May 24, 2023 – Margaret of Austria tops Google’s list of 16th century Europe’s most undersung female players. Find out why in Margaret of Austria, closing in on Prince Harry and Alexander the Great on Amazon’s Best Sellers in Biographies of Royalty list.
“A must-read for anyone interested in the history of early modern Europe, women’s history, or political biography.” —Lee Leho
“In Margaret of Austria, Rozsa Gaston offers an engaging account of the life and achievements of one of the foremost prominent figures of her time. The book is a well-researched and meticulously crafted narrative, blending historical facts and fiction in a way that renders the story both informative and entertaining. Gaston’s ability to balance intricate details of diplomatic events and relationships with the broader historical context makes the book a valuable resource for scholars of early modern Europe. The book offers a nuanced portrayal of a powerful woman in a period when female leadership was often overlooked, and I think it will be embraced by readers interested in the history of women in power.”–Asher Syed for Readers’ Favorite
“This captivating novel brings to life the story of Margaret of Austria, an extraordinary woman who wielded great political power as Governor of the Netherlands during the early 16th century. The author masterfully weaves historical detail with engaging storytelling to depict Margaret’s strength, intelligence, and resilience in navigating the complexities of European politics. Readers will enjoy the rich tapestry of Margaret’s experiences, from her personal struggles to her triumphs in diplomacy. A perfect gift for history enthusiasts or those interested in inspiring women, this book is sure to leave a lasting impression.”—Gene McKenzie
The Chaucer Book Awards recognize emerging new talent and outstanding works in pre-1750s historical fiction. The Chaucer Book Awards is a division of the Chanticleer International Book Awards (The CIBAs). See complete 2022 shortlist here.
Are there TV shows or films that have influenced your writing?
Yes. I saw The Red Balloon (1956) at our local library when I was a young girl. I was immediately enchanted with Paris. The movie has no words and there are no words to describe how deeply it moved me. The boy in the movie was poor. He lived in a small apartment in a dirty rundown section of Paris. Yet I was moved by Paris’s beauty and charm in every scene.
When I was 19 I went to Paris for the first time as an au pair and lived in a maid’s garret on the top floor of a building. No hot water, shower or bath. A Turkish toilet (don’t ask). Just like the boy in The Red Balloon chasing his balloon in the streets of Paris I spent that year chasing beauty all over Paris.
What do you worry about in your work?
I tend to avoid conflict and always seek happy endings. Yet novels are built upon conflict. To write a good novel you need lots of conflict before you can get to the happy ending. In my Anne of Brittany series I was challenged to touch upon the less positive aspects of my heroine’s character. Now that the series is done, I have moved on to Margaret of Austria, who experienced plenty of conflict during her years as governor of the Netherlands from 1507-1530.
As governor of the Netherlands she was responsible for administering Habsburg rule over 17 different territories that comprise today’s Holland and the Benelux countries, as well as Burgundy (now folded into France). She batted heads with many of her legislators, each of whom wished to maintain privileges for their respective regions.
My challenge is to refrain from writing a puff piece on Margaret of Austria, but rather to offer a balanced view of how she managed her position, both good and bad. I hope I will lead my readers to a satisfying ending, coming away with a deep appreciation for this historical figure.
What brings you great joy as a writer?
It brings me great joy to read a passage from one of my books a year or two after it came out and realize there’s a certain voice to the prose that is all my own.
A second source of joy is to hear from readers of my Anne of Brittany series that they had never heard of Anne of Brittany before and are fascinated to discover her story. I hope the same will be true of Margaret of Austria once my new book comes out. I feel connected to a larger purpose by bringing to life the stories of these female Renaissance rulers who played such vital roles in early 16th century Europe. History books have only sketched them in. My goal is to fill in the gaps and bring their personalities to life for readers of today.
Do you speak a second language? Do you think differently in that language? Does it influence your writing?
Yes. I speak French passably, not fluently. I think differently in that language. When I speak French my personality becomes more feminine, refined. I feel more myself. The challenge is to translate French phrases into English in a way that maintains their subtlety, shifting the English-speaking reader’s sensibility. The French language reflects its culture, utterly different from that of English-speaking countries. When researching historical figures in French texts, fascinating differences between Anglophone and Francophone worlds emerge, particularly in the area of pleasure.
The French celebrate pleasure, the English-speaking world feels guilty about its pursuit. The French pursue pleasure in eating, in creating beauty in their surroundings, in giving and receiving pleasure.
