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Category: Unlucky Princesses

  1. Unlucky Princesses: Isabella of England

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    Some princesses, even unlucky ones, could at least wield some kind of political power. They ruled the domestic side of a court, had a certain degree of patronage of artists and writers, or gained reputations for piousness and charity. But sometimes even a princess can become a virtual cipher to history.

    Isabella of EnglandIsabella of England was the fourth child of King John and his wife Isabella of Angouleme. Born some time in 1214, probably in the city of Gloucester, Isabella grew up with her siblings rather than her parents. Her father John died in 1216. Queen Isabella saw her eldest son Henry crowned King of England, but less than a year later she returned to France to claim Angouleme in her own right. With her went her eldest daugher, Princess Joan, who was to be raised in the home of her betrothed, Hugh Lusignan. In 1220 Queen Isabella usurped this arrangement and married Hugh herself, and then refused to send Joan back to England until she received guarantees about her dower.

    Very little is known about the early life of Isabella, or her younger sister Eleanor. They certainly didn't join their mother in France. Although Henry was King he was too young to rule on his own, so the regency who ruled in his name no doubt arranged appropriate care for Isabella and Eleanor too. At some point, once she was older, Isabella probably took up a place at her brother's court. Henry didn't marry until 1236, and Joan may have been in Scotland as early as 1221, leaving Isabella to be the first lady of the English court.

    In 1235 Isabella was betrothed to the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. Aged around 21 at the time, Isabella was marrying a bit late by royal standards. Her sister Eleanor had married young, to the son of William Marshall (also called William). Her older sister, Joan, had been married to the King of Scotland following the collapse of her betrothal to Hugh Lusignan. Had Joan refused to go north, or had she died in childbirth early on, it might have been Isabella who was sent to replace her. However Henry himself was still unmarried, and several potential betrothals had been scuppered by the French. It's possible that Henry's attention was on his own marital plans, leaving Isabella sidelined until someone stepped forward with an offer to marry her.

    Reportedly Isabella's marriage came about after a suggestion from the Pope to Emperor Frederick himself. Frederick had been married twice already and wasn't going to take a third wife without some financial benefit. Henry had to find thirty thousand marks as a dowry for his sister, and the resulting tax lead to loud complaints in England. Nonetheless Isabella was suitably catered for, and took a trousseau and a bevy of servants to the continent when she left England that summer. She proved to be popular as she travelled across Europe, even removing her veil so the women of Cologne could see her face. She finally met Frederick in July 1235 and married him at Worms Cathedral that same month. She was crowned on the same day, becoming Holy Roman Empress.

    Sadly though the marriage was a farce. Frederick promptly sent all his wife's English servants, bar two women, back to England. Isabella was rarely seen in public, instead she was placed in Frederick's “harem”. Her primary residence was at Noventa Padovana near Padua in northern Italy, where her husband periodically visited her. Very little was heard of her from that point on. She's believed to have had four children in five years, of which only two survived.

    In 1240 Isabella received a special visit from her brother Richard, Earl of Cornwall. Richard had been on crusade and was now returning to England via a “grand tour” of Italy. However even this visit couldn't release Isabella from her confinement. Frederick threw a lavish reception for Richard, but refused to let Isabella attend. Her meeting with Richard was a private affair, and if he heard any complaints from her he doesn't appear to be publicised them. He was the last family member that Isabella would see. On 1 December 1241 she died at Foggia shortly after giving birth to her last child, believed to be her daughter Margaret. She was, at most, just 27 years old. Frederick buried her at Andria Cathedral next to his second wife, another Isabella. As Empress she might have expected some key public role, and a court to run like her sister-in-law Eleanor of Provence. Instead her life and death were virtually anonymous, and mentioned only in reference to the men in her life.

    Last month's Unlucky Princess was Madeleine of Valois.


  2. Unlucky Princesses: Madeleine of Valois

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    Like many princesses, Madeleine of Valois wanted to be a Queen. Sadly the man that fell for her was the King of a country whose climate wasn't ideal for a young woman in poor health.

