Who’s who?

Henry VI

Henry VI was born December 6th, 1421 and within a year he was king of England and France after his father, Henry V of England died in August 31st, 1422 and his grandfather, Charles VI of France died on October 21st, 1422. Because he was so young when he became king there needed to be a regency council and a Lord Protector, however the court was filled with many self-interested individuals that were constantly jockeying for position. This was not helped by the number of brothers and cousins Henry V had.  On 28 September 1423, the nobles swore loyalty to Henry VI. They summoned Parliament in the King’s name and established a regency council to govern until the King should come of age. One of Henry V’s surviving brothers, John, Duke of Bedford, was appointed senior regent of the realm and was in charge of the ongoing war in France. During Bedford’s absence, the government of England was headed by Henry V’s other surviving brother, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, who was appointed Protector and Defender of the Realm. His duties were limited to keeping the peace and summoning Parliament. Henry V’s half-uncle Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester had an important place on the Council. In reaction to Charles VII Valois’ coronation as French King in Reims Cathedral on 17 July 1429, Henry was soon crowned King of England at Westminster Abbey on 6 November 1429, followed by his own coronation as King of France at Notre Dame de Paris on 26 December 1431. It was not until 13 November 1437, shortly before his 16th birthday, that he obtained some measure of independent authority, but his growing willingness to involve himself in administration became apparent in 1434 when the place named on writs temporarily changed from Westminster (where the Privy Council was) to Cirencester (where the king was). He finally assumed full royal powers when he came of age at sixteen. After the Duke of Bedford died in 1435, the Duke of Gloucester claimed the Regency himself, but this was contested by the other members of the Council.

Some time after Bedford died in 1435, Cardinal Beaufort withdrew from public affairs, and William de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk rose to become the dominant personality at court. Suffolk was widely accused of enriching himself through his influence over Henry, and was blamed for mismanaging the continuing Hundred Years’ War with France. Under Henry VI,’s councillors all the land in France won by Henry V and even the provinces of Guienne and Gascony, which had been held since the reign of Henry II three centuries previously, were lost. Cardinal Beaufort and the Earl of Suffolk persuaded the king that the best way of pursuing peace with France was through a marriage with Margaret of Anjou, the niece of King Charles VII. Henry agreed, especially when he heard reports of Margaret’s stunning beauty, and sent Suffolk to negotiate with Charles, who agreed to the marriage on condition that he would not have to provide the customary dowry and instead would receive the lands of Maine and Anjou from the English. These conditions were agreed to in the Treaty of Tours, but the cession of Maine and Anjou was kept secret from parliament, as it was known that this would be hugely unpopular with the English populace. The marriage took place at Titchfield Abbey on 23 April 1445, one month after Margaret’s 15th birthday. Suffolk eventually succeeded in having Humphrey of Gloucester arrested for treason, he later died while awaiting trial in prison at Bury St Edmunds in 1447; however, with severe reverses in France, Suffolk was stripped of office and was murdered on his way to exile.

With both Humphrey and Suffolk gone two new leaders emerged in the court of Henry VI:Edmund Beaufort, 2nd Duke of Somerset succeeded him as leader of the party seeking peace with France and the Duke of York, represented those who wished to prosecute the war more vigorously. York had succeeded Bedford as Lieutenant in France,and criticised the court, and Somerset in particular, for starving him of funds and men during his campaigns in France. In all these quarrels, Henry VI had taken little part. He was seen as a weak, ineffectual king. In addition, he displayed several symptoms of mental illness that he may have inherited from his maternal grandfather, Charles VI of France. By 1450 many considered Henry incapable of carrying out the duties and responsibilities of a king.

In 1450, there was a violent popular revolt in Kent, Jack Cade’s rebellion. The grievances were extortion by some of the king’s officials and the failure of the courts to protect the local property-owners of all classes. The rebels occupied parts of London, but were driven out by the citizens after some of them fell to looting. The rebels dispersed after they were supposedly pardoned but several, including Cade, were later executed.

Two years later, Richard of York returned to England from his new post as Lieutenant of Ireland and marched on London, demanding Somerset’s removal and reform of the government. At this stage, few of the nobles supported such drastic action, and York was forced to submit to superior force at Blackheath. He was imprisoned for much of 1452 and 1453 but was released after swearing not to take arms against the court.

