Queens and Empresses

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QUEENS AND EMPRESSES. As women situated at the top of the social hierarchy, all of the queens and empresses of the early modern era were far from sharing the same fate. Depending on the state and the period, they could live relatively lowprofile lives or, on the contrary, have a major political role to play. Although most of these women were the wives of kings or emperors, some of them nevertheless reigned in their own names whenever the rules of succession in their state authorized this, and they then conducted themselves as the equals of kings. It is therefore important to distinguish between kings' wives, whose titles as queen derived solely from their marriages and who generally lived apart from the political stage, and women who acceded to power by virtue of hereditary rights and exercised sovereign authority as head of state. Like all the empresses in the early modern era, the vast majority of queens fall into the first category, women who succeeded to the throne being quite rare.


The living conditions of queens thus depended very largely on the rules of succession that determined the degree to which they enjoyed a share of power. Although all kingdoms show a marked preference for men in the line of succession, some admitted females when there were no males in the direct line. Most heads of state were therefore men, by virtue of natural law as the texts put it, but it was not unknown for a woman to take the throne. It happened in England with the reigns of Mary I (Mary Tudor, ruled 15531558), Elizabeth I (ruled 15581603), and Anne Stuart (ruled 17021714); in Scotland with Mary Stuart (15421587); in Sweden with Queen Christina (ruled 16321654); and in Hungary and Bohemia, two realms that were the hereditary dominions of the Austrian Habsburgs and to which Maria Theresa of Austria (ruled 17401780) acceded by virtue of the Pragmatic Sanction (1713) before becoming empress in 1745 with the election of her husband Francis I (ruled 17451765). We find the same thing in eighteenth-century Russia: both Elizabeth Petrovna (ruled 17411762), the daughter of Peter the Great, and especially Catherine II (known as Catherine the Great; ruled 17621796), who took power to the detriment of her husband Peter III (17281762), had a profound effect on the age of Enlightenment. Denmark also allowed for female sovereigns and was ruled by queens in the Middle Ages, although it has always had male rulers in the modern era. Many small European states, minor independent principalities, similarly permitted female succession. They are not considered here because these women were not of royal status. However, the principles governing devolution of the throne, and the living conditions of women in these princely courts, were not fundamentally different from those of major states.

In certain monarchical states women were not allowed to rule but could nevertheless transmit their rights to the crown to their male descendants. Spain and Portugal underwent dynastic changes that were brought about by female transmission. The heads of state in these countries were necessarily men, but they nevertheless sometimes owed their throne to a grandmother: Spain fell into the hands of Philip V (ruled 17001746), a Bourbon prince, thanks to the rights of his grandmother Marie-Thérèse (María Teresa de Austria; 16381683); and Portugal was for a time united with the Spanish crown by virtue of the same principle. These rules of succession had an important role to play in the choice of partners because the marriage of every princess capable of passing on the crown meant that the throne could potentially pass into another family line. Foreign sovereigns sought marriage with crown princesses above all others.

That France was exceptional in this respect (Savoy alone was in the same situation, though not a kingdom) placed it in a position of power on the European scene. Salic law (the law of the French monarchy) totally excluded women from transmission; they could neither inherit the throne directly nor transmit it to their descendants. The marriage of a French princess thus implied no risk of transferring the crown to another family line, whereas kings could wed crown princesses and thus obtain new lands or even a new crown. The choice of alliances was directly conditioned by the laws governing succession.


The priority that governments accorded to boys meant that girls became the object of matrimonial transactions; they were exchanged and, once married, had to leave their homeland to live in a new kingdom. Princesses by birth, they thus became the queens of countries to which their fate was intimately linked.

Three priorities governed the choice of a queen: ideally she should be a foreigner, a woman from a sovereign house, and an older daughter who was better placed in the order of succession. To the alliances contracted between states on the occasion of royal weddings we must also add dynastic considerations: as the daughters of kings, queens could bring the paternal succession in their inheritance. But although these young queens were generally foreigners, more often than not they were also cousins. Sovereign houses were none too plentiful, and social endogamy led to marriages between close relatives. It was not infrequent for the bride and groom to share at least one grandparent. Thus Louis XIV (ruled 16431715), an extreme case indeed, married his paternal and maternal first cousin Marie Thérèse.

