The Habsburg Sisters, Part I: Eleonore von Habsburg, Queen Consort of Portugal and France

by Heather R. Darsie

Most people interested in Tudor history are familiar with names like Charles VFrancis I, or even Christina of Denmark. Charles’ mother Juana of Castile might sound familiar. But what of Juana’s four daughters, Charles V’s sisters? Who were they? Why were they important? How did they fulfill the goals of Charles and his brother Ferdinand in the early 16th century? This article will provide an overview of the lives of Eleonore, Isabella, Maria, and Catherine, all born Archduchesses of Austria and Infantas of Castile and Aragon. 

Eleonore als Kind

Eleonore as a child, Artist Unknown.

Eleonore, the eldest of Juana of Castile’s and Philip of Flanders, known as the Handsome’s, children, was born 15 November 1498. Eleonore was born about two years after her parents were formally married in October 1496. She was named after her great-grandmother, Holy Roman Empress Eleonore Helena of Portugal. She was given her own household staff and residence in Ghent when she was a year old. After the death of her father, Eleonore, her brother Charles V, Maria, and Isabella were raised in Mecheln by their paternal aunt, Margaret of Austria, Regent of the Netherlands. Eleonore enjoyed an exceptional education, with the best tutors from both the Low Countries and Spain. Catherine and Ferdinand I were raised in Spain. 

Eleonore visited her mother Juana once in November 1517, accompanied by her brother Charles V. Eleonore tried her best to assist in creating a good environment in Spain for her youngest sibling, Catherine. A few years later, Charles had their mother Juana confined until her death in 1555.

Eleonore endured various marriages propositions, starting when she was 11 or 12 years old in 1510. One of the earliest ideas was to wed her to Duke Anton of Lorraine, but Louis XII of France, a relative of Anna of Cleves, forbade the marriage. Before Louis XII’s marriage to Mary Tudor, younger sister of Henry VIII of England, Eleonore was proposed as a bride for Louis. Eleonore was about 8 months younger than Mary. Eleonore ultimately wound up marrying twice, but neither marriage was very successful.

Eleonore was her brother Holy Roman Emperor Charles V’s favorite sister. Unfortunately, Eleonore still needed the approval of Charles V for her romantic relationships. Part of the reason for Eleonore accompanying Charles V on the very dangerous trip to Spain in 1517 was the cessation of Eleonore’s elicit relationship with Friedrich II, Count Palatine. Charles caught Eleonore reading a letter from Friedrich, which enraged him. He made Eleonore swear that she and Friedrich were not secretly married. Friedrich was immediately forced to leave court; he later married Charles’ and Eleonore’s niece through their sister Isabella, named Dorothea of Denmark and Norway. Charles and Eleonore left for Spain in September, arriving to visit their mother as mentioned above, in November 1517. 


Eleonore as a Young Woman, Artist Unknown.

Juana’s court was a mess by the time Eleonore and Charles arrived. There was an active rebellion, which Charles managed to put down in part by marrying off Eleonore to the King of Portugal, Manuel of Portugal, rumored to be a hunchback. Manuel had previously married Eleonore’s aunts Isabella and Maria of Aragon. Eleonore had two children with Miguel, a baby boy named Carlos born in February 1519 and deceased from illness in April 1520, and a girl named Maria, who was the Duchess of Viseu. Maria never married and was recognized as the richest woman in Europe during her lifetime. Eleonore had eight cousins who were also her stepchildren from Manuel, too. One of these stepchild-cousins, Isabella of Portugal, married Charles V in 1526. Isabella was the mother of Philip II of Spain. Manuel died in December 1521, leaving Eleonore a widow and eligible for another politically important marriage.

Eleonore was 23 when she was widowed, and went to live at Charles V’s court. Charles became Holy Roman Emperor in 1519. During the ongoing Habsburg-Valois Wars, also known as the Italian Wars, Eleonore was first betrothed to Charles of Burgundy in 1523, but that was later abandoned. Francis I of France was captured at the Battle of Pavia in 1525, and as part of the Ladies’ Peace, Eleonore was betrothed to Francis. She later wed him on 4 July 1530, and the couple did not have children.

