Queens who have influenced history #
A queen who does not enforce her laws is no queen at all.
Women are repeatedly written out of history.
In the earliest times the Sovereign was a key figure in the enforcement of law and the establishment of legal systems in different areas of the Commonwealth. As such the Sovereign became known as the ‘Fount of Justice’. While no longer administering justice in a practical way, the Sovereign today still retains an important symbolic role as the figure in whose name justice is carried out, and law and order is maintained.
Today democracy bestows sovereign power to the “will of the people”.
Queens juggle the brutal tensions between familial bonds and political duties — through details of the domestic and mundane: the machinations of sovereigns and courts.
A common thread that runs through most of the reigns of Queens is how improbable their careers were. Each had to overcome enormous obstacles to avoid death to become monarchs.
Semiramis, was the queen regent of the Assyrian Empire (reigned 811-806 BCE) who held the throne for her young son Adad Nirari III until he reached maturity.
According to scholar Gwendolyn Leick, “This woman achieved remarkable fame and power in her lifetime and beyond. According to contemporary records, she had considerable influence at the Assyrian court” (155).
Officially, known as Cleopatra VII, a name adopted from the beloved Cleopatra I, a young Syrian woman who married Egypt’s Ptolemy V. While they attempted to keep the blood lines pure through incest, there was no family loyalty – only bloody rivalry for power.
Egypt’s failing fortunes were already in serious decline while Cleopatra was educated in preparation to inherit its perilous throne at 16 years of age. Wracked by treacherous infighting of advisors to competing deadly siblings. It is believed that she killed her younger brother to eliminate his claim.
Cleopatra was only able to consolidate her blood soaked power struggle by seducing Julius Caesar for support. One story had it that she was rolled up by a carpet, carried into his chamber, and then unravelled in her splendor.
Shakespeare, using poetic licence, has Agrippa describe it thus:
Royal wench! She made great Caesar lay his sword to bed:
He plough’d her, and she cropp’d.
After the death of Caesar she seduced Mark Antony and ruled Egypt successfully from 51 – 31 BC.
When Cleopatra VII committed suicide, it was the end of the long-standing (300 year) Ptolemaic dynasty and the end of Egypt’s independence for almost 2000 years:
Boadicea, or Boudicca, was a Celtic warrior queen who united several British tribes in revolt against the Roman occupation in 60-61 BC. When her husband was killed and her daughters raped by the Romans, she waited until they were engaged in a revolt in Wales before she raised and led an army of 80,000 troops for revenge.
Rousing her troops with spirited war cries of death or slavery, they fought valiantly but were defeated by a better organised superior force and she took poison.
– Anglo-Saxon Queen and Saint by Elaine Thornton
Etheldreda was one of England’s most popular saints, and her shrine at Ely was a site of pilgrimage up to the Reformation. The daughter of Anna, King of the East Angles, she was brought up in the Christian faith (at the time of her birth some kingdoms, notably Mercia, were still pagan).
Etheldreda entered into two arranged marriages. The first was to an ealdorman, or chieftain, of the local South Gyrwe tribe, a man named Tondberht, who died a few years later. She was then married to Ecgfrith, a prince of Northumbria. Ecgfrith and Etheldreda became King and Queen of Northumbria in 670.
Etheldreda was venerated as a virgin saint. In the early church, virginity was prized as the highest state of life for both men and women, and Bede is insistent that Etheldreda remained a virgin throughout both of her marriages. He says that he consulted Bishop Wilfrid, who had been Etheldreda’s spiritual advisor, on the subject, and that Wilfrid had unequivocally confirmed her virginity.
Bishop Wilfrid a number of times to intercede with Etheldreda, to persuade her to consummate the marriage, but she consistently refused and begged to be allowed to become a nun. Eventually, after twelve years of marriage, Ecgfrith agreed to let her go, and she entered the monastery of Coldingham. This allowed Ecgfrith to remarry, which he did. He died in battle, fighting the Picts, in 685.
