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The 10 Female Heir's of Burgundy (982-1678)

Did you know that the County of Burgundy had TEN female heads of state between 982-1678? Admittedly, it was on just two rare occasions that they did rule independently, without a male co-ruler but these ten women came into their position not via marriage but rather via inheritance.

The County of Burgundy Coat of Arms that were in use until the 13th century.

The County of Burgundy was a medieval French feudal state that was ruled by a count for almost 700 years. During those years, on TEN occasions, the ruling head was hereditarily a female.

Located in eastern France the county had a relatively large degree of autonomy, which remained in place, even after coming under the rule of the Holy Roman Empire in eleventh-twelfth centuries. This autonomy remained until the beginning of the fourteenth century when France took a greater interest after the land was united with the neighbouring French territory of the Duchy of Burgandy (today Burgundy).

In 1493 the county was transferred to Habsburg Spain however it was conquered by France 181 years later in 1674. Just four years after this though local rule was abolished and it came under direct French control with all lands ceded to France.

The Duchy of Burgundy remained an independent vassal of France until the French Revolution. The region is today known as Bourgogne-Franche-Comte with the last claimant renouncing the title in 1918.


This is a quick snapshot of the ten women who held the title “Countess or Duchess” in their own right, not by marriage as was most common for women during this era.

(The years ruled are in brackets)

Beatrice I (1148-1184)

The first female head of state in her own right was Countess Beatrice I. Born in 1143 she was the only surviving child of her Father and aged just five, when he died, she inherited the County (a regent remained in place until she was sixteen and married). This made her one of the most desirable brides in Europe, which helped her secure a wedding to Emperor Frederick I, of the Holy Roman Empire.

Beatrice I & Frederick, c. 1170 (Berlin State Museum Numismatic Collection)

She was sixteen years old when they married (he was 34) and at this time Frederick took control of the County as per tradition, which means that her name has largely been forgotten.

In 1178 Frederick was crowned King of Burgundy but Beatrice was not crowned Queen (she had been crowned as Empress of the Holy Roman Empire though).

Despite this, after his coronation Frederick left Burgundy and it appears that Beatrice was left behind to govern by herself. She is remembered as being well educated and a patron of the arts. She had eleven children with Frederick of which six inherited titles from their Father, including Holy Roman Emperor, Duke of Swabia and Count of Burgundy.

In 1184 Beatrice died aged around just 40 years and her husband Frederick remained King of Burgundy until his death in 1190. At this time the couple’s son Otto inherited the title of Count however he would rule for just a decade before the title once again came into the hands of a female.

Joan I (1200-1205) & Beatrice II (1205-1231)

At barely eleven years of age, Joan, the eldest daughter of Otto (noted above) became Countess when her Father was assassinated in 1200. Not yet of age she had a regent and sadly she remained Countess for just five years before she too died. At this time her younger sister Beatrice II succeeded her, aged just 12. Her Uncle, who was a German King as Duke of Swabia, ensured her rule and when she was of age she married Otto, Duke of Merania. Ironically, this uncle was killed at the couple’s wedding!

After the marriage Otto (her husband) assumed the role of Count and again a Beatrice was pushed to the back. Otto lost great plots of land in the Burgundy County, but he also had his own kingdom to rule. Beatrice died in 1231 and the couple had just one male heir who inherited all of Otto’s titles when he died in 1134. This heir would produce no children, so once again a female would rise to the title of Countess in her own right; his sister, Adelaide.

Adelaide (1248-1279)

The year in which Adelaide was born is unclear but we do know that in 1248 she inherited the title of Countess of Burgundy after her brother’s death. At this time, she had already been married for ten years to Hugh III of Chalon (he had no title) and the couple had at least seven children. Hugh was named Count and her co-ruler.

After Hugh died in 1266, she married Count Philip I of Savoy which made her Countess of Savoy as well as Countess of Burgundy. Philip thus became Count of Burgundy as her co-ruler. This second marriage did not produce any children and when she died in 1279 her son Otto from her first marriage assumed the title of Count of Burgundy (he had already become Count of Chalon upon his Father’s death 13 years earlier).

Joan II (1303-1330)

When otto IV died in 1303 he had no living male heir and so the county passed to his daughter Joan. Aged around 16, she was titled Joan II, Countess of Burgundy and attracted the highly sort-after match of the French King’s second son, Philip. The couple were married in 1307 and it appears that they had a good marriage with several children and Philip showering her in gifts. In 1318 he gave her the property of all Jews in Burgundy.

The seal of June II, c. 1290

Joan was placed under house arrest in 1314 for supposedly having knowledge of her sister Blanche’s adultery. At one point she was even accused of adultery herself, but Philip stood by her, and she was able to return to court. Joan was very close to Blanche who had been married to Philip’s younger brother Charles and remained supportive of her even after she was found guilty, had her head shaved and was sentenced to life imprisonment. Blanche had been pregnant during the trial and gave birth to her second child, a daughter named Joan, while imprisoned. Sadly, both children died in infancy.

After his brother’s death and the death of the young heir, Joan's husband Philip became King of France in 1316 making Joan Queen (always styled Queen Consort). Philip died in 1322 at which time his brother Charles became King (Blanche's husband).

Blanche was therefore Queen even though she remained imprisoned. The Pope annulled the marriage before she could be crowned and due to her years imprisoned, she died in 1326. Joan took her death to heart and remained sorrowful.

After the death of her husband Philip, Joan appears to have been allowed to continue to rule in her own right without a regent. Across the history of these 10 female Burgundy rulers, just two would rule without a male co-ruler.

