Epitaph for a Green Lover: Music from the songbooks of Marguerite of Austria

Here are David Hatcher’s programme notes for our concerts with Héloïse Bernard Epitaph for a Green Lover. Please join us in this beautiful programme of 16th century music.

Soubz ce tumbel – Pierre de la Rue (cl.1452-1518)

In an age when the daughters of the potentates of Europe were little more than bargaining tools in Machiavellian international diplomacy, to be married off into the families of potential allies in order to seal a treaty, few were so valuable and yet ultimately so rigorously independently minded as Marguerite of Austria. She was the daughter of Mary of Burgundy and Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor: the ruler of the Germanic peoples covering a swathe of central Europe
stretching from the Baltic coast in the north to the northern states of modern Italy, including Tuscany in the south. Maximilian’s Hapsburg dominions stretched as far east as the borders of
the Kingdoms of Poland and Hungary, falling just short of Krakow, and in the west, the rich principalities of the Franche Comté, Savoy, Hainault and Picardy made deep incursions into French speaking territories.

The Emperor Maximilian I and his Family Bernhard Strigel c.1516-20

Queen of France

Under the terms of the Treaty of Arras, agreed by her father and Louis XI of France in 1482 when Marguerite was two years old, she was betrothed to the Dauphin, Charles in 1483. Later that year, Louis died and the Dauphin succeed to the throne as Charles VIII. Marguerite, having been sent to France to be brought up in the French court, was from then treated as the next Queen of France and her education was under the supervision of the Regent, Charles’ older sister, Anne. For the following eight years the child was to develop what seemed to be a genuine affection for her betrothed husband, twelve years her senior. But in 1491, Charles’ greed for territorial acquisition led him to annul both his betrothal to Marguerite and to have the Pope annul the unconsummated marriage by proxy of Marguerite’s father to Anne, Duchess of Brittany, in order that the French crown could encompass the wealthy Duchy of Brittany through his own marriage to Anne. This slight on Maximilian led to war, during which time the unfortunate Marguerite was held captive in France until she was restored to her family in 1493, when she was given into the care of her brother, Philip the Fair, Duke of Burgundy, and Margaret of York, her step-grandmother. Thus it was that Marguerite’s first experience of marriage was not a happy one and the seed of enmity toward France that it sowed was to grow throughout her life.

Marguerite aged 10 - Jean Hey

Princess of Spain
Charles VIII’s ambition and expansionist policies led to the surrounding states of Europe forming a grand alliance, involving Henry VII of England, Ferdinand and Isabella of Aragon and Castile, Maximilian I, Pope Alexander VI, the Republic of Venice and Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. In order to seal this alliance, marriages were arranged and Marguerite, together with her brother Philip the Fair, were to be married to John and Joanna of Castile, the children of Ferdinand and Isabella. A fleet set sail from Spain carrying Joanna to Flanders, arriving in 1496 and she was married to Philip at Lille shortly afterwards.

The following year Marguerite embarked for Spain from Flushing with the same fleet. After a storm-tossed journey, during which Marguerite’s ship was obliged to take refuge in Southampton, the fleet arrived in Santander in March 1497 and on Palm Sunday, 3rd April, the wedding took place. The chroniclers of both the Flemish and the Spanish courts remark on the striking differences of the two cultures exhibited at the wedding celebrations. The Spanish chronicler Abarca writes:
“…and although they left the princess all her servants, freedom in behaviour and diversions, she was warned that in the ceremonial affairs she was not to treat the royal personages and grandees with the familiarity and openness usual with the houses of Austria, Burgundy, and France, but with the gravity and measured dignity of the kings and realms of Spain…”

With the splendour and influence of the court of Ferdinand and Isabella at its zenith, negotiations for peace progressing and Marguerite expecting her first child, all seemed well at last. But Marguerite’s life, dogged by grief and despair, was about to change again. On his way to the celebrations of this sister’s marriage to the King of Portugal in 1497, John fell mortally ill. Fearing for her unborn child, Marguerite’s physicians had prevented her from seeing John. When, on 4th October she was finally allowed to enter and kiss her husband it was too late and she found him cold to her lips. Shortly afterwards, on December 8th, her premature daughter was still-born. The following year, John’s sister, the Queen of Portugal died, her young son following her to the grave two years later. This series of tragic early deaths left Joanna, Marguerite’s sister-in-law, the sole heir of the combined kingdoms of Aragon and Castile.