Etheldreda returned to her home in the Kingdom of the East Angles and founded her own monastery at Ely, where she became Abbess and was famed for her ascetic lifestyle. Etheldreda’s foundation was a double monastery, housing both men and women, which was the practice of the Anglo-Saxon church up to 787, when the Second Council of Nicaea banned mixed foundations.
Etheldreda died in 679, from a tumour in her neck – which she is said to have regarded as a divine punishment for her earlier fondness for necklaces.
Caterina Cornaro #
Caterina Cornaro, one of the most significant woman of Venice’s golden age, Cornaro (1454-1510) was an important figure in Renaissance politics, diplomacy and arts. She reigned as the queen of Cyprus for 16 years under immense pressure.
As a patron of the arts, she was painted by greats such as Dürer, Titian, Bellini and Giorgione.
Caterina was the last monarch of the Kingdom of Cyprus between 1474 and 1489. Her tragic reign saw the Mediterranean island transfer from the hands of the Lusignan dynasty who had dominated the island since the Crusades, to the Republic of Venice, one of the clearest signs of the mercantile nation-state flexing its imperial muscle.
Isabella of Castile #
One of the more remarkable and powerful monarchs of Europe, Isabella is credited with unifying Spain and making it the most powerful country in the world for some 80 years.
Her inauspicious, tenuous beginning could easily have consigned to the dustbin of history, however her tenacious ambition and defiant disposition saw her resist attempts to marry her off to some impotent suitor.
Instead, she set her eye on Ferdinand, the heir to Aragon, caught his attention and arranged a marriage between the two. Convenient deaths of a few rivals found her in an opportune position to claim the throne on the death of her ailing uncle Enrique and she was able to unite the two houses of Castile and Aragon to strengthen the Catholic Monarchs hold on power and gradually reclaim all of Spain under their rule.
Ferdinand proved a weak, yet potent man. At 19, he already had two illegitimate children and after marrying Isabella, produced four daughters while openly conducting many affairs. While he was looking around for who he could bonk next, Isabella used these indiscretions to take charge of political events.
A devout Catholic, Isabella hed the support of many Cardinals who gained the Pope’s backing. Later it was her integrity that caused her to question the corruption of Rome, under Pope Alexander VI, causing open hostility.
Initially she enjoyed the support and great relations with both Jewish and the Moors of Grenada, Toledo and Cordoba.
Isabella became a formidable warrior Queen, adept at the logistics of supplying armies and inspiring her soldiers to victory. Due to her fear of the barbaric expansion of the Ottoman Muslims, Spain, worried by a potential fifth column of Moors and its proximity to Africa, Isabella decided to attack Granada and expel all the remaining Moorish population.
She was also unable to oppose the pressure to get rid of the Jewish population as well. Determined to create a monocultural country, this expulsion deprived Spain of its rich diversity, ultimately weakening it.
Her greatest stroke of luck was sponsoring Columbus’s trips to the new world and benefiting from the gold that flowed into Spain. This allowed it to consolidate its power to build up naval and military forces. Ill health claimed her life at the young age of 53. She managed to secure favourable marriages for her daughters, including Catherine to the English King Henry VIII.
Eventually under her grandson, Charles V, Spain became the dominant power of Europe until its misfortunate and inglorious defeat of the Spanish Armada by England in 1588. He also became the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.
Queen Elizabeth I 1558 – 1603 #
The daughter of Anne Boelyn and Henry VIII, Elizabeth found herself in an extremely precarious position in 1553. Imprisoned and facing imminent death by beheading by the righteous and pious Bloody Queen Mary, she was saved by the monarch’s sudden death, and instead became the next in line for the heavy crown. Elizabeth emerged as one of the world’s best ever monarchs.
