03 October 2018

My Favorite Royal Ladies

by Nick Parfjonov 
via Wikimedia Commons
I first discovered real-life princesses when I was 10 years old, in the year of THE "Royal Wedding of the Century" -- a century that has long since ended. All of the attention generated by Diana Princess of Wales attracted my interest. Like so many royal-watchers in the early stages of royal watching, I was fascinated by where she went and what she wore. Then, in my very first book about the newly born Prince William of Wales, I found my first royal genealogy chart and that took me in a new and even more exciting direction. Soon, I was spending my Saturdays in the public library copying royal genealogies into stacks and stacks of three-ring binders and my evenings pouring through every issue of Royalty and Majesty magazines. I even managed to get a few of my "reader's letters" published. I felt so famous. When teachers allowed me to choose my own topics, they received essays, research papers and slide presentations about royal history. On my dinner breaks at my first fast-food job, I gave history lessons to my co-workers, who were amazingly attentive. (When I ran into one of those ladies again nearly 30 years later, she brought me a copy of the notes she had taken when I told her about the six wives of Henry VIII.)

For 37 years now, I have spent every moment I could exploring, discussing and writing about royal history. But no matter how many times I have been asked, there is still one question that I have never been able to answer: Why? I have tried to analyze my fascination, but can never find an explanation to satisfy myself, much less anyone else. Here is the best response that I can manage: 

We know so little of women's history. Not much of it has been recorded. What we do know often is about royal and noble women, whose rank and status made them of greater interest to contemporary chroniclers. For instance, even well-educated people can probably list no more than 10 women from the 12th century and I would venture to guess that most or all of those women were royal or noble.

I told that you that I didn't have a sufficient reason for my "obsession" but I'm sure all of you have quirky habits, too.

Having said all of that, I recently started wondering who my favorite royal ladies are. So, here they are for your enjoyment, in chronological order.

Detail of Eleanor's tomb
By Touriste via Wikimedia Commons
The earliest of my favorites is undoubtedly Eleanor of Aquitaine. She was long-lived, particularly for someone born in the 12th century. Eleanor lived to be at least 80 years old but that's not nearly the most remarkable thing about her. I love Eleanor because, no matter the many restrictions placed upon her as a woman, she often shaped the world to her own will. She was a powerful Duchess in her own right as a teenager. Despite many suitors, she held out for the top prize: the King Louis VII of France. She convinced him to let her go with him on Crusade and formed her own regiment of Crusading women. When she grew too constrained and unhappy in her marriage, she persuaded Louis that God disapproved of it. The moment the annulment was signed, she flew into the arms of her chosen new husband, the younger man and future King Henry II of England, adding three daughters and five sons to the two daughters that she already had. When she'd had enough of Henry, she fomented a rebellion among her young sons against him. Unfortunately, that didn't work out so well for her and she became Henry's prisoner for the rest of his life, but she triumphed by outliving him. She became the top woman in the Angevin Empire during the reign of her son Richard the Lionheart. When he was taken hostage during his return from Crusade, she worked tirelessly to secure his release and to bring her renegade youngest son John under control. After Richard's death, she opted to ignore primogeniture, which would have placed her young grandson Arthur of Brittany on the throne and sided instead with John, though she didn't live long enough to see what a hash he made of it. One of her very last acts before retiring to a convent that she had founded was to travel to Spain to bring back one of her granddaughters to marry one of her first husband's grandsons, thus securing a new peace. It's as if she lived many lifetimes in one!

Juana of Castile
By Juan de Flandes via Wikipedia
I am also a great admirer of Isabella I of Castile and her daughters Juana of Castile and Catherine of Aragon. Recognized as the heir to the Castilian throne as a teenager, Isabella refused numerous political marriages negotiating secretly for her own choice, Ferdinand, the heir to Aragon. Together the two built the heart of what is now Spain, securing their lands against all enemies including the Moors, who for centuries had dominated the southern part of the Iberian Peninsula. Isabella is best known in the New World for sponsoring Columbus' voyages. She also did some awful things in the name of her faith (ever heard of the Spanish Inquisition), earning for herself and Ferdinand (and their heirs through today) the title of "Catholic Kings". Along the way, even when leading troops into battle, she delivered and raised numerous children. Two of these were the daughter Juana (later known as La Loca or The Mad) who would unite Aragon and Castile under one monarch, but whose father, husband and son conspired against her to control her territories for her. Consequently, she spent much of her life locked away "for her own good." If she wasn't crazy when they sent her away, she certainly became crazy as a result. Poor, sad Juana was also madly in love with her husband, remembered historically as Philip the Handsome, who was far less enamored of her. Through their marriage, the Austrian Hapsburgs added Spain and all of the Spanish territories in the New World to their massive empire. Meanwhile, little sister Catherine of Aragon had been sent to marry the English heir Arthur, who died soon after the wedding. Instead of sending the widowed teenager home, her father-in-law King Henry VII kept her and her dowry in England. When his own wife died, he even contemplated marrying her himself, which sent Isabella into fits of protests that might have led to war if he had not dropped the subject. Instead, Catherine married his other son after he became King Henry VIII at the age of 16. The couple were in love and appeared to be a real-life knight-in-shining-armor and damsel-in-distress romance. Their repeated fertility failures and the death of their infant son Henry Prince of Wales, however, placed great strain on the marriage. Nevertheless, they were both pleased with their bright and talented daughter Mary, who was expected to inherit the throne. That is, until King Henry met a mistress who wouldn't surrender her charms unless he married her. Soon, he became obsessed with his lack of male heir and convinced himself that God was unhappy with his marriage and was punishing him for it. When the Pope would not grant him a quickie annulment, he demanded a hearing. A Cardinal came to England, but Catherine refused to surrender her place as Henry's wife or as Queen of England. Since her nephew (Juana's son) was by then the powerful Holy Roman Emperor, the Catholic Church tended to side with Catherine. Henry found another way: he started his own church and made himself the head of it. Not surprisingly, he attained his annulment and declared Princess Mary a bastard, marrying his mistress Anne Boleyn, who soon gave birth to yet another daughter before suffering her own string of tragic pregnancies. Despite having been deprived of her titles, banished to dreadful houses with small households and budgets, and denied the company of her only child, Catherine remained true to her role as Henry's wife, declaring her love and loyalty to him, even at the end. (Read my full post about Catherine.)