    Born in August 1520, Madeleine was the fifth child and third daughter of King Francis I of France and his wife, Claude. By the time of her birth her eldest sister Louise was already dead, but the nursery still had Charlotte, Francis, and Henry. Madeleine herself was followed by Charles in 1522, and Marguerite in 1523.

    Madeleine of Valois in a black dress with white fur draped over her arms.In 1524, just over a year after Marguerite's birth, Claude died at the Château de Blois. Madeleine's sister Princess Charlotte died two months later. The Royal nursery, which was under the care of Madame du Brissac, now fractured. Madeleine and Marguerite were sent to live with their paternal aunt, another Marguerite de Valois, the Duchess of Alencon. A year later Madeleine's father King Francis was captured at the Battle of Pavia, and Young Francis and Henry were sent to Spain as hostages in his place.

    Through the political upheaval Madeleine continued to reside with her aunt, even when Marguerite married the King of Navarre. Marguerite was highly educated, and like her mother Louise of Savoy had gained a reputation as a mediator and diplomat. She was an ideal role model for a Royal princess; clever, witty, generous to the poor, and a patron of artists and writers. She wrote and published poems and plays, and kept up a prolific written correspondence. Although little is known specifically about Madeleine's own education, her aunt would have neglected her duty if she didn't ensure that her two nieces were well educated.

    In 1530 Madeleine moved again. Francis had married for a second time. His new bride was effectively foisted on him as part of the treaty negotiated with Emperor Charles. The new Queen of France was Charles' sister, Eleanor of Austria. A former Queen of Portugal by her first marriage, Eleanor was the niece of Catherine of Aragon. Although Francis married her and had her crowned at Saint-Denis, he was a reluctant groom and preferred the company of his mistress. Although her marriage was unhappy Eleanor was determined to make the most of her new life. She gathered her Royal step-children around her, including the two surviving princesses.

    At some point in her childhood Madeleine appears to have contracted tuberculosis. Her health was fragile, she wasn't strong enough to ride or hunt, and had to be transported in a carriage when the household was on the move. So when King James V of Scotland stated that he wanted to marry her, his proposal was shot down by Francis.

    The problem was that France and Scotland had signed the Treaty of Rouen, one of the terms of which was that a French Princess would be given as a bride to the Scottish king. Francis feared an early death for his daughter if he married her off, she was hardly likely to survive childbirth. Instead he negotiated for James to marry Mary de Bourbon, daughter of the Duke of Vendome. Although James initially agreed, even signing a marriage contract, he still wanted a Princess. He decided to pay a visit to France to view Mary, arriving at Dieppe in September 1536. Ultimately he decided that Mary wasn't the one for him. He'd been promised a Princess, and even the promise of a dowry worthy of one of the Royal blood wasn't enough.

    James had chosen his time badly. Shortly before his arrival the Dauphin Francis had died. The court was officially in mourning, but King Francis invited the Scottish king to meet with him at Lyons. When they met James reminded Francis that the Treaty of Rouen had stipulated a French Princess for a bride. Francis was now caught in an unenviable position; help James break the marriage contract with Mary, and agree to a new bride. Furthermore King Henry VIII, who was James' uncle, had sent word to Francis that he personally objected to any marriage between the two countries.

    Francis managed to juggle his competing issues. Mary was proposed as a bride for the Lorraine family. Henry VIII was facing problems at home so could be safely ignored. The Pope was contacted and agreed to a marriage between Scotland and France. All James needed to do now was pick which of the two French princesses he wished to marry. Francis may have been hoping he would pick Marguerite, who had none of the health problems that plagued her eldest sister.

