24 March 2024

Queens of Britain Series: Matilda

Welcome to the Queens of Britain series. In 2024, the blog will spotlight the reigning queens from the island of Great Britain. Check back each month to learn about the women who led their nations.

Her moment had finally arrived. The day she had planned for since she was a young woman, but she couldn't seize the reins her father had left her. How she must have cursed the pregnant belly that kept her trapped on the wrong side of the English Channel while her cousin usurped her place.

The English crown had not been Matilda's original destiny. Like so many princesses, she had been sent as a tiny girl to a distant land to serve as a political pawn. Her father, King William II, was the youngest son of a bastard who had asserted his tenuous claim to the English throne in a military power move that we remember today as the Norman Conquest. As the third king of a young dynasty, William II had married Edith of Scotland, a descendant of England's revered King Alfred the Great as well as the King of Scotland's daughter. Taking the more Norman-sounding name of Matilda upon her marriage, she also named her daughter Matilda while her son was named William Adelin after his father. The couple had produced a healthy heir as well as a daughter who could extend their political power and military might.

So, it was no surprise that the King and Queen welcomed envoys from the future Holy Roman Emperor who asked for Princess Matilda as an imperial bride. Little Matilda was only eight years old the last time she saw her mother and sailed away to Germany to meet her 24-year-old fiance. Since she was so young, she was raised in a separate household and trained in the language and traditions of her intended husband. She was nearly 12 when Emperor Henry V finally married her. 

Matilda was 14 when she accompanied her husband in the fight against the Pope, who had excommunicated him. Despite her youth, she was fully imbued with political power. Once they reached Rome, Matilda was formally crowned as Empress. A couple years later, Henry left her as his regent in his Italian territories while he returned to Germany to deal with issues there. After a couple of years, they were reunited but still had no children. When he died of cancer, Matilda was 23. Her childlessness left her in a politically ambiguous state. It was not long before she decided to leave Germany forever and pursue another opportunity that fate had presented her. 

Her family had been rocked by tragedy. First, her mother had died in 1118. Then, two years later, her only legitimate sibling, Prince William Adelin had died in a tragic shipwreck. With no legitimate sons to succeed him, King Henry remarried the young Adeliza of Louvain (see my post The Not-So-Wicked Stepmother) but that marriage remained childless. Running out of options, Henry summoned Empress Matilda back to England and Normandy to proclaim her as his heir. The move was unprecedented; no woman had assumed kingship before. However, Henry was a powerful king and the nobles swore their allegiance to his daughter. 

As for Matilda, despite her glorious title and her now glorious future, she still had no authority over her life. Hoping to get grandsons to eventually succeed himself, he forced Matilda into another marriage, this time to a mere count. Geoffrey of Anjou was considered a handsome man. More importantly, his French territories bordered Henry's Norman lands, providing more military might for Henry and for Matilda in the future. Matilda was unimpressed. She had been married to one of the most powerful men of the error and reigned with him as an Empress. Worse than that, perhaps, Geoffrey was only 15 while Matilda was 26 when they married in the summer of 1128. Worse still, the couple really did not like each other and was not long before they started living separately. Realizing this would prevent the birth of a male heir, King Henry forced them back together. Their first son was finally born in March 1133. Not surprisingly, he was called Henry. A year later, her second son Geoffrey's birth nearly killed Matilda. 

The couple spent all of these years living in Anjou and Normandy. They began to be concerned that they were losing English support and demanded that the King give them authority in Normandy. He refused. Geoffrey and Matilda, united by ambition, joined a rebellion in southern Normandy. During this struggle, the 67-year-old king died from a sudden illness at the end of 1136. Matilda and Geoffrey moved immediately to secure their power in Normandy, but then they paused while Matilda awaited the birth of their third and final child, William.

In England, Henry's nephew Stephen wasted no time asserting his claim as an adult male heir even though his royal descent was through the female line, Henry's sister Adela. Stephen secured the support of many nobles, including Matilda's powerful older but illegitimate brother Robert of Gloucester. Then, Stephen got his own brother, Henry Bishop of Winchester, to crown him as king. For most people, the fact that he was male gave him a strong enough claim over Matilda. The fact that he was in England did not hurt his cause. Then, once he was anointed and crowned, his reign was sealed by God himself.

Stephen had grown up in his uncle King Henry's court. His military prowess had been well-rewarded by the king with riches and lands. He was well-liked among the Anglo-Norman nobility. And, he was a man. He quickly gathered a following and secured England as his own. At this time, the English and Norman titles had gone through several contested successions from William the Conqueror's defeat of Harold Godwinson to the battle between William's two eldest sons that split the two countries apart until his third son King Henry reunited them by force. The need for might to make right led many to doubt the ability of a woman to lead.

Stephen almost immediately faced ambushes from either end of the kingdom from both Scotland and Wales, losing territory to both. Securing Normandy was an even bigger challenge. Geoffrey had successfully launched a scorched earth strategy that allowed him to keep moving forward without having to hold or administer the land he captured. As Stephen lost support of more and more Norman nobles, partly because Stephen had spent the treasury and could not reward his allies nor pay his mercenaries. At one point, his army even split in half and battled itself, nobles versus mercenaries. Most critically, he lost the support of Matilda's illegitimate half-brother Robert of Gloucester, who held extensive land and wealth on both sides of the Channel.