The increasing discord at court was mirrored in the country as a whole, where noble families engaged in private feuds and showed increasing disrespect for the royal authority and for the courts of law. The Percy-Neville feud was the best-known of these private wars, but others were being conducted freely. In many cases they were fought between old-established families, and formerly minor nobility raised in power and influence by Henry IV in the aftermath of the rebellions against him. The quarrel between the Percys—long the Earls of Northumberland—and the comparatively upstart Nevilles followed this pattern, as did the feud between the Courtenays and Bonvilles in Cornwall and Devon. A factor in these feuds was the presence of large numbers of soldiers discharged from the English armies that had been defeated in France. Nobles engaged many of these to mount raids, or to pack courts of justice with their supporters, intimidating suitors, witnesses and judges.

This growing civil discontent, the abundance of feuding nobles with private armies, and corruption in Henry VI’s court formed a political climate ripe for civil war. With the king so easily manipulated, power rested with those closest to him at court, in other words Somerset and the Lancastrian faction. Richard and the Yorkist faction, who tended to be physically placed further away from the seat of power, found their power slowly being stripped away. Royal power and finances also started to slip, as Henry was persuaded to grant many royal lands and estates to the Lancastrians, thereby losing their revenue.

In 1453, Henry suffered the first of several bouts of complete mental collapse, during which he failed even to recognise his new-born son, Edward of Westminster. On 22 March 1454, Cardinal John Kemp, the Chancellor, died. Henry was incapable of nominating a successor. To ensure that the country could be governed, a Council of Regency was set up, headed by the Duke of York, who still remained popular with the people, as Lord Protector. York soon asserted his power with ever-greater boldness (although there is no proof that he had aspirations to the throne at this early stage). He imprisoned Somerset and backed his Neville allies (his brother-in-law, the Earl of Salisbury, and Salisbury’s son, the Earl of Warwick), in their continuing feud with the Earl of Northumberland, a powerful supporter of Henry.

Henry recovered in 1455 and once again fell under the influence of those closest to him at court. Directed by Henry’s queen, the powerful and aggressive Margaret of Anjou, who emerged as the de facto leader of the Lancastrians, Richard was forced out of court. Margaret built up an alliance against Richard and conspired with other nobles to reduce his influence. An increasingly thwarted Richard (who feared arrest for treason) finally resorted to armed hostilities in 1455.

The Universal Spider: King Louis XI

By Susan Abernethy

King Louis XI’s administration and consolidation of his kingdom and his flair for diplomacy earned him the sobriquet of “the Prudent”. But his favorite pastimes were plotting and conspiracy. He even earned the names “Cunning” and “Universal Spider” due to the webs of intrigue he would spin around Europe. It seems he was never happier than when he was planning his next scheme.

The Dauphin Louis was born about three o’clock in the afternoon on July 3, 1423 at Bourges. He was the son of Charles VII, King of France and Marie of Anjou. Due to the weakness of his father’s hold on the kingdom of France, there was internal strife at the time of Louis’ birth and Bourges was threatened. Charles was worried for the safety of his heir so he had Louis transferred to the walled castle of Loches in Touraine when he was two. Louis was to live here in isolation until he was ten years old.

When Louis was six, a program of instruction was drawn up laying out Louis’ education. Louis studied history, rhetoric, Latin grammar, mathematics and music. When he was not studying, he would practice horseback riding, and how to handle weapons like the bow and arrow, lance and sword. He never acquired a taste for jousting however. In his home away from court, he learned to live as a simple man among simple people. No fancy food or clothes or quarters for this prince. Because he grew up away from parental love, he found affection from pets like dogs, birds and other exotic animals.

A young Louis XI  (16th century drawing)In 1433, there was increasing political instability that affected the King’s court and Louis went to live with his mother and sisters at Amboise. He was finally treated according to his rank as Dauphin of France. While there he learned how the kingdom had fallen into chaos, constantly at war with England in a conflict called the Hundred Years War. He learned how a group of unaffiliated soldiers called the Écorcheurs were burning and pillaging the countryside forcing the peasants to run for their lives. He became aware of the weakness of his father, whose inability to harness the power of the French nobles added to the instability. When Joan of Arc claimed her victory at Orleans in the spring of 1429, Louis’ father had finally been crowned King. But the humiliation and shame of his father’s rule had made an impression on Louis.

In the summer of 1436, Louis had his first public appearance on the world stage. The occasion was his marriage to Margaret Stewart, a daughter of King James I of Scotland. His father did not come to greet the new bride on the first day of the ceremonies and on the day of the wedding, Charles arrived and attended the wedding service in his riding clothes and leggings. He didn’t even remove his spurs. It was a public, blatant insult to Louis. By the age of sixteen, Louis was willing to conspire with other disgruntled nobles to take over government of the realm. Louis would join the Duc de Bourbon, the Duc d’Alençon and others in open rebellion in 1440. Their objective was to capture King Charles and replace him with Louis. The plot failed and Louis was forced to submit to his father. The rebellion was known as the “Praguerie” because a similar rebellion had broken out in Prague, Bohemia around the same time. Louis did manage to negotiate a better income and partial control of the Dauphiné from King Charles.

