Margaret of Parma (1522–1586)

views updated Jun 08 2018

Margaret of Parma (1522–1586)

Duchess of Parma, and illegitimate daughter of Charles V, who ruled the Netherlands as regent for eight years . Name variations: Margaret of Austria; Margaret or Margherita de Medici; (Italian) Margherita de Parma; (German) Margarete von Österreich; (Spanish) Marguerite of Spain. Born sometime in 1522 in the Netherlands; died in 1586 in Italy; illegitimate daughter of Charles V (1500–1558), Holy Roman emperor (also known as Charles I, king of Spain) and Johanna van der Gheenst; half-sister of Philip II, king of Spain, and Joanna of Austria (1535–1573); married Alexander also known as Alessandro de Medici, in 1534 (died 1535); married Ottavio Farnese, duke of Parma, in 1540; children: (second marriage) Alessandro Farnese (also known as Alexander).

Educated in the Netherlands by two female regents; lived in Italy after first marriage; appointed regent of the Netherlands by Philip II (1559); abdicated as regent (1567); returned to Netherlands for short regency (1580); died in Italy (1586).

Sixteenth-century Europe was an era characterized by female rule. During this century, an unprecedented number of women held the reins of government in several countries. While some were queens by blood, others ruled as regents for their infant sons or daughters. Still others were appointed by the reigning monarch to oversee the governance of recently annexed territory. The Netherlands (then comprised of Belgium and Holland), which had been under the rule of Habsburg kings since 1477, was governed by a succession of women. During one of the most important and tortuous events in its history, the Netherlands was ably governed by Margaret of Parma.

Margaret of Parma was born somewhere in the Netherlands in 1522. Although she was the illegitimate daughter of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and noblewoman Johanna van der Gheenst , Margaret remained a favorite of her father's for many years. Very little is known about her early childhood, although it is established that she was given an excellent education fit for a legitimate princess. More significantly, she was exposed to two strong and influential female role models. From an early age, Margaret was sent to live at the royal court in Brussels where she saw firsthand the capabilities of a powerful female ruler. Until the age of eight, Margaret was brought up by her great-aunt Margaret of Austria (1480–1530), regent of the Netherlands since 1507. When Margaret of Austria died in 1530, the government of the Netherlands was given to another woman, Mary of Hungary (1505–1558). Thus, young Margaret grew up surrounded by capable, strong and independent women whose exercise of political power was not considered unusual.

As a daughter of the emperor, however, Margaret was a useful pawn in the marriage market. Consequently, her childhood was cut short when she was betrothed and unhappily married, at age 12, to 27-year-old Alessandro de Medici, grand duke of Tuscany. The marriage was short lived, as her husband died violently a year later. Margaret did not remain single for long, however, and was betrothed once again in 1540, this time to a younger man. At age 18, Margaret married 12-year-old Ottavio Farnese, duke of Parma. Probably as a result of their age differences, initially Margaret was not fond of her second husband. As a result, he left Italy in 1541 to go on a military campaign with CharlesV. While in battle, Ottavio was injured and returned to Rome. From this point on it appears that Margaret developed more affectionate feelings for her husband. In 1545, her only child, Alessandro Farnese, was born. Little is known about Margaret's activities over the following 14 years when she lived in Italy. Her peaceful life was interrupted when she was appointed regent of the Netherlands in 1559.

The Netherlands was far from being a united country in the 16th century. It consisted of 17 provinces, each with its own semi-autonomous government made up of members from the clergy, the nobility, and towns. These provincial States had the power to raise troops and collect taxes, while every three years a meeting of delegates from each province met at the States-General. The watery landscape of the Netherlands, which consisted of bogs, rivers, marshes and lakes, made communication difficult. Nevertheless, the government of the Habsburgs, situated in Brussels, attempted to impose obedience and unity. Three years before Mary of Hungary's death in 1558, the government of the Netherlands was given to Charles V's son and heir, Philip (II).

