Aug 142018
 

Today is the birthday (1502) of Pieter Coecke van Aelst, a Flemish painter, sculptor, architect, author and designer of woodcuts, goldsmith’s work, stained glass and tapestries who was influential in his day, but is largely forgotten nowadays. He worked in Antwerp and Brussels and was appointed court painter to Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. He was also a polyglot, and published translations of ancient Roman and modern Italian architectural treatises into Dutch, French and German. These publications played a pivotal role in the dissemination of Renaissance ideas in Northern Europe, and contributed to the transition in Northern Europe from the late Gothic style, then prevalent, towards a modern Classical architecture.

Coecke van Aelst was the son of the Deputy Mayor of Aalst. Most of his biography is filled with “probablies” because there is little hard documentation. He probably first studied art under Bernard van Orley, a leading Renaissance painter based in Brussels. There are no documents that prove this apprenticeship but there are strong stylistic similarities between the styles of the two artists. He may have later studied in Italy where he would have made drawings of classical sculpture and architecture. His Italian influence could, however, also be attributed to the fact that Raphael’s tapestry cartoons were available in Brussels, where they were used for the manufacture of tapestries around 1516. However, as Coecke van Aelst clearly was familiar with Raphael’s fresco of the Triumph of Galatea located in the Villa Farnesina in Rome, it seems likely he did in fact travel to Italy.

Coecke van Aelst married twice. He married his first wife Anna van Dornicke in 1525 shortly after his move to Antwerp. Anna was the daughter of Jan Mertens van Dornicke, one of the most successful painters working in Antwerp. His father in law was possibly his teacher. Coecke van Aelst took over his father-in-law’s workshop after the latter’s death in 1527. There were two children from this first marriage, Michiel and Pieter (the Younger). The latter was also a painter. After the death of his first wife (before 1529), Coecke van Aelst had an affair with Anthonette van der Sandt (also known as Antonia van der Sant). The pair never married but had a daughter, Antonette, and at least one son, Pauwel who also became a painter.

Coecke van Aelst is recorded joining the local Guild of Saint Luke of Antwerp in 1527. In 1533, he traveled to Constantinople where he stayed for one year during which he tried to convince the Turkish sultan to give him commissions for tapestries, but failed. He made numerous drawings during his stay in Turkey including of the buildings, people and the indigenous flora. He seems to have retained from this trip an abiding interest in the accurate rendering of nature that gave his tapestries an added dimension. The drawings which he made during his stay in Turkey were posthumously published by his widow under the title Ces moeurs et fachons de faire de Turcz avecq les regions y appertenantes ont este au vif contrefaictez (Antwerp,1553).

Upon his return to Antwerp in 1534, Coecke van Aelst produced designs for a large-scale figure, called ‘Druon Antigoon’ or the ‘Giant of Antwerp’ of which the head in papier-maché possibly still survives (Museum aan de Stroom, Antwerp). The giant made its premiere many years later in 1549 at the occasion of the Joyous entry into Antwerp of Prince Philip (the future Philip II). The giant became a regular fixture in public processions in Antwerp until the 20th century. In the year 1537 Coecke van Aelst was elected a dean of the Antwerp Guild of Saint Luke. He also received a stipend from the Antwerp city government. Around this time he received major commissions for the design of stained-glass windows including for the Antwerp Cathedral.

Around 1538–1539 Coecke van Aelst married for the second time. His second wife Mayken Verhulst was originally from Mechelen and a painter of miniatures. The couple had three children, two daughters called Katelijne and Maria and a son named Pauwel (even though he had another son with this name). Pieter Brueghel the Elder married Coecke van Aelst’s daughter Maria (called ‘Mayken’). It is possible that Coecke van Aelst’s second wife was the first teacher of her grandchildren, Pieter Brueghel the Younger and Jan Brueghel the Elder.

Coecke van Aelst was appointed court painter to Charles V only a few months prior to his death. He was in Brussels in 1550 where he died in December. As his two youngest children died at the same time, it is possible that all three family members were victims of a contagious epidemic.

Pieter Coecke van Aelst was a versatile artist and a master designer who devised projects across a wide range of different media, including panel paintings, sculptures, prints, tapestries, stained glass and goldsmith’s work. No signed, and few reliably documented, paintings by Coecke van Aelst have survived. His drawings are an important witness to his skills as they are the only body of works by the artist, which are signed. Approximately 40 drawings are regarded as autographs, in addition to cartoons and cartoon fragments on which he likely worked with assistants. The majority of his drawings are related to his tapestry designs.

Coecke van Aelst’s composition of the Last Supper became extremely popular in the 16th century and many versions were produced. The version dated 1527 in the collection of the Duke and Duchess of Rutland in Belvoir Castle in  Grantham, is believed to be the original from which all the other ones were derived. The composition was popularized via a print of it made by Hendrik Goltzius. His painting of the subject was freely inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper (1498, Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan) and Marcantonio Raimondi’s engraving of about 1515–1516 based on a lost drawing by Raphael. The gestures of the apostles are derived from Dürer’s print of the Last Supper dated 1523. There exist about 45 versions of this composition, which were executed with the assistance of workshop assistants. A great number of the versions are dated, and of these 6 or 7 are dated 1528. Van Aelst likely produced the original drawing for the Last Supper, which was subsequently copied on to a panel by means of intermediary cartoons. The composition could be ordered in two formats: 50 x 60 cm and 60 x 80 cm. The large version was more popular than the smaller one.

