Mary of Burgundy (1457–1482)

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Mary of Burgundy (1457–1482)

Duchess of Burgundy, countess of Flanders, and archduchess of Austria, who fought to save her land from France and preserved what was to become the modern country of Belgium . Name variations: Marie of Burgundy; Marie de Bourgogne; Maria van Bourgund; Duchess of Burgundy and Luxemburg; Queen of the Low Countries; (sometimes incorrectly known as Margaret of Burgundy because she has historically been confused with Margaret of York). Born in Brussels on February 13, 1457; died on March 27, 1482, at the Prinsenhof in Ghent; daughter of Charles the Bold, the last Valois duke of Burgundy (r. 1467–1477), and his second wife, Isabelle of Bourbon (d. 1465); became first wife of Maximilian I of the Habsburgs (1459–1519), archduke of Austria, and Holy Roman emperor (r. 1493–1519), in 1477 (by proxy on April 22, and in person on August 18); children: Philip the Handsome also known as Philip I the Fair (1478–1506, who married Juana La Loca ); Margaret of Austria (1480–1530, duchess of Savoy, regent of the Netherlands); Frederic (b. September 1481 and lived only a few months). Maximilian I, who had many illegitimate children, also married Bianca Maria Sforza (1472–1510).

Inaugurated duchess of Burgundy and countess of Flanders (February 16, 1477); became archduchess of Austria upon marriage to Maximilian; had she lived, she would have become empress of Austria.

In Mary of Burgundy's day, Burgundy encompassed the area surrounding Dijon, Flanders, Picardy, and Brabant. It bordered France, Austria, and the English territories in the northeast part of continental Europe. The future of Burgundy was of utmost importance in the ongoing struggle for power between England and France, as well as in the many smaller conflicts throughout central and northern Europe. Mary's father, who was to be remembered as Charles the Bold, was the count of Charolois. Her grandfather, known as Philip the Good, reigned as the duke of Burgundy. Mary's mother was Isabelle of Bourbon , the second wife of Charles. His first wife Catherine de France had died young, with no children; Mary of Burgundy was therefore the sole heir to a large and rich territory.

Since Charles had no male heirs, potential marriages with Mary of Burgundy were plotted almost from the day of her birth on February 13,1457. Her entrance into the world was celebrated in a grand style, and her baptism at the cathedral of Coudenberg was considered "the greatest magnificence ever seen for a girl." This elegance may have been due to the political position of the child, or it simply may have been expected of the stylish House of Burgundy. Whatever the reason, the festivities lasted an entire day, and Louis of France, later to rule as King Louis XI, was appointed as Mary's godfather. Mary's grandmother, Isabella of Portugal (1397–1471), filled the role of godmother. Gifts were brought by representatives from across Europe, including some from a number of cities which were in rebellion against Duke Philip the Good at the time.

Mary of Burgundy spent most of her childhood at the ducal castle of Ten Waele at Ghent. She enjoyed an affectionate relationship with her father, even though he was almost constantly away from her. Especially after 1465, when Charles became the duke of Burgundy, he was personally involved in controlling and governing the cities of his territory. He also developed a flair for conquering new cities, and military operations kept him occupied for months at a time. Isabelle of Bourbon died when Mary was eight years old, and the girl was raised primarily by Lady Hallewijn , the wife of the duke's chief steward. Lady Hallewijn was a constant companion and loyal attendant to Mary throughout her life. Several cousins and other children from noble families lived with the heiress as playmates during her childhood. Mary's great-aunt (possibly Agnes of Burgundy ) was responsible for arranging the series of governesses that educated the young lady. Not much is known about Mary's education, but it is clear that she could speak French, Flemish, and English. She enjoyed reading fables and Roman histories, and may have had some training in political philosophy. Her later actions as reigning duchess suggest that she was prepared early in life to govern.

Much more is known about how Mary of Burgundy was entertained and occupied as a child. Exotic animals were brought to her as pets from around the world. She had several dogs, parrots, monkeys, and a giraffe. Mary developed a keen interest in hunting, riding, and other outdoor sports, as well as in gardening. She cared for her falcons as if they were children; later in life, her husband would express surprise at Mary's insistence on keeping the birds of prey in the bedroom, even within a few days of their wedding. Mary's personal seal was a picture of herself on horseback with a falcon on her wrist. She had a complete court of attendants from her infancy, including a dwarf named Madame de Beauregard . In all ways, Mary was treated as royalty.

