Part One by Heather R. Darsie
Margaret of Parma was born 5 July 1522 to the twenty-two-year-old holy Roman Emperor Charles V and his paramour, Johanna van der Gheenst. She was born in Oudenaarde, Netherlands. Margaret was the eldest of all of Charles’ children. Charles met Johanna during a six week-long visit to Charles de Lalaing, Count of Lalaing’s home in late 1521. There, Charles met Johanna, and their daughter Margaret was born the following summer.
Margaret was initially put in the care of the De Douvrin family, who were in Brussels. Later on, Margaret spent time at her father’s court in Mecheln, raised by her great-aunt Margaret von Habsburg, then her aunt Maria von Habsburg. In 1527, when Margaret was roughly five years old, she was betrothed for the first time. Margaret was still illegitimate.
The question of Margaret’s legitimacy and thus, her usefulness to Charles V for marital alliances, was resolved in 1529. Charles recognized Margaret as his legitimate daughter in 1529. Thereafter, she was known as Margaret of Austria. That same year, Charles V and Pope Clement VII officially signed off on the marriage arrangement between Margaret and Alessandro de’ Medici.
After the Sack of Rome in 1527 by Charles V’s troops, the Medici family were exiled from Florence during the ensuing chaos. The young Alessandro de’ Medici was eventually appointed Duke of Florence in about 1530 by Pope Clement. Margaret was sent to Italy in 1533, when she was eleven years old, to finish her education at the important Italian courts.
Margaret’s time in Italy left quite the mark on her. She became fluent in Italian, and preferred the Italian language for the rest of her life. Being a young girl when she moved to Italy, Margaret absorbed the culture readily. Too young for her husband-to-be, Margaret had plenty of time to augment her education at the Florentine court with the skills expected of an Italian noblewoman.
In 1536, when Margaret was fourteen and thus of marriageable age, she wed twenty-six-year-old Alessandro. Throughout the marriage, Alessandro remained faithful to his mistress, Taddea Malaspina. Alessandro and Taddea had two illegitimate children together. Margaret and Alessandro were childless. Margaret’s first marriage did not last long because her husband was assassinated on 6 January 1537. Alessandro’s body was quickly buried before news got out about his murder, but a proper stately funeral was held for him later in Valladolid.
Margaret married for the second time on 4 November 1538. This time, her husband was only a year younger than Margaret. Like her first husband, Margaret’s second husband Ottavio Farnese, was the grandson of a pope. Margaret was not very impressed with Ottavio at the beginning of her marriage. She had grown accustomed to the behavior of her much-older first husband. Ottavio involved himself in military expeditions over the next twenty years of his life. After such an expedition in 1541, Ottavio was hurt. Margaret insisted upon caring for him, and it was during this time that their relationship turned around for a brief period of a few years. Otherwise, the two lived separately and had separate households.
The 1540s were a pivotal decade for young Margaret. During the 1540s, Margaret’s husband struggled with his grandfather Pope Paul III and with his father-in-law Charles V over who should control which parts of the traditional Parma domains. In the midst of this, Margaret became pregnant. She gave birth to twin boys, Carlo and Alessandro, on 27 August 1545. Sadly, Carlo died days later in September 1545. That same year, the Pope annexed Parma from the Papal Estates to his son and Margaret’s father-in-law, Pier Luigi Farnese. Pier Luigi formally took possession of Parma in September 1546.
Throughout the remainder of the 1540s, Margaret’s father the Emperor was off fighting all over Germany. An ongoing struggle between the Pope and the Emperor over control of Parma could not have made things easy for Margaret. During this time, Margaret continued studying and developing her intellect.
Finally, in September 1546, Margaret’s father-in-law became Duke of Parma. He struck a deal with Pope Paul III that the Dukes of Parma would pay a hefty sum to the Holy See each year to maintain control of Parma, which was part of the Papal Estates. Margaret’s father-in-law was assasinated a year later, and Margaret and her husband Ottavio were thrown into a state of limbo over control of Parma. The Pope seized back Parma in exchange for another territory. Ottavio did his best to regain Parma in 1549, and was marginally successful. The Duchy of Parma was finally given back in late 1549, and settled on Ottavio in 1551. This displeased Margaret’s father Charles V. A war broke out between the two most important men in Margaret’s life.
During the early stages of the Third Italian War, the War of Parma was fought in June 1551. Charles V and the Pope battled against Ottavio and Henri II of France. Peace negotiations opened three months later, in September, and the War of Parma was over in May 1552. To help ensure peace, Margaret gave her son Alessandro to her half-brother Philip II of Spain in return for Charles her father recognizing Ottavio’s right to rule Parma. Ottavio ruled Parma peacefully until his death in 1586.
Charles V transitioned power over the Seventeen Provinces in the Netherlands to Philip beginning in 1555. That same year, Margaret traveled to the Netherlands from Italy to hand over Alessandro. After the death of their father Charles V died in 1558, Philip remained in the Netherlands until early 1559, when he left for Spain to manage affairs there. Philip appointed Margaret Governor or Regent of the Low Countries in his absence, showing a preference by Habsburg men to appoint their sisters as Regent of the Netherlands.
Sources & Suggested Reading
- Steen, Charles. Margaret of Parma: A Life. (2013)
- Hibbert, Christopher. The House of Medici, Its Rise and Fall. (1999)
- Williams, George L. Papal Genealogy: The Families and Descendants of the Popes. (2004)
- Parker, Geoffrey. The Grand Strategy of Philip II. (2000)