Netherlands - Famous Renaissance Women

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During the Renaissance, the Duchy of Burgundy, a major part of which comprised the modern-day countries of the Netherlands and Belgium, was effectively ruled by a remarkable quartet of women: Mary of Burgundy; Margaret of Austria; Mary of Hungary and Margaret of Parma. They were, respectively, the grandmother, aunt, sister and daughter of the Emperor Charles V, Duke of Burgundy from 1506 to 1558. All four were tough, intelligent and determined; clever politicians who were also patrons of the arts and sciences. The artistic flowering of the Renaissance which they promoted and the feminist role model which they provided led to the success of female artists, such as Caterina van Hemmesen.


Mary of Burgundy

Mary of Burgundy
1457 - 1480

Mary of Burgundy


Mary of Burgundy, called Mary the Rich, was born on 13th February 1457 at Brussels, the daughter of Charles, Count of Charolais, heir to Duke Philip 'the Good' of Burgundy and his wife, Isabella de Bourbon. Her grandfather Philip was apparently disappointed that the child was a girl and refused to attend her baptism. In the event, Charles had no more children by Isabella or his subsequent wife Margaret of York, sister of Edward IV of England, so Mary became the heiress to vast wealth and lands. These were made up of the Duchy of Burgundy, the Free County of Burgundy, and the majority of the Low Countries, and her hand was eagerly sought by a number of princes. The first proposal was received by her father when she was only five years old, to marry the future Ferdinand II of Aragon. Later the younger brother of Louis XI, Charles de Valois, Duc de Berry made an approach, to the intense annoyance of his brother the King, who attempted to prevent the necessary Papal dispensation for consanguinity. George of Clarence, King Edward's brother, was also a suitor, again to his brother's disapproval.

Mary's father Charles became Duke of Burgundy on 15th June 1467 and continued his policy of hostility towards France. However, Charles overreached himself by attempting to confront the Swiss as well, which led to his death at the Battle of Nancy on 5th January 1477. At the time of his death, he had been engaged in a number of marriage negotiations for his nineteen year old daughter, who suddenly found herself the new Duchess. Louis of France moved in for the kill and annexed Burgundian lands. he also attempted to force Mary to marry his son and heir Charles, but Mary was a determined girl who wanted to pick her own husband. She was, however, forced to grant concessions to the Parliaments of the Netherlands and to suffer the execution of two of her father's closest advisers.

Mary was more successful in her marriage: she chose the Archduke Maximilian of Austria, son of her father's ally the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick and married him at Ghent on 18th August 1477. Maximilian gave Mary a diamond engagement ring (the first recorded in history) and the marriage was a happy one. They had two children, Philip (born on 22nd July 1478) and Margaret (born on 10th January 1480). The struggle with France continued but Maximilian scored a notable victory over Louis' troops at the Battle of Guinegate, Artois, on 7th August 1479. The tide seemed to be turning in the Duchess's favour and she was able to strengthen her position with her subjects. She also continued to promote art and literature as her father and grandfather had done, and to keep Burgundy as a leader of fashion which in turn encouraged the textile industry - several portraits of her in beautiful and elaborate costumes survive, such as that shown left. However, in March 1482, the pregnant Mary was hunting at Wijnendale in Flanders when her horse tripped and crushed her against a tree. She died a few days later on 27th March at the age of 25, and is buried at Bruges.


Margaret of Austria

Margaret of Austria,
Regent of the Netherlands
10.1480 - 1.12.1530
Margaret of Austria

Margaret of Austria was born in Brussels on 10th January 1480, the daughter of the Archduke Maximilian of Austria, heir to the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick, and Mary, Duchess of Burgundy in her own right. When she was only two, her mother died and on 23rd December 1482, her father Maximilian was forced to sign the Treaty of Arras in order to salvage what he could of his late wife's lands. By this treaty, Margaret was engaged to the Dauphin Charles of France and sent to his country to be educated. She was brought up at the French court under the watchful eye of Anne de Beaujeu, who became Regent for her young brother on her father's death in 1483. Margaret received an excellent education, but her projected marriage never took place.

