Margaret, Duchess of Parma (The Spanish-Dutch War, Part II), Jan van Seist

One of the tragedies of period history is that, as a general rule, the ladies are most rudely neglected. It is with a sense of shame that I must confess that I too am guilty of this most unchivalrous conduct. In telling the tale of Lamoral, Count of Egmont, I neglected the far more interesting tale of his wise and benevolent regent, Margaret, Duchess of Parma. I most humbly apologise for this unpardonable omission and dedicate this somewhat belated article to the fair and beautiful ladies who so gracefully adorn our most blessed shire.

Our heroine, like all true heroines, was of humble origins. The future Lady Meg was born plain Margaret van der Genst, her mother’s surname, as her mum had been so busy having Meg that she’d forgotten to find herself a husband. Fortunately for little Maggie, she bore a more than passing resemblance to the Emperor Charles V(1), who had stayed with her mother’s employer, the Count van Hoogstraaten(2) in the year before her birth.

When the good emperor heard of this resemblance he was filled with compassion. Without a second thought, he hopped on his favourite steed and rode straight to the Count’s castle. Arriving in the nick of time, Charles dissuaded the Count and Countess from throwing Meg’s mum out on her ear and announced his decision to parm the Duchy of Parma onto the new-born Dutchy as a christening present. Pausing only for a dramatic pose and a brief “Hi ho, Silver”, the heroic emperor rode off into the sunset leaving stunned silence in his wake.

As the little bastard now outranked the Countess, she was handed over to an Imperious Auntie, Margaret, Duchess of Savoy(3), to be taught Savoie faire. Unfortunately, while Meg was still quite young the elder Margaret shuffled off to that great embroidery circle in the sky, so the greater part of Margaret’s childhood was spent at the court of Mary, Queen Dowager of Hungary. A bloodthirsty old biddy, Mary proved a congenial (if most unsuitable) companion for a growing girl. The happiest days of Meg’s life seem to have been spent with her foster mother, riding together through the countryside, shouting “yoicks” and “tally ho!” at passing yokels, firing arrows at the pheasant ry and clubbing sweet little bunny rabbits over the head.

Alas, the carefree days of youth are so soon swept away and Margaret was only thirteen when duty, that most prosaic of taskmasters, came knocking on her door. Her dear adoptive father and beloved Emperor had been busy playing Florentine politics with Giulio de’ Medici (better known as Pope Clement VII). As Charles had an attractive young protégée at his disposal (Margaret) and Giulio’s “nephew” had just gained control of Florence, it was only a matter of time before the dreaded m-word entered the negotiations.

Despite Charles’ no doubt good intentions, the nephew in question, Alessandro de’ Medici(4), was not the answer to the maiden’s prayers. An incredibly old and wrinkly 27, Alex (as he was known to the lads) was more than a little intimate with both the wine bottle and the “ladies”. Fortunately for the young duchess, a white knight was waiting in the wings. That incurable romantic, Cosimo de’ Medici, fell in love with our heroine the first time he clapped eyes on her(5). Alessandro’s remarkably convenient fatal accident surprised no-one(6).

Alas, the path of young love runs seldom smooth. The Emperor did not trust Cosimo for some reason and rejected his suit for the young widow’s hand. No one else was brave enough to approach the young Duke’s ladylove and the lady Margaret was left undisturbed for several years in the Florentine court. Finally, on her twentieth birthday Charles, concerned that his favourite subject was pining away in unhappy widowhood, inflicted another husband upon her. This time, eager to make amends for his previous choice, he chose a slightly younger papal “nephew”. Unfortunately, while it is true that Ottavio Farnese’s past was less salacious than Alexander’s, Margaret does not appear to have appreciated having a thirteen-year-old husband foisted upon her. In accordance with the most rigorous precepts of courtly love, she treated her new husband with utter contempt.

In 1541, Ottavio accompanied Charles on his expedition to North Africa. Shortly after they sailed, rumour reached the duchess that both the Emperor and her husband had died in a shipwreck. Margaret (and her entire court) immediately commenced mourning with the full vigour of high fashion only to discover, a few months later, that the report was false. Ottavio was alive but critically ill and under the personal care of the Emperor himself. At this point, Margaret decided that the whole affair was too romantic to be ignored. She renounced her earlier position of indifference and decided to fall officially in love with Ottavio.