Isabelle of Bourbon (d. 1465)

Countess of Charolois . Name variations: Isabel or Isabella of Bourbon. Died in 1465 or 1466; daughter of Agnes of Burgundy (d. 1476) and Charles I, duke of Bourbon (r. 1434–1456); second wife of Charles the Bold (1433–1477), duke of Burgundy (r. 1467–1477); children: Mary of Burgundy (1457–1482, who married Maximilian I, Holy Roman emperor). Charles the Bold's first wife was Catherine de France (1428–1446); his third wife was Margaret of York (1446–1503).

Catherine de France (1428–1446)

French princess . Name variations: Catherine Valois; Catherine de Valois. Born in 1428; died in 1446; daughter of Charles VII (1403–1461), king of France (r. 1422–1461), and Marie of Anjou (1404–1463); sister of Louis XI, king of France (r. 1461–1483); first wife of Charles the Bold (1433–1477), count of Charolois, later duke of Burgundy (r. 1467–1477); no children.

Within a few years of her mother's death, Mary of Burgundy developed the most important relationship of her short life. Upon his ascension to the ducal throne, Charles married for the third time; his new wife was Margaret of York , the sister of Edward IV, the king of England. This alliance was significant for Burgundy because it connected the duchy to the English crown and frustrated the French. Though they were cousins and had previously enjoyed good relations, Charles and Louis of France had become foes in a contest for land acquisition. It was hoped that Margaret of York would have influence with her brother should Burgundy ever require English help. This marriage meant even more for young Mary, however, for she gained in Margaret of York a lifelong friend and mother figure. The two were almost inseparable; indeed, their lives became so intertwined that modern

scholars sometimes confuse the two and the role that each played during the next ten years.

Beginning in 1468, Mary accompanied Margaret of York on her visits throughout Burgundy. Since the duke could not be everywhere at once, it was important for ducal representatives to make appearances in each of the major cities. The two women listened to petitions and assured the people that the duke would not ignore his territories. Charles was a strict ruler, and the women were especially needed to pacify dissatisfied factions and build loyalty. They were often successful in this respect, so much so that Margaret of York usually had little trouble collecting money and men for Charles when he needed them on the battlefield. The exposure of the heiress to so many of her subjects also served to encourage love and loyalty for her, something she would sorely need in the coming years.

Mary of Burgundy was still a child for the first several years of traveling, and Margaret of York took responsibility for the girl's education. They learned from each other; Mary learned to speak fluent English from her stepmother, and Margaret of York learned French and Dutch from Mary. Together, they were quite a diplomatic team. Mary and Margaret of York were both pious women, and they made it a point to stop at many shrines while touring the country. They also went on a number of pilgrimages together. They shared a special devotion to the cult of St. Colette , a reformer of convents in Burgundy and France. Together, they served as patrons of the Ghent guild of St. Anne . The two were welcomed and celebrated everywhere they went. The city of Mons so impressed Mary with its splendid reception in 1471 that she decided to stay there a year without Margaret of York. Thus, by the age of 14, she was already prepared to stand independently as the ducal resident.

Her death was a great loss to her subjects; for she was a person of great honor, affability, and generosity to all people, and she was more beloved and respected by her subjects than her husband, as being natural sovereign of their country.

—Philip of Commines

At all times, negotiations for Mary of Burgundy's eventual marriage was taking place. Charles was a shrewd man, and he knew that offering Mary's hand could get him immediate support from any quarter. He shamelessly courted several alliances, possibly without the intention of honoring any of them. Starting when Mary was only a child, her father promised her to a long line of suitors, including Ferdinand of Aragon, Nicholas of Lorraine, George, duke of Clarence (brother of Margaret of York), Duke Francis II of Brittany, the dauphin Charles (the future Charles VIII), Charles of Berry, Philibert of Savoy, Nicholas of Anjou, and Maximilian (I), the Habsburg archduke and heir to the Austrian empire. Mary seemed to be unusually well informed of these negotiations, and on more than one occasion Charles had his daughter personally write to her suitor and pledge herself to the man, enclosing a ring or some other symbolic gift.