King David of Scotland continued invading from the north, pushing all the way to York, claiming he did so in support of his niece Empress Matilda. Robert's declaration for Matilda started a rebellion in Kent and across southwest England. Meanwhile, he remained in Normandy, helping Matilda build an invasion force. They finally invaded England, which had descended into chaos and civil war, in the summer of 1139. Matilda's stepmother invited her to land at Arundel Castle, where Stephen encircled them while Robert led forces northward. Stephen, however, was unsure how to deal with two such highly ranked ladies and eventually allowed Matilda to leave and rejoin Robert, who was fighting in the west. (See my post Royal Escape Artist). 

Matilda's influence was growing, extending across the southwest in Devon and Cornwall up to the Welsh marshes and Herefordshire. The two sides skirmished back and forth until another defection from Stephen's side gave Matilda a powerful upper hand. In February 1141, Robert of Gloucester captured Stephen at the Battle of Lincoln. With her rival in custody, Matilda pushed forward with a deal she had made with his brother Bishop Henry. In return for control of the church, the Bishop gave her the nearly empty treasury and excommunicated any of Stephen's supporters who refused to change sides. On April 7, the Archbishop of Canterbury and other leading clergy declared Matilda "Lady of the English" and began making plans for her coronation.

Matilda made her way to London to be crowed in June, but tensions in the city were still high. The historians of the day--all male, of course--alleged that Matilda grew even more pompous than she usually was. In becoming a female King, she was no longer behaving in accordance with her gender role. Just before her planned crowning, the Londoners rose up against her, forcing her faction to flee to Oxford. As some turncoats turned back to Stephen's cause and Stephen's wife, Queen Matilda, led his supporters and soon captured Robert of Gloucester. Queen Matilda and Empress Matilda agreed to exchange their high value prisoners, returning Stephen to his wife and Robert to his sisters. Shortly thereafter, the church leaders changed their minds again and re-crowned Stephen on Christmas 1141. 

Robert of Gloucester crossed the channel to assist Count Geoffrey against the Anglo Norman nobles battling to maintain their own power. This left Matilda alone at Oxford Castle, which Stephen soon besieged. By the first snows of late 1142, Matilda executed another bold plan, sneaking out of the castle and crossing a frozen river in the dead of night.  (See my post Royal Escape Artist). 

With Robert's return to England in 1143, Matilda's position improved for a bit, but the civil war soon devolved into back-and-forth struggles, with various nobles switching from one side to the other, temporarily boosting whoever they newly supported. As for Matilda, she could never quite consolidate her power. The war between the cousins limped along during the rest of the decade as various nobles decamped to join the Second Crusade or made peace locally to protect their own land and power. Neither Stephen nor Matilda were greatly esteemed.

However, the war had dragged on long enough that Matilda's son Henry had grown into a strong teenage commander. Matilda returned to Normandy while Henry led the efforts in England. Henry secured the support of the French king for Henry while Count Geoffrey convinced the Pope to endorse Henry before Geoffrey died in 1151. Matilda had effectively vacated her claim to her son.

In 1153, Empress Matilda returned to England but by then only Stephen and Henry were interested in the fight. Everyone else pushed for a truce that was brokered by the church. Henry recognized Stephen as king in return for being named as Stephen's heir. It was an uneasy peace that may not have lasted had Stephen not died the following year. 

Initially, Henry and Matilda issued charters jointly, with Matilda primarily administering Normandy while Henry focused on his father's Angevin lands, England, and the powerful Aquitaine that he had acquired by marrying the dynamic former French queen consort, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Like many leaders of the day, Matilda focused on the church in her later years, but never fully yielded her royal authority. As Henry and Eleanor took on more and more power, Matilda passed away in 1167, leaving everything to the church. She was 65 years old.


Boudica, Queen of the Iceni 
Empress Matilda 
Margaret Maid of Norway - coming in April 2024
Lady Jane - coming in May 2024
Queen Mary I - coming in June 2024
Queen Elizabeth I - coming in July 2024
Mary Queen of Scots - coming in August 2024
Queen Mary II - coming in September 2024
Queen Anne - coming in October 2024
Queen Victoria - coming in November 2024
Queen Elizabeth II - coming in December 2024


The Not-So-Wicked Stepmother
Royal Escape Artist
Today's Princess


Great by Birth: Empress Matilda on Plantagenet Lions
Lady of the English on The Mad Monarchist
The Empress Matilda on Dangerous Women
Empress Matilda on Emily Kittel-Queller
The Empress Matilda on History Is Important
Empress Matilda on Meandering through Time
Empress Matilda on Sagas of She
Empress Matilda on Sheroes of History
Empress Matilda and 'The Anarchy' on The Historic England Blog
Empress Matilda, Lady of the English on Oxford Castle & Prison
Empress Matilda's Bling on Living the History
Empress Maud on Historic UK
Historic Figures: Matilda on BBC History

31 January 2024

Queens of Britain Series: Boudica

Welcome to the Queens of Britain series. In 2024, the blog will spotlight a different reigning queen from the island of Great Britain. Check back each month to learn about the women who led their nations.