When I read texts covering Francis I and his 16th century Renaissance court I came across many passages about men’s preoccupation with providing satisfaction to their ladylove. There would be references to men boasting of how many times they pleasured their ladylove. My eyes opened and the scales fell away. If there were similar texts in English, either the subject would not be mentioned at all or any male boasting would have been about how many times they achieved satisfaction, not their female partner.
What was the inspiration for your most recent book?
While researching Anne of Brittany’s story I came across mention of Margaret of Austria as an 11-year-old, raised at the French court to become queen to Charles VIII of France. Charles jilted Margaret to marry Anne of Brittany, who was very kind to her despite having taken her place. When Margaret returned to the Netherlands, Anne of Brittany and Margaret of Austria stayed in touch. Both were interested in creating a Habsburg hedge around France, to curb its dominance. Both women were instrumental in the seminal development of what has now become the European Union. Both began their lives as pawns of powerful men and both emerged to become powerful players themselves on the European political stage.
Rozsa Gaston writes historical fiction. She studied European history at Yale, and received her Master’s degree in international affairs from Columbia University, including one year at Institut des Etudes Politiques (Sciences Po), Paris.
She worked at the United Nations, then at Institutional Investor before turning to writing full-time. After beginning her writing career she worked as a columnist for The Westchester Guardian.
Author of the four-volume Anne of Brittany Series, Gaston won the Publishers Weekly 2018 BookLife Prize in general fiction for Anne and Louis, Book Two of the series.
Gaston lives in Bronxville, New York, with her family and is currently working on Margaret of Austria: Governor of the Netherlands and Early 16th Century Europe’s Greatest Diplomat. She is a member of and former guest expert at the UK Tudor Society and a founding member of France’s Splendid Centuries Facebook page.
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Rebecca D’Harlingue writes about seventeenth-century women taking a different path. Her award-winning debut novel,The Lines Between Us, takes place in Spain, Mexico, and modern-day St. Louis, Missouri.
December 10: Excerpt from Anne and Louis Forever Bound, Book Four of the Anne of Brittany Series
A big thank you to historical novelist Rozsa Gaston for sharing with us this wonderful excerpt from her forthcoming novel, Anne and Louis Forever Bound, Book Four of the Anne of Brittany Series. — Claire Ridgway, Founder UK Tudor Society, author of The Anne Boleyn Files
In the second week of February 1511, sad news arrived. Germaine wrote from Spain that England’s queen-consort, King Ferdinand’s daughter, Catherine of Aragon, had given birth to her first child by Henry VIII. A daughter, the babe had been stillborn.
“Your Grace, I hope news from Spain is not bad?” Madame de Dampierre asked as she took in the stricken look on her sovereign’s face.
“Not bad from Spain, but sad news from England.”
Madame de Dampierre looked surprised. For the most part, relations between France and England were chilly. “I am all ears, Your Grace, if you care to share with me.”
Anne sighed and put down the letter. “The English king’s wife has just delivered her first child.”
“I’m sure the new king must be happy.”
“A stillborn daughter.” Anne turned her head to the tapestry on the wall where a stag’s face stared back at her reproachfully. Queens everywhere who delivered only daughters were censured. It was a perilous job to be queen, one fraught with fear of failure and too frequent pregnancies that imperiled their health. Well did she know, still weak from Renée’s birth. She was just beginning to get around, but tired easily. At age thirty-four, after fifteen pregnancies, she was not feeling her usual resilience after childbirth.
“Ah, Your Grace, that is sad indeed. But Queen Catherine is young and has many years ahead to try again,” Madame de Dampierre remarked.
“How old is she?”
“Your Grace, I am not sure, but a few years older than the king, I believe.”
“Get Sire Lemaire here to fill us in.”
“Oh, Madame, what a sparkling idea. I will see if I can find him.” The lady-in-waiting curtsied then bustled to the door.
“Have a pot of mulled wine brought and three goblets,” Anne called after her. Lemaire was good fun and an incurable gossip. He would have something to tell them, and not from the English perspective, either.
Within moments, Jean Lemaire of Belgium appeared in the doorway. Four years older than the queen, he had served at the court of Margaret of Austria in Flanders for many years. Some said that he had held his patron in such high regard that it had been best for him to find an appointment elsewhere. Anne had offered the cultured humanist a position at her court as her historiographer. His immersion in the new learning was renowned, yet within the bounds of adherence to Church teachings, to her approval. Above all, Lemaire was a boon to her as a conduit to the court of Margaret of Austria, Governor of the Netherlands, and a valuable Habsburg connection.