Small Biblical scenes in the background of the composition place the Last Supper in its theological context. Through the window it is possible to discern a scene depicting the Entry into Jerusalem, the principal event preceding the Last Supper according to Christian literature. Scenes of the Fall and the Expulsion from Paradise can be discerned in the ornaments of the upper panes of the window. The medals on the wall depict the biblical stories of the Slaying of Cain and David and Goliath. The scene representing the slaying of Cain is based on a print by the prominent Romanist artist Jan Gossaert. The whole iconography accentuates the Christian preoccupation with original sin and the belief that mankind’s salvation solely relies on Christ’s sacrifice. The original version of 1527 expresses in some of its details an iconography, which shows a close link to the Protestant Reformation. In the other versions this meaning is less pronounced.

Another popular and widely distributed work was the composition St. Jerome in his Study of which Coecke van Aelst and his workshop produced multiple versions. Saint Jerome is noted for his translation into Latin of the Bible, http://www.bookofdaystales.com/international-translation-dayst-jerome/  which he produced whilst living in a monastery in Palestine. In the version of the subject in the Walters Museum, Coecke van Aelst suggests the Oriental setting by the view visible through the window which shows a landscape with camels. To the wall is affixed an admonition, “Cogita Mori” (Think upon death), a vanitas motif that is reiterated by the skull (which Jerome supposedly always had with him as he wrote). Further reminders of the motifs of the passage of time and the imminence of death are the image of the Last Judgment visible in the saint’s Bible, the candle and the hourglass. Another version of this subject was sold at Christie’s (28 January 2015, New York, lot 104). This version reprises similar iconographic elements, which stress Christian beliefs regarding the transience of human life and the importance of the sacrifice of Christ for people to find salvation at the time of the Last Judgement.

Coecke van Aelst was renowned for his tapestry designs which were executed by the Brussels tapestry workshops. These designs were typically small-scale drawings in black-and-white. His cartoon for the Martyrdom of St. Peter (Brussels Town Hall) is in grisaille with touches of green and red while the names of the other colors, such as gold or blue, are written in. The patrons for the tapestries included Emperor Charles V, Francis I of France, Henry VIII of England, and Cosimo de’ Medici. His reputation as a tapestry designer was established through his popular series of the Story of Saint Paul, the Seven Deadly Sins, the Story of Abraham, the Story of Vertumnus and Pomona, the Story of Joshua, the Creation, Poesia, the Conquest of Tunis and Julius Caesar.

Coecke van Aelst is noted for his translation of Vitruvius’ De architectura into Flemish (Dutch). He, and after his death his widow, Mayken Verhulst, published the five books of Sebastiano Serlio’s architectural treatise Architettura in Flemish, French and High German (the German translation was done by another translator). Coecke van Aelst’s translation of Vitruvius was hailed by the humanist Dominicus Lampsonius as the only Dutch-language book to discuss the building styles of other countries. In line with Italian translations of Vitruvius published earlier in the 16th century, his translation gave prominence to woodcut illustrations of the text and used columns to indicate the difference between three kinds of architectural representation: plan, elevation, and view. This was a clear break with the few treatises on architecture published earlier in the Low Countries which generally did not provide any visual exegesis. Coecke van Aelst’s 1539 Flemish translation of Serlio provided to the Low Countries a relatively affordable translation of one of the first illustrated architectural treatises in Europe.

For today’s recipe I have chosen potjevleesch, a traditional Flemish dish, which was certainly well known in Coecke van Aelst’s time. The recipe below is translated from a 1302 version by William Tirel. It is still a popular dish in Belgium. The name can be translated into English as “potted meat,” although in appearance it is more like a terrine. It is traditionally made in a ceramic dish—such as a marmite—from three or four different types of meat and held together either with gelatin or natural fats coming from the meats used. The meat (along with sliced onions, salt, pepper, thyme and bay leaves) is covered in water or water and vinegar and then cooked either on a low heat in the oven or on a low flame on top of the stove for 3 hours. After cooking the dish is chilled in the refrigerator and served cold. Nowadays the Flemish serve the dish – as they do everything – with fried potatoes (which they do not call French fries). It is customary to serve the dish with Dutch gin.

Here is my edited version of the original 14th century recipe in translation:

Make a jelly by boiling calves’ feet in 1 liter of white wine, with 20 fresh juniper berries. Simmer until the liquid is reduced by half. Desalt a pork shoulder. Debone a chicken and rabbit. Cut the pork, chicken, rabbit, veal, and calf’s foot into pieces about the size of half a quail. Place them in a pot with juniper berries and grated ginger, a little must and an abundance of saffron. Salt. Pour over the broth, a cup of gin and sour grapes. Cover with a lid sealed with a flour and egg white paste. Simmer slowly for 3 to 4 hours without boiling. Then lift the lid and bring to a rolling boil. Store in the cellar.

Here is a modernized version of the recipe. Note that Tirel does not mention onions, but they are usual nowadays. You can vary the proportions of meats as you wish. I have included gelatin here, because it is more practical than boiling bones and feet.

