On November 23, 1503, Margaret of York, Duchess of Burgundy, died at the age of 57. She lived through the Wars of the Roses in England and saw the reigns of five Kings, two of whom were her brothers.
Margaret was born on May 3, 1446. She was the seventh child and fourth daughter of Richard Plantagenet, the Duke of York, and his wife Cecily Neville. Margaret’s father had a strong claim to the throne of England, and he spent much of her childhood off fighting to try and depose the weak and mentally-ill King Henry VI. As a result, Margaret and her elder siblings had an unstable childhood, and spent many months moving around the country as the Yorkist forces alternately won and lost.
In 1460, Richard Plantagenet died in the Battle of Wakefield, and it seemed that the Yorkist cause was lost. However, just a few months later, Margaret’s oldest brother Edward secured a decisive victory at the Battle of Towton, and ascended the throne as King Edward IV.
Despite the political turmoil that faced her family in her early life, Margaret received an excellent education, and came to love reading books and manuscripts. She was very pious, full of energy and highly intelligent, with a wry sense of humour. She was also interested in politics and learned how to administer a household. After Edward’s ascension, Margaret became one of the highest ranking ladies in England, where her diplomacy and training were put to good use.
Margaret spent the first few years of her adult life in the company of King Edward’s wife, Queen Elizabeth, and in October 1467, she was betrothed to Charles, Duke of Burgundy, who had succeeded his late father just a few months previously. Charles, who was also known as Charles the Bold, had been married twice before, and had a ten-year old daughter Mary from his second marriage. The match was made largely to satisfy commercial interests, with the marriage treaty addressing trade agreements, and it was stipulated that King Edward would pay 200,000 crowns as Margaret’s dowry.
In March 1468, Margaret arrived in France and was married to Charles, and the wedding festivities which followed continued for nine days. At twenty-two years old, Margaret was thirteen years younger than Charles. Their marriage lasted for nine years, and although Margaret didn’t have any children of her own, she grew close to Charles’ young daughter, and began to treat her as her own child.
As Duchess of Burgundy, Margaret became actively involved in affairs of the state, and served as the Duke’s representative. She traveled extensively to uphold her husband’s authority, and attempted to raise money to support his international endeavours. However, Charles had many failed foreign policies, and in 1474 alliances began to form against him. As a result, he spent most of his days fighting to try and keep the peace.
In January 1477, Margaret received news that Charles had been killed. She was forced to flee, while Charles’ daughter Mary was virtually a prisoner. Their fortunes improved by August, when Mary’s fiance Maximilian, the son of the Holy Roman Emperor, arrived in Burgundy for his wedding. Margaret helped arrange the entire affair, and in return, a grateful Mary gave her her full dower rights.
With Mary and Maximilian safely restored to power, Margaret was left to her own devices as one of the richest widows in Europe. In an age when women were extremely reliant on their husbands, Margaret carried on fantastically well on her own. She held her own court in Burgundy, where she hosted noblemen and foreign ambassadors, and controlled her own wealth and household.
Meanwhile, in England, misfortune was beginning to fall upon Margaret’s brothers. In 1478, her younger brother George, Duke of Clarence was arrested and executed for treason against King Edward, and a few years later, in 1483, Edward died too, leaving the throne to his young son. When Margaret’s youngest brother Richard seized the throne from his nephew and ascended as King Richard III, Margaret began to support the new King.
But when Richard was defeated by Henry Tudor, Margaret tried her best to oppose the new Tudor monarch who had taken the throne from the House of York. She most famously supported and funded the pretender Perkin Warbeck in his attempt to overthrow King Henry, by claiming that he was her nephew, the vanished Prince Richard. However, her efforts were in vain, and when Perkin Warbeck was executed, she retired to Burgundy to live out her life in peace.
In her final years, Margaret carried out building work, collected printed and illuminated books and gave generously to charity. After Mary died, she continued to offer support and advice to Maximilian, and his son, Archduke Philip. Eventually her health began to deteriorate, and she died in November 1503. She was buried at the monastery of the Recollects at Malines, but unfortunately her tomb was destroyed and can no longer be viewed.