Governing the Netherlands was becoming increasingly complicated due to religious dissent and financial difficulties. By the mid-16th century, a religious split between north and south was evident. The southern provinces tended to remain Catholic while their northern counterparts began to adhere to the reforming Protestant doctrines and, in particular, to Calvinism. Charles V's military campaigns, which included several wars, resulted in escalating taxation. Taxpaying Netherlanders were becoming ever more hostile towards the financial policies of the Habsburg government which, they felt, was requiring them to subsidize Spain. When Charles V died in 1558, Philip became king of Spain and left the Netherlands the following year. The government was taken over by 37-year-old Margaret of Parma.

Although she had lived in Italy since 1535, Margaret was popular in the Netherlands. Having been born and educated there, the people felt that she was one of their own, rather than a foreigner. Frugal in her habits, intelligent and good natured, the new regent was well liked. She was an excellent equestrian, which ensured her acceptance among members of the nobility. Margaret of Parma was also a devout, although not rigid, Roman Catholic. Her childhood confessor was Ignatius Loyola, father of the Jesuits, who instilled in her a strong sense of duty and responsibility. This was apparent in her annual practice of washing the feet of poor men, serving them food and sending them on their way with presents. Most significantly, the fact that their new regent was a woman was not troublesome to Netherlanders, as they were used to being governed by women. Margaret's problems

stemmed from the fact that Philip II intended her to act merely as his puppet. All executive power was retained by him, and she was ordered to write to him daily about everything of importance and not make any decisions without him. While these conditions were restrictive enough, Philip II's notorious tendency to agonize over every decision and, hence, cause unnecessary delays, severely undercut Margaret's ability to govern as effectively as possible.

Nevertheless, when Margaret of Parma arrived in the Netherlands in 1559 she set up her court and permanent residence in Brussels. As regent, she was advised by three councils: State, Finance, and Privy. Although many important members of the nobility sat on these councils, the most influential government minister was Antoine Perrenot, Cardinal Granvelle. Unfortunately, because he was a favorite of the king's, and had an arrogant personality as well, Granvelle was also very unpopular. In addition, Philip II's policies in the Netherlands caused increasing resentment which eventually turned into outright political rebellion. As Philip's attempts to impose these unpopular policies became more insistent, the resentment also took on religious tones. It was Margaret of Parma's misfortune to have been appointed governor and regent during these troublesome times.

When Philip II returned to Spain in 1559, he left behind 3,000 Spanish troops in the Netherlands ostensibly for protection against military action from the French. The people of the Netherlands did not view the presence of these troops in that light, however. They felt that the troops remained behind to enforce obedience. More seriously, they feared for their independence; they believed that the Netherlands would soon be reduced to the status of a Spanish colony. The issue became political when the States of the provinces refused to release any money to the central government until the Spanish troops left the country. Although Philip acceded to this request in 1561, his concession was merely a cloak for the introduction of an even more unpopular religious policy.

She did not want … in talents and possessed a particular turn for business.

—Friedrich Schiller

Religious problems in the Netherlands that Margaret of Parma was forced to deal with had their antecedents in the reign of her father, Charles V. Once it became apparent that the religious revolution sparked by Martin Luther was spreading, Charles V made a determined effort to stamp out heresy throughout his empire. A papal inquisition was established in 1522 and expanded in 1546, when inquisitors were given the right to question, arrest, and commit to trial anyone they suspected of being a heretic. In all of their efforts, the inquisitors were to be assisted by local magistrates and judges. In addition, anti-heresy legislation, known as placards, was introduced which included, among other things, a prohibition on reading certain books. More significantly, breaches of the placards were treated as treason and forfeiture of property was to be enforced. This not only threatened traditional inheritance customs but encroached upon the legal responsibilities of local authorities, who insisted that they had the right to try people accused of criminal acts within their boundaries. Although Protestantism had not made any serious inroads during the reign of Charles V, by the 1560s a few small, but vocal, groups of Calvinists had surfaced. When Philip II reintroduced all of his father's anti-heresy policies in 1559 as well as a new plan to reorganize the bishoprics, the stage was set for popular disturbance.