Potjevleesch

Ingredients

300 gm deboned chicken, cut in chunks
300 gm deboned rabbit, cut in chunks
300 gm flank of veal, cut in chunks
300 gm pork belly, cut in chunks
2 onions, peeled and sliced
salt and pepper,
20 juniper berries
1 sachet powdered saffron
white wine or wine vinegar
2 sachets gelatin

Instructions

Arrange in the bottom of the pot a layer of sliced onions. Add a sprinkling of salt, pepper, juniper berries and saffron. Then make layers with chicken, rabbit, veal and pork, alternating with onions and aromatics. Pour white wine (or wine vinegar) mixed with water evenly over the meat so that it is completely covered. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a slow simmer, add the gelatin mixed with ½ cup of boiling water, and cook, tightly covered, over low heat for 3 to 4 hours. Allow to cool slowly and then refrigerate for at least 12 hours, preferably overnight, so that the gelatin sets up. Serve with fried or boiled potatoes, and a green salad.

Dec 152017
 

Today is the birthday (1610) of David Teniers the Younger, Flemish painter, printmaker, draughtsman, miniaturist painter, staffage painter, copyist, and art curator known for his prolific output. He is not a household name nowadays, but he was the leading Flemish genre painter of his day, especially as Flemish art went into decline in the 1640s following the deaths of Rubens and van Dyck. He was an innovator in a wide range of genres such as history, genre, landscape, portrait, and still life. He was court painter and the curator of the collection of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm, the art-loving Governor General of the Habsburg Netherlands. He was also founder of the Antwerp Academy, where young artists were trained to draw and sculpt in the hope of reviving Flemish art after its decline. As such he was influential on the next generation of Northern genre painters as well as on French Rococo painters such as Antoine Watteau.

Teniers was born in Antwerp, son of David Teniers the Elder and Dymphna de Wilde. His father was a painter of altarpieces and small-scale cabinet paintings. Three of his brothers also became painters: Juliaan III (1616–1679), Theodoor (1619–1697) and Abraham (1629–1670). The work of his two oldest brothers is virtually unknown while the work of his youngest brother Abraham was very close to David’s own.

From 1626 David the younger studied under his father.The father and son pair created together a series of twelve panels recounting stories from Torquato Tasso’s epic Gerusalemme Liberata (Museo del Prado, Madrid). His father was frequently in financial straits and his debts landed him occasionally in jail. David the younger had to make copies of old masters in order to support the family. In 1632–33 he was registered as ‘wijnmeester’ (i.e. the son of a master) in the Antwerp Guild of Saint Luke.

A David Teniers is recorded in the Antwerp records as having been issued in 1635 a passport to visit Paris. The artist likely also traveled to England as on 29 December 1635 of the same year he signed in Dover a contract with the Antwerp art dealer Chrisostomos van Immerseel, then resident in England.

Rubens received in 1636 a commission from the Spanish king Philip IV of Spain to create a series of mythological paintings to decorate the Torre de la Parada, a hunting lodge of the king near Madrid. The mythological scenes depicted in the series were largely based on the Metamorphoses of Ovid. Rubens realized this important commission with the assistance of a large number of Antwerp painters including Teniers but his painting for this project, following is Rubens’ design, is now lost.

Teniers married Anna Brueghel, daughter of Jan Brueghel the Elder, on 22 July 1637. Rubens, who had been the guardian of Anna Brueghel after her father’s death, was a witness at the wedding. Through his marriage Teniers was able to cement a close relationship with Rubens who had been a good friend and frequent collaborator with his wife’s father. This is borne out by the fact that at the baptism of the first of the couple’s seven children, David Teniers III, Rubens’ second wife, Hélène Fourment was the godmother. Around this time Teniers started to gain a reputation as an artist and he received a number of commissions. The Guild of St George (Oude Voetboog Guild), a local militia in Antwerp, commissioned a group portrait in 1643 (Hermitage Museum).

Teniers was a dean of the Antwerp Guild of Saint Luke in 1644-1645. When Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria became the Governor General of the Southern Netherlands in 1647, the Archduke soon became an important patron of Teniers. The success went to the artist’s head. He claimed that his grandfather Julian Taisnier, who had moved from Ath (now located in the Walloon province of Hainaut) to Antwerp in the 16th century had been from a family that had been entitled to bear a coat of arms. Teniers started to use this coat of arms consisting of a crouching bear on a field of gold encircled by three green acorns. His brother-in-law Jan Baptist Borrekens reported him and Teniers was prohibited from using the coat of arms.

