The Queens of England and Great Britain
I want to stay away for current politics for now. I’ve always been somewhat of an Anglophile and very interested in English history. In a way, it makes sense; much of what made the United States, the institutions, representative government, language, etc., came directly from its being part of Great Britain prior to the American Revolution. Interestingly, America has yet to elect a woman as President or Vice President, while the British have had several women lead their nation and empire, some with real power. So if you want a bit of a history lesson, I provide you with the women who led England and Great Britain as reigning queens.
For as long as I’ve been alive, Queen Elizabeth II has been the monarch of Great Britain, having attained the throne in 1952 after the death of her father, King George VI. As of this date, she is the oldest monarch ever to sit on the English or British throne, and is blessed as of this year to have had the third longest reign (58 years) in English and British history after having passed the lengthy reign of Henry III, who reigned from 1216 through 1272 (only Victoria’s 63-year reign and George III’s 59-year reign are longer). While not having much power, Elizabeth’s personal life has done much to dignify the monarchy in Britain, despite the travails of her children, including the man who is destined to succeed her, Charles, the Prince of Wales. It remains to be seen if Charles will succeed as King Charles III or will pass the succession to the man who would eventually succeed Charles no matter what, William (he will eventually be crowned King William V).
I bring this up because after Elizabeth dies, there won’t be any women who could succeed to the throne of Great Britain anytime soon. Many countries over the centuries have struggled with female monarchs, if they ever had them at all; France never had a ruling Queen, and there was never any law allowing for one. The Holy Roman Empire had one, and a war was fought by the major European powers to have her removed because there was a law in place that did not allow women to rule. England, on the other hand, never had a law in place to disallow women to succeed to the thrones as rulers; however, even today, the men are favored over the women. The main reason is traditional because kings, especially those from more than 250 years ago, had to be warriors as well as rulers, while women were never trained to fight; it was in the country’s best interest to have a king who could lead armies directly in battle, which was often done. As a result, it took quite awhile for women to become English rulers. As with the men, the queens are a mixed bag of great, not so great, and downright awful rulers.
Empress Matilda: She’s first on the list, although she actually never was crowned Queen of England. Matilda was the eldest daughter of King Henry I, himself the third son of the Norman William I (William the Conqueror; Henry reigned from 1100 to 1135; he eventually became Duke of Normandy as well after eliminating his eldest brother Robert and Robert’s son William), and Edith Matilda of Scotland; Edith Matilda was descended from the Saxon line of English kings that had been overthrown by William I (that also means Elizabeth II’s ancestors go back to the Saxon King Ecgbert of Wessex, who ruled from 800 to 839). Empress Matilda had first been married for a short time to one of the Holy Roman Emperors (hence the title of Empress), while her brother William was destined to succeed Henry. However, William died in a shipwreck. It took years, but Henry exacted oaths from all his magnates in England, his Norman territories in France, and his family members who ruled other French territories, including Stephen of Blois (Henry’s nephew and Matilda’s first cousin), to support Matilda as Henry’s successor. Henry also married Matilda off to Geoffrey Le Bec (Plantagenet) of Anjou, the son of one of Henry’s rivals, Count Fulk V of Anjou. But after Henry died in 1135, Stephen ended up ignoring his promise to back Matilda as queen and usurped not only the throne of England for himself, but also the duchy of Normandy. Enough of the other nobles in Normandy and England broke their promise, providing the support to allow Stephen to become king; although Matilda had strong support as well, especially from her husband’s lands, it wasn’t enough. A civil war began almost immediately, and went hot and cold over the next 15 years or so. The closest Matilda got to the throne was in 1141 after her forces had captured London and had held King Stephen in captivity. Unfortunately for Matilda, she was captured by the king’s forces a few months later and the protagonists were swapped for each other. Stephen’s support in Normandy eroded as Matilda’s husband Geoffrey, now Count of Anjou, slowly took it over. By 1151, Geoffrey’s and Matilda’s son Henry had succeeded his father (now deceased) as Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou, with the throne beckoning. But while Stephen was alive, neither Matilda or Henry could make any further headway, nor could Stephen beat them. Eventually, a truce was arranged whereby it was agreed that Henry would succeed Stephen. Stephen still had a trump card to play for a short time as he did have a son, Eustace; however, that was gone after Eustace died a year later. Stephen died in 1154 and without any struggle, the throne passed to Matilda’s son, the great King Henry II. But Matilda never did get to be crowned queen. The first attempt to put a woman on the throne of England was a bloody disaster.