The choice of a princess was not always an easy matter because eligible candidates were sometimes rare, particularly because, in addition to the social origins of the princess, her religion and age at time of marriage also had to be taken into account. Kings' daughters generally married quite young, but they had to have reached the age of puberty and thus be able to produce heirs rapidly. This consideration could even be decisive: Marie Leszczynska, a minor Polish princess, was married to Louis XV of France (ruled 17151774) specifically because she came from a large family and was therefore expected to produce many children. Hopes for a long line thus compensated for the relative mediocrity of the match.

Dynastic questions were of primordial importance in royal marriages, with the arrival of a son guaranteeing the union of the paternal and maternal inheritances; it was through descendants that two crowns could one day be united on the same head. This explains why both sides discussed the terms of the marriage contract so carefully. For the queen, the contract was of decisive importance because it established the conditions of her future life: the amount of her dowry, the constitution of her household, the dower she would receive in the event of being widowed were all defined on this occasion, as well as any rights to an inheritance from her parents. The wedding ceremony itself was nothing very spectacular. More often than not, the couple was united in a proxy marriage before they had even met, and the religious ceremony in the presence of the bride and groom reiterated the Christian principles whereby the union of two people made them into one flesh. On this occasion the princess contracted her husband's status, assumed the rank and title of queen, and in so doing passed from her father's authority into that of her husband. For the new queen, this stage was of fundamental importance because it sanctioned the passage from the state of daughter to that of wife, from princess to sovereign.


Transferred to a strange new house, a royal wife had to renounce her origins and erase all traces of her foreign extraction. The metamorphosis had to be all the more complete as it was, in theory at least, definitive. Only widowed queens with no children could conceivably return to their country of origin. Upon arrival in her new realm, the queen adopted the local customs and the language and etiquette of the court. Her role was essentially symbolic: as the incarnation of monarchical grandeur, she had to reflect it in the splendor of her household (consisting of hundreds of servants), the sumptuousness of her clothing, and the value of her jewelry. In this respect, she was treated magnificently well. The transition, however, was not always easy. Language, in particular, could continue to be an obstacle: Catherine de Médicis (15191589), an Italian princess who arrived in France at the age of fourteen, kept her strong accent throughout her life and continued to make mistakes whenever she spoke or wrote in French. Conversely, Catherine II of Russia, who was of German origin, very quickly adapted to the court of the tsars and soon spoke fluent Russian.

Although it is true that the importance accorded to the queen varied from one kingdom to another, she nevertheless always represented the monarchy, and the evolution of courtly life in Europe tended to place queens in the forefront of the royal stage. The majority of them were very well educated, particularly those who might be expected to rule in their own name. Elizabeth I of England spoke no fewer than seven languages, including Latin and Greek. Christina of Sweden (ruled 16321654) corresponded with René Descartes (15961650), whom she invited to her court, and Catherine II maintained epistolary relationships with philosophers such as Voltaire (16941778) and Jean Le Rond d'Alembert (17171783).

As a focus of attention, queens had to be able to maintain a dazzling court: because political power was traditionally in the hands of men during the ancien régime, domestic activity, which bore on the organization of the royal court, naturally fell into the hands of women. The distribution of social space did not therefore deprive women of political responsibility: the splendor of the court was also an expression of sovereign power. Royal patronage, which queens exercised just as much as kings, was another reflection of this power.


In addition to this symbolic role, it was the wife's duty to provide successors and to ensure the continuation of the family line. Mainly, she was expected to produce sons, but also daughters in order to negotiate dynastic alliances. Motherhood guaranteed the queen a stronger position in the court and a more reliable future in the kingdom. Although marriage was theoretically indissoluble, a sterile princess was always in danger of losing her eminent position. In France the marriage between Henry IV (ruled 15891610) and Margaret of Valois (15531615) was declared null for reasons of sterility, and queens Catherine de Médicis and Anne of Austria (16011666), both of whom were slow to produce offspring, were not secure in their royal position until they gave birth to sons. In England, the notorious memory of Henry VIII (ruled 15091547), who married no fewer than six wives in order to ensure his succession, demonstrates the importance of these questions. However, the arrival of a son transformed these princesses into full-fledged queens.