Boadicea and Her Daughters, statue by Thomas Thornycraft
Image by Luke McKernan via Wikimedia Commons
The Celtic queen raises her spear and commands her rearing horses toward the Palace of Westminster. Behind her, her ravaged daughters kneel on the armed chariot, urging their mother toward revenge. The trio seems to thrust out of their bronze casing still seeking justice for their people. 

Boadicea and Her Daughters, a sculpture by Thomas Thornycraft, has stood across the Thames facing the center of British power since 1902, but their story stretches deep into British history and folklore to a moment in time when it was Britain that was under the foot of a foreign imperial conqueror and a mere woman pushed back against the might of Rome.

Long before English was a language, the Queen of the Iceni tribe in East Anglia was a woman called Boudica or Boadicea or Buddug. However you choose to spell her name today, it is synonymous with British national pride. Every schoolchild learns her story. 

Boudica ruled jointly with her husband King Prasutagus. At that time, in the first century, Britain was divided among various tribes. The Iceni controlled a large area that today is identified as Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Suffolk, and Lincolnshire. A fierce warrior people, they trained their women as well as their men to fight with weapons.

As the Romans ran roughshod over Britons, they kept the powerful Prasutagus as an ally. This far north of Rome's power base, it was easier for the Empire to have some client-kings who would do their bidding when required in exchange for limited autonomy. During the king's lifetime the Iceni were left in peace and they were also disarmed. With only daughters to succeed him, Prastagus wanted to ensure the safety of his people after his death. He decided the best way to do this would be make Roman Emperor Nero co-heir with the girls. Nero would receive half his kingdom while his daughters kept the other half.

Whether Boudica agreed with this bright idea or bitterly discouraged her husband is lost to history. However, it was Boudica and her daughters who had to face the consequences. The Romans did not recognize female inheritance or property ownership. Once the king died, the Roman military governor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus absorbed the Iceni territories into the Roman province of Britannia and unleashed his armies to raid and plunder the villages. They also required the Iceni to repay loans they had received from previous Roman leaders. Boudica objected, believing that their service to Rome had been their repayment. 

To add terror to the violence, the Romans publicly raped Boudica's virgin daughters and they flogged the queen herself.

Boudica was not terrified. She was enraged and determined to have her revenge. Taking advantage of Suetonius' absence while he was fighting the Welsh and far-ranging scattering of other Roman troops, she organized the combined forces of the Iceni, the Trinobantes, and other British tribes to rebel against the imperial overlords. The 120,000 Britons first attacked the Roman colony at Camulodunum (now Colchester), where the Britons had been forced to finance and build a temple to Emperor Claudius. Their resounding victory and slaughter of all Romans at the site caused Suetonius to rush to Londinium, the modern site of London, but he soon realized he would be unable to defend it. He abandoned the post leaving a just a detachment of the Ninth Legion to face the onslaught of Boudica and her allies. She defeated the mighty Romans and burned both Londinium and Verulamium (the modern site of St. Albans), located 25 miles away. As many as 80,000 were killed by the rebelling Britons. Roman historian Cassius Dio later reported that women's breasts were cut off and sewn to their mouths by rejoicing by the victors.

Despite being heavily outnumbered, Suetonius gathered 10,000 troops in the Midlands and prepared for the attack from a British force estimated to have grown to 230,000. Boudica drove her war chariot with her daughters around her gathered army. According to legend, she exhorted the men to "win the battle or perish." And, perish they did. Despite their massive numbers, the Britons were lightly armed and took a strategically poor position in a narrow gorge with their supply wagons blocking any retreat. They fell prey to Rome's military superiority, which included javelins and cavalry, and experience. The Romans were able to trap the rebels and brutally slaughter tens of thousands of them. Tacitus recorded that the Romans did not even spare women or the animals pulling the wagons. The Queen (and probably her daughters) died soon thereafter, perhaps from suicide by poisoning. 

The ferocity and early success of the rebellion nearly led Rome to abandon Britain. Their shame was all the greater because they had been brought to their knees by a woman--in Rome, women were not permitted a public life of any kind, much less to be trained as warriors. However, Suetonius' ultimate victory guaranteed the success of the occupation, which continued another 350 years until Rome itself was falling.

Over the two millennia since she nearly drove the Romans out of Britain, Boudica has been a powerful symbol of the British people, even as the makeup of those people changed over the centuries. She has been celebrated as cultural icon across the centuries and even served as a rallying point for the suffragettes in the early 20th century. 

Interestingly, Boudica (by any of its various spellings) may not have been the Queen's personal name. It may instead have been a title. According to some linguists, it likely mean "victorious". 

