A short and inconsequential life
Not that long ago, I wrote a post about Isabel of Portugal who married Philip the Good of Burgundy. Had it not been for a certain artist, I’d probably not have expended much time on this lady, or on her son and grandchild. Burgundy in the 15th century has mostly been indirectly relevant to me from the perspective of the Yorkists in the War of the Roses, seeing as Edward IV’s sister Margaret married Isabel’s son, Charles the Bold.
Now Isabel should have been a Lancastrian. Her grandfather was John of Gaunt, her uncle was Henry IV, and at one time a marriage between Isabel and Henry V had been considered. But despite her lineage, Isabel—and her son—tended to side with the Yorkists. As many of you will know, Burgundy was to play an important role in the 1470s, welcoming the exiled Edward IV and his brother to stay and lick their wounds prior to them returning to England there to defeat Warwick the Kingmaker and the Lancastrian Prince of Wales.
However, the focus of today’s post is neither the Yorkists or Isabel. Or her son. No, today we will spend time with Isabel’s only grandchild, born in 1457.
Let us start by saying that this birth did not have everyone breaking out into whoops of joy. Notably, the babe’s grandfather was less than thrilled, muttering that whoever needed a girl baby? As per Philip, the child was of the wrong gender—he’d married three times to ensure he had a male heir, and now that male heir of his had sired a useless daughter, not a son. Fortunately (from Philip’s perspective) Charles was still young, as was his wife, so there was still hope for a future boy.
Charles, however, was delighted—as was his mother. The baby was christened Mary, and as the years passed, it became apparent she was to be an only child, this further reinforced when her mother, Isabella of Bourbon, died in 1465. Having only a female heir placed Burgundy in a tenuous position. With its lands wedged between France and the Holy Roman Empire, Burgundy had been fighting off encroachments for generations, fiercely determined to hold on to their independence. This was why a male heir was so important: a female heir would have to marry, and it would be her husband, not the lady in question, who would do the actual ruling. Not, as per the proud Burgundians, a good thing: I mean, what if the heiress married a Frenchie? Or, almost as bad, a Hapsburg?
In 1467, Philip died and Charles became Duke of Burgundy. With no other children but Mary, it was imperative he marry again, and after much hemming and hawing, his choice fell on Margaret of York. The French king was less than delighted at the thought of Burgundy and England joining forces and did his best to throw a monkey wrench or two into the works. Edward IV vacillated, there was some general procrastination all around, but with Edward facing more and more opposition at home, he needed to build alliances abroad, which is how Margaret ended up wed to Charles.
At the time, Mary was eleven. Her mother had been dead for three years, and accordingly it had been her grandmother, Isabel, who actively organised Mary’s life. As Isabel had been brought up to appreciate learning in all its forms, it is likely Mary was a well-educated little girl, with Isabel ensuring that she not only learnt her Latin, but also studied mathematics and philosophy and other relevant subjects. Plus, of course, Isabel passed on her own passion for riding to her little granddaughter.
In 1468, Mary and Isabel met Margaret for the first time. They got on like a a house on fire, those three, and lifelong friendships were forged almost instantly. Isabel was very taken by her son’s new wife, whom she found not only very beautiful, but also politically shrewd and very intelligent. As to Mary, her elegant young stepmother made quite the impression, presenting her with someone to emulate. Margaret, being a smart young lady, realised just how important it was to win over her new husband’s daughter and mother, but I also believe she genuinely liked both Isabel and Mary, as would be demonstrated by how she would grieve at their deaths.
Margaret never had any children. Was Charles disappointed? Probably. Was Margaret, the daughter of a singularly fertile mother, devastated? I’d think yes. To live up to the dynastic expectations, she should have popped out a son to inherit the duchy. But God works in mysterious ways, and while Margaret was never to experience the joy and travail of birthing a child, she did have a daughter in her stepdaughter Mary, a relationship that grew even closer when Isabel died in 1471.
Charles was not always the easiest of men to live with—or work with. By the mid 1470s, he was determined to carve out a new, expanded kingdom for himself, which did not go down well with those whose lands he planned on adding to his own. He ended up quarrelling with almost everyone who had previously been an ally to him, but Charles was not about to back down—or betray the few allies remaining to him. Which was why, in 1476, he attacked Grandson, a town recently captured by the Swiss Confederacy, but whose original ruler was one of Charles’ allies.
Grandson only surrendered after Charles had promised leniency. Well, so say the Swiss sources. Other sources say that the town surrendered and threw itself at the mercy of the duke. Said duke had no intention of being merciful and ordered over 400 men to be hanged or drowned, a procedure that took several hours.
Charles was not destined to savour his victory. An approaching Swiss army more or less annihilated Charles’ force (more due to surprise than anything) and the duke was obliged to flee, leaving his enormous war booty in the hands of the Swiss.