In 1491, Margaret found herself jilted by Charles in favour of Anne, Duchess of Brittany. Instead, her father arranged for her to marry John, Prince of Asturias, heir to the thrones of Castile and Aragon, and a second proxy marriage took place. She endured an extremely difficult sea voyage, during which the witty Princess was so alarmed that she wrote her own epitaph:

'Here lies Margot, gentle damsel,
Twice married, but a virgin when she died'

However, 'the attractive blonde, blue-eyed Margaret landed safely and married the good-looking young prince at Burgos on 3rd Aprilm 1497. But on 4th October, John died of a fever, leaving Margaret pregnant. Her daughter - her only recorded pregnancy - was stillborn two months later. In 1501, she married another handsome young husband, Phillibert, Duke of Savoy, and proved far more able at ruling his duchy than he was. But in 1504, Phillibert died, leaving Margaret a childless widow at 23. Margaret was so distraught by this third tragedy that she vowed never to marry again. She stuck to her vow, despite the attentions of many suitors, including the widowed Henry VII of England.

Maximilian was aware of his daughter's abilities, and when her brother Philip died in 1506, he made her Regent of Burgundy and the Netherlands for her six year old nephew Charles. Margaret proved a very effective ruler, steering a prudent course between Burgundian interests and those of the Empire without becoming a cats-paw of France as her brother had been. She took a major part in European alliances, including the League of Cambrai (1508), as well as raising her nephew Charles and nieces Eleanor, Isabella and Mary. When Charles reached the age of fifteen, Margaret's duties as Regent ceased, but she resumed them when he journeyed to Spain in 1517 following the death of his grandfather Ferdinand of Aragon. During this period, she secured commercial advantages for the Netherlands and negotiated several treaties, including the so-called 'Ladies Peace' of 1529. Her Court at Malines was a centre of humanism and learning; amongst her ladies was a very young Anne Boleyn. Margaret died on 1st December 1530 of an infection after cutting her foot on a piece of glass, and was buried at Brou in Savoy.


Woman in a heavily embroidered red dress wears an ornate hat with pearls and netting

Mary of Austria
1505-1558
Mary of Hungary


Mary of Austria (15 September 1505 – 18 October 1558), also known as Mary of Hungary, was queen consort of Hungary and Bohemia[note as the wife of King Louis II, and she was later Governor of the Habsburg Netherlands. The daughter of Queen Joanna of Castile and King Philip I of Castile, Mary married Louis II of Hungary and Bohemia in 1515. Their marriage was happy but short and childless. Upon her husband's death in battle in 1526, Mary governed Hungary as regent in the name of her brother Ferdinand I, Holy Roman Emperor. In 1531 Mary was asked by her brother Emperor Charles V to assume the governance of the Netherlands and guardianship over their nieces, Dorothea and Christina of Denmark, upon the death of their aunt Margaret. As governor of the Netherlands, Mary faced riots and a difficult relationship with the Emperor. Throughout her tenure she continuously attempted to ensure peace between the Emperor and the King of France. Although she never enjoyed governing and asked for permission to resign several times, the Queen succeeded in creating a unity between the provinces, as well as in securing for them a measure of independence from both France and the Holy Roman Empire. After her final resignation, the frail Queen moved to Castile, where she died. Having inherited the Habsburg lip and not very feminine looks, Mary was not considered physically attractive. Her portraits, letters, and comments by her contemporaries do not assign her the easy Burgundian charm possessed by her grandmother, Duchess Mary of Burgundy, and her aunt Margaret. Nevertheless, she proved to be a determined and skillful politician, as well as an enthusiastic patron of literature, music, and hunting.


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Margaret of Parma
Regent of the Netherlands
1522 - 1586
Margaret of Parma