In 1441, Louis began a succession of various fighting campaigns for his father and eventually took his place on the King’s council. Peace with England was made but the Écorcheurs were still ravaging the French countryside. Louis was chosen to marshal these seasoned soldiers to go fight the Swiss. Louis performed his duties impeccably and was planning on more conquests when his father recalled him back to court. He was to remain there, isolated and withdrawn. The Dauphine Margaret died unexpectedly in August of 1445. Until the end of 1446, there is very little on record of Louis’ whereabouts or activities. He then emerges, plotting, scheming, and looking for support and some kind of employment. He finally gets permission from his father to go to the Dauphiné to receive homage and to try to further French interests in northern Italy.

The Dauphiné had once been a part of the Holy Roman Empire but eventually was bequeathed to the heir of France on the condition it never be united with the kingdom of France. It was a jumble of feudal and episcopal entities. Louis arrived in January of 1447 and transformed the little province into a state, doubled its size and centralized its governance. He gloried in being away from his father’s control and having the personal life he aspired to. He took mistresses, rode incessantly on horseback, and ate and drank to his heart’s content all the while gaining followers

By 1450 he had done all he could in the Dauphiné and was looking to marry again. He requested the King’s permission to pursue Charlotte, the daughter of the Duc of Savoy. Permission was refused. Louis sent an embassy to Savoy anyway, signed a contract and married twelve year old Charlotte in March 1451. The marriage was not to be consummated until Charlotte was older. Louis was now in direct conflict with his father by disobeying his orders and marrying against his will.

Through the years 1454 and 1455, Louis and Charles argued back and forth, each trying to assert his own will. Eventually King Charles raised an army and was going to attack Louis in the Dauphiné. Louis fled to the court of the Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy where he stayed until his father died in July of 1461. While he was there he had a good opportunity to investigate and analyze the personalities of Duke Philip and his son Charles, Count of Charolais. This in depth study would serve Louis well when he became King and Charles became Duke of Burgundy, the mortal enemy of Louis.

When King Charles VII died, Louis hastily returned to France. He was crowned at Reims in August of 1461 and then made his state entry into Paris. He quickly went to work, organizing and centralizing his government. Through diplomacy and his royal will, he set about securing the French county of Rousillion and the region of Cerdagne, made an alliance with Francesco Sforza, made overtures to the Earl of Warwick and settled with the English, and regained part of northern France and the Somme towns. He also managed to provoke fear and mistrust among the French nobles.

Louis didn’t act like a king. He didn’t keep a magnificent court but stayed on the road with a small retinue, constantly riding on horseback. He dressed plainly, usually in hunting garb so he could leave the road and hunt when the fancy struck him. He would sup with peasants and avoid official welcomes in towns by turning off the main road on arrival. He would sometimes work, hunt and ride simultaneously. He left Queen Charlotte and her servants in the castle at Amboise and would visit her when it suited him. For the most part he was faithful to Charlotte. They would have two daughters, Anne and Joan, and then a son, Charles, born in 1470.  Because Louis was self-sufficient as a monarch and didn’t rely on the usual mechanisms of government and the aristocracy, the French nobles began to feel threatened. They were forming an alliance to rise up against Louis. Some of the most powerful men in the land, including Louis’ own brother, the Duc de Berry, were gathering troops to attack. They formed the League of the Public Weal, using the excuse of helping the people of France when really they were only fighting for their own interests.

Louis himself raised an army but did all he could to avoid a pitched battle. The nobles, including Charles, Count of Charolais from Burgundy, met Louis at Montl’héry early on July 16, 1465. There was fierce fighting and Charles was injured. But Louis felt defeat coming and actually stole away from the battle site. Charles claimed a hollow victory. Louis made his way to Paris and the nobles followed beginning a siege of the city. The siege did not last long. A truce was called and Louis and the nobles negotiated a settlement.

From the spring of 1466 to the spring of 1467, Louis went into a self-imposed exile. He was ruminating on what he had done right and wrong in his fight with the nobles. In 1468, Charles, Count of Charolais became Duke of Burgundy on the death of his father. He was in the midst of his wedding celebrations, marrying Margaret of York, in the first big event of his reign as Duke. Louis was threatening to attack and take the towns along the Somme which Charles had won in the aftermath of the League of the Public Weal. Louis didn’t really want war and agreed to come to Péronne to negotiate peace. The settlement was signed in November of 1468.