Queens of Britain Series

Boudica, Queen of the Iceni 
Empress Matilda 
Margaret Maid of Norway - coming in April 2024
Lady Jane - coming in May 2024
Queen Mary I - coming in June 2024
Queen Elizabeth I - coming in July 2024
Mary Queen of Scots - coming in August 2024
Queen Mary II - coming in September 2024
Queen Anne - coming in October 2024
Queen Victoria - coming in November 2024
Queen Elizabeth II - coming in December 2024

11 Facts About Boudica, Warrior Queen of the Iceni on Mental Floss
The Ancient Sources for Boudica on Warwick Classics Network
Boudica on English History
Boudica on Historic UK
Boudica on Warwick Classics Network
Boudica & Britain in The Roman Empire on PBS
Boudica: A British Queen, Mother, Warrior, and Folk Hero on The Curious Rambler
Boudica: Celtic War Queen Who Challenged Rome on History Net
Boudica: The Headhunter Queen on Rejected Princesses
Boudica and the Iceni Revolt on Roman Britain
Boudica: Queen, Mother, Warrior, Folk Hero on Medium
Boudica: scourge of the Roman empire on History Extra
Boudica and The Slaughter at Camulodunum on Historic UK
Boudica: Warrior Queen on Honey Grail
Boudica the warrior queen on aeon
Boudica: Warrior queen of the Iceni on LiveScience
Boudica's Revolt: When Britannia's Warrior Queen Took on Rome on The Collector
Boudicca: The Celtic Queen Who Unleashed Fury on the Romans on Ancient Origins
The Celtic Queen Boudica as a Historiographical Narrative by Rachel L. Chenault
Queen Boudica on Study
Queen Boudica, A Life in Legend on History Today
Who Was Boudica? on History
Who was the Celtic warrior Queen Boudica, and what did she look like? on Royalty Now

21 January 2024

Meet Princess Ingrid Alexandra of Norway

Photo: Ida Bjørvik, The Norwegian Royal Court
In 1905, the Norwegian people voted in favor of having Prince Carl of Denmark to become King of the newly independent nation. Just over a century later, his great-great granddaughter is entering into adulthood and preparing to one day be the country's first Queen in the modern era. 

Born on January 21, 2004, Princess Ingrid Alexandra is the oldest child of Crown Prince Haakon Magnus and the former Mette-Marit Tjessem Hoiby. The King of Spain, the King of Denmark, and the Crown Princess of Sweden are among her godparents. She has an older half-brother by her mother, Marius Borg Hoiby, and a younger brother, Prince Sverre Magnus. While her grandfather, King Harald V remains on the throne, Ingrid Alexandra is second in line to the throne after her father. Unlike most of the other future Queens Regnant in Europe, she is not yet in the heir's spot. This may afford her a little more breathing room as she explores her future.

Like most Norwegians, Ingrid Alexandra is friendly, sporty, and outdoorsy. Her family has taken her hiking, skiing, and surfing around the world. Like many people of her generation, she also has a keen interest in environmental issues. Some of her first official engagements have focused on this area, including christening both a sea rescue boat and sea research vessel, which was named for her father. 

Having completed her secondary education in 2023 and then worked school assistant and environmental worker, Princess Ingrid Alexandra began 12 months of military training in 2024 with the Engineer Battalion of Norway's only combat brigade. If she follows in the footsteps of most modern future Kings and Queens, she will like complete an undergraduate University program and may complete more military duties before embarking on full-time royal duties. 

So far, her biggest moment in the spotlight was the gala celebration for her 18th birthday. A tiaras-and-tails event, it was attended by many of the other young monarchs-in-waiting: Prince Christian of Denmark, Princess Cathrina Amalia Princess of Orange, Princess Elisabeth Duchess of Brabant, and Princess Estelle of Sweden (who, like Ingrid Alexandra) is number two in line for her throne. The princess's big present for the occasion (besides wearing a tiara for the first timer) was her own office at the Palace in Oslo. She was also awarded the Grand Cross of the Royal Norwegian Order of St. Olav and was created a Dame of the Royal Family Order of King Harald, her grandfather. Denmark marked the occasion by making her a Knight of the Order of the Elephant.

In her 18th birthday interview, Princess Ingrid Alexandra shared her love for her brothers and her cousins. She has an optimistic view for the future, but likes to keep her private life private. She will likely continue to travel and explore nature to ground herself. As she said, "It is nature that gives you peace and control. When you speed down into the woods on skiis, when you surf far out there alone, then you are fearless."

Princess Ingrid Alexandra: Future Queen of Norway on Life in Norway
Princess Ingrid Alexandra Now Has Her Own Office on Right Royal Roundup
Princess Ingrid Alexandra of Norway on Royal Watcher
HRH Princess Ingrid Alexandra of Norway's 18th Birthday on A Royal Heraldry
Princess Ingrid Alexandra marks one dream off bucket list on Royal Central
Princess Ingrid Alexandra's 18th Birthday on The Royal Watcher
The Royal Grad on Sons of Norway

14 January 2024

A New Queen Mary

Queen Mary of Denmark
Photo by Hasse Nielsen

Europe's Queens Consort gained a new soror with the accession of King Frederik X of Denmark on January 14, 2024. None of today's consorts were born into royalty. Only one, Queen Mathilde of Belgium, was even born into the nobility. Two were not born in the countries they now help to lead: Queen Silvia of Sweden was born in Germany while The Netherlands' Queen Maxima hails from Argentina. Most of them come from the workaday world of modern women: Silvia was a translator, Maxima a banker, Mathilde a speech therapist, Queen Letizia of Spain a television journalist, and Queen Sonja of Norway a designer and dressmaker.

