over Burgundy.

The infant Margaret was then sent to be brought up away in the French court. There, she spent her childhood until her betrothed, Charles, broke off their engagement by marrying Anne of Bretagne (who was technically Margaret’s stepmother). This and the fact that the French were withholding Margaret’s dowry enraged her father who decided to retaliate by allying himself with France’s old enemy- the Spanish.

Again, Margaret found herself traveling to a foreign country to be a bride subject to her father’s political ambitions. She married the heir to the Spanish throne, Prince John. Their marriage only lasted six months until John died aged only 18. Margaret was pregnant at the time but her child was still-born.

Margaret returned to the Netherlands and, once again, her father found her a political match. She was married to Duke Philibert of Savoy and they were very happy. Unfortunately, this was to be short-lived as Philibert died after only three years. Aged only 24, Margaret was a widow again. She was inconsolable and refused to go through with another marriage.

By her refusing to marry again, Margaret paved the way for a successful independent political career, breaking new ground for female rulers in this period. In 1506, Margaret’s brother died and the following year she was appointed as governor of the Netherlands.

Margaret was an incredibly intelligent woman and had a gift for politics. She governed over a period of prosperity, peace and cultural growth in the Netherlands and advocated for Dutch interests on the political stage. She also brought up some of her brother’s children, including her father’s heir, Charles. When Charles became the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, he came to recognise Margaret for the wise advisor she was. She even helped him on Europe’s political stage, negotiating a peace between Charles and the French.

She was an influential patron of the arts, and her court was visited by some of the great thinkers of the age, including Erasmus and Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa. Agrippa even dedicated his ‘Declamation on the Nobility and Preeminence of the Female Sex’ book to her, a book pronouncing the theological and moral superiority of women.

Margaret, whose life had seemed destined for use as a political marriage pawn, found her own agency in the Netherlands. She proved her talent and became an influential and successful ruler in a time where women were perceived as the inferior gender.’

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