In 1470, Louis was to become very ill. He had suffered from hemorrhoids for twenty years and had a violent attack of the disease along with a high fever and headaches. He was barely recovered when he rode out to meet the English Earl of Warwick and made a truce, one of his most cherished goals. Warwick and Louis plotted to overthrow Edward IV and replace him with Henry VI which Warwick did.

Louis’ union with the English angered Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy and he accused Louis of breaking their Péronne peace agreement. In the summer of 1472, Charles raised an army and attacked France, taking several towns and laying siege to Beauvais. The siege was a disaster for Charles due to the bravery of the men, women and children of the town. Louis never really engaged Charles in pitched battle. Charles became frustrated and finally agreed to a truce with Louis that was to last until April, 1473.

In 1473, Louis was fifty years old, balding and suffering from illness. He was becoming less tolerant and perhaps a bit paranoid. He began attacking the towns along the Somme and other places in an effort to frustrate Charles the Bold. In 1475, King Edward IV of England decided to renew the Hundred Years War and brought the English army to France. Louis again raised his own army but had no intention of fighting. He ended up skillfully negotiating with Edward and signed the Treaty of Picquigny, essentially paying Edward huge sums of money and an annual pension which the English called “tribute”.

Portrait_de_Louis_XI_d'après_Jean_FouquetSoon after the English departed France, Louis concluded a nine year peace with Charles the Bold in September of 1475. This left Charles free to pursue his quest for a kingdom by attacking the Swiss and the Duchy of Savoy. Louis was gradually blocking off Franco-Burgundian trade with the Low Countries, stifling Charles’ ability to raise funds to keep fighting his wars. In January of 1477, Charles the Bold died in battle at Nancy. By February, nearly all the lands along the Channel and the towns in Picardy had surrendered to Louis’ representatives. The Duchy of Burgundy and the County of Burgundy agreed to reunion with the kingdom of France. Arras capitulated to Louis and he besieged Hesdin. Louis went on to take city after city. Eventually, Charles’ daughter and heir Mary of Burgundy and her new husband, the Archduke Maximilian of Austria sued for peace. Louis had gained the Burgundies, Artois and a good part of the region of northern France which he had won back from Charles the Bold.

Peace was made and Louis never went to war again. Louis was master of France. The three estates of the commons, the churchmen and the nobles were all subject to the crown. Louis had broken the power of feudalism. Industry flourished throughout the kingdom and the crown was collecting sufficient taxes on a regular basis. He continued to ceaselessly hunt but tried to travel more by water due to ill health. In February of 1481, he suffered what appeared to be a cerebral hemorrhage and then was stricken again in September. By now he had withdrawn and did not appear in public. In April of 1482, he emerged to make a pilgrimage to a shrine in Burgundy and then traveled to the Loire to stay at Cléry, shut away until September.

Duchess Mary of Burgundy died after falling from a horse in March of 1482. Louis negotiated a treaty with her husband Maximilian which was sworn to by Louis and his son Charles in January of 1483. Louis was now living in isolation in a fortress, fearful his authority would be taken from him. On Monday, August 25, he suffered another hemorrhage. On August 30, he called for the final sacraments and died between eight and ten o’clock that evening. He was buried in the Church of Our Lady of Cléry on September 6th. His wife Charlotte passed away on December 1 of the same year. Louis’s tomb was destroyed during the religious wars of the sixteenth century. The church still remains and Louis’ skull still endures as a relic.

Sources: Louis XI: The Universal Spider, by Paul Murray Kendall, Charles the Bold, by Ruth Putnam

Susan Abernethy is the writer of The Freelance History Writer and a contributor to Saints, Sisters, and Sluts. You can follow both sites on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/thefreelancehistorywriter) and (http://www.facebook.com/saintssistersandsluts), as well on Medieval History Lovers. You can also follow Susan on Twitter @SusanAbernethy2

Mary, Duchess of Burgundy

By Susan Abernethy

As the only child of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, Mary was the heir of a far-ranging, wealthy and diverse realm and she was sometimes called Mary the Rich. Mary never expected a life of independence or personal happiness. She was a pawn in her father’s political ambitions and her fate rested in his hands. She was his most valuable asset and was to remain unmarried while he was alive.