By Sir Thomas Lawrence from

the National Portrait Gallery via Wikimedia Commons
An even more tragic princess makes my list -- and probably tops it. I've certainly spent more time studying Princess Charlotte Augusta than anyone else. (You can read my biographical post about her on the Cross of Laeken blog.) As the only legitimate grandchild of the prolific King George III, who had 15 children, Charlotte was set to lead the British Empire through most of the 19th century. Her life, however, was a travesty from the beginning. Her parents, George Prince of Wales (later the Prince Regent and then King George IV) and Caroline of Brunswick, despised each other with the red-hot heat of the blazing sun. They were horrified upon their first meeting and things only got worse. The prince was even drunk at the wedding and only could bring himself to have sex with Caroline for a few days. Fortunately, these were the days when she was apparently fertile and Charlotte arrived nine months later. The parents never lived together again and Charlotte rarely lived with either of them. Instead, she was set up with a household of her own, with rare visits to her disinterested father and even rarer access to her increasingly eccentric mother. She did, however, get to enjoy some time with her grandparents, Queen Charlotte and King George, before his illness led to his internment at Windsor Castle. She even occasionally got to go on holiday. Charlotte grew up headstrong (not surprisingly perhaps) and soon became aware of her value to the nation as its only young heir. When her father proposed a match for the teenage princess with the future Dutch King, Charlotte put her foot down. She refused to make a marriage that would require her to live outside of her own future kingdom. Her father would not back down. So Charlotte, on the eve of a contentious election, ran away to her mother's house. Several of her royal uncles and others were sent to persuade her to come back. She finally relented only on the condition that she could choose her own husband. The people rejoiced at her display of patriotism and spirit. In a royal family that was greatly despised, she was truly the People's Princess. For her husband, she chose the handsome and penniless Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, who had built some respect in the Imperial Russian Army as it triumphed over Napoleon. The spirited Charlotte and sober Leopold seemed well-matched and were great favorites among the public. When Charlotte lost her first pregnancy, everyone thought there would be plenty of time for more babies. Her second pregnancy stretched well beyond her expected due date. When she finally went into labor, it lasted for three days and ended with the delivery of a stillborn son. Hours later, Charlotte also died and the nation lamented. (Read my full post about the death of Charlotte and her son.) Her royal uncles rallied to find wives and beget more heirs because her parents certainly weren't having more children. Leopold's sister even married one of the royal dukes and gave birth to a little girl we all remember as the Queen who led the British Empire through most of the 19th century, Queen Victoria. Leopold was later offered the throne of the newly created Kingdom of Belgium. He married a French princess and named his only daughter Charlotte. (You can read his daughter's sad story here.)

Of course, I have many more favorites like the long-suffering Catharine of Braganza, the do-it-your-way Catherine the Great, the dramatic but effective Queen Marie of Romania, the beautiful but tragic Crown Princess Margaret of Sweden, the inspirational Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden, the steady and reliable Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, the long-lived Princess Alice Duchess of Gloucester, the no-nonsense Anne Princess Royal, the brilliant Empress Frederick, the motherly Princess Alice Grand Duchess of Hesse-Darmstadt, the orphaned-by-guillotine Marie Therese Madame Royale, the very beloved Eleanor of Castile, the larger-than-life Mary Adelaide of Cambridge, the ethereal Empress Elizabeth, the determined Empress Matilda, the finally-married Katherine Swynford, the lovely and steadfast Alice of Albany, etc. etc. etc.

And now you know why I have a blog about princesses....so many princesses to write about and so little time!

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