Margaret of Bavaria was married to John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy. The couple ruled over not only the county of Burgundy but also a large number of other territories in the Low Countries. This medieval European empire of sorts had grown in size quite rapidly, taking advantage of marriages, purchases and seizing lands to enhance the reputation and strength of the Dukedom of Burgundy.
John the Fearless was a major player in French politics. A royal, he regularly enjoyed control of Parlement, the support of the crown, and the sympathies of the Parisians. It came at a price though, he argued with other powerful lords. This led to him sanctioning the assassination of Louis, duke of Orleans. In turn, this led to the formation of a powerful block of nobles, including princes of the Royal Blood, in the League of Gion, led by the Count of Armagnac, who aimed to destroy John the Fearless.
This presented a challenge for Burgundy. Their lands were split, so leadership too needed to be done on a sectoral basis. And for that task, John the Fearless turned to his wife, Margaret of Bavaria, to assume ducal powers on his behalf in the county of Burgundy.
Though Margaret of Bavaria was never officially named as a Regent, she signed letters from 1409 onwards as being from:
Margaret, duchess of Burgundy, countess of Flanders, of Artois and of Burgundy, palatine, lady of Salins and of Malines, having the government of the above-mentioned countries and places in the absence of my lord [the duke].
It enabled John the Fearless to spend time in Paris, or when war broke out, in the Low Countries. Margaret soon had a wide range of issues to take control over. And the most important, was the defence of Burgundy.
The earliest surviving record of correspondence to Margaret of Bavaria relates to problems surrounding the supply and purchasing of gunpowder for the duchy. Military, and other administrative, matters were on the agenda of Ducal Councils that she presided over in May and June of 1410 and again in February of 1411. The meeting of June 1410 was accompanied by a meeting of nobles and ducal officials, with the explicit purpose of raising funds for the defence of Burgundy against the League of Gion.
Letters Patent from John the Fearless in january 1411 confirmed a practice that was already happening: it authorised margaret to take any measures she felt necessary to defend the duchy.
Overseeing administration, chairing meetings, and charming nobles into providing funds is impressive. But not out of the ordinary for a noble woman of any state, it was diplomacy dressed up in officialdom. Where it becomes rather unusual is when the threat of conflict turns into war. This happened when the Armagnac’s attacked the Burgundian’s northern lands whilst against the Burgundian homeland itself there were attacks from Louis de Chalon.
Margaret of Bavaria continued to have responsibility for the defence of Burgundy. And she was outstanding at carrying out this role. She was able to identify strategic positions that would determine the success or failure of a campaign between her forces and those of Louis de Chalon. In September 1413 she wrote to the Ducal Matres des Comptes:
Dear and well-beloved, be pleased to know that our cousin of Arlay will be with us on Monday… to advise about the defence and security of this land, because, if we surrender Tonnerre, we shall have a war on our hands… So we command you to be with us without fail next Monday evening or the following Tuesday morning… 22nd September 1413
In simple terms, Margaret has realised that for Louis de Chalon to have any success in Burgundy he would need to travel past, and control, the castle and town at Tonnerre. Tonnerre was outside of Burgundy’s borders, but having it held by a sympathetic lord, or taking it for themselves, was seen as vital to prevent Louis being able to penetrate into Burgundy in any great numbers.
Attention to detail was a strength as she orchestrated the defence of Burgundy. This is seen through correspondence that illustrates that she received intelligence and not only responded to trusted sources but also made follow up inquiries to gain as full a picture as possible. Unlike so many rash male commanders of this period, she wanted to understand her enemy and preparation was to be done based on respect of their strengths, understanding of their limitations, and a strategic awareness:
Dear and well-beloved, according to the letters of our cousin of Arlay and St. georges, enclosed within, we ought to send to Troyes, Bar-sur-Seine and Montagu-sur-Troyes, so that if they place garrisons there to damage my lord [the duke] and his lands, similarly, my lord [the duke] can place garrisons of men-at-arms at Chatillon-sur-Seine, Montbard, Montreal and elsewhere as necessary for the security of the land. And for this reason we are sending Guillaume de Mandres there, with two companions, so that he and his friends can discover the situation and plans of the said count of Tonnerre and his brothers and report what they discover to us. So we command you to see that Regnaut de Thoisy pays the aforesaid Guillaume…
Margaret of Bavaria has seen beyind the intelligence that was pertinent to the defence of Burgundy from the South and initiated a plan that reinforces her husband’s campaign to the north. At the same time, further information was requested.
When Louis de Chalon did attack Margaret had been proven correct. He aimed at Tonnerre at the same time as Armagnac forces attacked John the Fearless’ forces to the north west, at Compiegne. As intelligence had been gathered, there was no panic. Margaret had the garrison at Chattilon-sur-Seine reinforced, introduced security measures for the ducal family, and waited.
Her strategic awareness in placing garrisons to support her husband’s campaigns and in other towns and castles on the periphery of Burgundian lands soon paid off. Garrisons recalled to defend the actual border of Burgundy descended on Tonnerre and captured it from Louis de Chalon’s men.
Margaret of Bavaria continued to act as both an administrator and military leader until the assassination of her husband. At this point she focussed primarily on the transition of the Dukedom to her son, attended to diplomatic matters that were changing rapidly due to the Anglo-French-Burgundian agreements and the onset of a war between the disinherited Dauphin of France and those who had agreed to, or imposed, the Treaty of Troyes. The Armagnac link to the assassination of john the Fearless led quickly to the new duke, Philip, forging an alliance with England.
Margaret of Bavaria held regent type powers when her son was absent from Burgundy on business in France, or the Low Countries. This continued until her death in january 1424.