Betrothed at seven and married seven years later, Margaret of Habsburg, the illegitimate daughter of the Emperor Charles V, became a widow in 1537, at the tender age of 15. Her 27-year-old husband, Alessandro de’Medici the Duke of Florence, the illegitimate son of Giulio de’Medici, Pope Clement VII, was lured to his death by the prospect of a tryst with a beautiful woman, only to be hacked to death by two clumsy assassins.
Margaret’s brief marriage to Alessandro ‘The Moor’ was the first chapter in an amazing life. A useful commodity in the marketplace of political deals and alliances, the daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor did not have to wait long for her next husband. At 16 she was married again, this time to the grandson of Pope Paul III, the 13-year-old Duke of Parma.
Being the older partner in her second marriage gave her an advantage. Her terrified husband gratefully accepted her string of excuses for not consummating the marriage. However, after a year of ‘headaches’, protocol demanded that the young couple share the same bed. Servants were under orders to ensure that the couple remain together from dusk to dawn.
Under the servants’ surveillance, the situation for the now 14-year-old Ottavio Farnese Duke of Parma was hardly bearable, and the strain was evident to the spies in the ducal bedchamber.
In November 1539, reports on the nuptials circulated in Rome and the notorious gossip Marco Bracci passed on what he had heard to the great collector of information in the Uffizi, Ugolino Grifoni.
‘I do not want to forget to tell you a minor detail regarding Madama [Margaret of Habsburg] that happened some days ago. While Mr Ottavio [Farnese] was sleeping with her, whether because he was dreaming or for some other reason, like a big baby he pissed himself next to Madama’.
As Bracci hints, a reason for the bedwetting is not difficult to imagine. The proximity of the widow Margaret and the attentions of a flock of fussing boudoir servants would have unnerved far older and more experienced men than the adolescent duke.
Not surprisingly the marriage remained unconsummated for a considerable number of years. However, when the 20-year-old duke left on a military expedition to North Africa and returned from Algiers with a serious wound, Margaret’s reaction was to personally nurse her young ‘knight’ back to health. Not only did he regain full fitness under the concerned care of his wife, but mutual affection bloomed. Margaret gave birth to twin sons.
According to reports, the 48–year marriage that had begun so unpromisingly was the foundation for the political successes of both Margaret and Ottavio. She lived to see her son Alessandro appointed governor-general of the Netherlands, a role in which he distinguished himself as a diplomat and general. As for Ottavio, he gained the affection of his people as a moderate and wise ruler. Husband and wife died within eight months of each other in 1586.
Francesca Funis is a DeRoy Research Fellow at the Medici Archive Project. The text was edited by Mike Samuda.