On his return, Margaret swept Ottavio into her arms and whisked him off to a little love-nest she’d discovered near Rome. The romantic decision to share the same house as her husband paid unexpected dividends and the happy couple was blessed with twins within a year of Ottavio’s return. Unfortunately, Margaret’s new persona was a bit too overwhelming for her husband. Ottavio was seriously considering imitating the action of the Tiber (i.e. throwing himself into the sea) as a way of ending the slings and arrows of outrageous matrimony, when who should come to the rescue, but the Emperor’s son, Philip II, King of Spain and the Netherlands.

Philip’s spies had informed him of Ottavio’s dissatisfaction and the news couldn’t have come at better time. He needed a new regent for the Netherlands (preferably one who was entirely dependent on him for the appointment and was unconnected with any of the factions in that land) and he wanted allies in Italy (preferably war heroes with imperial and papal connections). A non-partisan Parmesan courtesan would be perfect for the Kaaskoppe(7) and a grateful Ottavio would no doubt be one of the latter. The posting would even make Phil’s dad happy. Charles had always been fond of the girl.

Margaret quickly discovered that her posting bore more resemblance to a Borgia family reunion than the gravy train she’d been promised but being a good girl with a solid background in Florentine diplomacy she buckled down to the task at hand. On arriving in Brussels, her first act was to convene the council of state. The great nobles and prelates of the seventeen provinces all arrived. They told her how delighted they were with King Philip’s newfound commitment to affirmative action and proceeded to uncooperate fully with their new governess. With tact, charm and a few hints about the importance of food tasters, she managed to win most of the nobility over to sullen neutrality.

Unfortunately, her biggest problem was beyond her control. One of the difficulties of being regent is that you act for your king. If the king himself chooses to stir the pot, you just have to smile and hope he doesn’t make a mess. If your King is Philip II of Spain, that is a lot to hope for.

King Philip had never really liked the Dutch. They irritated him with legal games whenever they didn’t want to do as they were told(8) and at least half of them had deliberately turned Protestant just to spite him. By the time Margaret had turned up, Philip (with the help of his old mate, Cardinal Granvelle) had managed to get a really good inquisition up and running and was happily composing new laws for exterminating the Dutch in his spare time(9).

There wasn’t much Margaret could do about the inquisition. She tried telling Cardinal “I should have been the regent” Granvelle to tone it down a bit but when he pointed out that it was a) the king’s idea, b) the church’s business and c) none of hers, there wasn’t much she could do. However, with the help of the more rational noblemen, she was able to prevent the Dutch from openly rebelling against their King by stalling his more insane plans and shuffling the blame for the rest onto his friend, the Cardinal.

Alas, this tactic worked too well. By 1564, Granvelle was so unpopular the King was forced to recall him. This proved a mixed blessing for Margaret & co. It removed a particularly odious opponent but it also left them short one scapegoat. Unless Philip toned down his act, revolution was only a matter of time. Alas for Margaret, her King had a cunning plan.

From the safety of Toledo, Philip and his generals read Margaret’s dispatches with unfeigned delight. A revolt in the Netherlands would provide the perfect excuse to shift a large Spanish army there. Having knocked over the rebels, the army could hop over the English Channel and rescue England from Protestant tyranny(10). Philip immediately wrote back to let Margaret know that in answer to her request for help he was sending a humungous army her direction. Suffice it to say that Margaret was not amused.

When word got out that a large army was coming from Spain to repress them the Dutch were rather upset. They wrote to the King telling him that he could not use their harbours to land his soldiers (a letter that did little to soothe his savage breast). Several members of the council of state resigned on principle, claiming that the whole regency was a charade. Several others travelled to Spain to tell him why his policies were technically illegal(11). Others paid unobtrusive visits to their German relatives and inquired about the weather, the hunting, oh, and the cost of mercenaries these days. Meanwhile, the Duke of Alva quietly marched the army to Holland via France(12).

On his arrival in Brussels, the Duke of Alva immediately sought an audience with Margaret. He hastened to assure her that he was merely there as military commander and that he would as a matter of course respect her position as regent. He then established a military council and declared martial law(13).

