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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Asperges op Vlaamse wijze
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
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