“Come,” she greeted him.
“I am at Your Grace’s pleasure,” Sire Lemaire offered a graceful bow.
“What can you tell us of the young Queen and King of England?” Anne asked.
“Your Grace, I have heard news of the new queen and it is—”
“Sad, but not unusual,” she finished for him. For once, it was another queen who had lost a newborn and not her. She would send a condolence note that day, but she would not allude to the depths of darkness she herself had felt at such losses over the years. No fellow queen would wish to walk the path she had traveled in childbearing.
“Quite right, Your Grace. She has many years before her to try again.”
“How old is she?”
“I have heard that she is six years older than her husband the king,” Lemaire answered.
“And he is …?”
“Twenty this year, Your Grace.”
“And what do you know of the years she spent as widow of the young king’s older brother?”
“Ah, Arthur…” Lemaire’s voice drifted off.
“Yes, Arthur, a noble but doomed name for Brittany,” Anne filled in, referring to the late 12th century Duke of Brittany from the House of Plantagenet. He had disappeared at the tender age of thirteen, rumored to have been murdered by his uncle, the vicious King John of England.
“Your Grace, I would say that the name Arthur has not flourished in the annals of history after the great King Arthur of the Round Table,” Lemaire said heavily.
“Did not Catherine’s first husband die of the sweat?” Anne directed him back to present affairs.
“He did indeed, Madame; only five months after his marrage to the young Spanish princess,” Lemaire rerouted to the topic at hand.
“I heard she had it, too,” Madame de Ddampierre remarked.
“It has been said that the sweat takes more healthy young males than it does females,” Lemaire observed.
“Mostly from the upper classes, they say,” Madame de Dampierre tutted.
Anne shuddered. “I hope it does not make its way to the Continent.” Poor Isabella’s daughter, sent to England to become a queen only to have her husband die after a few months of marriage.
“It is dormant now, and let us hope it will remain so forever,” Lemaire exclaimed.
“What is forever in this vale of tears we walk, Sire Lemaire?” Anne asked, thinking of her ruddy Charles-Orland, who would have been a youth of eighteen had he lived.
“Your Grace, you have just presented France with a bouncing princess so I am surprised you speak of tears,” Sire Lemaire replied.
“My tears fall today for the English queen. I wonder that she was stuck in limbo so many years between marriages.”
“Your Grace, it was six years, I believe, that the former English king and the King of Spain quarreled over her dowry.”
“Let me guess. Was it her father who refused to complete the payments?” Anne scoffed. Ferdinand was even more tightfisted than Louis. Much less handsome, too.
“Indeed, it was. But the old king was determined to get the full amount, so he dangled marriage to his son up ahead as a way to make the King of Spain pay up.”
“I heard there was more to it, too,” Madame de Dampierre added.
“Go on,” Anne encouraged. She sipped her mulled wine, enjoying its warmth spreading in her belly. She looked forward to another type of warmth heating her there soon. Once she regained her full strength she would try for a son again with Louis.
“It was said that the old king needed Spain’s royal stamp upon his line, being unsure of his legitimacy,” her lady-in-waiting expounded.
“Ah, poor Henry Tudor,” Anne sighed.
“Your Grace, do tell. Did he not spend some years of his youth in Brittany as the guest of your father?” Madame de Dampierre urged.
“He was under my father’s protection,” Anne told them. “The York kings would have killed him had he set foot on English soil before he was fully supported.”
“Did you meet him, Madame?” Her lady-in-waiting’s eyes shone.
“I met him just before he returned to England and won the throne.” She remembered Henry Tudor well. She had been a young girl, the Lancastrian exile a full twenty years older. Tall and lean like Louis, but there the similarities stopped. Not debonair in the least, Henry Tudor had been tentative, with a furtive hungry look that had puzzled her at the time. As a mother, Anne’s instincts told her he had been separated from loving arms at too young an age.
“And what was he like?” Madame de Dampierre pressed.
“Timid and penniless. Unsure of himself.” Her father had considered him as a match for her, but the idea had come to nothing when Henry had returned to England in 1483 and married Elizabeth of York. It had been the solution that had ended the War of the Roses, Anne thought approvingly. Marriage was life-giving, whereas war was the opposite. She had heard that it had been Henry Tudor’s mother who had brokered the union, the indomitable Lady Margaret Beaufort—even more ambitious than that redhead in Amboise, if such a thing were possible.