Lady Jane Grey: It would be 400 years before another woman was considered for the throne. There had been women who had been queens by marriage to a king; some were quite powerful, such as King Edward II’s wife, Queen Isabella, who in 1327 overthrew her husband to put their son on the throne as King Edward III, with Isabella as regent. In 1553, all of the males of the ruling Tudor line had gone extinct with the death of the teenage King Edward VI. Edward was the son of King Henry VIII and his third wife Jane Seymour (she died not long after Edward’s birth). But, as is well known, Henry had two daughters: Mary, by Henry’s first wife Catherine of Aragon; and, Elizabeth, by second wife Anne Boleyn. Edward, being very young (10) when he became king, never married during his short 6-year reign and had no children to succeed him. While it would be seemingly automatic that his eldest sister Mary succeed him, Edward did not want his very Catholic sister to become queen and really wanted his very Protestant cousin Jane Grey to succeed him; Jane was a grand-niece of Henry VIII, through Henry’s younger sister. As with Matilda, Jane was never crowned, although she did rule of sorts for nine days. The vast majority of nobles, many of whom were Catholic, supported Mary over Jane, and the former was eventually crowned as Queen Mary I. Jane was thrown into the Tower of London, where she stayed for several months. Mary never wanted to execute Jane, but circumstances related to an attempt to usurp Mary’s crown was put down and Jane paid with her life. As with the first, the second attempt at putting a woman on the throne of England was a dismal failure, although that failure led to the successful third attempt.
Mary I: Henry VIII’s eldest daughter had a very trying life after the king attempted and succeeded in divorcing Mary’s mother Catherine of Aragon; Henry renounced the Catholic faith and installed the first iteration of the Church of England in its stead, with Henry as the leader, in order to get the divorce to happen. Mary was deemed illegitimate and removed from the succession for awhile; she was also required to adhere to the new faith, but secretly remained a Catholic during the remainder of her father’s and half-brother’s reigns. Mary, along with her mother Catherine, suffered greatly through this period, although the people had actually supported Catherine over Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn. Like Catherine, Anne did not bear any sons (they had one daughter, Elizabeth), which caused her to lose Henry to a new rival, Jane Seymour, the future mother of Henry’s eventual successor, Edward VI; Anne was tried for treason and for being a witch, and beheaded not long after Catherine died. After the birth of Henry’s son Edward, Mary was not only restored to royal favor but also to the succession during Edward’s reign, although she had to remain a Protestant. Mary became queen after Edward died and the attempt to put Jane Grey on the throne was thwarted. Immediately, Mary, with the support of most of the nobles, reinstituted Roman Catholicism as England’s religion; as a part of that, a reported 300 Protestants were burned at the stake for not renouncing the faith established by Henry and Edward, including the then-Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer (this is how Mary I earned the epithet “Bloody Mary”). She also married the Habsburg Prince Philip, who was soon to be King Philip II of Spain. Both sets of actions, the executions and the marriage to the Spanish king, were not taken very well by either the nobles or the people of England; attempts to overthrow Mary in favor of Elizabeth were put down harshly (although Elizabeth was never part of these plots, she did spend a short time in the Tower until her innocence was ascertained). Mary’s main goal was to give birth to a son to succeed her; her age (she was 39 when she became queen) worked against her and she never did get pregnant. Eventually Mary, never an attractive woman, lost the interest of her Spanish husband, and she died in 1558 after a reign of five years. I can imagine that Mary was quite bitter on her deathbed knowing that, although she had become queen, she had a harsh childhood, and knowing that she had no children, a husband who deserted her, and a successor who wasn’t a Catholic. History has not looked kindly upon Mary, nor should it; her rule was not a bit successful. But she was the first reigning Queen of England.