Margaret of Parma, also called Margaret of Austria, Duchess of Parma and regent of the Netherlands from 1559 to 1567, was a natural daughter of Charles V. Her mother, Margaret van Ghent, was a Fleming. She was brought up by her aunts Margaret of Austria and Maria of Hungary, who were successively regents of the Netherlands from 1507 to 1530 and from 1530 to 1555. In 1533 she was married to Alexander de Medici, Duke of Florence, who was assassinated in 1537, after which she became the wife of Ottavio Farnese, Duke of Parma, in 1542. The union proved an unhappy one. Like her aunts, who had trained her, she was a woman of masculine abilities, and Philip II, when he left the Netherlands in 1559 for Spain, acted wisely in appointing her regent. In ordinary times she would probably have proved as successful a ruler as her two predecessors in that post, but her task was very different from theirs. She had to face the rising storm of discontent against the Inquisition and Spanish despotism, and Philip left her but nominal authority. He was determined to pursue his own arbitrary course, and the issue was the revolt of the Netherlands. In 1567 Margaret resigned her post into the hands of the Duke of Alva and retired to Italy. She had the satisfaction of seeing her son Alexander Farnese appointed to the office she had laid down, and to watch his successful career as governor-general of the Netherlands. She died at Ortona in 1586.


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Caterina van Hemessen

Court Painter, Low Countries
1529 after 1587
Self Portrait
1548
Caterina Van Hemessen


(1528 after 1587) was the earliest Northern Renaissance
painter for whom there is verifiable extant work. Van Hemessen is often given the distinction of creating the first self portrait (seated at an easel) of an artist of either gender. This portrait created in 1548 also shows the artist in the early stages of painting a portrait that nows hangs in Basel. Other paintings by Hemessen are in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and in the National Gallery, London.

Van Hemessen gained an important patron in the 1540s, Maria of Austria , who served as regent of the Low Countries for her brother Charles V. In 1554, she married Christian (or Chrétien) de Morien, an organist at the Antwerp Cathedral, which was at that time an important post. In 1556, when Maria resigned her post and returned to Spain, Caterina and her husband also moved, on invitation of her patron, to Spain. And two years later, when Maria died, Caterina was given a sizeable pension for life. Caterina and her husband returned to Antwerp. She was mentioned in Giucciardini's Description of the Low Countries of 1567 as one of the living women artists. She died after 1587.


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Margaret of York, Duchess of Burgundy
3.5.1466- 23.11.1503
Margaret of York


Margaret of York was born on 3rd May 1446 at Fotheringay Castle, the youngest daughter of Richard, Duke of York, and his wife Cecily Neville. Her two elder sisters married powerful English lords, but when her brother Edward became King as Edward IV in 1461, he saw Margaret's future marriage as a way of cementing a foreign alliance.When the wife of Charles Count of Charolais, heir to the Duke of Burgundy, died, Edward saw a way to cement an anti-French pact. Negotiations commenced in 1466, but Louis XI of France did everything he could to prevent the match, and it was not until 3rd July 1468 that the couple married, by which time Charles had succeeded his father as Duke.

Margaret impressed her new subjects with her intelligence and ability. She proved invaluable to her brother when he was forced to flee from England by the rebellion of his brother George Duke of Clarence and the Earl of Warwick by persuading her husband to provide financial and military backing to help Edward regain the throne. By May 1471, Edward had defeated the Lancastrians and was King again. However, her husband Charles had become fixated with the idea of expanding Burgundy into a kingdom and was constantly at war with his neighbours, to the detriment of Burgundian trade and prosperity. He was killed in battle with the Swiss at Nancy on 5th January 1477. His marriage to Margaret had been childless, and his heiress was his nineteen year old unmarried daughter Mary. Margaret was able to provide support and advice to the young Duchess, encouraging her to resist French proposals and to marry the Archduke Maximilian of Austria. Margaret was also able to obtain financial aid from her brother for the couple.

After Mary's death in 1482 and Maximilian's subsequent return to Austria, Margaret served as guardian of the young Duke Philip together with the Burgundian Estates (parliament). Her actions helped to restore Burgundy's prosperity. She was a patron of William Caxton, who introduced printing to England, and commissioned many works of art and literature. Her last years were mainly concerned with supporting various Yorkist 'pretenders' such as Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck to the throne of England following Henry Tudor's victory as Bosworth Field. She was a major thorn in his side, providing money and credibility to the claimants, and Henry described her as 'that stupid, brazen woman'. Whether Margaret really believed that any of them were genuine or whether she was prepared to back anyone against the hated Tudor is debatable: it has even been suggested that Warbeck was Margaret's own illegitimate son by the Bishop of Cambrai, although this is unlikely. Margaret died at her palace at Mechelin (Malines) on 23rd November 1503 at the age of 57 and was buried in the Franciscan Priory in the town.


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