As the mother of the crown prince, the queen could wield power one day in the name of her son. This considerably increased her influence in the court. When the king was worried about maintaining political continuity, he sometimes even prepared her for this role. She was then introduced into the royal council in order to familiarize her with the affairs of government. It is true, however, that by virtue of their influence over their husbands, some royal wives exercised political power while their husbands were still alive, regardless of whether they were mothers. By virtue of the role she played in the affairs of her husband, Sigismund I (ruled 15061548) of Poland, Bona, princess of Milan and Bari, introduced the Renaissance into Poland in the first half of the sixteenth century. In the seventeenth century Louise Marie de Gonzague-Nevers played an essential role: twice queen of Poland, thanks to her support, her brother-in-law John II Casimir Vasa, later her husband, was elected king of Poland (ruled 16481668). In Spain, Maria Anna of Bavaria Neuburg (16671740) took advantage of the weakness of her husband, Charles II (ruled 16651700), to favor Austrian interests in the matter of Spanish succession, and in France Marie Antoinette (17551793) was accused of giving bad advice to King Louis XVI (ruled 17741792). For better or worse, the political role of the wives of kings was generally not well known, except when a regency made it official.


It was essentially by virtue of their being mothers that queens actually gained access to power in the event of a royal minority, in which case they ruled in the names of their sons. When a king died leaving an heir who was too young to govern, a regency was organized. The queen thus reached the peak of her glory, conducting affairs of state either alone or with the dignitaries and princes of the realm. Although regencies were theoretically a form of collective rule, they were very often personal in practice, the queen making it her business to rule without interference. Thus Catherine de Médicis, Marie de Médicis (15731642), and Anne of Austria, all three queens of France who are known essentially for their political action during royal minorities, eliminated all rivals to their authority as soon as their husbands died. Catherine de Médicis, mother of three successive kingsFrancis II (ruled 1559), Charles IX (ruled 15601574), and Henry III (ruled 15741589)managed to retain her power beyond the legal end of the royal minority (French kings reached their majority at the age of fourteen) by virtue of her influence over her children. Marie de Médicis also continued in government well beyond the majority of Louis XIII (ruled 16101643). Anne of Austria, however, widow of Louis XIII, stepped aside in 1661 when her son Louis XIV decided to rule alone. He was already more than twenty years old, and the queen mother was prepared to relinquish the major political role she had played for nearly seventeen years. Other regencies were very long indeed: when the Scottish queen Mary of Guise (15151560) was widowed in 1542, her daughter Mary Stuart (15421587), heir to the throne, was only seven days old. When the little queen left Scotland to marry the French dauphin and future Francis II, her mother ruled as regent until her death in 1560, a period of nearly eighteen years. Mariana de Austria (16341696), widow of Philip IV of Spain (ruled 16211665), exercised power for ten years (16651675) in the name of her son, Charles II. In Sweden, Hedwig-Leonora, widowed at the age of twenty-four, found herself in charge of the government when her son, Charles XI (ruled 16601697), who was barely four years old, succeeded to the throne. The country had already been through a female regency some thirty years earlier when the young Queen Christina inherited her father's throne in 1632.

All of these examples, which are significant though not exhaustive, show that regency was a classic mode of administration in the absence of royal authority. The longest and most famous examples of female rule took place during royal minorities. A regency could also be organized in the absence of a king (away at war) or in the event of illness. The wives or mothers of the sovereign thus replaced the person who legally held royal authority but was unable to wield it. By doing so, they ensured political stability while maintaining dynastic continuity.

The political role of the wives of kings was therefore not negligible. Of course it did not compare with the role of queens reigning in their own name and inscribed in the long list of European sovereigns. But these regents also left their mark on their country of adoption. The same cannot be said for queens who disappeared without trace, dying young or widowed without children, and who hardly had the chance to exercise their political talents. Others had an even more tragic fate: Anne Boleyn (1507?1536), queen of England, was condemned to death by her husband Henry VIII. Mary Stuart was executed by order of her cousin Elizabeth I of England; Marie-Antoinette, queen of France, died a victim of the French Revolution.

See also Absolutism ; Anna (Russia) ; Anne (England) ; Anne of Austria ; Catherine de Médicis ; Catherine II (Russia) ; Christina (Sweden) ; Court and Courtiers ; Elizabeth I (England) ; Elizabeth (Russia) ; Isabella of Castile ; Marguerite de Navarre ; Maria Theresa (Holy Roman Empire) ; Marie Antoinette ; Marie de Médicis ; Mary I (England) ; Regency .


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Fanny Cosandey (Translated from the French by Liam Gavin)

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Queens and Empresses

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