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Who's that girl?

Meet Margaret of Austria, poster girl of our brand new exhibition Bernard van Orley. Here’s a quick overview of a roller coaster life between power and tragedy.

Margaret is born in Brussels in 1480. Her mother dies when she’s 2 years old.

At the age of 3 (!) she is bundled off to the French court to be married to the future king. When she’s 11 the French change their mind and simply send her back.

Same scenario, different country a few years later. Margaret is sent to Spain age 16 to marry the crown prince. Only he dies after 6 months. Margaret is already pregnant at the time of his death but delivers a premature still born daughter.

She marries a second time at age 21. This time the political match is also a love match. Her husband, Philibert of Savoy, is nicknamed ‘the good’ or ‘the handsome’ – so he does sound like a bit of a catch.

Tragedy strikes again when he dies at 24. Margaret, widowed for the second time, is devastated, and there are reports of a suicide attempt. She never remarries and wears white mourning clothes for the rest of her life. A court poet dubs her ‘the Lady of Mourning’; a name that sticks.

She also builds a mausoleum for her dead husband which is often mentioned in the same breath as the Taj Mahal, as a monument to lost love.

At age 26 the highly intelligent, multilingual and sophisticated Margaret  becomes the most powerful female ruler in Europe, governing the Low Countries after the death of her brother. She will rule pretty much uninterrupted till her death.

She raises her nephew, the future emperor Charles V, after his father’s death (his mother goes mad with grief and is declared insane). They will later have a fractious relationship, when Charles is struggling to step out from under the shadow of his impressive aunt.

At 49, together with Louise de Savoy, she negotiates the Treaty of Cambrai, nicknamed the ‘Ladies’ Peace’.

Margaret of Austria dies in 1530, at the age of 50, after stepping on a piece of broken glass. The wound gets infected and she agrees to a leg amputation. An overdose of morphine kills her before the operation.

More magnificent Margaret?

  • Visit our exhibition Bernard van Orley, who was her court painter who created her official portraits and provided her with stunning tapistries.
  • Margaret was mad about tapestry and the visual arts, but she was also a music patron. Some of her favourite composers feature in our concert Bernard van Orley's Ear.
  • Margaret had her court in Mechelen. The wonderful new museum Hof van Busleyden there tells the whole story.
  • You can see her grave and that of her beloved husband in the Monastery of Brou, not far from Macon in France. The church is one of the undisputed masterpieces of Gothic art. Further proof of her impressive cultural legacy.