After 1473, Mary of Burgundy spent most of her time in residence at Ghent. That city had a reputation for uprisings, and the duke had taken most of the privileges away from its citizenry. He had most recently dismissed all of their magistrates and enforced the election of an entire new council. At the same time, the city had financed a good deal of the latest military expeditions. Mary's presence served to quiet the resentful citizens and reassure them that the duke's debt would be repaid. In this respect, she was something of a hostage; as long as she was in their care, the people of Ghent knew the duke could not ignore them. Back in 1467, shortly after Charles had become duke of Burgundy, the Gantois, as the citizens were called, had risen against him. Mary, aged ten at the time, had been staying at Ghent. Charles chose to give in to their demands rather than use force to put down the rebellion, which might have put his daughter at risk. These tactics had worked so well that the Gantois were determined to keep Mary again in residence there for as long as possible.

In late 1475, Charles came to a final agreement on Mary's marital future. He had negotiated with Frederick III, Holy Roman emperor and emperor of Austria, for the marriage of Mary to his son Maximilian; the match was designed to bring stability to the warring German cities and to outmaneuver France once and for all. This time, however, Charles' ambition proved too much. He brought his daughter with him to Treves, where he intended to persuade Frederick to bestow upon him the title "King of the Romans" in return for Mary's promised betrothal. His dream was to create a kingdom out of Burgundy called Lotharingia. Frederick refused to comply and left early one morning without a word to Charles. There was nothing for Mary to do except return to Ghent and await her father's next decision.

In January 1477, once again trying to expand his territories, Charles was involved in a war against the free cities of the Rhine valley and, despite a string of losses, decided to press on. Against advice, he laid siege to the city of Nancy, which was defended by a Swiss army. On January 5, his army was destroyed, and Charles' stripped and mutilated body was not recovered for a couple of days. This tragedy was the beginning of the most trying year of Mary of Burgundy's life. Without giving her a day to grieve, the citizens of Ghent approached the new duchess and demanded the reinstatement of their privileges. It was said at the time that the people of a country always adore the child of their prince while she is young, but hate her as soon as she becomes the governor. Mary's situation was no exception. While she dealt with formal petitions in her chambers, people in the streets rose up, setting fire to the prison and the hall of justice. They gathered up the magistrates who had been chosen under Charles' authority and executed them in the square. This uprising was put down by the ducal army that resided in the city, but Mary had to vow to make amends to the city and find a peaceful solution.

Mary of Burgundy summoned the Estates General, a body of citizens and councilors, to meet at Ghent in February 1477. Margaret of York, who had since taken on the title of duchess dowager, acted as Mary's top advisor. They wrote up a draft of the Great Privilege, a new charter for the city which included Mary's promise to submit any marriage proposals made to her for the people's approval. In return for peace, Mary promised not to make a move without the help and advice of her many advisors. Unfortunately, the Gantois were more concerned with their privileges than with the safety of their land. Burgundy was in a delicate position; Louis XI of France was eager for any excuse to take possession of Burgundian territory, and his armies and ambassadors had already started out for the nearest cities. Some of those municipalities readily gave their loyalty to France, and Louis was prepared to use force against any that were hesitant. Despite Margaret of York's pleas to her brother for help, the king of England was reluctant to offer assistance until he saw how far Louis could get. If enough of the territory fell without a struggle, and Mary proved incapable of keeping the land intact, Edward IV was willing to split the territory evenly with France.

Louis XI justified his invasion of Burgundy by pointing out the lack of a male heir; French law did not recognize a woman's right to inherit land, and thus he considered the land to be leaderless. Ironically, Flanders and other central European lands had often passed down through female hands, and those territories did not welcome France's intrusion. Most of these were not French-speaking territories, and they feared a great loss of cultural independence if France took over. Louis had many tricks at his disposal, however. He even wrote to Mary to promise his protection, calling upon his duty as her godfather to watch out for her and her land, which he more than likely hoped to claim as his own. He offered to marry the duchess to his son, the dauphin Charles, who was at the time a sickly seven-year-old. Mary of Burgundy was 19 and ready to bear children if she were matched with an adult husband. Louis knew that she and his son would probably never have children, leaving all of Burgundy in his possession.