Mary was born on February 13, 1457 in Brussels at the ducal castle of Coudenberg. Her father Charles was the son of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy and Isabel of Portugal. His title at the time was Count of Charolais. Her mother was Isabella, daughter of the Duke of Bourbon. On the day Mary was born, her father had left to go hunting. Dauphin Louis of France (later King Louis XI) was currently a guest of the Duke of Burgundy and was in attendance outside the door of the birth chamber. The newborn child was carried by her grandmother the Duchess to the waiting Dauphin and he requested the baby be named Mary after his own mother.

Mary’s baptism was a splendid affair, especially for a female child. The Dauphin Louis acted as her godfather. Most of her childhood was spent in the ducal castle of Ten Waele in Ghent. Her governess was Jeanne de Clito, Lady Hallewijn, a cousin of the chronicler Philippe de Commines. Lady Hallewijn was Mary’s most constant companion for the rest of her life. Anne of Burgundy, later the wife of the minister Lord Ravenstein, was responsible for Mary’s education.

Mary received a good education worthy of the most eligible heiress in Europe. She was to have every whim satisfied. She had some companions when she was young, most notably her cousins, Lord Ravenstein’s son Philip and John of Cleves. She grew up with an ardent interest in animals. Her grandmother Isabel gave her a menagerie of monkeys and parrots. She had pet animals including a giraffe and dogs. She loved music, chess and art. She grew to love physical exercise, especially hunting, riding and falconry. She would skate on the frozen ponds of the Coudenberg Palace and hunt for hours. When Mary stayed in Brussels, she enjoyed the great deer park of Warende that surrounded the ducal palace.

Mary’s mother had been seriously ill for some time, probably with tuberculosis. She was to die on September 25, 1465. Philip the Good was to die two years later and Mary’s father finally became Duke of Burgundy. Charles was looking for a wife at that time and chose the English princess Margaret of York. Marriage negotiations were finalized in 1468 and in June of that year, Margaret sailed from England and arrived at Sluys. Mary’s grandmother Duchess Isabel had carefully planned all the festivities for the marriage. Mary and Isabel met Margaret and retired to a private dinner for three hours. Mary was eleven, gentle and pale with soft gray-brown eyes. She was small and dainty and moved with a grace that was full of dignity.  Based on the lasting relationship of these two women, this meeting must have gone well. Although Mary greatly missed her mother, she had much in common with Margaret. They both enjoyed hunting, riding, reading and falconry. Margaret learned French and Dutch from Mary and Mary learned some English from Margaret. Mary was religious and dutiful like Margaret and they were to go on pilgrimages together. It was to be a strong political relationship as well as a personal one. Margaret was to cherish Mary as if she were her own daughter.

Mary’s father would be away from his family for most of his reign, fighting wars and administering his realm. Charles received a dizzying array of suitors for Mary’s hand. Some of these candidates included Ferdinand of Aragon (who eventually married Isabella of Castile); Nicholas of Lorraine; George, Duke of Clarence (Margaret of York’s brother); Duke Francis II of Brittany; the Dauphin Charles of France; Charles, Duke of Berry (the brother of King Louis XI); Philibert of Savoy and Maximilian, the Habsburg Archduke. Maximilian was the most talked about candidate. Negotiations first began in 1463 and occurred again in 1467, 1469 and 1473. After Charles fought in the Battle of Grandson in 1476, negotiations became serious. Mary wrote a letter of betrothal to Maximilian and sent it to him with a ring. The marriage was set to take place in Cologne in 1477. But even this was not firm.

Mary_of_burgundy_pocher_croppedIn the winter of 1477, Margaret and Mary began to receive reports that Duke Charles had died in the Battle of Nancy. The two women were in Ghent and their circumstances were dire. Mary had various councilors buffeting her with advice and disastrous tidings were coming in rapidly. Eventually her father’s body was found. Mary had no money, no troops and no power. She was arguably a prisoner of the citizens of Ghent. Margaret and Marie called a meeting of the estates general and Marie made a speech where she renounced a huge levy that had been given her father, relieving them of the debt. There was a charter drawn up called the “Great Privilege”. It was designed to restore local rights. Mary was forced to promise to rule with the advice of the council in all matters, including her marriage, war and peace.

Many nobles were taken prisoner and many abandoned Mary and allied themselves with King Louis XI of France. Louis ended up annexing Burgundy into his kingdom. Even though Mary no longer ruled the duchy of Burgundy, she retained the title of Duchess. Margaret was forced to leave Ghent for her own safety. Some of Mary’s advisors and some wealthy merchants who had supported her father’s repressive rule were seized and killed by an angry mob.