Anxiety over the new bishoprics scheme grew, and complaints that it had been developed in secret became prevalent. When Philip requested troops from the Netherlands to help the French monarchy suppress French Calvinists, Margaret hesitated. She was seriously worried that there might be a rebellion if troops from the Netherlands were sent to put down Protestants. When she called a meeting of the most important and influential nobles, they agreed to send money instead of troops. Hard on the heels of this victory, plans among the most influential nobles to oust Granvelle from the government proceeded. They chose their timing carefully, as Philip II was preoccupied with financial problems in Spain. In March 1563, the prince of Orange and the counts of Egmont and Horne sent an ultimatum to Philip indicating that they would resign unless Granvelle was dismissed. Philip refused, whereupon the three lords stopped attending council meetings. At the same time, the States of Brabant refused to grant any taxes to the government until Granvelle was dismissed.

Margaret soon realized that her government would be paralyzed unless she could persuade Philip to accede to the nobles' demands. She also had additional reasons for not supporting Granvelle. He had provided little help when she attempted to arrange an advantageous marriage for her son Alessandro, and she knew that he wrote private letters to Philip II which criticized her. Finally, Margaret realized that many people regarded her as a Granvelle supporter and that if she continued to back him, her popularity would wane. Consequently, she wrote a long letter to the king asking him to remove Granvelle. Her efforts succeeded, and Granvelle left the Netherlands in March 1564. From that point on, the nobles returned to sit on the Council of State to work closely with Margaret of Parma.

However, Margaret's efforts to govern successfully were thwarted by Philip II's intransigence over enforcing the heresy laws. In 1565, he sent several letters to the regent informing her that there was to be no compromise in this area and that none of the heresy laws were to be changed. Margaret's policy was to follow public opinion, which was lenient towards heretics as long as they did not disturb the peace. Margaret was, therefore, much more conciliatory than Philip wanted her to be. She did not, for example, arrest suspected heretics on the accusation of one person; instead, she wanted firmer evidence. Her attempts to be conciliatory fell on deaf ears. Philip was determined to stamp out heresy in the Netherlands and expected his representative to follow his orders.

Matters came to a head in December 1565 when several nobles formed a solemn league to secure the abolition of the inquisition and the moderation of the heresy laws. They drew up a document, called the Compromise, which set out the nobles' demands. By early 1566, several nobles had resigned from the government Councils and informed Margaret that they would not carry out the king's commands. On April 5, a group of 300 armed nobles presented a "Request" to Margaret which demanded suspension of the heresy laws and a new legal settlement of religious problems in consultation with the States-General. This event seriously compromised her authority, primarily because no one had been able, or willing, to prevent this group from submitting their demands to the regent—at gunpoint. The following day, Margaret agreed to instruct all magistrates and judges to be more lenient towards heretics. Thus, although she did not refuse their demands outright, she remained somewhat vague on the future of the heresy laws. Some dissidents, however, interpreted this as a sign that religious freedom was to be proclaimed, and several religious exiles returned to the Netherlands where they began to preach openly.

By August 1566, public preaching led to iconoclastic riots in several small towns. Although the groups were not large, they were well organized and met with little resistance from the local population. Margaret of Parma, however, saw these riots as proof that concessions to Protestants would only lead to disorder and the collapse of public authority. The only solution she felt was to take military action. When the nobles refused her request for troops, she reluctantly conceded to their requests for freedom of public Protestant worship in those areas where it was already taking place. This Accord did not, however, prevent militant Calvinists from continuing to pillage and destroy Catholic churches. These iconoclastic riots began to erode public sympathy for Protestants in the Netherlands and when Margaret sent garrisons to several towns in November, she had a majority of public support behind her.

In early 1567, the most prominent nobles threw their support behind the regent, and the rebellion began to collapse. By the end of May, the revolt was over, and open Calvinist worship was at an end. Margaret informed Philip that Spanish troops were not necessary and that order had been restored. Unfortunately, Philip had already sent Fernando Alvarz de Toledo, duke of Alva, to the Netherlands at the head of a large Spanish force. Although Alva was only to act as captain-general, Margaret soon realized that he had ambitions to be regent. When he arrived in August, Alva refused to comply with her request not to billet his troops in those towns that had remained loyal to the government during the rebellion. Alva was determined to establish a "new order" in the Netherlands which would not tolerate any dissent from Philip II's policies. Recognizing that her pleas for tolerance would fall on deaf ears, Margaret of Parma resigned as regent of the Netherlands and left Brussels in December 1567.