The Catholic Monarchs - Ferdinand & Isabella

Duchess of Savoy
Despite the warm affection shown her by Ferdinand and Isabella, Marguerite returned to Austria in 1499, where she stayed at her father’s court for two years, learning the details of Germanic governance. During this period she received marriage proposals from numerous heads of state, including the Kings of Poland, Scotland, England and from Henry, Prince of Wales, later Henry VIII. All of these she resisted, finally agreeing to a match with Philipbert II, “The Handsome”, Duke of Savoy. She was married by proxy at Dôle in Franche Comté on November 28th, 1501. The peculiar ceremony of marriage by proxy was one frequently favoured by the rulers of a Europe in which travel was fraught with danger. Philibert’s proxy on this occasion was his half brother, René “The Bastard of Savoy”. At the heart of the ceremony, Marguerite, dressed in cloth of gold lined with crimson satin and arrayed with jewels, was laid on a bed of state. René, in full armour and with a full room of witnesses, lay down beside her for a short moment. He then rose from the bed, apologising for disturbing Marguerite’s rest and swore an oath of fealty to her as a loyal servant. He was dismissed with thanks, receiving a gold and diamond ring for his troubles and thus Marguerite was considered married. From Dôle the company proceeded to Romain-Motier, the home of Pont d’Ain castle, near Bourg some two miles from Geneva, where Philibert and Marguerite first met and celebrated their marriage proper. After an extensive tour of the duchy of Savoy the couple returned to Bourg in 1503, where probably what were to be the happiest years of Marguerite’s life were spent. In 1504, Philibert, a keen huntsman, was
suddenly taken ill after a strenuous chase in the field. After days of fever he finally succumbed and died in Marguerite’s arms on 10th September. Marguerite continued to reside at Bourg, but lived a secluded life, writing prose and verse describing the depths of her mourning. Many of these works (Tous les regrtez, Plaine de duel, Cueurs désoléz and Me fauldra-t- il) were set to music and appear in Marguerite’s two beautiful chansonniers from which all but the dance pieces of this programme are taken. It was during this period of intense mourning that Marguerite also adopted the motto, which she used for the rest of her life and is carved above the entrance to her tomb: Fortune. Infortune. Fort. Une, which has been interpreted as “Fortune and Misfortune strengthens a woman

Pilibert of Savoy & Marguerite - Conrad Meit, c. 1515

Regent of The Netherlands
Meanwhile in the north, Philip the Fair and his wife, Joanna “The Mad”, had set sail on January 7th, 1506 for Spain. Isabella, Queen of Castile, had died and Joanna needed to claim her inheritance. Due to the “Great Storm” of that winter, they were forced to land in England, where they were hosted by Henry VII until their fleet was repaired and they could again proceed, some three months later. During their stay, the canny Henry negotiated (extorted) three treaties from his guests. The first was one of alliance with Burgundy, the second a treaty of marriage between him and Marguerite (Henry having been a widower since 1503), and the third was one of commerce so disadvantageous to Flemish interests that it was known in the Netherlands as the Malus Intercursus. Maximilian wrote to Henry from Vienna that “he had heard with great joy” of the marriage arrangement, but Marguerite’s reaction was not so enthusiastic and she stubbornly refused the match, writing to her Emperor-father “although I am an obedient daughter, I will never agree to so unreasonable a marriage”. Philip and Joanna arrived in Spain in April, but in September Philip became gravely ill and died in Burgos on 25th. He left six children and a wife by now deranged by the constant pressure of court life and intrigue. She was to remain in Tordesillas with two of her children for the rest of her life, a prisoner of her father Ferdinand and would not give up the embalmed body of her husband for some months after his death. For the funeral of her brother, Marguerite composed the epitaph, from which the lines “Doles super te, frater mi Philippe, Rex optime” were later set to music by Marguerite’s most favoured composer, Pierre de la Rue.

Marguerite as a widow - Berhard van Orley, c.1520

The death of Philip in Spain and Joanna’s subsequent incarceration left the infant Charles, then six years of age, the inheritor of the wealthy and strategically important lands of Burgundy and the Netherlands. Marguerite was soon identified as the most able and appropriate Regent to rule these disparate and sometimes troublesome provinces during Charles’ minority. Her mother tongue was French and her Flemish was good, but above all, as a woman of power and in possession of an independent mind operating in a man’s world, she had learnt to be subtle and nuanced in her diplomacy. Philip’s short reign was a period of relative peace and prosperity for the duchy, but his death revived old rivalries. The Dutch were distinct in character from their Flemish cousins despite sharing a language. The Flemish and Dutch were more deeply separated from the Francophone peoples of Artois, Hainault, West Flanders, Luxembourg and Franche Comté. Liége, although French- speaking, was aligned with the Holy Roman Empire, whereas Franche Comté had closer connections with the Swiss than with the Dutch and the futures of Limburg and Luxembourg were to be quite distinct from those of the Dutch and Flemish provinces. The ruler of such a diverse people would need immense diplomatic skill in order to create a sense of national unity.

The long-standing desire amongst the English and Hapsburg courts to settle the marriage of Henry VII and Marguerite continued to test Marguerite’s resolve. It is a testament to her strong will that despite many attempts to persuade her, she steadfastly refused the union, saying finally to Henry through his ambassador to her court that she was aware of the King’s affections for her and of his many virtues and that if she were to marry again she would marry none other. Having been three times unfortunate in her previous matches, however, she had resolved never to marry again. She believed herself incapable of producing children and so would not make a good match for the King. Henry and Maximilian were, for a time, gratified by the union of their two houses through the betrothal of Henry’s daughter Mary to Charles (a union never consummated when, in 1514, it became more important that 18-year- old Mary marry Louis XII of France, then 52).