Ravaged by the intolerance of Catholic and Church of England disputes, where Henry VIII confiscated all Catholic Church property and strung up hundreds of Catholics who refused to accept him as head of the Church.
Henry was followed by Bloody Queen Mary who reacted by doing the same to those who refused to follow her back to Catholicism. 280 Protestants were burned. When Catherine suddenly died at the age of 42, Elizabeth, under a death sentence, was released from prison and became the new Queen.
Elizabeth became the model of tolerance; “we will not make windows of men’s souls”. Most Catholics simply went underground. The vast majority of the nobility remained covertly Catholic, while most of her advisors were “fairweather” Protestants. Most fireplaces harboured holes to hide Priests.
Religion meant everything so the wisdom went:
“Obey the Pope in religion; the Queen in politics”.
Under her reign England prospered into the “Golden Era” and by defeating the Spanish Armada in 1588 emerged as a powerful naval force –
“They who rule the waves, can waive the rules”.
Much of its ill gotten wealth came from pirating Spanish gold from South America, but soon England founded its own colonies and under its mercantilist policy became extremely wealthy and expansionist to the point where “the sun never set on the British Empire”. Elizabeth never married, leaving no heirs but was loved by all her subjects and by history.
Elizabeth made herself visible to her subjects, displaying her connection to the people and the magnificence of her power by progressing around the county with her entourage of 400 carriages and wagons, armed outriders, banners and buglers, 2400 horses and a court of about 350. The nobility lived in fear, because any visit by her to your estate could bankrupt you.
Magnificence costs money and Elizabeth did tax the people heavily. Royalty depends on a bureaucracy of comptrollers, treasurers, chaplains, clerks, stewards, private secretaries, lord servants, lord chamberlains, physicians, apothecaries, cooks, pages, and servants to the servants. In court Elizabeth had to make do with only 30 female attendants, many who became frisky and uncontrollable due to lack of duties. Her groom of the stool – literally the supervisor of regal bowel movements, became one of the most powerful, providing great access. Elizabeth’s godson is credited with inventing the first flush toilet. Proximity to power, is itself great power and groom of the stool evolved into one of the gatekeepers. By Charles II’s time, paid 5 thousand pounds per year.
Despite this expense, Elizabeth I is duly acknowledged as England’s most celebrated monarch. She is questionably famous for her inspiring speech to her soldiers as the Spanish Armada threatened:
“I may have the body of weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king”.
Her advisors included Sir Francis Walsingham, (1532-1590) the principal secretary to Queen Elizabeth I creating a highly effective intelligence network. He successfully thwarted England’s foreign enemies and exposed domestic plotters who sought to unseat Elizabeth and return a Roman Catholic monarch to the throne. Anticipating methods that would become routine only centuries later in the world’s intelligence services, Walsingham employed double agents, covert propaganda and disinformation, code breaking, and agents provocateurs to advance English interests. His efforts culminated in the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1587.
Catherine Medici had a fraught and complex relationship with Mary, Queen of Scots, but she defended her to Elizabeth I’s courtier Francis Walsingham, telling Walshingham she “knew very well how often people said things of a poor afflicted princess that did not always turn out to be true.” On May 24, 1570, John Felton, a well-known Catholic sympathizer nailed a copy of a papal bull issued in Rome on February 25 by Pope Pius V, entitled Regnans in Excelsis (‘Reigning on High’), declaring the excommunication of Elizabeth I. The bull, condemned ‘Elizabeth, the pretended Queen of England’ for ‘having seized on the kingdom and monstrously usurped the place of Supreme Head of the Church in all England,’ reducing ‘the said kingdom into a miserable and ruinous condition, which was so lately reclaimed to the Catholic faith’ under Mary and Philip.