    But James chose Madeleine. It may even have been a love match, when she was well Madeleine was reportedly charming and lively. She actively wanted to be a Queen, after all she was daughter of the Queen of France, step-daughter to the Queen of Portugal and had been raised by the Queen of Navarre. Her family however were deeply upset. Scotland was considered to be a harsh country. The people were uncivilised, and the climate was too cold and wet for someone with her health problems. She had grown up in the comfort and luxury of the French court, the Scottish one would never be able to match up.

    But Madeleine insisted, and so did James. The marriage contract was signed in November 1536. Madeleine was granted a large dowry, and James agreed she would be given a variety of properties as her dower. On 1 January 1537 the pair were married at Notre Dame cathedral, with King Francis escorting his daughter to the cathedral. The marriage was celebrated with a banquet, followed by several weeks of parties. Francis bestowed a collection of expensive gifts to his daughter and her new husband, from tapestries to beds, and silver plate to carpets.

    As the winter weather improved the Royal family began to move towards the coast for James and Madeleine's departure for Scotland. Madeleine fell ill with a bad fever on the way, and took a long time to recover. They finally reached the coast in May, embarking for Scotland several days later. Their journey was difficult, with bad storms delaying the start of the journey. The ships finally arrived at Leith on 19 May 1537.

    Sadly though Madeleine still hadn't recovered her health from her earlier fever. James wrote to Francis asking him to send over another doctor. She was moved to Fife, where the air was considered to be healthy, but insisted on returning to Edinburgh to be near her husband. She might even have convinced herself that she was on the mend. A letter to her father dated 8 June stated that she was feeling much better.

    Preparations were being made for her coronation. She was writing to Francis asking for some pearls and robes he had promised her, she may have wanted them for her official entry in to Edinburgh. But the return to better health was only brief. She fell ill again and died in James' arms on 7 July, having never had her coronation. She was nicknamed “The Summer Queen” on account of her brief reign as James' wife. Despite his love for his wife James still needed an heir. A year later he was walking down the aisle with another French woman, Mary of Guise. James' own early death meant that Mary had to step up to an unexpected political role, protecting the throne for their daughter Mary. As a result, and due to the shortness of their marriage, Madeleine tends to be forgotten as James' first Queen.

    Last month's Unlucky Princess was Margaret of Norway.


  3. Unlucky Princesses: Margaret, Maid of Norway

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    In 1543 King Henry VIII signed the Treaty of Greenwich, which included the betrothal of the future King Edward VI of England to his cousin, Mary the future Queen of Scots. Such a marriage could potentially have united the two crowns through the birth of one son and heir. Ultimately it failed as Edward died and Mary married the French Dauphin. But it wasn’t the first time such a marriage had been mooted, and it had also ended with an early death.

    The life of Margaret "the Maid of Norway" was brief and sad. Born in 1283, she was the only child of King Eric II of Norway and his wife Margaret of Scotland, whose father was King Alexander III of Scotland. When Margaret of Scotland married in 1281 the possibility that the Scottish throne might fall to her was being considered – she only had one younger brother still living. King Alexander was aware of the problems this could cause and set out several documents detailing who should inherit and when. 

    Margaret’s birth in 1283 was a mixture of joy and sadness for Alexander. It gave him another new heir but was followed by the death of her mother soon after she was born. Alexander was now reduced to a son and a baby granddaughter. He remarried in November 1285 to Yolande of Dreux. But King Alexander died in five months later in March 1286 after a riding accident. Out riding at night he appears to have missed the edge of a steep embankment. His body was found the next morning with a broken neck. Scotland held it’s breath as Queen Yolande was reportedly pregnant. The chronicles don’t mention what happened to her baby, leaving historians to presume she miscarried. When it became clear that Alexander’s only direct biological heir was three-year-old Margaret, the Bruce family rebelled. 

    Alexander had seen the problems that his death could cause, and had appointed a group of Guardians to rule until Margaret came of age. After the Bruce rebellion fizzled out the Guardians were reluctant to move to punish them. They seem to have been equally as reluctant to summon their toddler Queen. In the end King Eric appealed to King Edward I of England. 