Around 1650 Teniers moved to Brussels to formally enter into the service of the Archduke as a “pintor de cámara” (court painter). The Archduke asked him to be the keeper of the art gallery he had set up in his palace in Brussels. In that position he succeeded the Antwerp painter Jan van den Hoecke who had earlier worked in Vienna for the Archduke. One of Teniers’ key tasks in this position was to look after and enlarge the Archducal collection. Teniers put together a collection for the art gallery which included his own work and that of other artists, which he selected. He was involved in the purchase of a large number of Italian, and especially Venetian, masterpieces from the confiscated collections of Charles I of England and his Jacobite supporters. One of his most important successes was the acquisition of the major part (about 400 paintings) of the collection owned by James Hamilton, 1st Duke of Hamilton, who had been a close associate and favorite of the English king and was, like the king, executed in 1649. The Conde de Fuensaldaña, then acting as Leopold Wilhelm’s lieutenant in the Southern Netherlands, also sent Teniers the Younger to England in 1651 to purchase paintings. The collection of the Archduke grew to incorporate about 1,300 works, mainly of leading Italian artists such as Raphael, Giorgione, Veronese and Titian (15 works by this artist alone) as well as of famous Northern artists such as Hans Holbein the Younger, Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Jan van Eyck. The collection became the foundation and nucleus of the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

The Archduke also promoted Teniers’ art by giving his paintings to other European rulers as presents. As a result many of these rulers also became patrons of Teniers. The bishop of Ghent Anthonius Triest, the Stadtholder Prince Frederik Hendrik of Orange, Christina, Queen of Sweden, William II, Prince of Orange and Philip IV of Spain were among his patrons. Teniers bought a house close to the Brussels court and was promoted in 1655 to ‘camerdiender’ or ‘ayuda de cámara’ (chamberlain) by the Archduke. It was most unusual for a painter to serve as chamberlain at the Spanish court. In fact, there was only one other case, which dates from the same time: that of Velázquez, whose aim was also to be elevated to the nobility. Not long after the Archduke resigned from his position as Governor General of the Spanish Netherlands and returned to Vienna with his large art collection. A Flemish priest, who was also a gifted still life painter, Jan Anton van der Baren, moved with Leopold Wilhelm from Brussels to Vienna where he was the successor of Teniers as the director of the archducal gallery in Vienna. Teniers also stood in high favor with the new Governor General of the Spanish Netherlands, Don Juan of Austria, a natural son of Philip IV of Spain. The prince was his pupil, and the early biographer Cornelis de Bie recounts that the prince painted the likeness of the painter’s son.

Teniers’ wife died on 11 May 1656. On 21 October of the same year the artist remarried. His second wife was Isabella de Fren, the 32-year old daughter of Andries de Fren, secretary of the Council of Brabant. It has been suggested that Teniers’ main motive for marrying her was her rather elevated position in society. She also brought him a large dowry. The couple had four children. His second wife’s attitude to Teniers’ children from his first marriage would later divide the family in legal battles. Teniers petitioned the king of Spain to be admitted to the aristocracy but gave up when the condition imposed was that he should give up painting for money.

When Don Juan of Austria ended his term as Governor General of the Southern Netherlands in January 1659, Teniers appears to have withdrawn from active court duty. He purchased from the husband of Hélène Fourment, the widow of Rubens, a country estate called the ‘Drij Toren’ (‘Three towers’) located in Perk, in the environs of Brussels and Vilvoorde. Teniers did not cut his links with Antwerp while living and working in Brussels. Teniers maintained close contacts with artists as well as the influential art dealers in Antwerp. In particular; the firm of Matthijs Musson was instrumental in building Teniers’ international reputation.

At the behest of his Antwerp colleagues of the Guild of Saint Luke, Teniers became the driving force behind the foundation of the Academy in Antwerp, only the second of such type of institution in Europe after the one in Paris. He used his connections and sent his son to Madrid to assist in the negotiation to successfully obtain the required license from the Spanish King. There were great celebrations in Antwerp when, on 26 January 1663, Teniers came from Brussels with the royal charter creating the Antwerp Royal Academy of Fine Arts, the existence of which was due entirely to his persistence. When in 1674 the existence of the Academy was threatened he again used his influence at the Spanish court to save the institution.

As a court painter Teniers was not required to become member of a local guild. Nevertheless, he became a member of the Brussels Guild of Saint Luke in 1675. In his later years Teniers was also active as an art dealer and he organized art auctions. This brought him into conflict with his fellow artists who started proceedings to prohibit him from holding an auction in 1683. Teniers argued that he needed the proceeds of the auction because his children were suing him for their mother’s part of her estate. The matter was finally settled between the parties themselves. In his final years he lost his second wife and was involved in further lawsuits over her estate with the two surviving children of his second wife. On 25 April 1690 David Teniers died in Brussels.

I will give you my usual gallery of the artist, but this time divided up by genre to give a sense of his diversity.

Interiors from ordinary life

Landscapes involving some special activity

Still life

Alchemists and physicians

Monkeys imitating human activity

A suitable dish for today would be mosselen-friet, more commonly known as moules-frites in French, and very popular in France, but probably of Flemish origin (not least because the second still life in the gallery shows a pot of mussels). It is sometimes called Belgium’s national dish.  It is likely that it was originally created by combining mussels, a popular and cheap foodstuff eaten around the Flemish coast, and fried potatoes which were commonly eaten around the country in winter when no fish or other food was available, or any time, for that matter. Belgians eat deep-fried potatoes with everything. This dish is really two dishes combined into one: mussels cooked in some way or other and served in one dish, and deep-fried potatoes served on another.