In 1329 the Joan's mother died, and Joan inherited her county of Artois, thus becoming Countess of Artois as well as Countess of Burgundy. Sadly, just oner year later in 1330 Joan also died. In her will she left a provision that meant a college had to be established in Paris named the Burgundy College.

Joan III (1330-1346)

Joan and Philip had five children of which only four survived into adulthood, all girls. For this reason, when Joan II died in 1330, she was succeeded as Countess of Burgundy and Countess of Artois by her eldest daughter Joan III.

The new coat of arms for Burgundy after the duchy and county were joined with the marriage of Joan III & Odo IV in 1318.

Joan III was aged 22 when her mother died and she’d already become Duchess of Burgundy in 1318 when she married Odo IV, Duke of the neighbouring Duchy (he also thus became co-ruler of Burgundy joining the county and duchy together).

The couple had just one son, Philip who died during the siege of Aiguillon when he fell from his horse in 1346. Thus, the following year when Joan III died Philip’s young 4-year-old son, also named Philip, became Count of Burgundy. He also became Duke of Burgundy when his Grandfather Philip died in 1349.

Margaret I (1361-1382) & Margaret II (1384-1405)

Margaret I by Jacques Le Boucq. Work produced 1520-1573. (Source: Arras Media Library)

The county returned to female rule 14 years later when Philip died aged just 15 with no heirs. The next in line was Joan III’s younger sister Margaret who was aged 51 when she became ruler of Burgundy.

In 1320, aged just 10, Margaret had married Count Louis I of Flanders and the couple had one son, also named Louis. When her husband died in 1346, she served as regent for young Louis.

Her Granddaughter Margaret was married to her sister’s Grandson, Philip, Count of Burgundy in 1357. At the time young Margaret was just seven and Philip was 11. When Philip died, the county transferred to the elder Margaret who ruled in her own right until her death in 1382 (just the second female to rule Burgundy without a male co-ruler).

Margaret II by unknown artist (Source: Hospice Notre-Dame Museum)

Upon Margaret I’s death, her sole heir and son Louis inherited the county however just two years later he also died, and all his titles were passed to his sole heir, Margaret (who had been married to Philip).

When Philip had died France had claimed the Duchy of Burgundy and the King of France’s youngest son, Philip had been granted the Duchy. He subsequently married Margaret who thus maintained her title of Duchess and he served as co-ruler of the County of Burgundy until his death in 1404. The following year, 1405 Margaret died, and her titles were transferred to her son John.

It would be seventy years before a female would rule the duchy again.

Mary "The Rich" (1477-1482)

Aged almost 20, Mary was the only child of the Duke of Burgundy when he died during battle in 1477. The ruling family of Burgundy now held vast estates of land including the duchies of Limburg, Brabant, Luxembourg and several counties. This made Mary a desirable bride, as well as one of the richest women of the time.

Mary of Burgundy by Niklas Reiser, c. 1500 (Source: Museum of Fine Arts, Vienna, Austria)

To ensure no other rulers came battling for her land once she was Duchess, she married Maximillian of Austria (he would later become Holy Roman Emperor). This helped perpetuate the ill-feeling between the Habsburg’s and the French who were keen to claim the lands for themselves.

Maximillian served as co-ruler of Burgundy and the couple had a very close marriage by comparison to many others of the era. Mary raised her children herself and the couple maintained a shared bedroom where they read romance novels together.

Despite the happy marriage, Maximillian was considered a foreigner and, given the past ties with France many locals struggled with the new “foreign” political norm. The French did manage to obtain some of the lands, mainly due to the financial struggles of the duchy due to past wars and campaigns by previous rulers.

In 1482, while taking part in a hunt with her husband, Mary was thrown from her horse and broke her back when the horse fell on top of her. She was pregnant at the time and sadly died several weeks later from internal injuries. Maximillian was distraught and despite the financial hardship of the duchy an extravagant funeral was held.

Now with Mary gone, her two-year-old daughter, Margaret was sent to France to marry the heir to the French throne, in hope they would not invade. Eventually she would be returned to her family when the heir elected to marry someone else.

Mary was a popular figure who was the subject of countless artworks. She is one of the most celebrated Duchesses of Burgundy.

Upon her death, Maximilian maintained control of the duchy which then passed into the House of Habsburg through their son Philip.

Isabella Clara Eugenia (1598-1621)

Portrait of Isabella and Albert by Otto Van Veen, 1615 (Source: The Earl of Wemyss and March Collection)

It would be another century before a female ruled the duchy again. The final female in this story is Isabella Clara Eugenia, for whom this duchy was a minor title! The daughter of King Philip II of Spain and the French Elizabeth of Valois, she was indeed of noble birth (at one point she was even a possible heir to the French throne and the Catholic alternative to England’s Queen Elizabeth).

In 1599, Isabella was promised the lands of the Spanish Netherlands if she married Albert VII, Archduke of Austria. If they had a male heir, the lands would remain in their line of succession but if they didn’t then the lands would revert to the King of Spain. When Albert died in 1621, as they had no surviving children, she was made Governor on behalf of the Spanish King. All of her titles at this time passed onto her nephew Philip VIII, King of Spain. She remained Governor until her death in 1633.


In 1678 Burgundy was annexed by France once and for all. The Duchy of Burgundy remained an independent vassal of France until the French Revolution.

The historical region of Burgundy (Source: Encyclopaedia Britanica)

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