    Edward I proposed the union of the two countries. His eldest son and heir, Edward of Carnarvon, would marry Margaret. Together they would be King and Queen of England and Scotland, and their future son would inherit both thrones. Having spent most of his reign battering the Welsh, the thought of adding the Scottish crown to the Plantagenet domains was just too tempting for the King. Especially since both Prince Edward and Princess Margaret were still children and therefore a long regency would be needed.

    Margaret of course was being raised in the Norwegian court by her father. Eric wouldn’t remarry until ten years after his wife’s death. Actual records about Margaret’s life are scarce, but she would have been cared for in a nursery, albeit without the company of siblings.

    In late August 1290 she was finally dispatched from Norway, bound for the island of Orkney. But on the journey over the North Sea the young princess fell ill. Her escort reached Orkney and disembarked for more comfortable quarters (and hopefully better care) but it was in vain. Margaret died on 26 September aged just 7 years old. She never saw Scotland or met her intended bridegroom. Her death plunged Scotland in to a constitutional crisis as two separate branches of the extended Royal family fought over the throne. Her body was taken back to Norway where her grieving father had her buried next to her mother in Christ Church cathedral, Bergen. Her grave, and that of her mother, was lost when the church was destroyed in 1531.

    Last month's Unlucky Princess was Ingeborg of Denmark.

  4. Unlucky Princesses: Ingeborg of Denmark

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    A Danish princess by birth and a Queen of France by marriage, Ingeborg of Denmark tends to be forgotten about. The great Royal marriage battle between King and Queen that most people remember, is the one between King Henry VIII of England and his first wife Catherine of Aragon. But Ingeborg's own battle was not only far more protracted, it was ultimately successful.

    Ingeborg was born some time around 1174 although the exact date and place of her birth is unrecorded. Her father was King Valdemar “The Great” of Denmark, while her mother was Sofia of Minsk. Valdemar died in 1182 leaving Ingeborg's eldest brother Canute as King Canute VI.

    In 1190 the Queen of France, Isabelle of Hainault, died leaving King Philip II a widower. It's unknown whether Philip made the original enquiries about Ingeborg, or whether Canute suggested his sister as a possible bride, but by 1193 a treaty had been negotiated and the marriage agreed. King Philip had requested support from the Danish fleet and the rights of the Danish royal family to the English throne. Canute instead gave ten thousand silver marks, a hefty dowry but not quite what Philip had wanted.

    Ingeborg of DenmarkThe marriage ceremony took place on 15 August 1193 with the coronation held the next day. But the festivities did not end happily. Philip reportedly started to feel ill on seeing his new wife at the coronation, and soon after the ceremony was complete he tried to persuade the Danes to take her back with them to the Danish court. He claimed that he hadn't consummated the marriage and wanted an annulment. Ingeborg, alone in a foreign country bar the Danes who had accompanied her, fled in to sanctuary in a convent at Soissons. From there she appealed to Pope Celestine III for help convincing Philip that she was his lawful wife.

    Philip's response was to have a fraudulent genealogical map drawn up that showed that he and Ingeborg were too closely related for the marriage to be allowed. An ecclesiastical council, based in France and thus under Philip's control, agreed and declared the marriage void. The Pope refused to believe it, especially after the Danes presented their own family tree disproving the French version. Philip then claimed that the marriage hadn't been consummated as he had been made impotent through witchcraft on the wedding night. Ingeborg insisted that this wasn't true either.

    Three years after Ingeborg had fled in to sanctuary Philip remarried to Agnes of Merania. They had two children, Marie and Philip, but successive Popes refused to validate the marriage or recognise the children as legitimate. Philip was repeatedly told to repudiate Agnes and return to Ingeborg, but he refused and spent years trying to prove that his second marriage wasn't valid. Ingeborg spent just as much time begging for help and support. Although she had gone to the convent “willingly” she was still at the mercy of Philip. She claimed she was refused proper spiritual guidance, she was not allowed to confess and rarely heard Mass. This was considered to be excessively cruel treatment of a pious woman, and did nothing to help Philip's reputation.