Margaret returned to Italy, where she settled down to a more peaceful life. Little is known about how she spent the following 13 years. When her son Alessandro was appointed regent of the Netherlands in 1578, the country was just as unsettled as it had been during his mother's regency. Demands from the nobles to rescind Parma's regency led Philip II to call upon the resources of Margaret once again. Thus, Alessandro remained in the Netherlands as military commander, while in 1580 his mother, at age 58, was once again appointed to govern. Although she set up her court at Namur, mother and son refused to cooperate with the nobles and the administration of the government soon ground to a halt. Realizing that this situation was getting them nowhere, the nobles agreed to have Alessandro return as regent. Margaret was no longer needed and returned to Italy in November 1581.

The last years of Margaret of Parma's life are obscure. All that is known is that she died, at age 64, in Italy.


Hopkins, Lisa. Women Who Would Be Kings: Female Rulers of the Sixteenth Century. London: Vision Press, 1991.

Motley, John L. The Rise of the Dutch Republic: A History. NY: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1901.

Parker, Geoffrey. The Dutch Revolt. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979.

Tracy, James. Holland under Habsburg Rule, 1506–1566. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1990.

Margaret McIntyre , Instructor of Women's History at Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada

Margaret of Parma (1522–1586)

views updated May 23 2018

Margaret of Parma (1522–1586)

Duchess of Parma. Name variations: Margaret of Austria; Margaret or Margherita de Medici; (Italian) Margherita de Parma; (German) Margarete von Österreich; (Spanish) Marguerite of Spain. Born sometime in 1522 in the Netherlands; died in 1586 in Italy; illeg. dau. of Charles V (1500–1558), Holy Roman emperor (also known as Charles I, king of Spain) and Johanna van der Gheenst; half-sister of Philip II, king of Spain, and Joanna of Austria (1535–1573); m. Alexander also known as Alessandro de Medici, in 1534 (died 1535); m. Ottavio Farnese, duke of Parma, in 1540; children: (2nd marriage) Alessandro Farnese (also known as Alexander).

Illegitimate daughter of Charles V, who ruled the Netherlands as regent for 8 years, was educated in the Netherlands by 2 female regents: Margaret of Austria (1480–1530) and Mary of Hungary (1505–1558); lived in Italy after 1st marriage; appointed regent of the Netherlands by Philip II (1559); frugal in her habits, intelligent and good natured, was well liked, but Philip's indecisiveness severely undercut her ability to govern as effectively as possible; efforts to govern successfully were also thwarted by Philip's intransigence over enforcing the heresy laws, since her policy was to follow public opinion, which was lenient towards heretics as long as they did not disturb the peace; when Philip sent the duke of Alva to establish a "new order" which would not tolerate any dissent, abdicated as regent (1567); returned to Netherlands for short regency (1580); died in Italy (1586).

See also Women in World History.

Margaret of Parma (1522–1586)

views updated May 21 2018

Margaret of Parma (15221586)

Duchess of Parma and regent of the Netherlands. Margaret was the illegitimate daughter of Emperor Charles V and Johanna van der Gheynst, the servant of a Flemish noble. Her great aunt was Margaret of Austria, who was regent of the Netherlands from 1507 until her death in 1530. In 1533, Charles recognized her as his legitimate daughter. She was engaged to Alexander de' Medici, the son of the pope, and married him in 1536. After her husband was assassinated in the next year, she married the Duke of Parma. She was an able and intelligent woman who was appointed regent of the Netherlands by Philip II in 1559. Her reign was marked by a general revolt against Habsburg rule by the Protestant Netherlanders. In 1567, Margaret resigned her regency and fled the troubled Netherlands for Italy. Her son Alexander Farnese succeeded her as governor-general.

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Margaret of Parma