Mary’s advisors were urging her to marry various candidates but Mary had her heart set on the Archduke Maximilian. Margaret quickly finalized the marriage treaty with Maximilian. Maximilian was carved out of the succession to the duchy. All that was left of Charles realm was to go to the children of Mary and Maximilian. On April 19, 1477, envoys from the Archduke arrived with a letter and a ring. Mary immediately accepted and a proxy marriage took place two days later. Maximilian left Austria in May and took ten weeks to make his journey to Burgundy, mostly due to lack of funds. He was eighteen, two years younger than Mary, blond haired and elegant and well educated. He spoke seven languages. Like Marie he enjoyed hunting and riding. He arrived on August 18th and they were married that same day. A truce was negotiated with King Louis XI which lasted a year. It was not renewed.

Emperor Maximilian I with his son Philip the Fair, his wife Mary of Burgundy, his grandsons Ferdinand I and Charles V, and Louis II of Hungary (husband of his granddaughter Mary of Austria).

Within a few nights of her marriage, Mary brought falcons with her into the bedchamber. The couple fell in love and the marriage seems to have been rather happy. Mary taught Maximilian French and he taught her German. They read romances together and went hunting. Her greyhound slept in the same room with them. They were to have three children. Philip, known as the Handsome, was born in July of 1478. Margaret was born on January 10, 1480. In September of 1481, Mary had a baby boy named Franz who died shortly after he was born. Mary fell into a post-partum depression. Maximilian spent much time away, fighting the wily King Louis XI.

In March of 1482, Mary’s Master of Horse, Lord Ravenstein, in an effort to raise Mary’s spirits, organized a falcon hunt in the marshes of Wijnendaele near Bruges. Somehow during the hunt, Marie was thrown from her horse. There were no visible wounds but she was in immense pain. Bleeding heavily internally, she was carried in a litter to Bruges. She may have been in the early stages of her fourth pregnancy and her condition worsened day by day. She refused to let herself be examined due to modesty.

Mary understood she was dying. She comforted her despairing husband. She bade farewell to her women and children. She begged her stepmother to guard and watch over her children. She made her will, naming her husband guardian of her heir. Mary died on March 27th and was buried in the Church of Our Lady in Bruges. In 1502, she was reinterred under a magnificent bronze monument by Pierre de Beckere of Brussels.

Resources: “Isabel of Burgundy: The Duchess Who Played Politics in the Age of Joan of Arc, 1397-1471” by Aline S. Taylor, “Margaret of York: Duchess of Burgundy 1446-1503” by Christine Weighman, “The Universal Spider: Louis XI” by Paul Murray Kendall, “The Valois: Kings of France 1328-1589” by Robert Knecht, “Margaret of Austria: Regent of the Netherlands” by Jane de Longh

Susan Abernethy is the writer of The Freelance History Writer and a contributor to Saints, Sisters, and Sluts. You can follow both sites on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/thefreelancehistorywriter) and (http://www.facebook.com/saintssistersandsluts), as well on Medieval History Lovers. You can also follow Susan on Twitter @SusanAbernethy2

Margaret of York, Duchess of Burgundy

By Susan Abernethy

Margaret of York, sister to two kings of England, made one of the most brilliant marriages of her century. When she became a childless widow, she managed to settle into a comfortable, wealthy life and to have a principal role in Burgundian government for her husband’s heirs until her death at the age of fifty seven.

Margaret was born on May 3, 1446 either at Fotheringay Castle or Waltham Abbey during the War of the Roses. Her father was Richard, Duke of York and her mother was Cecily Neville. Richard had a strong claim to the throne of England but his position at court was tenuous. He would openly rebel against the Lancastrian King Henry VI, making York family life unstable. Richard didn’t get much support for his claim and he was to die in the Battle of Wakefield in 1460.

Most of the time between the death of her father and the crowning of her brother as King Edward IV was spent in London at Baynard’s Castle. Whether she was born at Fotheringay or not she may have spent some of her childhood there and came to love the books and manuscripts in the collegiate library. She would have had the normal education of a high born lady of the time. When Edward became king in 1461, Margaret was fifteen and became one of the leading ladies in England. Her education and training were accomplished.

Margaret was never described as beautiful. She was slim and fair with light colored hair. She was nearly six feet tall with fine features, grey eyes, a small mouth, a warm smile, and a wry sense of humor. She was gracious and pious, very intelligent, full of energy and had a strong will. She was keenly interested in dynastic and political affairs and had learned how to administer a household from her mother. All this would prove to be significant when she married. It was now up to her brother to arrange a marriage for her and it took seven years to find the right alliance.