Elizabeth I: The second child of King Henry VIII and the half-sister of King Edward VI and Queen Mary I, Elizabeth had a tough childhood as well. After her mother’s fall from royal grace, Elizabeth was deemed illegitimate; like Mary, Elizabeth was eventually returned to both royal favor and the succession, although her chances of being queen were remote; her chances worsened for a short time after the attempt to put Jane Grey on the throne, although that ended fairly quickly. While Mary was in charge, Elizabeth had to retain the public appearance of being a Catholic, although she remained a Protestant. And she finally attained the throne of England as Queen Elizabeth I following the death of Mary. Elizabeth ended up having the third longest reign up to that time (after the 56-year reign of Henry III from 1216 to 1272 and the 50-year reign of Edward III from 1327 to 1377), 44 years, from 1558 to 1603 (the length of her reign is now the sixth longest). Elizabeth’s reign, on the whole, was very successful, although there were bumps along the way. Having never married, and thus no children, the succession was a sticking point throughout her reign. Although there were plenty of suitors who courted her along the way, from King Philip II of Spain (Mary’s husband) all the way through Thomas Devereax, Earl of Essex, Elizabeth had no intention of giving up her power to any man; thus she remained single. Her foreign policy was one of mostly appeasement to avoid a major assault by the then most powerful country in the world, Spain, or any of the other major powers of Europe. Her policy with Ireland was a disaster. There were periodic plots, the most serious of which implicated her cousin Queen Mary of Scotland (Mary, Queen of Scots; Mary was descended from Henry VIII’s older sister), whom Elizabeth eventually had beheaded. And then there was the succession. Where she did succeed was in setting the Church of England on the course to what it is today, which is a far different, and less harsh, version than what her brother Edward had in mind for it. By the end of her reign, Elizabeth had succeeded in getting the vast majority of the people to adhere to the faith. Elizabeth also succeeded greatly against arch-rival Philip and Spain; in 1588, the Spanish Armada was wrecked to near incapacitation by a combination of English naval gunnery and the fortunes of weather (the Protestant Wind). She also sent the first expedition, led by Sir Walter Raleigh, to set up an English colony in North America, in what is now North Carolina; although it failed, it wouldn’t be the last attempt by England to colonize what is now the United States. And while many English kings meddled greatly in the affairs of Scotland, Elizabeth never did stir up all that much trouble there. In the end, she settled the succession question by naming the son of her cousin and rival, Mary, Queen of Scots, to be the next King of England as King James I (he was also King James VI of Scotland, which he retained). When Elizabeth died in 1603, the ruling English Tudor line was extinguished and the dynasty of the Scottish Stuarts took over. But it had been proven that a women could successfully rule England. Queen Elizabeth I has gone down in history as one of England’s greatest monarchs.
Mary II: For centuries, English kings meddled in Scottish affairs and Scottish kings meddled in English affairs. Even though England almost always had the upper hand against its northern neighbor, Scotland did maintain its independence (except for a brief period during the latter years of Edward I and the early years of his son Edward II). So it is with great irony that a Scottish king would ascend to the throne of England as well when the Stuart King James I & VI (of England and Scotland, respectively) became ruler of both lands following the death of Queen Elizabeth I. The Stuart dynasty was followed constantly by trouble following the death of James. The next ruler, King Charles I, was kicked off the throne and beheaded in 1649 after an uprising by members of Parliament turned into the English Civil War. After the monarchy was restored in 1660 with reduced power under Charles I’s eldest son, King Charles II reigned in a manner such that he made sure he retained some power by playing one rival against another. Being childless, the crown was passed to Charles’ younger brother King James II & VII after Charles died in 1685. Worse for the dynasty, James had renounced the Church of England and was a practicing Catholic. He ruled in such a way as to antagonize Parliament and the Protestant majority, especially the two surviving daughters of his first marriage to Anne Hyde, Mary and Anne, both strict adherents to the Church of England. As James’ eldest child, Mary was destined to follow her father on the throne. But a wrinkle occurred; James had remarried several years earlier a girl of 15 (he was 40), the Italian Catholic Mary of Modena. In the last year of his 3-year reign, James and Mary had a son, also called James, a son who would not only be heir to the throne, but would also be a Catholic. Parliament had had enough; they reached out to Mary and her husband, the Protestant noble of the Dutch Republic William of Orange (they were also first cousins), and secured a deal whereby James would be forced off the throne and replaced by William and Mary if William would land a Dutch army on to English soil. It was agreed and what history has called The Glorious Revolution was successful, although it was bloodier than what has been depicted; William fought several battles against James and his supporters in Scotland and Ireland to secure the throne. A final settlement with Parliament was reached within months of James’ forced abdication (James eventually settled in France for the remainder of his life) and it was determined that William (as King William III & II) and Mary (as Queen Mary II) would jointly rule, although William would retain all the increasingly reduced political power provided to the monarchs by Parliament. For the remaining five and a half years of Mary’s life, William was off at war both against James and against the powerful King Louis XIV of France, who was waging a war to conquer William’s Dutch territories, with Mary acting more as William’s regent than as the ruling queen. They had no children. Mary died at the end of 1694, while William remained as the sole monarch for the remainder of his life.