In March, Louis sent as ambassador to Ghent a man named Oliver le Mauvais, a former barber and surgeon who had bought his noble status. There, Mauvais was supposed to rally the people of the city to France's side and to meet in private with Mary to persuade her to accept the marriage proposal. The citizens and councilors of Ghent were so insulted at the lowliness of the ambassador sent to meet with their sovereign, and at his insistence on speaking privately with the young woman, that they threatened to throw Mauvais into the river. He left without accomplishing his mission. During that same month, Mary of Burgundy wrote to Louis XI on the advice of Margaret of York and her other top advisors, the lords Ravenstein, Humbercourt, and Hugonet. In the letter, co-signed by her advisors, Mary humbly addressed the king of France as her godfather and suggested that she would consider his offer. Some modern scholars claim that this letter never really existed; since Louis would use it later to hurt her, some believe he forged the letter to turn her subjects against her. However, many contemporary French chroniclers accept the letter as authentic. France was a very real threat to Burgundy; Mary's letter may have been an acknowledgment of France's power or a device to buy some time.

Ghent and several other major cities sent ambassadors to France to meet with Louis XI and negotiate a peace treaty. They were sure of their own authority, as Mary had promised it to them in the Great Privilege. Louis convinced them that Mary was actually negotiating behind their backs, and showed them the letter as proof. He claimed that he had been instructed to ignore the ambassadors of the city and deal only with her top advisors. He also claimed that the duchess had agreed to marry his son against the wishes of her subjects. Even if the letter was real, however, Louis was considered by contemporaries to be devious for his use of it. He knew it would cause turmoil, and he cared little for the unwritten code of honor between nobles that would have prevented him from sharing a private correspondence with others. This ploy worked; the enraged ambassadors returned to Ghent and confronted Mary with the letter. They accused her advisors of conspiring with the king of France against the people of Burgundy, but chose to assume that Mary was personally innocent of the arrangements. Humbercourt and Hugonet, two of her advisors, were from French nobility, and may have actually wanted to see Mary wedded to French royalty. Thus, the citizens formally convicted these two men of treason and sentenced them to death. Mary's other advisors, Margaret of York and Lord Ravenstein, were exiled from the city. Mary of Burgundy was confined to the castle Ten Waele and deprived of visitors and correspondence.

Mary tried every political tool at her disposal to free the men from custody; when those failed, she attempted an emotional appeal. During Easter week of 1477, on the appointed day of execution for Humbercourt and Hugonet, Mary of Burgundy appeared in the public square, alone and on foot, and entered the crowd. She was disheveled, her head covered by a simple kerchief, and with tears in her eyes she begged the people of the city not to kill her friends. Many were moved by the sight of their princess, and a fight broke out between those who wanted to free the prisoners and those who wanted them killed. In the chaos that followed, the executioners performed their duty, and called for attention only after the men lay dead. Mary collapsed and was carried back to the castle. She spent the next few days making sure that the families of the executed advisors were safe and cared for financially.

Throughout the first year of Mary of Burgundy's reign, she was bombarded with the marital demands of "pretendants," men who insisted that they had been promised her hand in marriage by her father Charles before his death. Some of them, in fact, may have received such assurances. Nevertheless, Mary had to be wary of the stream of suitors who hoped to win her hand and her riches. She was well aware of Louis' intention to marry her to his son and claim Burgundy for himself. However, accepting a partner who was not powerful enough to fight France would also be tantamount to surrender. The only practical solution was to marry Maximilian of Austria. Fortunately for her, he was the only suitor who was able to produce a letter of promise from Mary, as well as one of her jewels sent to seal the pledge. Thus, Mary of Burgundy proceeded to finalize the marriage arrangements herself, despite a clause in the Great Privilege that gave the right of arrangement to the people of Burgundy. There was no time to lose in council meetings, and as reigning duchess Mary had no need of a dowry or lengthy marriage contract. The wedding was performed by proxy on April 22, 1477, and Maximilian began his journey from Cologne to Ghent, where the actual ceremony would be repeated in person on August 18.