In May of 1465, the first recording of an appearance of Margaret was at the coronation of Elizabeth Woodville as Queen to her brother. She was then in the employ of the Queen. Proposals for her hand began to come in. She was nearly betrothed to Don Pedro of Aragon, a nephew of Isabel, Duchess of Burgundy but he died in June of 1466. Isabel began working to ally Burgundy with England, vacillating between an alliance with the house of York or Lancaster depending on the political situation in England. She needed this alliance to fight off detrimental intervention from France and eventually chose the house of York.

Isabel’s son Charles, the Count of Charolais, had been married twice. His second wife, Isabella of Bourbon, had born him a daughter Marie in 1457. Isabella suffered from tuberculosis and died in 1465. Within two weeks of her death, Duchess Isabel sent envoys to England seeking Margaret’s hand for Charles. Charles succeeded his father as Duke of Burgundy when Philip the Good died in June of 1467.

It wasn’t until October of 1467 that King Edward agreed to the match. Edward made his decision public and Margaret appeared before the royal council to give her formal consent. Commercial interests were closely allied with the match and Isabel of Burgundy negotiated the marriage treaty, basing it on her own marriage contract. The treaty addressed the marriage, peace and trade agreements and was really more favorable to Margaret than Isabel’s own marriage settlement had been in 1429. Edward IV was to pay for Margaret’s dowry of 200,000 crowns in three installments. The agreement was signed by all parties in March of 1468. From November 1467 until the wedding in June of 1468, King Louis XI of France did everything in his power to interfere with the negotiations, including slandering Margaret’s character, suggesting she was not a virgin and had born a son. Louis even tried to block the papal dispensation necessary for the fourth degree cousins to marry.

The marriage was to be the first great event of Duke Charles’ reign. Margaret sailed in June and arrived at Sluys. Duchess Isabel had carefully planned all the festivities for the marriage. She met Margaret with her grand-daughter Marie and they retired to a private dinner for three hours. Although Marie greatly missed her mother, she had much in common with Margaret. They both enjoyed hunting, riding, reading and falconry. They were to enjoy each other’s company for the rest of their lives and Margaret cherished Marie as if she were her own daughter.

Charles the Bold, duke of Burgundy, here around 1460 as Count of CharolaisMargaret was twenty two and thirteen years younger than Charles, not to mention quite a bit taller. When she finally met Charles the next day, she had to stoop down to receive a kiss from him. They were married a week later in a private ceremony in the home of a merchant in Damme. Charles left immediately afterwards for Bruges and greeted Margaret when she made a grand entry into the city in the pouring rain. Nine days of celebration ensued. The festivities were so splendid they have become near legend and remain in folklore to this day. Charles then left Bruges and Margaret and Marie travelled in Flanders, Brabant and Hainault. They ended up spending the rest of the summer in Brussels.

Margaret’s titles after her marriage were: Duchess of Burgundy and of Lotharingia, of Brabant, Limbourg, Luxembourg and Guelders, Countess of Flanders and of Artois, of Burgundy, of Hainault, Holland, Zeeland, Namur and Zutphen, Marchioness of the Holy Roman Empire, Lady of Friesland and of Salins and Malines, etc. These titles represented one of the most wide-ranging, extensive and valuable collections of territory in medieval Europe. Burgundy was a creation of a succession of historic chances and was really only secure when its neighbors were weak. The duchy had one of the largest urban populations in Europe. Margaret’s role was negligible in the first three years of her marriage but after 1472, she became active in affairs of state. Margaret would learn the government of Burgundy was widespread and she would be required to travel regularly. She was to play an active role in the government as an administrator and as the Duke’s representative.

While she was Duchess she made twenty eight major journeys. Her travels were meant to uphold ducal authority. She attended functions of state and raised money and men for the wars her husband fought. Margaret had to deal with the consequences of her husband’s failed foreign policy. The peak of Charles’ reign came in 1472-3. His brother-in-law King Edward was back on the English throne. The duchy had withstood a French invasion. Charles had conquered areas of Alsace, Guelders and Zutphen and he was consolidating his power in Lorraine. There was peace and prosperity in the duchy. The household and the army had been reorganized and the government was functioning well.

Margaret had a household that mirrored her husband’s. In the summer of 1472, a fire broke out in her castle in Ghent, destroying rings, jewels, tapestries, furs and clothing valued between 50,000 and 60,000 crowns. Margaret was to remain childless during her marriage and she made pilgrimages to shrines for help becoming pregnant. In the first seven years of their marriage Margaret and Charles were only together for a total period of one year. They were together regularly for the first four years. After December 1471, they only saw each other for a total of thirty two days until 1475. After July 23, 1475, they never saw each other again as Charles was continually away at war. Margaret gave her stepdaughter Marie guidance and support during this time and their closeness would serve each other well especially in the seminal year of 1477.