At this point Margaret decided that enough was enough. She wrote to Cousin Philip and pointed out that, while the Netherlands now had two regents, Parma was pining for its duchess. Accompanied by the Count and Countess of Mansfield, who were travelling to Italy for health reasons(14), she left for Parma and the bliss of early retirement.


(1) Known among those with little tact and no sense of self-preservation as “you know, the duke with the big nose and the fat lip”. You didn’t need DNA testing to establish paternity when a Hapsburg was involved.

(2) This famous Count was to play the important rôle of comic relief in the dark days to come. The first of his many intrusions into the otherwise sombre tomes of Dutch history occurred in 1565 when he attended a party in honour of the Count of Egmont. Everyone else talked very seriously about politics. Van Hoogstraaten spent the evening trying to get the Archbishop of Cambray drunk and flinging pots at him. The Count leaves the annals in 1568. He shot himself fatally in the foot.

(3) Another remarkable woman who was also regent of the Netherlands but whose tale, alas, I will not tell. I have to draw the line somewhere.

(4) Better known as Alexander, Lord of the dark Guelves(a).

(4)a Unfairly so, in the opinion of the author. By Alexander’s time, all Florentines were more or less Guelvish. The Guelves’ ancient foes(b) had long since vanished into the dustbin of historical irrelevance. However, there are Guelves and there are Guelves(c). As far as most Florentines were concerned, Alexander was definitely “not one of our Guelves”.

(4)b The Gerbillines, Italian German Imperialists with an unnatural fondness for small rodents.

(4)c Late period Guelves, rather like Gauls, are traditionally divided into three parts(d). White Guelves who were rich, Black Guelves who were noble, and Wood Guelves who wore funny hats and danced in the forest.

(4)d Despite this, Florentine mobs (who no doubt lacked a good classical education) often divided rival Guelves into substantially more parts when given the opportunity.

(5) “Sigh! That lip! That nose! Those invaluable political connections!”

(6) While, in the interests of romance, I have chosen to emphasise the most romantic of the theories for Alessandro’s early but not untimely demise, I must, in the interests of history, point out some of the others. Alessandro (surprisingly for a Medici) had a rather tenuous grasp on reality. Not only did he marry and then ignore the Emperor’s daughter, he also appointed Cosimo as his heir in the event of his dying without issue (and told him so!) and was playing footsie in his spare time with yet another Medici’s wife.

(7) He had obviously forgotten that Parmesans are traditionally tougher cheeses than either their Spanish or their Dutch rivals.

(8) Being King of two countries confused Philip at times. He liked Spain – there he was absolute ruler enthroned as king by divine right. He didn’t like the Netherlands – there he was technically a constitutional monarch subject to various ordinances, charters, herebys, and etceteras. The Dutch, for some reason, had always let Charles V rule as he felt fit and Philip thought they were being a trifle unfair trying to insist on constitutionality now. To make matters worse, each of the seventeen provinces had different charters, wossnames, etceteras and wheretofores. The Spanish way of doing things was so much simpler.

(9) Included among Philip’s innovative of ordinances was one unique piece of creative jurisprudence, the universal death sentence. Philip decided that the best way to stamp out heresy and treason in his northern provinces was to sentence everyone in them to death apart from a short list of exceptions. For some reason, Margaret found this command somewhat difficult to enforce.

(10) Philip had rather enjoyed being king consort in England during his youth but after his wife died, the throne had passed to her younger sister. As the new queen turned out to be a heretic and there were no other heirs, the Pope offered England to Philip. As in all property disputes, possession is nine-tenths of the law and Good Queen Bess was not particularly keen on being evicted.

(11) The general synod of the Dutch Reformed Church is still undecided as to whether this action constituted genuine diplomacy or a successful suicide attempt.

(12) Although France and Spain were traditional enemies, the consensus in the French court was that if King Philip wished to expend his men and matériel beating the living daylights out of his richest provinces, who were they to stop him?

(13) Among his first acts was the arrest and execution of his old friends, the Counts of Egmont and Horn. He had intended to knock off the Prince of Orange and the Count of Hoogstraaten at the same time but the former was visiting the in-laws in Germany and the latter had shot himself (in the hand this time) and was recuperating in Cologne.

(14) The Count of Mansfield had said some very rude things about the Spanish in general and the Duke of Alva in particular in the not so distant past. He was travelling to Parma for very serious health reasons.