    There is still some debate by historians over the real reason for Philip's sudden change of heart over the marriage. Chroniclers at the time claimed he had been struck down by an illness, others sought to place the blame on Ingeborg. She was accused of having bad breath, something wrong with her body, or not being a virgin (the first two excuses were also used by people to excuse Henry VIII's dislike of Anne of Cleves). Alternatively it could be that Philip realised the Danes were unlikely to be particularly useful allies. At best he'd probably bought their neutrality, what he wanted was active support and the use of their navy. Historian George Conklin has also suggested that Ingeborg showed very early on that she was an independent, intelligent woman, who was unlikely to be a silent partner in their marriage.

    Whatever his reasons for trying to divorce Ingeborg, in 1213 Philip suddenly agreed that he and Ingeborg had been lawfully married after all. Agnes of Merania had died in 1201, reportedly of a broken heart after Philip dismissed her in an attempt to get the Pope on side. But Ingeborg was wife and Queen of France in name only. Philip continued to live apart from her and she does not appear to have created any kind of court environment of her own. Philip's death in 1223 finally freed Ingeborg. On his death bed Philip reportedly asked his son Louis to treat Ingeborg well, possibly through guilt that he had failed to do so. She spent the last years of her life living quietly in a convent that she had founded near Corbeil, granting generous support to various religious houses and groups such as the Cistercians. She died some time after 1237 and was buried at St John's church in Corbeil. Sadly the brass that covered her tomb was destroyed during the French Revolution, leaving only a drawing of how it looked.

    Last month's Unlucky Princess was Margaret of Austria.

  5. Unlucky Princesses: Margaret of Austria

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    Although her early life can classify her as an “Unlucky Princess”, in many ways Margaret of Austria’s life was better than other such royal women. Betrothed and married several times, she was not only eventually allowed to manage her own destiny, but she became ruler of the Netherlands as Regent for her nephew. Through this she joined the ranks of other strong women who managed the region on behalf of their menfolk.

    Born in 1480 Margaret was the daughter of Mary of Burgundy and Maximilian of Austria. Mary was the heiress to the wealthy Duchy of Burgundy while Maximilian was next in line to rule the Holy Roman Empire. Sadly Margaret’s mother died in a hunting accident when she was just two years old, leaving the little girl and her older brother Philip in the care of their father and their step-grandmother, Margaret of York (sister of King Edward IV of England).

    Months after Margaret lost her mother her life was upended again as Maximilian completed a treaty that sealed her future. France and Burgundy had been at war for years and Maximilian moved to find peace with the French. The Treaty of Arras was signed in December 1482 and included the clause that Margaret would be married to the French Dauphin, Charles. Margaret was promptly sent off to France to grow up in the French court. Her education was supervised by the Regent, Anne of France, and she grew up with a selection of other French noble children.

    But the French marriage, and the position of Queen of France, never went to Margaret. In 1491 Charles renounced the treaty and called off the betrothal so he could marry Anne, Duchess of Brittany. Anne herself was betrothed to Margaret’s father Maximilian, who failed to show up with an army to defend his would-be wife. Anne was forced to agree to marry Charles, and Margaret was left hanging at the French court. She was finally returned to Burgundy in 1493 where she resided with her step-grandmother and namesake.

    Margaret of Austria in a black dress with a white headdressMaximilian was quick to arrange a new marriage for his only daughter. Their Most Catholic Majesties, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, had one son and four daughters. Their eldest, Infanta Isabella, was due to marry the Portuguese heir. Maximilian picked their second daughter Juana to marry his son Philip, and in return Margaret was sent to marry Prince Juan, swapping the position of Queen of France for future Queen of Spain. At the end of 1496 Margaret left Burgundy once more, this time for Spain. She and Juan were married on 3 April 1497. The pair reportedly fell in love, Juan was entranced by his beautiful, witty bride. But six months later he was dead, probably from tuberculosis, leaving Margaret in the early stages of her first pregnancy. A baby girl was stillborn in April 1498.