“That is it, Your Grace. He proved a good king, but he was uneasy on the throne,” Lemaire agreed. “Marrying his heir apparent to a Spanish princess legitimized his claim to the crown.”
“And now Catherine needs a son to anchor her marriage to the new English king,” Anne observed.
“Indeed, Your Grace. It would be most provident.” Lemaire’s tone was judicious.
“And how was her situation in those years between marriages to the two brothers?” she asked.
“I heard that before her marriage to the new king the young princess was living most precariously at the pleasure of the old king, but without means to support her household,” Lemaire described.
“Disgraceful,” Anne exclaimed. “But Henry Tudor was always cheap. It was not his fault, as he’d lived in hiding for so many years, but he should have supported his son’s widow in style until he decided what to do with her.” What misery it must have been for Isabella of Spain’s royal daughter to rot on the vine for six years of her first bloom, far from her family in a rainy, cold, foreign land.
“It was said at one time that he thought to marry her himself,” Madame de Dampierre put in.
“It would seem he thought to marry several great ladies,” Lemaire added. “I heard a proposal was made to the Countess d’Angoulême—”
“It would have been a disaster,” Anne snapped. “Henry Tudor was as contracted as the countess is grasping. Frankly, I don’t think he had it in him to take on a new wife after Elizabeth of York died.”
“Your Grace, it was said that the light went out in his eyes the day his York wife died,” Lemaire concurred.
“Sad for Henry Tudor that he achieved the throne he aimed for, yet could not sit on it with ease,” Anne mused.
“For fear of a pretender pushing him off,” Madame de Dampierre put in.
“Let u return to Catherine,” Anne directed them.
“She is finally the queen she was meant to be, as the young Henry’s wife,” Lemaire exclaimed.
“What have you heard he’s like?” Anne asked. Henry VIII was a wild card thus far. Only in power since 1509, he was an emerging player on Europe’s stage.
“Your Grace, it is said that the young King of England has inherited his mother’s York confidence and his Beaufort grandmother’s ambition,” Lemaire described.
“I hope he will be good to his queen,” Anne said. She was no friend of England, but for the sake of Isabella of Spain she prayed that the young Henry treated his bride as befit the daughter of one of Europe’s greatest monarchs.
“They say he is eager to prove himself.”
“As I am sure Catherine is eager to prove herself capable of providing him with an heir,” Anne replied, weighing an entirely different thought that she would share later with Louis. May the young English king not prove himself by entering into an alliance with his wife’s father.
“Madame, I am sure it will come to pass,” Lemaire said, avoiding her gaze.
“No one is sure of anything in such matters, but bring me my writing tools so I may send Catherine a note,” she told him, guessing his thoughts. All of France waited for her to provide Louis with an heir. Let them wait. She had produced two princesses, and if French Salic Law forbade putting a woman on the throne to rule, it was France’s loss.
“Right away, Your Grace.”
As Anne awaited his return, she met Madame de Dampierre’s questioning gaze.
“What is it?”
“Your Grace, I am surprised you are reaching out to the English queen.”
“To me she is not just the English queen. She is the daughter of Isabella, who I have ever held in high regard. Unlike her husband.” Ferdinand had never appealed to her although God knew he was a strong ruler. He lacked both gentility of spirit and the debonair courtliness that Louis possessed and that her father had had. How Isabella of Spain had put up with him she could scarcely imagine.
Madame de Dampierre let out a titter. “Madame, she will be grateful for your show of support.”
“I do not know her at all, but I know what it is to be queen and to fail at attempting an heir.”
“Your Grace, it is not an easy road to walk, is it?”
“You would not know, as you do not walk it,” Anne dispatched her. “But Catherine of England does, so I will offer her comfort as a peer.”
“Your Grace, she will be greatly consoled by a note from you.”
“Perhaps not, but it may help.” Anne waved her away as she contemplated other objectives in opening a line of communication to Catherine. It would be useful to have a conduit to the English court, should Henry VIII think to ally with one of Louis’ enemies.
Wishing the Queen of England a speedy recovery, Anne sent her prayers for blooming health and a blooming prince to grace her family soon in the future.
As she blotted and sealed the note, she prayed the same for herself.