From 1474 on, alliances began to form against Charles. He was forced to make costly campaigns and stay in the field with his armies. After making a truce with France in 1474, Charles began to concentrate on fighting in the Rhineland. During 1476, there were disastrous defeats for the Burgundian army. By November Charles had arranged for Marie to marry the Archduke Maximilian of Austria and started to besiege Nancy in Lorraine. There was hope to an end to the war in Lorraine.

Miniature of Margaret of York before the resurrected Christ, Additional 7970, f. 1vBy early January reports began to come into Ghent that the Burgundians had met with disaster at Nancy and that Charles was dead. By January 22, Margaret was wearing mourning garb. Margaret and Marie were acting jointly from this point on. They had to act quickly. They wrote to King Louis XI asking for help but whether they were serious or not is questionable. Margaret knew Louis was ready to seize the Duchy and there were internal disruptions. Their situation was quite serious. Some of their advisors were seized and beheaded. Margaret and Marie hastened to call a meeting of the estates general at Ghent.

Margaret was forced to flee Ghent for her own safety. Marie was a virtual prisoner. Marie made a speech where she renounced a huge levy that had been given to her father, relieving the estates of the debt. There was a charter drawn up designed to restore local rights and privileges. She promised to rule with the advice of the council in all matters, including her marriage, war and peace. Margaret began work to negotiate the final terms of the marriage treaty between Marie and Maximilian. The terms stipulated Maximilian could not inherit the Duchy. All of Burgundy was to go to the children of the marriage.

Maximilian arrived penniless in Burgundy in August 1477. Marie and Maximilian were married immediately. They managed to get along well. In gratitude to her stepmother, Marie provided Margaret her full dower rights. By March of 1477, Margaret had everything that belonged to her. Marie even made sure her full dowry was paid to her as her brother Edward had defaulted on the payments. She proceeded to buy the biggest house in Malines and surrounding lands and established her dowager court there. She had a large household including several doctors. She hosted great noblemen and foreign embassies. There was no question of her leaving Burgundy now. She was one of the richest widows in Europe and held her own court.

Margaret lost her brother George, Duke of Clarence when he was arrested and executed for treason. She carried Marie’s son Philip to his christening. She raised men and money to help Marie and Maximilian battle France. She was assigned to negotiate with England in 1480 and travelled there for three months. Her efforts paid off but Maximilian ended up working against her by making an alliance with France. In 1482, Marie died after a fatal fall from a horse while hunting. On her deathbed, she begged Margaret to watch over her children, Philip and young Margaret of Austria.

Marie had named Maximilian as regent for her son but this was bitterly opposed. The estates wanted a council to rule. Margaret and Maximilian held things together and they made some progress, especially when their old enemy Louis XI died. In July 1485, Margaret took physical custody of Philip at her home in Malines and she served as a mother and mentor to her step-granddaughter Margaret.

King Edward IV died in 1483. Margaret’s brother Richard usurped the throne from his nephew Edward V. Margaret and Maximilian supported Richard hoping he would subsidize their efforts against France. In 1485, the House of York was eclipsed by Lancaster when Henry VII defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. Margaret did everything in her power to work against the Tudor King, including supporting pretenders to the English throne like Perkin Warbeck and others. There was more civil war, truce and peace in Burgundy. Young Philip came of age in 1494 and Margaret had fulfilled her promise to Marie on her deathbed.

Margaret continued to maintain a lavish household while travelling in the Duchy. She carried out building works on her properties, gave to charity and collected more printed and illuminated books. She contributed her full support and advice to the rulers of Burgundy and Archduke Philip supported her in return. Her health began to slowly decline. She maintained her duties until she died suddenly on November 23, 1503. She was buried at the monastery of the Recollects at Malines. Her tomb and memorial were destroyed sometime during 16th century.


Isabel of Burgundy: The Duchess Who Played Politics in the Age of Joan of Arc, 1397-1471, by Aline S. Taylor

Margaret of York: Duchess of Burgundy 1446-1503, by Christine Weightman

Susan Abernethy is the writer of The Freelance History Writer and a contributor to Saints, Sisters, and Sluts. You can follow both sites on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/thefreelancehistorywriter) and (http://www.facebook.com/saintssistersandsluts), as well on Medieval History Lovers. You can also follow Susan on Twitter @SusanAbernethy2

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