Despite a very romantic first meeting for the reported blonde Spanish beauty in 1526, Francis openly disdained Eleonore. At their first meeting in 1526, Eleonore gave Francis her hand, which he kissed and then cheekily stated he should instead kiss her mouth. An arrangement was made that Francis would hand over his sons to Charles V, and that the sons could be ransomed for a large sum of gold. After Francis’ release, he initially broke the Treaty of Madrid and thus the engagement, which he was later forced back into in 1529.

Eleonore von Austria

Eleonore of Austria c. 1530 by Joos van Cleve, via Wikimedia Commons.

Eleonore saw Francis again  in early July 1530, when she and his sons met Francis after crossing the border river of Bidaossa. They met at Mont-de-Marsan, and wed in the Capiteux Abbey around two o’clock in the afternoon on 4 July. Francis, Eleonore, and their entourage next sailed to Bordeaux, where Eleonore had her first official, or solemn, entry as Queen Consort of France, and dressed in purple velvet for the occasion.

Francis I respected Eleonore, but had no meaningful emotional interest in her. Francis was not present for her coronation in May 1531, and wiled away his time with his mistress Anne de Pisseleu d’Heilly, whom he took up in 1526 after his return from Charles V’s captivity. Anne was a Protestant, and grew increasingly powerful during the rest of Francis I’s life. Francis died in March 1547.


Another portrait of Eleonore.

Despite being virtually ignored by her husband, Eleonore was a successful Queen Consort of France. She frequently supported charitable works, and took special care in raising her two stepdaughters. Eleonore was present as Queen of France for all official events, as well. She was considered to be, in modern terms, the life of the party at court. She tried her best to secure successful marriages for her stepchildren, and to maintain peace between her husband and brother. Unfortunately, Francis and Charles resumed their battles in 1536, until Pope Paul III acted as intermediary between the two monarchs, creating a ten-year armistice between Francis and Charles in 1538. 

The armistice settled that matter until 1544, when Henry VIII of England and Charles V agreed to attack Francis. Eleonore intervened and begged her brother for lasting peace, which led to the Treaty of Crepy in 1544. Later that year, in November, Eleonore left the French court for her sister Maria’s in Brussels, where Charles V was also staying at the time. Maria had taken the place of their aunt as Regent of the Low Countries. She returned later on.

After Francis I died in 1547, Eleonore, now roughly 49 years old, left the French court for good and returned to Maria’s court in Brussels. She and married witnessed Charles’ Farewell Speech to his courtiers in October 1555, when he officially handed over the Low Countries to his son Philip II. Ten months later, in August 1556, the three siblings left for Spain on calm seas. They were not initially welcomed, but managed to settle in peacefully. The sisters traveled to Valladolid, where they were greeted at the palace by one of their nieces through Charles, Joanna of Portugal. They stayed in Valladolid until 1557, before moving to another castle. In December of that year, Eleonore saw her daughter Duchess Maria of Viseu. The 37-year-old Maria was cool and haughty toward her mother, and left after only a couple weeks. Eleonore was saddened by the encounter.

Elonore Witwe

Eleonore as a Widow.

The last months of her life, Eleonore and Maria visited their  brother Charles. The sisters embarked on a pilgrimage to Senora de Guadalupe in February 1558. During the early days of the pilgrimage, Eleonore fainted for unknown reasons. She was quickly taken to a farmhouse to convalesce, and died there on 18 February 1558. Charles and Maria were devastated, and themselves died in Autumn 1558. Eleonore is entombed in El Escorial.

Love learning about the Early Modern period? Are you interested in Tudor history or Women’s history? Then check out my book, Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s ‘Beloved Sister’, a new biography about Anna of Cleves told from the German perspective!

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Sources & Suggested Reading

  1. von Wurzbach, Constantin. “Habsburg, Eleonore von Oesterreich (Tochter Philipp’s von Oesterreich).”  Biographisches Lexikon des Kaiserthums Oesterreich. Part 6. Vienna: Kaiserlich-königliche Hof- und Staatsdruckerei (1860).
  2. Treffer, Gerd. “Eleonore von Habsburg.” Die Franzoezische Koeniginnen: Von Bertrada bis Maria Antoinette (8. — 18. Jahrhundert). Regensburg: Pustet (1996).
  3. Darsie, Heather R. Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s ‘Beloved Sister’. Stroud: Amberley Publishing (2019).
  4. “Die Habsburger — Eleonore, Koenigin von Portugal und Frankreich”.

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