The new queen has come farther than all the others. Today's Queen of Denmark was born more than 10,000 miles (16,000 kilometers) away from Denmark. Although her parents were of Scottish descent, she was thoroughly Australian. Her father, John Donaldson, was a math professor and her mother, the former Henrietta Horne, was an executive assistant, both working at the University of Tasmania. When they named their youngest child for her grandmothers, they gave her the very regal name of Mary Elizabeth, without having any thought of her ever becoming the latest in a long line of Queens named Mary (or Marie/Maria) across Europe. 

Mary Elizabeth Donaldson was born on February 5, 1972, just three weeks after her future mother-in-law became Queen Margrethe II of Denmark. The hospital where she made her first appearance was named for her future husband's great-great-great aunt, Queen Alexandra of the United Kingdom, who had been Princess Alix of Denmark. As a very young child, Mary briefly lived with in Texas in the United States, while her dad worked at the Johnson Space Center. The family soon returned to Tasmania, where she would earn a combined Bachelor's degree in commerce and law. Before going on to a graduate program in advertising. Her career in marketing a communications took her to Melbourne, Edinburgh, and Sydney. During the Sydney Olympics in 2000, her flatmate invited her along for an evening out with her friend, Felipe. Felipe brought along his first cousins Nikolaos, Joachim, and Frederik and more distant cousin named Martha Louise. In her Cinderella moment, Mary did not know that she was meeting the future King of Spain, a Prince of Greece, two Princes of Denmark, and Princess of Norway!

Mary and "Fred" clicked immediately, as Mary described it. "It wasn't the fireworks in the sky or anything like that, but there was a since of excitement." Fred planned to stay in Australia for a little while but did not reveal his true identity until after they dated for a bit. Unfortunately, his Australian interlude was cut short by the final illness and death of his beloved grandmother, Queen Ingrid, who had been born a Swedish princess. However, Frederik could not stay parted from Mary for long. He made several secret trips to visit her before the press finally caught wind of the romance over a year later. By then, plans were already in place for Mary to move to Europe. She took a job teaching English at a business school in France. She had learned French as a second language in school but she soon needed to learn a third language. As quickly as she could, she moved to Copenhagen in Denmark, took a job with Microsoft Business Solutions, and enrolled in Danish classes. 

A year later, Frederik's mother, Queen Margrethe II, gave the couple official permission to marry. Frederik presented Mary with a ruby and diamond engagement ring, representing the colors of the Danish flag. They married on May 14, 2004. Unlike other royal brides, Mary opted to have adult bridesmaids, choosing her instead to have her two older sisters, Jane and Patricia, and her best friend from back home, Amber Petty. The wedding party did include children: Mary's three nieces, Frederik's cousin's son, and his nephew Prince Nikolai (now Count Nikolai, who is now a model currently living and working in Australia).

The couple soon built a family with four children. The new Crown Prince Christian was born in 2005, Princess Isabella in 2007, and twins Prince Vincent and Princess Josephine in 2011. The names of her younger children were all surprises, with very little to no precedents in the Danish Royal Family. Christian's name, however, was a pretty sure bet. The Danish kings had alternated between Frederiks and Christians for generations. When Margrethe succeeded her father, King Frederik IX, she said she had taken the place of Christian, which is why she named her oldest son Frederik. Mary and Frederik simply followed the tradition. 

Photo by European Commission via Wikimedia
As Crown Princess, Mary took on a wide range of patronages in health care, sport, fashion, culture, humanitarian work, anti-bullying, and science. She serves the World Health Organization's anti-obesity program and is a Patron of the United Nations Population Fund, which is focused on maternal health across the globe. She is also an outspoken advocate for the LGBTQ community. Her own Mary Foundation launched in 2007 with money raised as wedding gifts to her and Frederik from across Denmark and Greenland. It focuses on issues like that can isolate people, including the environment or illness.

Mary is popular in her new homeland. Several places have been named for her there, including Mary Elizabeth's Hospital for children, teens, and expectant mothers at the national hospital in Copenhagen and Mary's Australian Garden at the Copenhagen Zoo. The Zoo had received four Tasmanian devils from Mary's native Tasmania in honor of her wedding in 2004. Their Australia collection has grown to include wallabies, kangaroos, and wombats.

Mary's ties to Australia have remained strong. She travels there for private holidays as often as she can, enabling her children with Frederik to connect with their Australian family and heritage. She and the twins even completed the Harbour Bridge climb in Sydney at the end of 2023.

With four teenagers at home and Christian heading to university in the fall, Queen Mary has a very full plate. The pride she feels for her family was apparent as they joined the newly proclaimed King Frederik X on the balcony. Then, the couple who will celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary in May, shared a loving kiss before the exuberant crowd. These two were born on opposite sides of the planet and yet they found each other. Their future together seems as bright as it ever has been. Long live the newest Queen Mary!

