Great Lives from History:
The Renaissance & Early Modern Era
Margaret of Parma
Margaret of Parma, who faced almost insuperable difficulties during her time as governor-general of the Netherlands, held her office against the Protestant revolutionaries attempting to bring about the collapse of Spanish--and Catholic--rule of the Netherlands.
Born: 1522; Oudenaarde, Spanish Netherlands (now in Belgium)
Died: January 18, 1586; Ortona, Kingdom of Naples (now in Italy)
Also Known As: Margarita de Parma
Areas of Achievement: Government and politics
Margaret of Parma was descended from a complex line of royalty, her direct lineage stemming from her father, Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. Through inheritance, Charles became the ruler of Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, and the Austrian territories of the Habsburgs.
Margaret was Charles's illegitimate daughter, the product of his clandestine union with Johanna van der Gheenst. She was a direct lineal descendant of such luminaries as Queen Isabella of Castile, and Maximilian I, her grandfather, who presided over the largest and most powerful European empire since Charlemagne. Margaret was acknowledged and accepted as Charles's daughter despite her illegitimacy. Her half-brother, Philip II, king of Spain, did not hesitate to appoint her governor-general of the Netherlands.
Because Charles's mother was insane and his father died when he was six years old, Margaret's great aunt, Margaret of Austria, essentially raised Charles and also, along with Mary of Hungary, played a considerable role in the early education of Margaret of Parma. Margaret of Austria served as Charles's regent for the Netherlands from 1507 until 1515 and again from 1519 until 1530, a post Margaret of Parma would assume.
In 1536, at age fourteen, Margaret married Alessandro de' Medici, duke of Florence. Their marriage of less than a year ended with Alessandro's murder. At age sixteen, Margaret married Ottavio Farnese, who, in 1547, became duke of Parma. In 1545, Margaret bore Ottavio a son, Alessandro, named after her first husband.
In 1559, Philip II appointed Margaret governor-general of the Netherlands, a capacity in which she served until 1567. At that time Spanish control of the Netherlands was much disputed by the French and by many of a growing number of Protestants who inhabited the Low Countries, which included the Netherlands.
Margaret assumed her post as governor-general, having authority over the Spanish troops that occupied the Netherlands. The presence of troops evoked considerable resentment among long-time residents of the Low Countries.
Antoine Perrenot de Granvelle, a Roman Catholic priest, was Margaret's chief adviser. Following his advice, she enforced a papal order that created new bishoprics during the first year of her rule. This order alienated local residents because they were to lose the privilege of self-rule in both political and religious matters.
Granvelle used his position as a stepping stone to higher office, being named archbishop of Mechelen in 1560 as a reward for helping to reorganize the Church according to the papal bull and placing in power many minions of the pope and of King Philip II. With Margaret's acquiescence, Granvelle was made a cardinal in 1561, as his power became consolidated.
As Granvelle's power increased, however, his imperiousness appalled the local nobility. They organized opposition, led by William the Silent and Lamoraal, count of Egmond. By 1564, agitation against Granvelle and, by extension, against Margaret's rule, became so great that her position was seriously threatened and a revolution seemed a distinct possibility. Her administration had moved from one of relative beneficence to one of pronounced authoritarianism.
The loss of local rule was anathema to most of the people who lived under Margaret's reign. Finally, she conceded that the only reasonable solution to her problem was to dismiss Granvelle, which she summarily did in 1564.
With Granvelle's dismissal, Margaret was forced to pay heed to and acknowledge the validity of some of the complaints of the lower nobility, whose chief spokesperson was William the Silent. William was actually an eloquent speaker but was tagged with the sobriquet the Silent because he was renowned for his moderation, for holding his tongue and evaluating situations before he spoke for or against them.
The Spanish occupation of the Netherlands had led to excessive taxation, which seemed especially onerous to people who were consistently losing their right to self-determination. Even more fundamental to their discontent was that they felt they were being discriminated against and harassed because of their break from the Roman Catholic Church and because of the spread of Protestantism throughout the Low Countries.