It concluded: ‘We do out of the fullness of our Apostolic power declare the aforesaid Elizabeth as being a heretic and a favourer of heretics, and her adherents in the matters aforesaid, to have incurred the sentence of excommunication, and to be cut off from the unity of the Body of Christ. And moreover, We do declare her to be deprived of her pretended title to the kingdom aforesaid.’ The bull issued one last particularly divisive edict: ‘We do command and charge all and every noblemen, subjects, people, and others aforesaid that they presume not to obey her or her orders, mandates, and laws.’
“For England’s Catholics, the bull created a terrible dilemma, compelling them to choose between religion and country. For Felton, it proved fatal in the most gruesome manner. Within days of posting the bull he was arrested and imprisoned in Newgate, where he declared that Elizabeth ‘ought not to be the queen of England.' Such treasonous statements landed him in the Tower of London, where he was put on the rack and became the first Englishman to be tortured by the state for his Catholic beliefs. He was found guilty of treason and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered at the scene of his crime, in St. Paul’s churchyard. On August 8 he addressed a hostile crowd and a hangman named Bull (a joke not lost on many Protestant observers), insisting that he had done nothing wrong other than promote a solemn papal edict. Refusing the ministrations of attendant Protestant clergy, Felton was hanged, cut down before losing consciousness, and then disemboweled; as the hangman pulled out his still beating heart he is said to have cried out ‘once or twice, “Jesus,” ' before he finally expired.
Catherine the Great #
(1729 – 1796)
A German-born usurper, Catherine II, holds a significant place in Russian history, second only to Peter the Great.
She played a pivotal role in transforming Russia into a great empire, defying gender norms and expectations of her time. Catherine made Russia a European superpower and established foundations on which Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Putin based their ideologies of “Mother Russia” – she was the Mother Russia.
Catherine the Great was the longest serving Russian monarch, reigning from 1762 to her death in 1796. She presided over a revitalisation of Russian strength and partial Russian enlightenment. While Catherine embarked on liberal reforms, when problems emerged, she became more repressive.
She married Grand Duke Peter, grandson of Peter the Great and heir to the Russian throne. At first, she was viewed with suspicion in the Russian court because of her Polish roots, lack of Russian culture and liberal attitudes. However, she threw herself into Russian culture and became adept at forming relationships within the Russian court. Over time, her foreign birth became less important, as she was increasingly seen as more capable than her husband – Tsar Peter III – who was seen as weak, childish and incompetent. There was little love between Catherine and her husband. It was said that Catherine was soon engaged in various love affairs with top officials in the Russian court.
Catherine and Peter did have one son – Paul who would later succeed Catherine.
Shortly after her husband’s ascension to the throne, he was deposed and Catherine put in his place. Peter was killed shortly after; it is not known whether Catherine had any knowledge or involvement in his death.
Catherine the Great, on July 9 1762, began her reign as empress of Russia, leading her country into full participation in the political and cultural life of Europe and extending Russian territory.
“I shall be an autocrat, that’s my trade; and the good Lord will forgive me, that’s his.”
Once Catherine had gained the throne, she proved to be an astute leader, gradually widening Russia’s sphere of influence, expanding Russia’s borders and continuing a process of gradual westernisation, begun by Peter the Great.
During her reign, Russia expanded her territories into Belarus, Poland, Lithuania. By pushing the Ottoman back she reclaimed the Crimea.
Born in Poland, she was aware of the Mennonites reputation as good farmers so she induced them to displace the Turks she had driven from the Ukraine.
The first group of six desperate Mennonite families, penniless, without food or proper migration papers left Prussia in 1786, placing blind faith in the Czarina’s liberal 1762 promises. Fortunately, they were met by two exploratory delegates on their way back from the Crimea who made official contacts with proper authorities arranging free accommodation and money.
The first official wagons of settlers migrated in 1788, with eventually more than 228 families making the 12-week journey.
Many Anabaptists, like the Hutterites had supported the Turks, in the hope they would destroy the powerful princes, monks and nobles in Europe, ushering in the millennium, a period of righteousness in which Christ would rule the world. It was the brutal and savage attacks of the later Ottoman Empire that dashed that hope.