Determined to reclaim both his booty and his honour, Charles assembled a new army and rode to meet the Swiss at the battle of Morat. He lost. Charles decided to try again, and in January of 1477 he engaged in the Battle of Nancy. This time, he not only lost. He died. His badly mutilated and looted body was found some three days later. And just like that, one of the most important players on the European political scene was a nineteen-year-old girl, Mary of Burgundy.
Fortunately for Mary, her stepmother was something of a lion. Stepping into the void left behind by her husband, Margaret ably organised Burgundy’s defences, involved herself in everything from diplomatic missions to the day-to-day. One of the most urgent items on the agenda of the duchy was to ensure Mary married the right person (from a Burgundian perspective. Mary’s own preferences were neither here nor there).
Charles had already initiated discussions regarding his daughter’s wedding with Frederick, the Holy Roman Emperor. But now that Charles was dead, several other suitors popped out of the woodwork, with France aggressively demanding the new Duchess remember who her overlord was (the French king, something Charles had chosen to ignore as far as possible).
King Louis XI of France wanted Mary to marry his son, a boy thirteen years her junior. Frederick, of course, demanded that the negotiations initiated by Charles be concluded, whereby Mary would marry his son, Maximilian. The recently widowed George, Duke of Clarence, pushed his suit, hoping his dear sister Margaret would convince her stepdaughter to marry him. Elizabeth Woodville had an unmarried brother who rather liked the idea of becoming the new duke. Decisions, decisions, people, and the only one Mary trusted to guide her through all this was Margaret.
After much consideration, Margaret voted for Maximilian. She liked the young man’s energy and intelligence, qualities she deemed necessary to defend Mary’s inheritance. And so, in August of 1477, Mary wed the Hapsburg heir, thereby permanently redrawing the map of political influence in Europe. Okay, so she didn’t know that at the time. Probably none of the players did, but ultimately the union between Mary and Maximilian would result in the Hapsburgs ascending the throne of Spain, with Mary’s grandson, Charles V (or I, depending on who is counting) becoming king of Castile and Aragon – and emperor, duke, count, prince, king of I don’t know how many other territories, making him the most powerful man in Europe.
Still, in 1477, this was still in the future, and the immediate present required the complete attention of the newly-wed, what with Louis having retaken the heartland of the Duchy of Burgundy which was thereby lost forever. The problems didn’t stop there: Louis adeptly fomented unrest among Mary’s subjects—not everyone loved a Hapsburg—and even went as far as to question the gender of Mary’s first child, loudly proclaiming to the Burgundians that they were being duped, the child was not a son, but a girl. That particular statement was easily disproved when Margaret, in her role as godmother to the baby, disrobed little Philip at his christening, proudly presenting an undoubtedly male child to the assembled people.
In 1480, Mary gave birth to her second child, a little girl she named Margaret in honour of her stepmother. A good start to her marriage, she might have thought: two healthy children in less than three years promised a sequence of more babies as the years rolled by. On the other hand, she must have been concerned by the political turbulence that surrounded her, albeit that Margaret and Maximilian formed a rather impressive team that did their best to safeguard Mary’s inheritance.
Despite the constant fighting with France, with the rebellious Burgundians, Mary and Maximilian did have time for each other and other pastimes. Now and then, they took a break from war and worry and indulged in fun things, such as hunting. In 1482, they rode out together to enjoy a day out in the field. For some reason, Mary fell off her horse. As per some, her horse tripped, threw her, and then fell on top of her. As per others, she “just” fell off. Whatever the sequence of events, the fall broke her back, and some days later, Mary was dead. She was all of twenty-five.
Mary was never to see her children grow up, her son to become a drop-dead womaniser who wed the second eldest daughter of Fernando and Isabel (and more about the Philip and Juana marriage here), her daughter to marry twice, be widowed twice, and then become a kick-ass regent, managing the Hapsburg interests in the Low Countries so adeptly even her nephew, Charles V, approved. But that, dear peeps, will have to be the subject of a future post. Archduchess Margaret deserves as much, IMO.
Mary’s role in history is restricted to that of daughter, wife and mother. She never actively ruled her inherited lands, nor does she seem to have been all that interested in that aspect of things, more than happy to leave such matters to Maximilian and Margaret. But had there been no Mary, there would not have been a Hapsburg alliance. Had there not been a Hapsburg alliance, there would not have been a Charles V. Had there not been a Charles V to defend the interests of his aunt, Catherine of Aragon, then maybe Henry VIII would have convinced the pope to grant him a divorce, thereby making his break with Rome redundant.
Plus, of course, no Mary, no Spanish Hapsburgs. I’m not entirely sure that would have left the world bereft—after all, with the exception of Charles himself and his son Philip they weren’t the most gifted lot (this due to the Hapsburg tendency to marry their very close relatives), but no Philip IV and then maybe there wouldn’t have been a Diego Velázquez, or a magnificent painting named Las Meninas. And that, dear peeps, would have been a major, major loss!