The new King Frederik and Queen Mary on the balcony after his proclamation
Screenshot of the livestream from DR1

07 January 2024

The Last Queen, for Now

Queen Margrethe of Denmark looks off to the upper right, wearing a pearl parure of tiara, necklance, earrings, and brooch, the sash of the order of the elephant, and two family orders.
Queen Margrethe II of Denmark
Copyright Kongehuset | Photo by Per Morten Abrahamsen
On New Year's Eve, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark stunned her nation and the world by announcing that she will abdicate the throne on January 14, 2024. The date will mark the 52nd anniversary of her own accession upon the death of her father King Frederik IX in 1972. Unlike some other monarchies, Denmark does not have a tradition of retiring or abdicating monarchs, making her decision unprecedented in her country.

For this blog, the more momentous historical fact about Margrethe's abdication is that it will leave Europe without a single Queen Regnant or Reigning Queen.  (See my post Abdicating Queens about other women who have left their thrones.)

[For those who counter that there will still be Queens in Europe (Silvia, Sonja, Maxima, Mathilde, Letizia, and Camilla), this is technically correct. However, these women are all Queens Consort. They hold the title only because their husband is King. If a Queen Consort dies, the King remains on the throne. In the case of a Queen Regnant, she herself is the monarch regardless of her marital state. In recent centuries, her husband, if she has one, is a Prince not a King so as not to technically outrank her. If the Queen Regnant dies, the throne passes to her heir. In this case, the throne will pass to Queen Margrethe's oldest son, who will become King Frederik X. His Australian-born wife Mary will become the seventh of Europe's current Queens Consort.]

Historically, reigning women have been rare animals. In all monarchies, traditions and laws have generally prevented women from inheriting thrones until very recently. Some countries, barred women and their offspring from being in the line of succession at all. Some allowed her male offspring, but not the woman herself. Some allowed a woman but only if she had no other living male relatives. Others allowed a woman if she were the only surviving daughter of a monarch who had no living sons. In fact, Margrethe herself was not heir to the throne of Denmark until the laws were changed to allow female succession when she was 12 years old. Until then, her father's younger brother Prince Knud was his heir.

A female monarch is unusual. Over the last thousand years, only 83 women have reigned (or ruled in earlier days) as monarchs in Europe. By comparison more men have reigned/ruled just on the island of Great Britain over the same period. Some nations, including France and Prussia, never had a Queen Regnant at all. Their scarcity is probably why so many of these women stand out in our minds: Bloody Mary, the Virgin Queen, Catherine the Great, Mary Queen of Scots, Isabella of Castile, Empress Maria Theresa, Queen Victoria.

However, since the accession of Empress Anna of Russia in 1730, there has been at least one reigning queen somewhere in Europe. Margrethe's abdication will leave us without a female monarch for the first time in 294 years. On the other hand, thanks to changes in gendered succession laws in nearly every European monarchy in the over the last 50 years, we have an unprecedented number of female direct heirs. The next monarchs in Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, and Sweden will all be women. In Sweden, the next two monarchs will be women. Under previous succession laws, only one of these women would be a direct heir today: Spain's Princess Leonor. In fact, Leonor actually is the heir under the "old laws". Spain has not changed its laws to be gender neutral. It was briefly debated during Leonor's infancy, but once it was clear that her parents would not have son, the conversation was tabled indefinitely. 

TAMAR TO ADELASIA: The Crusader Period

Queen Tamar of Georgia
via Wikimedia Commons
This is the last of four extended periods of multiple overlapping female monarchs. The first, which lasted about 75 years, started with the accession of Tamar the Great in Georgia in 1184. For 14 years before that she had served as co-ruler with her father. During this period there were 11 women on thrones. Several of these were the leaders of Crusader Kingdoms set up in the Holy Lands or along the Crusader routes. Some of them were more or less trophy wives for ambitious younger sons seeking fortune and power in an age when anything a woman had, including her kingdom, legally belonged to her husband. Four of the 11 ladies were Queens of Jerusalem. This period ended with the death of Adelasia of Torres, who succeeded her brother over the Judgeship/Kingship of Logudoro in Sardinia. When her brother died without heirs, the leaders in Logudoro chose between Adelasia and her younger sister Benedetta. Ultimately, they picked Adelasia because her powerful husband, who ruled the neighboring Gallura, could defend her kingdom and her claim. When that husband died, she made a couple more strategic marriages, with her and her third husband being declared King and Queen of a new Kingdom of Sardinia. After Husband #3 was taken prisoner on the Italian peninsula, she carried on alone. Despite all of these marriages, she had no surviving children and the Kingdom was broken up after her death in 1259.