The members of the dissident lower nobility called themselves the Beggars, les Gueux in French. In 1566, they presented Margaret with a petition that called for evenhanded treatment of Protestants. She acceded to some of the demands, but in August, 1566, the more radical elements of les Gueux, convinced that Margaret was not acting in their best interests, sprang into action, attacking and badly damaging Roman Catholic churches.
Margaret, realizing that a revolution was imminent, imported a large force of German mercenaries to the Netherlands early in 1567. This act pushed les Gueux into further action. The situation became so grave that Philip II sent the duke of Alva to the Netherlands with a substantial Spanish army for back up. The duke, who had assumed the role of governor-general, imposed strong sanctions upon the Protestants, who then openly rebelled against the Spanish rule of their land.
In the wake of this upheaval, Margaret tendered her resignation and departed for Italy, where she remained until 1580. Her son, Alessandro Farnese, was appointed commander-in-chief and, shortly thereafter, governor-general of the Netherlands. Margaret, who had an insider's understanding of the sociopolitical situation in the Low Countries, returned to the Netherlands as head of her son's civil administration. She retired and returned to Naples, where she died in 1586.
Considerable blame for Margaret of Parma's resignation can be attributed to her early exploitation by Antoine Perrenot de Granvelle, whose personal ambitions led her to abandon her role as a benevolent monarch and become a monarch who grew increasingly oppressive, largely through fear that she might lose control. It was this oppressiveness that led to Margaret's final downfall.
Her resignation did herald the success of the dissidents. Nevertheless, Spanish rule of the Netherlands continued for several more decades, during which Margaret returned, once again in an influential position. She was in charge of civil administration from 1580 to 1583 during her son Alessandro's governorship.
Both as the illegitimate daughter of Charles V and because of her own abilities, Margaret was accepted and placed in positions of considerable importance and influence, which was unusual for women in her day. Her great aunt, Margaret of Austria, had established a precedent when she earlier held the post Margaret of Parma later assumed.
R. Baird ShumanFurther Reading
Darby, Graham, ed. The Origins and Development of the Dutch Revolt. New York: Routledge, 2001. Several of the essays in this collection touch on the rule of Margaret of Parma in the Netherlands as governor-general and later as head of civil administration.
DuPlessius, Robert S. Lille and the Dutch Revolt: Urban Stability in an Era of Revolution, 1500-1582. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Looks at Lille in Walloon Flanders (now in Belgium), an island of tranquillity and stability during the time of greatest unrest in the Netherlands.
Israel, Jonathan. The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall, 1477-1806. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1995. Israel's treatment of the Dutch revolt and Margaret of Parma's involvement is brief but penetrating.
Limm, Peter. The Dutch Revolt, 1559-1648. New York: Longman's, 1989. Viewing the Dutch Revolt during Margaret's rule and afterward, Limm addresses particularly religious concerns and also the role of Granvelle.
Parker, Geoffrey. The Dutch Revolt. New York: Penguin Books, 1988. Parker considers the entire sequence of events from 1556 to 1648 that led to the freedom of the Netherlands from rule by Spain and other countries. He gives passing attention both to Margaret and her son, Alessandro Farnese.
Van Gelderen, Martin, ed. and trans. The Dutch Revolt. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. This contribution to a series of texts in the history of political thought presents an actual document that details the Dutch Revolt. This is a highly specialized text, however, valuable for scholars but not easily accessible to general readers. Its presentation of the role played by Margaret of Parma in the revolt is significant. Margaret is seldom mentioned by name but rather by the identifier The Governess.
Duke of Alva; John Calvin; Charles V; Elizabeth I; Alessandro Farnese; Kenau Hasselaer; Martin Luther; Margaret of Austria; Mary of Hungary; Maximilian I; Bernardino de Mendoza; Philippe de Mornay; Johan van Oldenbarnevelt; Philip II; William the Silent.
In Great Events from History: The Renaissance & Early Modern Era, 1454-1600: 1566-1578: Dutch Wars of Independence; 1581: The Netherlands Declares Independence from Spain.
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