Margaret of York - The Dowager Duchess

The Dowager Duchess

It was in the wake of her husband's death that Margaret proved truly invaluable to Burgundy. She had always been regarded as a skilful and intelligent politician; now, she went beyond even that. To her stepdaughter, Mary, now Duchess of Burgundy, she gave immeasurable guidance and help: using her own experiences in the court of Edward IV, where she had largely avoided being used as a pawn and contributed to the arrangement of her own marriage, she wisely guided the Duchess in deciding her marriage; against the wave of marriage offers that flooded to the two Duchesses in Ghent (from the recently widowed Duke of Clarence, from the 7-year old Dauphin of France, Charles, from a brother of Edward IV's wife, Elizabeth Woodville), she stood firm, and advised Mary to marry Maximilian of Habsburg, the 18-year old son of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III, to whom Charles the Bold had betrothed Mary, and who was ambitious and active enough, in Margaret's opinion, to defend Mary's legacy. She strongly advised Mary to accept Maximilian's suit, and marry him immediately; he arrived in Burgundy on 5 August 1477, and by 17 August had arrived at Ten Waele Castle, in Ghent. He met Mary there - they were both "pale as death", but found each other to their mutual liking - and Margaret took part in the traditional courtly games of love, telling Maximilian before the assembled nobility that his bride "had about her a carnation it behoved him to discover." The carnation duly proved to be in the Duchess's bodice, from which Maximilian carefully removed it. The pair were married the next day, on 18 August.

Burgundy was far from safe: the Duchy of Burgundy itself had already been conquered by the French, who were continuing to attack from all sides, taking advantage of the state's instability. Margaret now moved to secure military support from her brother, Edward IV; he sent enough support to allow Mary and Maximilian to resist the French advances any further, although the Duchy itself remained lost. Louis XI, recognising the danger Margaret posed to him, attempted to buy her off with a French pension and a promise of personally protecting her; she contemptuously refused, and instead sailed in summer 1480 to London, where she negotiated a resumption of the Anglo-Burgundian alliance, and renewed trade. Nor did she stop there in supporting Mary and Maximilian; when, on 22 July 1478, Mary gave birth to a son and heir, Philip, Louis XI had rumours spread that the child was in fact a girl. Margaret, who was standing godmother to the child, matter-of-factly disproved the rumour: as the Christening party left the church of St Donat, she conclusively proved that the child was an undoubted male, by undressing him and presenting him to the assembled crowd. In 1480, the next child of Mary and Maximilian was a girl: the Duke and Duchess named her Margaret, after the dowager Duchess.

Margaret was however dealt a devastating blow in 1482: her much loved stepdaughter, Mary, fell from her horse whilst hunting, and broke her back. The injuries were fatal, and Mary died on 27 March. From the personal point of view, this was a harsh blow to Margaret; politically, Mary's death weakened the Burgundian state further. The Burgundians were now sick of war, and unwilling to accept the rule of Maximilian as regent for his son, the 4-year old Duke Philip, or even as guardian of the children. They forced his hand: on 23 December 1482, the Three Estates of the Lowlands signed the Treaty of Arras with Louis XI, granting him the Burgundian Lowlands, Picardy and the county of Boulogne. Margaret was unable to secure assistance from Edward IV, who had made a truce with France; consequently, she and Maximilian were forced to accept the fait accompli. Maximilian brokered a personal peace with Louis by arranging for his daughter, Margaret, to be betrothed to the young Dauphin of France; she was sent to be raised at the French court, taking with her the Free County of Burgundy and the County of Artois with her as a dowry.

This was not the end of the problems for Margaret and Maximilian: the Netherlanders still disliked his rule of the territory. In 1488, he was taken prisoner in Bruges by the citizens, and was freed only upon making far-reaching concessions. The next year, he was summoned back to Austria by his father, the Emperor; Burgundy was left to be governed by Margaret together with the Burgundian Estates, both of whom also undertook the guardianship of the young Duke Philip, although Maximilian continued to take a distant interest in the country, and a greater interest in his children.

By this time, Margaret had already suffered more personal tragedies. Her brother, the Duke of Clarence, had been executed by Edward IV in 1478; Edward himself had died of illness in 1483 and finally, her younger brother Richard, who took the throne as Richard III was in 1485 killed at the Battle of Bosworth by the leader of the House of Lancaster, Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, a cousin and nephew of Henry VI, who went on to become Henry VII, and to marry the daughter of Edward IV, Elizabeth of York. With the death of Richard, the House of York ceased to rule in England. Margaret consequently was a staunch supporter of anyone willing to challenge Tudor, and backed both Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck, even going so far as to acknowledge Warbeck as her nephew, the younger son of Edward IV, the Duke of York. Warbeck was probably an imposter, and would be locked up in the Tower of London and subsequently executed by Henry VII. Henry in fact found Margaret undoubtedly problematic, but there was little he could do, since she was protected by Maximilian.

By 1493, Burgundy was recovering. The marriage of Charles VIII to Duchess Anne of Brittany had allowed the eventual return of his fiance, young Margaret, to Burgundy and the care of her step-grandmother the Dowager Duchess; the Peace of Senlis, which returned her to her family, also returned her dowry of the Counties of Artois and Palatine Burgundy, and laid down that Duke Philip would take up personal rule in the following year when he reached age 16. When this duly took place, in 1494, the Duchy duly gained a measure of stability. In 1496, a double marriage was made: young Margaret married Juan, Prince of Asturias, the heir to the thrones of Castile and Aragon, whilst Philip married Juan's sister, Joanna, who would later be known as "the Mad" due to her insanity. Neither marriage was a success: Juan died shortly after his wedding, and young Margaret, who bore only a still-born child several months after her husband's death, was sent back to Burgundy, blamed for having failed to provide Spain with an heir; Joanna and Philip, by contrast, produced six children, but their marriage was blighted by the Duke's infidelities and the passionate jealousy of his wife.

In 1498, Joanna bore a daughter, Eleanor. In 1500, she bore a son, who was named Charles after his great-grandfather, Charles the Bold, and she bore a daughter, Isabella, in 1501. When, in 1502, the Duke and Duchess left Burgundy for Castile, where they were to be proclaimed heirs, they left the children in the care of Margaret, who already took a great deal of personal responsibility for them. The tales she told the young Charles, of the English Wars of the Roses, would inspire him with notions of chivalry, aristocratic 'romanticism', and the missionary ideals of Burgundy.

Margaret died on 23 November 1503, at the age of 57, shortly after the return of her step-grandson, Philip the Handsome, to Burgundy. Her death in that year allowed her to be spared the grief of Philip's untimely death of typhoid fever in 1506.

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