I like the mussels to be steamed with a very small amount of water, plus butter, chopped celery and chopped leeks (called mosselen natuur in Dutch, moules natures in French). Use only tightly closed mussels. Make sure that they are well scrubbed, and you have cut away all the beard material from the outside.  Allow about 1 liter of mussels per person. Heat the butter, water, leeks, and celery over high heat in a large pot until the water is boiling. Add the mussels, cover the pot tightly, and let the mussels steam for 5 minutes or so.  Check and see if they have opened.  When all are opened (discard any that do not open within the time allowed), serve immediately in the pot you have cooked them in with the juices from cooking. Serve the fried potatoes separately.

Belgians generally deep fry their potatoes twice at high temperature so that they are cooked and moist on the inside and crisp on the outside. In Belgium, bintje potatoes are the most commonly available variety and are generally preferred for fries because of their high starch content. They are partly fried, left to cool, and then fried again. They are typically fried at around 190°C/374°F.

One common way to eat mosselen-friet is with your fingers. Start by picking one mussel out of its shell and eating it. Then use the shell as a pair of pincers to pick other mussels out of their shells, and also to pick up fries one by one and dip them in the mussel sauce before eating. Provide a large bowl for discarded shells, and also plenty of napkins.

May 032016
 

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Today is the birthday (1446) of Margaret of York  – also by marriage known as Margaret of Burgundy – the duchess of Burgundy as the third wife of Charles the Bold, and protector of the duchy after his death. She was a daughter of Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York, and the sister of two kings of England, Edward IV and Richard III. She was born at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire in England, and she died at Mechelen in Flanders, an important center for the duchy of Burgundy in the 15th century. What follows is my usual dribble about historical events and machinations centered on Margaret. But I can sum it up in a simple generalization, and you can skip to my recipe for white asparagus if you are not interested in the details. Nations such as England, France, Belgium, and Holland were not created by God soon after he separated sea and dry land on the third day of creation; they are artifacts of history emerging from an incredibly complex series of events occurring over hundreds of years. In the 15th century circumstances were remarkably fluid, with kingdoms and duchies vying for territory, money, and power. Sometimes women were simply pawns in the game, being used simply as marriage partners to cement ties between power blocs.  Margaret refused to be a pawn; she wanted to be an active agent for change and to be actively involved in contemporary  power relationships.

Duchess Isabella of Burgundy, the mother of Charles the Bold, was, through her blood-ties and her perception of Burgundian interests, pro-English. As a granddaughter of John of Gaunt, she was consequently sympathetic to the House of Lancaster. She believed that Burgundian trade, from which the duchy drew its vast wealth, depended upon friendly relations with England. For this reason she was prepared to favor any English faction which was willing to favor Burgundy. By 1454, she favored the House of York, headed by Margaret’s father, Richard, 3rd Duke of York. Although the King of England, Henry VI, was the head of the House of Lancaster, his wife, Margaret of Anjou, was a niece of Burgundy’s bitter enemy, Charles VII of France, and was herself an enemy of the Burgundians. The Duke of York, by contrast, shared Burgundy’s enmity towards the French, and preferred the Burgundians. Thus, when the Duke of York came to power in 1453–54, during Henry VI’s first period of insanity, negotiations were made between himself and Isabella for a marriage between Charles the Bold, then Count of Charolais, and one of York’s unmarried daughters, of whom the 8-year old Margaret was the youngest. The negotiations petered out, however, due to power struggles in England, and the preference of Charles’s father, Philip the Good, for a French alliance. Philip had Charles betrothed to Isabella of Bourbon, the daughter of Charles I, Duke of Bourbon, and Agnes of Burgundy, in late March 1454, and the pair were married on 31 October 1454.

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Margaret, being a useful bargaining tool to her family, was still unmarried at age 19, when Isabella of Bourbon died in September 1465. She had borne Charles a daughter, Mary, which made it an imperative for him to remarry and father a son. The situation had changed since 1454. Charles was now highly respected by his father, who had in his old age entrusted the rule of Burgundy to his son. Charles was pro-English, and wished to make an English marriage and alliance against the French. For her own part, Margaret’s family was far more powerful and secure than it had been in 1454: her father had been killed at the Battle of Wakefield on 30 December 1460, but her brother was now Edward IV, opposed ineffectively only by Margaret of Anjou and her son, Edward of Westminster. This made Margaret a far more valuable bride than she had been as the mere daughter of a duke. Because of this, Charles sent his close advisor, Guillaume de Clugny, to London weeks after the death of his wife, to propose to Edward IV a marriage between Charles and Margaret. Edward responded warmly, and in the Spring of 1466 sent his brother-in-law, Lord Scales, to Burgundy, where Scales made a formal offer of Margaret’s hand in marriage to Charles, and put forward Edward’s own proposal of a reciprocal marriage between Charles’s daughter Mary and Edward’s brother, George, 1st Duke of Clarence.

The marriage did not take place immediately, however. Continued talks were required, particularly since Charles was unwilling to marry his only child and potential heiress to Clarence, and these talks were undertaken by Anthony, Grand Bastard of Burgundy, Charles’ half-brother. But added problems were introduced by the French: Louis XI did not want an alliance between Burgundy and England, his two greatest enemies. Louis accordingly tried to break the two apart, by offering the hand of his elder daughter, Anne, to Charles, that of his younger daughter, Joan, to Edward’s youngest brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and that of his brother-in-law, Philip of Bresse, to Margaret. Edward showed interest in the latter two propositions, offending Charles the Bold, and delaying Anglo-Burgundian relations.

