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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