Mary of Burgundy appeased the people of Ghent by promising that Maximilian would not inherit her land in the event of her death. The citizens of the Burgundian cities were afraid of having a foreign ruler. As things stood, however, the Flemish cities were pleased with her choice, because an Austrian duke was more likely to respect their culture and language than was the French king. Maximilian was celebrated and welcomed on his journey to Ghent, and when his money ran out only halfway to his destination, ambassadors financed the rest of the trip. Louis XI is said to have tried to delay the procession to Ghent—he persisted in believing he could force Mary to accept his son. Nevertheless, Maximilian arrived safely in the city, and the wedding was celebrated without further problems.

Mary and Maximilian seem to have had an ideal marriage. They were both young, attractive, and known for their intelligence and courage. While they could not, at first, speak each other's native languages, they taught each other and communicated well. They both enjoyed riding and hunting. Maximilian wrote to a friend that he found his wife beautiful, and he confided that they did not have separate bedrooms—something almost unheard of among the nobility of the day. Unfortunately, Maximilian was soon caught up in the fight with France over territory. With the power of Austria now behind Burgundy, England had no problem committing to support the tiny collection of states against the French king. Maximilian was absent for long periods, and he missed the birth and baptism of his first born child when on June 22, 1478, Mary gave birth to the boy who would someday reign as Philip I the Fair. A year and a half later, on January 10, 1480, Mary had her second child, Margaret of Austria , who would eventually be betrothed to the same son of King Louis XI who had been offered to Mary.

A stern ruler, Maximilian was becoming hated and feared in some Burgundian cities. The people's love for Mary grew, however, as she became a patron of the arts and continued to hear petitions from citizens. Mary's subjects were overjoyed with the births so soon after her marriage, and they followed the growth of the ruling family with interest. In Brussels, on September 2, 1481, while Maximilian was again absent, Mary had a third child, another son whom she named Frederic. Sadly, Frederic died only a few months later. In the meantime, Mary had changed her will secretly so that Maximilian would get all of her territory, as well as guardianship of the children, should she die before him. This would be contested hotly after her death by the people of Ghent and the Estates General.

After the wedding, Mary and Maximilian had moved their primary residence to the castle Prinsenhof. In March 1482, Mary was there with her children when Maximilian came to stay for several weeks; they were enjoying one of their famous hunts together. Somehow, though she was an accomplished rider, Mary was thrown from her horse. Her injuries did not at first seem serious enough to warrant fetching a doctor, but during the next few days she developed a serious fever and asked for the last rites to be performed. Mary of Burgundy died on March 27, 1482, with her husband and children nearby. She was 25 years old. Some believe she was pregnant with her fourth child at the time of her death. Maximilian grieved publicly for her, and did not remarry for many years. Mary was buried at the church of Our Lady of Bruges. In 1502, she was reinterred beneath a magnificent monument created by the sculptor Pierre de Beckere. Her remains were moved once more in the turmoil after the French Revolution; in 1806, she and her father were moved to a simple tomb in the chapel of Lanchals.


De Berente, M. Histoire des ducs de Bourgogne de la maison Valois, 1364–1477. Vol. 11–12. Paris: Le Normant, 1937.

Hommel, Luc. Marie de Bourgogne; ou, le Grand Heritage. Brussels: Les Ouevres, Ad. Goemaere, 1945.

Scoble, Andrew R., ed. The memoirs of Philip de Commines, Lord of Argenton. 2 vols. London: Henry G. Bohn, 1855.

Vaughn, Richard. Charles the Bold: The Last Valois Duke of Burgundy. NY: Longman Group, 1973.

Weightman, Christine. Margeret of York, Duchess of Burgundy 1446–1503. NY: St. Martins Press, 1989.

suggested reading:

James, G.P.R. Mary of Burgundy; or, the Revolt of Ghent. London: George Routledge, 1903.

Nancy L. Locklin , Ph.D. candidate, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia

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Mary of Burgundy (1457–1482)

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