By now, the regular followers of my blog know I
a) have a thing about strong women
b) am very interested in the Hapsburgs. (I am also somewhat crazy about the medieval period and the seventeenth century, but as today’s post has NOTHING to do with these periods, I am glossing over these addictions of mine)
Now, I have written a lot of posts about the Spanish Hapsburgs and today I aim to share another little story with you. Or maybe it is more of a reflection, along the lines that men who have a healthy self-confidence appreciate and encourage strong women. It takes balls to share the stage with a colourful and intrepid lady—as valid today as it has been in the past.
The early Spanish Hapsburgs were obviously well-endowed gents. Carlos I & V had been raised by his aunt Archduchess Margaret of Austria, an impressive lady, and clearly this made him positively disposed towards other strong women, as he selected his sister, Mary of Austria, Queen of Hungary, to succeed Margaret as the governor of the Low Countries when Margaret died.
Mary was temperamentally not as comfortable with ruling as Auntie Margaret had been. She wasn’t quite as social, quite as much the life and soul of a party – not that Margaret was much into capering about and singing loudly, but she knew how to mingle, how to cajole and convince. Mary was of a much more serious disposition and had to learn these skills, recognising that the independently minded Flemish and Dutch subjects were not exactly dazzled into obedience, no matter how grand their governor or how much blue blood ran in the governor’s veins. Interestingly enough, the fact that Mary was a woman does not seem to have been an issue. Besides, should someone displease Mary, the chances were high brother Carlos would ride in to punish the perpetrator.
Mary and Carlos did not see eye to eye on everything. Specifically, they did not agree on how to handle the Lutheran movement. Carlos was all for bashing every Protestant over the head and burning them as the heretics they were, thereby hoping to prod those among the Dutch who’d converted into returning to the fold of the Holy Roman Church. Mary had a much more tolerant approach, advocating that as long as her Protestant subjects respected the laws and did their duty by her, she saw no reason to persecute them on account of their faith. Nice lady.
Other than his sister, Carlos V also had competent daughters whom he also promoted to positions of influence. His legitimate daughter, Maria of Spain, was on several occasions left in charge of Spain, both to cover for her dear Papa and, after Carlos had abdicated, for her brother, Felipe II.
The same goes for Maria’s sister Juana, who was ordered to return home to Valladolid in Castile from Portugal and assume the regency. Juana did as she was told, leaving behind her baby son. As heir to the Portuguese throne, baby Sebastian was not allowed to leave the country. Juana never saw her son again, this despite him surviving childhood and growing into a fine young man before he died fighting in Morocco. (Well, it is assumed he died fighting as he was last seen charging the enemies) No, instead Juana turned to God and is the only known woman to have become a member of the Jesuits. Clearly, something I need to explore further…
Carlos V was a man who seems to have believed in the sanctity of marriage. Yes, he sired some illegitimate children, but they were either born before or after his marriage. As a youth he developed a passion for a Flemish lady named Judith and fathered a girl, Margaret, born in 1522. The child was raised at the court of the Archduchess Margaret and Mary of Austria, her father setting out a detailed schedule for her education. At the age of seven, Margaret was formally recognised by her father and some years later she was sent off to Italy, destined to marry Alessandro d’Medici. Her first hubby was assassinated and Margaret was wed to Ottavio Farnese, no matter that the fifteen-year-old bride clearly expressed she did not want to marry the future Duke of Parma. Poor Margaret had a hard time of things as her father the Emperor had every intention of controlling most of Italy while the pope and her husband, understandably, were less than thrilled with the idea. Several years later, an agreement was struck whereby Parma remained independent on the condition that the Emperor was granted custody of the young heir to Parma, Margaret’s son Alessandro Farnese.
As a consequence of this agreement, Margaret took her ten-year-old son and in 1555 returned to the Netherlands. Her boy she transferred into the care of her brother, Felipe II, who sent little Alessandro to Spain to be raised with his own (rather insane) son and the other known illegitimate child of Carlos V, Juan de Austria. Margaret was made governor of the Low Countries. However: Felipe had no intention of letting Margaret rule according to her own head or heart, which put Margaret in an untenable position.
In protest to Felipe’s meddling, Margaret resigned and returned to Italy but was recalled some years later by Felipe to co-rule the Low Countries with her son (Alessandro Farnese was the bees’ knees according to his uncle and various of his contemporaries. From Felipe’s perspective, Alessandro came with the benefit of being 100% loyal to him, having been more or less raised by Felipe) Mother and son did not really hit it off, and Margaret was allowed to retire to Italy where she died some years later.
I suppose one could argue that in the case of Margaret, she was more of a figurehead than a person with real power, and Felipe seems to have been more hesitant about endowing women with power than his father was. In difference to Carlos, Felipe had been raised without any strong females in his proximity.
In 1566, Felipe’s French wife Elizabeth of Valois gave birth to a daughter, Isabel Clara Eugenia. Felipe was delighted, falling in love with his baby girl from the first moment he saw her. Isabel would grow up to be the only child Felipe allowed to help him with his work, in charge of sorting his correspondence and of translating from Italian to Spanish. As was the custom among the Hapsburgs. Isabel was betrothed at a very early age to her first cousin Rudolf of Austria, next in line to become the Holy Roman Emperor. Rudolf, however, was to grow up into a man with no interest whatsoever in marrying. So there was poor Isabel, left standing atop Spinster Mountain. Not for long, though, as her dear Papa soon came up with the suggestion that she marry another of her first cousins, Albert of Austria.
This Albert had been raised in Spain, destined for the Church. In 1577 he’d been made a cardinal, despite being very young (eighteen) and not having taken full orders. Hmm. What money and influence can buy, right? Still valid in our day and age, except that these days no one wants to buy a cardinal’s hat… When Felipe proposed that he marry Isabel, Albert was the Archbishop of Toledo which, one assumes, would have led to a number of raised brows: archbishops did not marry. Albert, however, was more eager to wed than pursue an ecclesiastic career and so he resigned the archbishopric, married Isabel and was, together with his wife, made governor of the Low Countries.
Isabel and Albert were a great double act. Together, they brought stability and peace to the Spanish Netherlands. Together, they promoted measures that strengthened the cultural identity of the Flemish Catholics, such as supporting Rubens magnificent paintings. They developed trade, they helped the region to flourish. Under their rule, Brussels became a centre of culture, of trade and learning. And when Albert died in 1621, Isabel continued to rule on her own, appointed governor by her half-brother Felipe III. When she died in 1633, she left behind a well-ruled region and subjects who genuinely grieved for her. I believe the old Archduchess Margaret, aunt to Isabel’s grandfather Carlos V, would have approved. A lot.