Anne: Anne Stuart, the youngest living adult child of King James II & VII and Anne Hyde, was never destined for the throne, especially after the birth of her half-brother James. But then came the overthrow of her father in the Glorious Revolution and the settlement that put William and Mary on the throne; after Mary’s death, Anne was the heir apparent to the throne, which came about in 1701 following the death of William. Unlike her sister, Anne had had several children; unfortunately for her and the dynasty, none of them lived to adulthood. Anne’s reign saw two major events during her 14-year rule: England’s involvement in the War of the Spanish Succession; and, who would succeed her. The former came about because the Habsburg king of Spain, Charles II, had died after naming Philip of France as his heir. King Philip V of Spain was also the grandson of King Louis XIV of France; therefore, Philip was also a potential heir to that country’s throne. England allied with the Dutch, Prussia, and much of the Holy Roman Empire against Louis and France; the war expanded into North America where the English and French fought each other as well (England expanded her North American possessions, but France still held much sway after it was over; the two nations would fight several more times in North America over the next several decades). After the 13-year War of the Spanish Succession in which the great English general John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough (an ancestor of Winston Churchill) distinguished himself, a treaty was signed that kept Philip from ever being considered as an heir to the French throne (after Louis died in 1715, his great-grandson King Louis XV became ruler of France). The succession issue was actually a much stickier matter for Anne. As Anne had no living children (her husband had died in 1709), the natural order would have required her half-brother James to succeed to the throne. But because James was Catholic, Parliament wouldn’t stand for it. So Parliament passed as series of Acts that not only combined the governments of England and Scotland, but denied any possibility of James or his progeny from attaining either throne, or any other Catholic for that matter, and Anne agreed. It was determined that a descendant of James I’s eldest daughter would be the next monarch; at the time, they ruled over the duchy of Hanover in Germany and were not at all English. However, Anne secretly worked with James to have him succeed her provided he renounce the Catholic faith and become a Protestant; this was done to keep the dynasty intact and to prevent any potential uprising from occurring that would seek to put the Stuarts back on the throne. James never renounced his Catholic faith, dooming the Stuart cause forever (two uprisings, in 1715 and 1746, did occur; both were suppressed, the latter ruthlessly). Queen Anne died in 1714 and the monarchy passed from the Stuarts to the German Hanoverians under King George I. While the troubled Stuart dynasty finally ended, Anne’s rule was a success as the people, through their representatives in Parliament, gained power at the expense of the monarchy. This power would be expanded further through the rest of the 18th Century and into the next.
Victoria: Victoria was the only daughter of King George III’s fourth son, Edward, Duke of Kent. Yet it was amazing that she ascended the throne in 1837 at age 18 following the deaths of her father, three first cousins, and the three uncles who were Edward’s older brothers, of which two of them were kings following George III (King George IV and King William IV). The only title she didn’t inherit was that of the kingdom of Hanover in Germany (these were the lands in Germany that the Hanoverians had retained after becoming kings of Great Britain); the law forbade any female succession to that throne, which passed to Victoria’s next uncle Ernest Augustus. To date, she reigned longer than any other English or British monarch. Her marriage to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg was very happy and successful and produced many children. But Albert died in 1861, and Victoria was in a state of melancholy for the remaining 40 years of her rule. The further reduction in the power of the monarchy continued during Victoria’s reign, and was accelerated following Albert’s death, even as Great Britain was expanding its empire all over the world and ended up as the world’s sole superpower throughout most of the 19th Century. Her rule saw the rise of British industrialization, science, and the arts. There were some scandals within the royal family, but nothing so outrageous that would have the British people question keeping the monarchy in place. Victoria’s longevity brought forth a stability and prestige, as well as pride from the British people towards their queen. She died in 1901 leaving the throne to her eldest son, King Edward VII.
Elizabeth II: The current reigning monarch, like so many of the queens before her, was not destined from birth to ascend to the throne. Born during the reign of her grandfather King George V, Elizabeth’s uncle Edward was next in line, having been groomed for the job for all of his 41 years; he succeeded George as King Edward VIII in 1936. But Edward had a problem; he wanted to not only marry an American, but an American who was still married and in the process of getting a divorce. The scandalous nature of the affair was such that Edward became the first king in English and British history to voluntarily abdicate the throne at the end of 1936. That thrust Edward’s brother Albert to the throne when he was crowned King George VI; being the oldest child, Elizabeth became the next in line (although never Princess of Wales; had a brother been born, he would have been next in line and given the title Prince of Wales). She became Queen Elizabeth II in early 1952 and has been on the throne ever since. Elizabeth has seen a steady erosion of British power throughout her reign, although Great Britain still wields great influence on the world stage. And despite the various scandals in the royal family, she maintains a dignity that has earned respect for the British monarchy. Whether her descendants can maintain it remains to be seen.
So there you have it, the eight women, six of whom were crowned, who have ruled England and Great Britain as queens.