During her time as Regent and despite her habitual melancholy, we can see from contemporary accounts that she maintained a court at Malines worthy of her exalted rank. She took a keen interest in contemporary arts and was a discerning patron of music and fine art. Amongst her many treasures was the Arnolfini Wedding portrait by Jacob van Eyk, now hanging in the National Gallery and from her accounts we see that she employed a number of musicians, including players of the rebec, pipe and tabor and viols. Her library was one of the largest personal collections in Europe, containing many priceless manuscripts. The dance pieces in this evening’s performance are taken from one such manuscript, a collection entirely of Bassedances (popular in Burgundy at the time) written in gold and silver calligraphy on black-stained vellum, now in the Royal Library of Belgium in Brussels.

La Franchoise Nouvelle, from the Bassedance book of Marguerite

One remarkable epic poem written by her court poet Jean Lemaire, takes the voice of a green parrot inherited by Marguerite on the death of her mother. She became very attached to the bird, which apparently had a large vocabulary. During a visit to her father in Germany the parrot, still in Flanders, died. In Lemaires’s poem “Epitaph sur l’Amant vert”, the green lover laments his mistress’ absence, contemplating suicide. Finally, the pitiless bird calls to his mistress from his tomb. It is this last verse that is set in the remarkable chanson performed tonight.

Soubz ce tumbel, Brussels Royal Library MS. 228

Final years
In 1515 Charles came of age. It seems that Charles’ assumption of power was granted by decree of Maximilian and without prior consultation with Marguerite and there is evidence from court records and correspondence that she found the transition a difficult one. However, when Charles took possession of his extended realms he found that he was needed in Spain more than in the Netherlands, and by 1518 he had begun to return considerable power into Marguerite’s hands. In 1519 the Emperor Maximilian, at 60 years old, succumbed to dysentery. His relationship with Marguerite had been as close as could be imagined given the demands made upon members of such a family and father and daughter had frequently exchanged letters revealing their most intimate thoughts and concerns, he habitually signing his letters “Your good father, Maxi”.

In later life, freed by the death of his second wife, Maximilian had designs on the priesthood. Never troubled by self-doubt, these designs were not modest, as we can see in one of his letters to his beloved Marguerite:
“And we find no good reason why we should marry again, but we have resolved, with deliberation and voluntarily, never again to frequent a naked woman. And tomorrow we shall send the Bishop of Gurk to the pope at Rome to find out how we can come to an agreement with him for me to become a coadjucator, so that, after his death, we can be assured of having the papacy and become a priest and afterward a saint, and you will have to adore me after my death, which I find glorious.”

Marguerite’s death in 1530 came as prematurely as the losses she had endured throughout her life. Little is clear concerning the details of her final days, but in an account written by a monk at Ain the following description is found:
“Early in the morning on the 15th November, before rising, Marguerite asked one of her ladies for a glass of water. The maid brought her the drink in a crystal goblet… but let it fall near the bed, where it broke… She carefully picked up all the fragments she could see, but one piece lay hidden in Marguerite’s embroidered slipper. When the princess got up a few hours later she put her bare feet into the slippers, and tried to walk towards the fire, but immediately felt a sharp pain in the sole of her left foot. On examination it was found that a piece of broken glass was in the foot; this was at once extracted, but the wound remained, and bled very little. Marguerite, who was always plucky, soon thought no more of the accident, and neglected the wound. A few days later, however, her leg became greatly inflamed, and she suffered much pain. At last, on the 22nd, doctors were called in, and a consultation was held. They found that gangrene had already set in, and decided that the only way to save her life was to amputate the foot. The next day, the 23rd, they commissioned Monsieur de Montécute, her almoner and confessor, to break the news to her, and prepare her for the terrible operation. “

On the 30th November, having put her worldly affairs in order, she ordered the doctors to proceed. In an attempt to spare her the pain of such a traumatic operation, they administered her such a large dose of opium that she died of the overdose without undergoing any surgery in the early hours of December 1st. Her body was laid to rest next to Phillibert’s in her beloved church at Brou.

The tomb of Marguerite of Austria at the Royal Monastery of Brou, Bourg-en-Bresse - Conrad Meit, c.1526-32

A curious postscript to Marguerite’s life and death occurred in September 1856, when the entrance to her vault was accidentally rediscovered when repairing the floor near Philibert’s monument. In December that year the vault was formally opened for the first time since Marguerite’s interment in 1532. Three lead coffins were found, those of Marguerite, Philibert and his mother, Marguerite of Bourbon. Philibert’s was intact but the women’s remains lay scattered about the vault due to the decay of their outer oak casings and resultant damage to the lead inner coffins. Marguerite’s skull has found to be covered still with the bright golden hair frequently remarked upon during her life and her lower limbs were intact, proving that no surgery had taken place. The damaged coffins were restored and a service of reinterment was held by Cardinal Donnet on 5th July, 1858.
David Hatcher May 2022

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