Instead, in 1466, Margaret was betrothed to Peter, Constable of Portugal, whom the rebellious Catalans had invited to become their king. Peter was himself a nephew of Duchess Isabella of Burgundy, and the betrothal thus signified an attempt to placate Burgundy. It was not to be, however. Worn out by illness, disappointments, and overwork, Peter died on 29 June 1466, leaving Margaret available once more.

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By 1467, the situation had changed again. Philip the Good had died, and Charles the Bold had become Duke of Burgundy. Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, had turned against Edward IV, and was plotting against him with French support. Edward in such circumstances needed the support of Charles, and provided no further obstacles to the marriage negotiations, formally agreeing to it in October 1467. Negotiations between the duke’s mother, Isabella, and the king of England’s in-laws, Lord Scales and Earl Rivers, then proceeded between December 1467 and June 1468. During this time, Louis XI did all he could to prevent the marriage, demanding that the Pope refuse to give a dispensation for the marriage (the pair were cousins in the fourth degree which was incestuous under contemporary church law), promising trade favors to the English, undermining Edward’s credit with the international bankers to prevent him being able to pay for Margaret’s dowry, encouraging a Lancastrian invasion of Wales, and slandering Margaret, claiming that she was not a virgin and had borne a bastard son. He was ignored, however, a dispensation was secured after Burgundian bribes secured papal acquiescence, and a complex agreement was drawn up between England and Burgundy, covering mutual defense, trade, currency exchange, fishing rights and freedom of travel, all based on the marriage between the duke and Margaret. By the terms of the marriage contract, Margaret retained her rights to the English throne, and her dowry was promised to Burgundy even if she died within the first year (often, the dowry would return to the bride’s family under such circumstances). For his own part, Charles dowered Margaret with the cities of Mechelen, Oudenaarde, and Dendermonde.

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The marriage contract was completed in February 1468, and signed by Edward IV in March. The Papal dispensation arrived in late May, and preparations to send Margaret to Burgundy began. There was little enthusiasm for it outside Burgundy; the French naturally detested this union between their two enemies, whilst the English merchants, who still suffered from restrictions on the sale of their cloth in England, showed their disapproval by attacking Dutch and Flemish merchants amongst them.

Margaret left Margate for Sluys on 23rd June 1468. Lord Scales and Richard Boyville were among those who escorted her to meet her future bridegroom. Despite Louis XI having ordered his ships to seize her on her journey, her convoy crossed without incident, reaching Sluys on the evening of the 25th. The following day, she met with her bridegroom’s mother, Isabella, and daughter, Mary. The meeting was a great success, and the three of them remained close friends for the rest of their lives. On 27 June, she met Charles for the first time, and the pair were privately married between 5am and 6am on 3 July, in the house of a wealthy merchant of Damme. Charles then left for Bruges, allowing the new duchess the honor of entering separately a few hours later.

The celebrations that followed were extravagant even by the standards of the Burgundians, who were already noted for their opulence and generous festivities. The bride made her Joyous Entry in a golden litter drawn by white horses, wearing a coronet. During this procession, she charmed the burghers of Bruges when she chose to wave to them rather than shut herself away from the wind and rain. In the city itself, wine spurted freely from sculpted archers and artificial pelicans in artificial trees; the canals were decorated with torches, and the bridges decked with flowers; the arms of the happy couple were displayed everywhere, accompanied by the mottoes of the pair: Charles’ Je l’ay emprins (“I have undertaken it”) and Margaret’s Bien en aviengne (“May good come of it”). The celebrations also included the “Tournament of the Golden Tree” that was arranged around an elaborately detailed allegory, designed to honor the bride.

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When the duke and duchess appeared there, both wore magnificent crowns: Margaret’s crown (made in about 1461) was adorned with pearls, and with enameled white roses for the House of York set between red, green and white enameled letters of her name, with gold Cs and Ms, entwined with lovers’ knots (it can still be seen in the treasury at Aachen Cathedral). The removal of the crown to Aachen was significant, since it allowed its survival from the ravages of the later English Civil War which involved the destruction of all the main English Crown Jewels. It thus remains the only medieval royal British crown still surviving.

Charles wore an equally splendid crown, accompanied by a golden gown encrusted with diamonds, pearls and great jewels. The parades, the streets lined with tapestry hung from houses, the feasting, the masques and allegorical entertainments, the jewels, impressed all observers as “the marriage of the century”. It is reenacted at Bruges for tourists every five years with the next event in 2017, the last one having taken place in August 2012.

