Queens and Queenship

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Queens and Queenship

The Renaissance produced an unusually large number of royal women who exercised cultural and political influence. Queenship is a broader and more flexible term than kingship. While kings are always rulers, queens can serve in a variety of roles. A queen regnant, for instance, is a woman who has inherited the throne and rules the state in her own right. Other queens may be the wives or mothers of kings, with varying degrees of power. A non-ruling queen sometimes serves as a regent, usually acting on behalf of a son who is too young or unable to take power.


Ruling Queens. Few women became queens regnant in Renaissance Europe, partly because the laws or customs of some countries prevented women from inheriting the throne. Those queens who did rule had the problem of marriage. Although they were expected to wed and to produce royal heirs, making an appropriate match was not easy. Renaissance society generally expected women to obey their husbands, but at the same time people feared that a queen's husband would dominate or influence her. If she chose one of her subjects as a spouse, the marriage might lead to conflict within the country. However, a foreign husband might meddle in the nation's affairs.

Two of the most important ruling queens of the Renaissance solved the marriage problem in different ways. In Spain, Isabella of Castile

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(ruled 1474–1504) married a neighboring monarch, Ferdinand of Aragon. The marriage won acceptance because it united their two realms into the kingdom of Spain. Moreover, Isabella's status as a married woman and mother of sons helped strengthen her authority. By contrast, Elizabeth I of England (ruled 1558–1603) never married, largely because of political divisions among her advisers over the selection of a husband. Although Elizabeth failed to provide an heir to the throne, her single status became a diplomatic* tool. Until late in life, she used the possibility of her marriage to a foreign ruler as a lever in international relations.


Queens Consort. A king's wife, known as a queen consort, had one primary duty: to provide a son who could inherit the throne. If the queen failed in this duty, her husband might divorce her or even call for her execution.

Although a queen consort had no ruling authority of her own, she did have symbolic power, especially if she had been formally recognized in a coronation ceremony. Along with the king, the queen represented the majesty of the monarchy. Her influence depended on the survival of her sons, the strength of her personality, and the status of her family.

Women who served as regents held limited authority to govern. During the mid-1500s, Mary of Hungary controlled the Netherlands for her brother, Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire*. Although women could not occupy the throne of France, Catherine de MÉdicis (1519–1589) governed the country as regent for her sons. Occasionally queens consort acted as regents for short periods when their husbands were absent, but they usually exercised little power. Katherine Parr, the last wife of Henry VIII, ruled briefly on her husband's behalf in 1544.

Regardless of the queen's status, her position at court allowed her to be a patron* to artists, musicians, poets, and scholars. One of the greatest female patrons was Margaret of Austria, who served as regent of the Netherlands in the early 1500s for her nephew, Charles V. In addition, many women who married rulers of foreign realms brought cultural ideas from their homelands to their new countries and encouraged political and economic bonds between the two states.

(See alsoCourt; Monarchy; Patronage; Princes and Princedoms; Women. )

* diplomatic

having to do with formal relations between nations

* Holy Roman Empire

political body in central Europe composed of several states; existed until 1806

* patron

supporter or financial sponsor of an artist or writer