A key relationship for Catherine was with Grigory Potemkin. Their relationship was personal but also very important politically. Potemkin was very capable from a military perspective and proved to be a powerful leader in the new Russia of the south, helping to win over the people of Crimea. This helped to foster Russia as a new superpower on the European stage.
A “Potemkin village” signifies any deceptive or false construct, conjured often by cruel regimes, to deceive both those within the land and those peering in from outside. Purportedly named for fake settlements erected at the direction of Russian minister Grigori Alexsandrovich Potemkin to fool Empress Catherine II during her visit to Crimea in 1787.
In her early years, Catherine held remarkably liberal attitudes. This is best exemplified by the Legislative Commission’s document of Nakaz or ‘instruction’ It contained a model of the ideal government with respect for individual rights and the pursuit of justice. However, after the outbreak of war with the Ottoman Empire in 1768, the document became sidelined and then ignored.
Due to declining economic conditions and conscription into the Russian army, the Russian masses felt a great injustice and saw no benefit from Russia’s expansion. This led to rebellions, such as the Pugachev rebellion (1774-75) against the nobility and system of serfdom. With the help of the nobility, Catherine was able to put down the rebellion, but this hardened her stance against the liberalisation of Russian society. The nobility was given extra privileges, strengthening their power over the serf population.
Catherine was known for her great love of education, art and culture. She read widely and instituted one of the first schools for women. She corresponded with some of the greatest literary figures of the day, such as Voltaire and Diderot.
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Biography of Catherine the Great”, Oxford,
Queen Victoria #
Victoria was fifth in the line of succession for the British crown, behind the four eldest sons of George III, including her three uncles and her father, Edward.
She probably wasn’t expecting to become queen so quickly. That all changed at 6am on June 20 in 1837, when Victoria was woken from her bed and informed that her uncle, King William IV, had suffered a heart attack and died during the night.
Less than a month after turning 18, Victoria became Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and Empress of India. Rising costs of keeping the Royal Household came under closer scrutiny during Victoria’s reign. Tradition dies slowly, so when changes occurred routines failed to follow suit. The Palace of Whitehall, the main residence from 1530 – 1698, teemed with freeloaders. Married servants demanded accommodation for their families. Hundreds of extra people ate and drank at royal expense. The Palace was cluttered with people standing around doing nothing but standing around talking, smoking and fornicating.
James II introduced reforms and by George III’s reign court numbers had reduced to 600.
Victoria battled rising costs when:
- it was discovered two maids had VR monogrammed linen at home.
- One team set the fire, but a second team lit it.
- The hereditary Falconer was paid 1200 pds per annum, when she had no hawk.
- A master of the tennis court was retained even though there was no tennis court.
- 25 years after Albert died, each day his clothes were still set out and a table had been set, morning noon and night, because it was a tradition.
- Later when cars replaced horses, the number of equerries did not diminish.
Victoria managed to sharply reduce costs by more efficient use of resources.
Today Elizabeth II again has a staff of 1200, the same as James II, but a third more than Queen Victoria.
Due to the American and French Revolutions, and the Peterloo massacre, the monarchy made special efforts in connecting to the middle classes. They resolved to create an image of a happy respectable family, to offset the dissolute Hanover Dynasty. Prudery and euphemistic language characterised her age.
Albert took a keen interest in the children’s wholesome education and good - natured disciplining, however, Victoria had a more hostile, controlling and overbearing approach with corporal punishment, demonstrating an insane intent of asserting her maternal authority. Her own isolated, loveless childhood became repeated.
Most of her children were aware they were a disappointment to her. When her eldest daughter, Vicky, was to become an empress, Victoria demanded Disraeli appoint her Empress of India, even though she had nothing to do with it.
While she also railed against Darwinism, Marxism and even Feminism, her reign introduced many reforms in law, economics and poor relief.