Effigy of Queen Margrethe I of
Denmark, Sweden & Norway
Photo by Jacob Truedson Demitz assisted by Emil Eikner
for Ristesson via Wikimedia Commons
The second stretch of simultaneous queens started with the accession of Constance II in Sicily in 1282 and lasted 130 years. Coincidentally, it ended with the death of Margrethe I of Denmark, the only other woman to rule there. The first Margrethe created the Kalmar Union, which united Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Greenland, Finland, and even some of the islands that today are part of Scotland under her. The laws preventing female accession were created later. In this period, military might and political power underlaid the sovereign's regnal claims. Margarethe was a Danish princess. At age six, she was engaged to marry Haakon VI, who was King of both Sweden and Norway. He was 18. After some political turmoil and other tragedies, they were finally married four years later. These child marriages and wide age ranges were common at the time. At age 17, she gave birth to their son Olaf, who became King of Denmark upon her father's death five years later. Olaf then became King of Norway before the age of 10 when Margrethe's husband died. Margrethe ruled through the young Olaf until his own mysterious death at age 16. Even today, some think Margrethe had him poisoned. Others believe that a pretender, "False Olaf," who emerged years later was the real King. Margrethe, who was busy consolidating her power within the Kalmar Union, had False Olaf executed. (If you watch the film, Queen of the North, you might believe she killed him even knowing he was her son. Don't fall prey to the moviemakers: the real False Olaf didn't even speak Danish.) This queen streak, which included 20 women, ended with Margrethe's death in October 1412.


Statue at El Palacio Real in Madrid 
of Queen Isabella I of Castile
Photo by Peter Schmidl via Wikimedia Commons
The third stretch of overlapping queenships began with the accession of Queen Isabella of Castile and Leon in 1474. She succeeded her older half-brother over his own daughter as part of a truce between warring camps in Castile. She married the heir of the neighboring Kingdom of Aragon. Together, Isabella and Ferdinand became known as the Catholic Kings and are most famous in New World as the couple who sponsored Columbus's voyages. In Britain, they may be as well known as the parents of King Henry VIII's very first wife, Catherine of Aragon. This period of powerful queens includes Isabella's daughter Juana, who succeeded her as Queen of Castile, but who was locked away as "La Loca" or "the crazy lady" by her father King Ferdinand and kept in gentile imprisonment by her own son. It also includes Isabella's granddaughter by Catherine, Queen Mary I of England, who is remembered by history as Bloody Mary for her execution of Protestants. Mary's half sister, the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I and their paternal cousin Mary Queen of Scots also ruled in this era. There are three Queens of Navarre in this period, too. The most famous of these may be Jeanne d'Albret, who was a thorn in the side of the French Queen Regent Catherine de Medici. (A Queen Regent is a Queen Consort, usually widowed by her King, who holds power in place of an underage or incapacitated ruler, usually her child.) This period was marked by violent battles between Catholics and the emerging Protestant faiths. In fact, it was rumored that the Catholic Catherine de Medici murdered Protestant Jeanne by sending her poisoned gloves. In England, the very thought of the succession of women to the throne itself proved pretty bloody, too. (See my post Killing Queens: A Bloody Tudor Heritage.) Despite this, in England's Tudor Dynasty, women ruled for 50 years, or nearly half of the dynasty's existence.

The woman who ruled last in this period of queens was another descendant of the woman who started it. Isabella Clara Eugenia was Isabella of Castile's great-great granddaughter. She was the first surviving daughter of King Philip II of Spain, whose Habsburg dynasty ruled over great swaths of Europe from Spain across the Netherlands to Austria and beyond. She often acted as an assistant and later as caretaker to her father. At different times in her life, she was suggested as a possible Queen Regnant in France after the Valois dynasty died out and as a successor to England's childless Elizabeth I because Isabella Clara Eugenia was also a descendant of the Lancastrian line of the English royal family. Although neither of these thrones came to her, King Philip decided to divide his vast territories and make her Sovereign of the Spanish Netherlands jointly with her husband-cousin Albert VII, Archduke of Austria. After Albert's death in 1621, she became a Franciscan nun but she continued as Governor of the Netherlands until her own death in 1633. In addition to bringing peace to the region, she is well remembered as a patron of artists, including Rubens and Brueghel the Younger.


Empress Anna of Russia
from the collection of The Hermitage, St. Petersburg
via Wikimedia Commons
For most of the 18th Century, the Russian Empire was ruled by women. The first male Tsar of the 19th Century changed the rules to ban women leaders, but that's a story for another day. The second of these women, Empress Anna, came to power in 1730 starting the current line of concurrent queens that will end this year with Queen Margrethe II's abdication. Anna was the niece of Peter the Great. Long before her accession in Russia, Uncle Peter married her to the Duke of Courland, who died on the honeymoon journey from Russia to Courland. The 17-year-old bride managed to attain and retain power for 20 years. This experience earned her the Russian crown over her sisters and female cousin when the male Romanovs died out. She was selected by a Supreme Privy Council who asked her to sign "Conditions" limiting her authority. Once she reached Russia and assumed power, it was not long before she disbanded that council, ignored the Conditions, and re-established the Tsarist Autocracy. Although capricious and cruel, she continued the westernization and other modernizations started by Uncle Peter. Anna never remarried and left the throne to her great-nephew, an infant who was soon overthrown and imprisoned by Anna's cousin Elizabeth.