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Although the marriage produced no children, Margaret proved a valuable asset to Burgundy. Immediately after her wedding, she journeyed with her stepdaughter Mary through Flanders, Brabant and Hainaut, visiting the great towns: Ursel, Ghent, Dendermonde, Asse, Brussels, Oudenaarde and Kortrijk were all impressed by her political shrewdness and capability. Less valuable, perhaps, were the family connections she brought. In 1469, her brother, Edward IV, attempted to present Charles the Bold with the Order of the Garter, an honor which would have made Charles guilty of treason against Louis XI had he accepted it. The dowager duchess, Isabella, warned her son to refuse the offer, which he did, in order not to give Louis XI an excuse for further machinations against Burgundy. In the same year, Edward IV and his brother the Duke of Gloucester were forced to flee England, when their brother the Duke of Clarence, and his father-in-law the Earl of Warwick, rebelled and drove the king into exile. Charles was forced to intercede on the part of his brother-in-law, ordering the London merchants to swear loyalty to Edward under threat of losing their trading rights in Burgundy, a threat that proved successful. But the next year, Margaret was left despairing when Clarence and Warwick supported a French-backed Lancastrian invasion of England: although she, together with her mother Cecily, Dowager Duchess of York, attempted to reconcile Clarence and Edward IV, the rebellion continued, and on 2nd October 1470 the Lancastrians were returned to power and Edward had to Margaret and Charles in Burgundy.

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Her brother’s overthrow lessened Margaret’s dynastic worth; this, together with regard for her brother, made her plead for her husband to support Edward and make measures to restore him. Nonetheless, Charles paid little attention to her and decided to support Edward only when it was in his best interests to oppose the Lancastrian rule of England, backed as it was by a France which had in early December 1470 been encouraged by the English situation to declare war on Burgundy. Even so, by 4th January 1471, Charles had agreed to support the King-in-exile in regaining the English throne, and this renewal of friendship between the two men was followed by Edward visiting Margaret at Hesdin until 13th January, the first time the pair had seen one another since Margaret’s departure from England.

By April, Edward was back in England: Margaret followed events carefully, requesting meticulous details of events in England, and was pleased to note the reconciliation between Clarence and Edward. She also provided her mother-in-law, Isabel, with information on the progress of Edward’s campaign to regain the throne. It was she, for example, who replied to Isabel’s questions over alleged disrespectful treatment of the Earl of Warwick, by explaining that Edward had “heard that nobody in the city believed that Warwick and his brother were dead, so he [Edward] had their bodies brought to St Paul’s where they were laid out and uncovered from the chest upwards in the sight of everybody.” Edward IV was successfully restored; Edward of Westminster, the son and heir of Henry VI, had died in battle, and Henry VI, who had been briefly restored, died in his cell in the Tower of London two weeks later. The two deaths brought to an end the direct line of the House of Lancaster.

By this time, Isabella’s health was beginning to fail; in June 1471, she drew up her will, in which she bequeathed her favorite residence of La-Motte-au-Bois to Margaret. Yet, at the same time, Isabella and Charles struck against Margaret’s family: with Henry VI and his son dead, Isabella was one of the most senior members of the House of Lancaster, and had a good claim to the English throne. She legally transferred this claim to Charles in July, which would allow Charles later that year to officially claim the English throne, in spite of the fact that his brother-in-law, Edward IV was king. Eventually he dropped the claim.

By 1477, Margaret’s position as duchess of Burgundy was no longer as brilliant as it had been. After Isabella’s death in 1471, Charles had become increasingly tyrannical and grandiose, dreaming of assembling a kingdom of Lotharingia from the North Sea to the Mediterranean. To accomplish this, he warred continuously with his neighbors, who responded by allying against him. Meanwhile, Louis XI had proved masterful at destabilizing the duchy: Edward IV had been detached from his alliance, Charles’ reputation and banking credit had been undermined by Louis, and Burgundian trade was choked by French embargoes. By 1476, the duke was regarded as a tyrant by his people, who were suffering from the French refusal to export their wine and bread to Burgundy, and who dreaded his terrible reprisals against rebels being unleashed on them. In 1476, he arranged for his daughter and heiress, Mary, to be betrothed to Maximilian of Habsburg. On 5th January 1477, he died in battle outside Nancy, in Lorraine.

It was in the wake of her husband’s death that Margaret proved invaluable to Burgundy. She had always been regarded as a skilful and intelligent politician; now, she went beyond even that. She gave guidance and help to her stepdaughter, Mary, now Duchess of Burgundy, using her own experiences in the court of Edward IV, where she had largely avoided being used as a pawn and contributed to the arrangement of her own marriage. She guided Mary in choosing a suitable marriage partner in the face of marriage offers that flooded the two duchesses in Ghent (especially from the recently widowed duke of Clarence, from the 7-year old Dauphin of France, Charles, and from a brother of Edward IV’s wife, Elizabeth Woodville). She stood firm, and advised Mary to marry Maximilian of Habsburg, the 18-year-old son of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III, to whom Charles the Bold had betrothed Mary, and who was ambitious and active enough, in Margaret’s opinion, to defend Mary’s legacy. She strongly advised Mary to accept Maximilian’s suit, and marry him immediately. He arrived in Burgundy on 5th August 1477, and by 17th August had arrived at Ten Waele Castle, in Ghent. He met Mary there – they were both “pale as death”, but found each other to their mutual liking – and Margaret took part in the traditional courtly games of love, telling Maximilian before the assembled nobility that his bride “had about her a carnation it behoved him to discover.” The carnation duly proved to be in the duchess’s bodice, from which Maximilian carefully removed it. The pair were married the next day, on 18th August.