    Margaret remained at the Spanish court for over a year, finally leaving Spain in September 1499. By March 1500 she was taking part in Burgundian court life, Philip and Juana invited her to be the godmother of their son and heir Charles. Once again Maximilian arranged for her to marry, this time to Philibert the Duke of Savoy. They married in 1501 but Philibert died three years later after contracting pleurisy, he and Margaret had never had children. After three betrothals and two marriages to men who had died young she decided she was done. She vowed to never marry again and spent the rest of her life as a widow. At one point Maximilian and Philip suggested her as a potential bride for King Henry VII of England, after his wife Elizabeth of York died. But Margaret refused, despite pressure from her family. Although she spent the rest of her life dressed as a widow she eventually decided against taking religious vows.

    In 1506 Margaret’s brother Philip died in Spain. He and his wife Juana had inherited the Kingdom of Castile, and Philip had fallen ill while visiting his new Kingdom. His death left a power vacuum, he and Juana were parents to two sons and four daughters (their youngest daughter was born after he died). Their oldest son, Charles, had been left in Burgundy but was still only a child. Maximilian appointed Margaret as the new Regent of the Netherlands, ruling on behalf of her little nephew and helping arrange his education.

    In the time between Juan's death and her marriage to Philibert Margaret had lived with her step-grandmother. She had clearly learned a lot from the older woman. Her court, based at Malines, was modelled on that of the Dowager Duchess. She had inherited personal effects from the elder Margaret including tapestries and jewellery. She negotiated peace with France, negotiating the treaty that led to the League of Cambrai. Although she essentially worked to increase the power of her Habsburg family, keeping the peace allowed trade to flourish in the Low Countries. Her court gained a reputation for elegance and education, especially for young women. One of those women was Anne Boleyn, who spent several years living with Margaret before moving to the French court.

    As he grew up Charles originally seems to have resented some of her influence, led by his closest advisor Guillaume de Croy. Working behind Margaret's back, de Croy persuaded Maximilian to let Charles declare himself of age to rule when he turned fifteen. Charles then dismissed his aunt as Regent and set up a council. She was a member but had no vote, essentially she was resigned to the position of advisor without being able to make any decisions. De Croy was a French sympathiser and led Charles down a path that saw him acknowledge that he held Burgundy with permission from the French. It was a mistake that Margaret would have never let him make.

    When Charles' grandfather Ferdinand of Aragon died in 1516 Margaret saw her chance. Margaret helped negotiate Charles' accession to the Spanish throne and waved him off with De Croy in his train. Charles realised he would struggle to single-handedly rule both the Netherlands and Spain. Margaret was returned to her former role in 1518. Margaret worked hard for her nephew, even negotiating his becoming Holy Roman Emperor even before her father Maximilian had died. She also spent much of the 1520s helping gather money and men for Charles' various wars. She supported his attempts to stop the spread of Protestantism in the Netherlands. In 1529 she was one of the key figures in the “Ladies Peace”, a treaty between the Netherlands and France negotiated between Margaret and Louise of Savoy.

    There are two stories of Margaret's death. The first is that she stepped on a shard of glass, which cut her foot and developed an infection. The second is that she suffered from an abcess on her leg for a number of years, which eventually became infected. Whatever the truth she does appear to have developed gangrene from an open wound. She died on 1 December 1530 having tried to fight the infection for nearly two weeks. She left all her possessions to Charles, who followed her wish that she be buried next to Philibert at Brou.

    Although Margaret was an unlucky princess in her early life, in many ways she fared much better than other women in this series. She managed to carve out for herself a place as trusted advisor and beloved Aunt to Charles. She didn't die in povery or anonymity, but gained a reputation for diplomacy and education.

    Last month's Unlucky Princess was Blanche of Bourbon.