This nearly 300 year stretch of female monarchs includes such well-known and long-reigning women as Catherine the Great in Russia and Empress Maria Theresa in Austria. It also includes two Marias in Portugal and another Isabella in Spain. All together 18 women fill this period, including Napoleon's second wife, Marie Louise of Austria, who was made reigning Duchess of Parma after Napoleon's defeat and exile. In the United Kingdom, this period includes the two longest reigning British monarchs, Queen Victoria (reigned 1837-1901) and her great-great granddaughter Queen Elizabeth II (reigned 1952-2022). These two ladies led the British Empire, later Commonwealth, for a combined 133 years. 

One of the most remarkable groups of women during this period are the Queens of the Netherlands. They represent only the second time in history when three women in a row succeeded each other (see my post End of the Queen Streak.) The first had been the brief and disputed reign of Lady Jane Grey, followed by Queen Mary I, and her sister Queen Elizabeth I in 16th Century England (see my post The Original Queen Streak). The Dutch streak started with the accession of 10-year-old Queen Wilhelmina in 1890, whose older half brothers had died leaving her as the only heir to an elderly father. Wilhelmina led her country through World War I and, from exile, through World War II, after which she decided to abdicate in 1948 in favor of her only child, Queen Juliana. Juliana confirmed with Dutch tradition of abdication in 1980, passing the throne to the oldest of her four daughters in 1980. That daughter, Queen Beatrix, voluntarily laid down her crown in 2013 and the Dutch throne went to a man for the first time in 123 years.  

In these last three centuries of continuous queenship, there were some periods where there was only one female monarch at a time. The longest of these periods was during the reign of Queen Victoria, who was the only female monarch after Isabella II was deposed in Spain in 1868 until the accession of the child Queen Wilhelmina in The Netherlands in 1890. 

Interestingly, Victoria's own accession in 1837 made her the fourth woman with a throne in Europe. This was the greatest number of female monarchs at any point in European history. Her co-monarchs in petticoats were Marie Louise in Parma (whose death in 1847 brought this remarkable decade to a close), Maria I in Portugal, and Isabella II in Spain. At 18, Victoria was the newest but not the youngest in the group. Six-year-old Isabella had been on her throne since she was a toddler.

There had also been one brief period in the 18th Century when three women reigned at once. From 1777 to 1780, women monarchs spanned the breadth of Europe with Catherine the Great on the eastern edge in Russia, Maria Theresa in the middle in Austria, and Maria I in the far west in Portugal. 

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The last period of three simultaneous reigning queens is the longest, starting with Queen Margrethe's accession in 1972 and ending with Queen Beatrix's abdication in 2013. Britain's Elizabeth II was on her throne throughout those 41 years, while Beatrix's mother and predecessor held that throne until 1980.While this may seem lot of reigning queens in an era when there are far fewer monarchs, during these last decades, women were only one-third of the monarchs in Europe.

The Next Queens: Five at Once?

The next Reigning Queen?
Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden
Copyright Royal Court of Sweden | Photo by Linda Broström
Once Queen Margrethe relinquishes her duties, it may be several years until there is another reigning Queen in Europe, but it is possible that there will be women on five thrones at once within the next 20-30 years. The one who will likely succeed first is Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden. The succession laws there were changed to include women when she was a toddler, which caused her to jump ahead of her younger brother who had been born as Crown Prince. Her 77-year-old father King Carl XVI Gustav celebrated 50 years on the throne last year. With his cousin Margrethe laying down her scepter just two years after her 50th jubilee, perhaps he will follow the spreading trend of abdication. Otherwise, if he lives into his 90s, it could still be a long time before 46-year-old Victoria is queen. Since her oldest child, 10-year-old Princess Estelle, is a girl, Sweden is currently the only monarchy with two direct heirs who are female. 

In Belgium, the Netherlands, and Spain, the female heirs were all born in the 2000s and their reigning fathers were all born in the 1960s, which makes it extremely likely that these women's own reigns will overlap. All of their dads acceded upon the abdication of their own reigning parents within 14 months of each other 10 years ago. Elisabeth Duchess of Brabant is the first-ever female heir in Belgium. At 22, she is eldest of these three princesses. The Netherlands' Catharina Amalia Princess of Orange just turned 20 in December. Spain's Leonor Princess of Asturias is the youngest at 18. Elisabeth and Amalia are pursuing university studies while Leonor is undertaking military duties, which Elisabeth has also done previously.

In Norway, the heir to the ailing 86-year-old King Harald V is a man, 50-year-old Crown Prince Haakon Magnus. However, after him, his daughter Princess Ingrid Alexandra will inherit the crown. She will celebrate her 20th birthday one week after Queen Margrethe's abdication, making her a contemporary of Elisabeth, Catharina Amalia, and Leonor. In 2024, she is undergoing a year of military training but will likely pursue university studies in the future. 

All of these women seem very comfortable in their public roles. As the younger women emerge more into the public limelight and likely start their own families in the next decade or two, it will be interesting to watch how they develop and which areas of public activity most attracts them. As the author of a blog about princesses, I certainly am looking forward to what the future holds for them!

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