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Burgundy was far from safe: the duchy of Burgundy itself had already been conquered by the French, who were continuing to attack from all sides, taking advantage of the state’s instability. Margaret now moved to secure military support from her brother, Edward IV. He sent enough support to allow Mary and Maximilian to resist the French advances any further, although the Duchy itself remained lost. Louis XI, recognizing the danger Margaret posed to him, attempted to buy her off with a French pension and a promise of personally protecting her. She contemptuously refused, and instead sailed in summer 1480 to London, where she was again attended by Richard Boyville and negotiated a resumption of the Anglo-Burgundian alliance, and renewed trade. When, on 22 July 1478, Mary gave birth to a son and heir, Philip, Louis XI had rumors spread that the child was in fact a girl. Margaret, who was standing godmother to the child, matter-of-factly disproved the rumor: as the christening party left the church of St Donat, she conclusively proved that the child was an undoubted male, by undressing him and presenting him to the assembled crowd. In 1480, the next child of Mary and Maximilian was a girl: the duke and duchess named her Margaret, after the dowager duchess.

Margaret was however dealt a devastating blow in 1482: her stepdaughter, Mary, fell from her horse whilst hunting, and broke her back. The injuries were fatal, and Mary died on 27 March. From a personal standpoint, this was a harsh blow to Margaret because politically, Mary’s death weakened the Burgundian state further. The Burgundians were now sick of war, and unwilling to accept the rule of Maximilian as regent for his son, the 4-year old duke Philip, or even as guardian of the children. They forced his hand: on 23 December 1482, the Three Estates of the Lowlands signed the Treaty of Arras with Louis XI, granting him the Burgundian Lowlands, Picardy, and the county of Boulogne. Margaret was unable to secure assistance from Edward IV, who had made a truce with France. Consequently, she and Maximilian were forced to accept the fait accompli. Maximilian brokered a personal peace with Louis by arranging for his daughter, Margaret, to be betrothed to the young Dauphin of France. She was sent to be raised at the French court, taking with her the Free County of Burgundy and the County of Artois as a dowry.

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This was not the end of the problems for Margaret and Maximilian: the Netherlanders still disliked his rule of the territory. In 1488, he was taken prisoner in Bruges by the citizens, and was freed only upon making far-reaching concessions. The next year, he was summoned back to Austria by his father, the Emperor. Burgundy was left to be governed by Margaret together with the Burgundian Estates, both of whom also undertook the guardianship of the young Duke Philip, although Maximilian continued to take a distant interest in the country, and a greater interest in his children.

By this time, Margaret had already suffered more personal tragedies. Her brother, the Duke of Clarence, had been executed by Edward IV in 1478. Edward himself had died of illness in 1483 and finally, her younger brother Richard, who took the throne as Richard III was, in 1485, killed at the Battle of Bosworth by the leader of the House of Lancaster, Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, a cousin and nephew of Henry VI, who went on to become Henry VII, and to marry the daughter of Edward IV, Elizabeth of York. With the death of Richard, the House of York ceased to rule in England. Margaret consequently was a staunch supporter of anyone willing to challenge Tudor, and backed both Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck, even going so far as to acknowledge Warbeck as her nephew, the younger son of Edward IV, the Duke of York. Warbeck was probably an imposter, and was imprisoned in the Tower of London and subsequently executed by Henry VII. Henry undoubtedly found Margaret problematic, but there was little he could do, since she was protected by her stepson-in-law Maximilian. She died on 23rd November 1503, at the age of 57, shortly after the return of her step-grandson, Philip the Handsome, to Burgundy.

So much for royal politics in Europe in the 15th century. It’s all very complicated, but amounts, simply, to the fact that in England and on the continent, no one could ever agree as to what territory belonged to whom, and the nobility, all related to one another by blood, marriage, or both, seemed endlessly willing to fight it out. Margaret of York stands out in all of this as a strong and powerful woman always willing to look out for her own wellbeing.

Margaret died in Mechelen which is now in Flanders in Belgium, then part of the duchy of Burgundy.  For centuries it was the center of market gardening, and then as now produced white asparagus, for which it was famous. Here is a well-known recipe for Flemish white asparagus.

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Asperges op Vlaamse wijze

Ingredients

24 white asparagus stalks
4 eggs (2 hard-boiled and 2 poached or soft-boiled)
fresh, finely chopped parsley
150g clarified butter
freshly grated nutmeg
salt and pepper

Instructions

Peel the asparagus stalks from the base of the tips to the end of the stalks using a vegetable peeler. Bundle them together with butcher’s twine and stand them upright in lightly boiling water with the spears out of the water. Let them cook for about 10 minutes (the tips are tender and will cook in the steam).

Meanwhile, gently heat the clarified butter in a small saucepan. Mash the hard-boiled eggs (do not purée) with a potato masher, as you would for egg salad. Place the mashed eggs in the clarified butter with a handful of fresh parsley leaves finely chopped. Do not use the parsley stalks. Season to taste with salt and finely ground black pepper.

Place the asparagus on a heated serving plate. Spoon the butter, parsley, egg mix over the asparagus and break the soft-cooked eggs over the lot so that the runny yolk mixes with the parsley sauce.  Finish off with a scattering of freshly ground nutmeg.

Serves 4 to 6