Queens are female sovereigns. A queen regnant rules a kingdom in her own right (or, in rare cases, by sharing power with a king). A queen consort is the wife of a reigning king but is not a part of the government and has no official power to rule. Regardless of their legal authority, many queens consort have held great power. In many cases a queen consort has served as regent following her husband's death until her child comes of age to rule, thus effectively having control of government. More rarely, some queens consort have succeeded their husbands to the throne, either by force or by popular demand. In most cultures patrilinear primogeniture has traditionally applied, meaning that title and power is passed from a male to his oldest son, then to other males. Although rare, women can inherit titles and power, thus becoming queens regnant, if no other males survive to inherit. In some cultures women are specifically excluded from inheriting the power to rule (e.g., in France, this is due to the Salic law), but even in those cultures queens consort have sometimes held actual power, if not in title. The longest continuous hereditary succession without a queen regnant was the Peacock throne of Persia (Iran), whose last shah was overthrown in 1979. Since 1980 Sweden and Nepal have adopted a rule of absolute primogeniture, meaning that the oldest child of a monarch inherits title and power regardless of sex. Other countries have considered adopting such rules, whereas Japan, which went most of the late twentieth century without a male royal birth, may be forced to amend its constitution to allow women to inherit. The Netherlands has also lacked male royals and has had female sovereigns since 1890.
Kings and queens serve both practical and symbolic functions. Regardless of the amount of political power they hold (if any), their primary role is to parent heirs to the throne, thus assuring stability and continuity of government. Thus, monarchs are distinctly sexualized because their primary function is reproductive. Queens, in particular, are often considered primarily as mothers of future monarchs, and their sexual and reproductive practices become a matter of public concern. The ways that individual queens manage their official and reproductive duties are often definitive of the way they are publicly perceived. Queens are unique among governmental figures in that their sexual lives are fully part of their public lives and often determine their legacy. A number of historical queens are famous as sexual or sexualized beings. Others are known for particularly astute or powerful control over government. A smaller number combine those qualities, and fewer still manage to avoid accusations of their political effectiveness as being based on their sexual control over others.
Hatshepsut (fifteenth century bce) is recognized as the first female pharaoh of Egypt. She was married to her half-brother, Thutmose II, and ruled with him as coregent for thirteen years. Upon his death she reigned alone for twenty-two more years, effectively usurping the throne from her nephew. She is known to have fostered very strong trade relations with other countries, bringing a great deal of wealth to Egypt. Her tomb is a massive complex of terraces and balconies built at the foot of a cliff at Deir el-Bahri near the Valley of the Kings and is her most lasting legacy. The removal of names of deceased pharaohs from monuments was common practice in ancient Egypt, but for reasons still unknown, Hatshepsut's name was excised from almost all records. Without the obviousness of her funerary complex, she may have been forgotten. Her unusual status and the lack of concrete information about her have made her the subject of many works of historical fiction.
Nefertiti was the wife of Egyptian Pharaoh Amenhotep IV (later Akhenaten) in the fourteenth century bce. Sources indicate she played a variety of roles, including holding political power. She was likely the stepmother or stepsister of Pharaoh Tutankhamun. She is most famous for a bust of her, which was produced by Thutmose and copied widely by Egyptian artists. It has been seen, along with the Venus de Milo, as a model for feminine beauty for millennia. The original was found in 1912 and is now on display in Berlin.
Helen, a mythological Queen of Sparta, was a beautiful woman whose abduction by Paris is often credited as the cause of the Trojan War. Although archaeological evidence suggests that Troy and other Greek city-states fought a war, probably in the thirteenth or fourteenth century bce, there is no concrete proof that Helen actually existed or that she was in any way involved in the war. The legends of Helen are numerous, however, with sources including Homer's epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey (sixth to seventh century bce), Euripedes's play Helen (fifth century bce), and the Trojan Cycle of the Cypria (seventh century bce).
According to legend Zeus fell in love with Leda and came to her in the form of a swan. The two mated and Leda produced an egg from which Helen was born. Leda married Tyndareus, the king of Sparta, making Helen a royal princess. Her beauty brought her many powerful suitors, and she eventually married Menelaus, who succeeded Tyndareus as king of Sparta. Some years later she was visited by Paris, a prince of Troy, who had been promised Helen as a prize by the goddess Aphrodite. Sources disagree as to whether Helen fell in love with Paris and went to Troy with him willingly or was abducted against her will. Menelaus gathered the kings of other Greek city-states to join him in waging a ten-year war on Troy to secure the return of his queen. Although a political war its direct cause was Helen, who was prized for her beauty. The number of forces engaged in the war led to Helen's label as the face that launched a thousand ships. After the fall of Troy Menelaus took Helen back to Sparta, although the state of their marriage from then on differs in almost every account.
Jezebel is a name for two different women in the Bible, neither of whom is fully identified. In popular use the two different figures are often merged into a single entity. The first Jezebel was a queen of ancient Israel and is mentioned in 1 Kings. During the reign of her husband, King Ahab, she persecuted the priests and prophets of Israel (most particularly the prophet Elijah) and opened temples to the god Baal, thus leading the people of Israel away from monotheism. After Ahab's death she held power through her sons, who each held the throne for short periods. She is therefore a controversial and divisive figure but not for reasons related to sexuality. In the New Testament a woman named Jezebel appears in Revelations. She is a figure of complete debauchery, encouraging sexual licentiousness and desecration of sacred offerings, as well as the worship of idols. In popular culture the two Jezebels have become linked, and most identify Jezebel as a queen known for sexual deviance and immorality. The name Jezebel is often applied to women who are considered immoral, often for sexual activity.
The Queen of Sheba (who is unnamed in the Bible but is sometimes called Makeda, Bilqis, Nikaule, or Nicaula in other traditions) was the ruler of Sheba, an ancient kingdom on the Red Sea, probably in modern-day Ethiopia, Eritrea, or Yemen. In the Hebrew Bible (1 Kings and 2 Chronicles), the Queen of Sheba traveled to Jerusalem to test the famed wisdom of Solomon. Impressed by him she gave a blessing to the God of his people, they exchanged gifts, and she returned to her country. Legends developed from this event, including the belief that Solomon and the queen were lovers. Some even attribute the erotic poetry in The Song of Solomon to Solomon's love for the queen, although most assume the dark-skinned female lover mentioned is Solomon's wife. A variety of apocryphal stories emerged, including that Solomon's reaction to the Queen of Sheba's hairy legs gave rise to the use of depilatories by women. First-century ce Jewish historian Josephus claims that Sheba gave birth to a son fathered by Solomon who would become Menelik I, the first emperor of Ethiopia. The line of Ethiopian kings claiming descent from Solomon was unbroken until 1974, when Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed. The link to Solomon is also responsible for Ethiopian claims as a lost tribe of Israel and guardians of the Ark of the Covenant. Little evidence, including a name, exists for the Queen of Sheba, but she remains mythologized as a powerful woman seduced by a powerful man.
Cleopatra VII of Egypt (69–30 bce) was a pharaoh of Egypt, the last of the Ptolemaic Dynasty, and the final independent pharaoh before Egypt was incorporated into the Roman Empire. Cleopatra and her younger brother, Ptolemy XIII, became corulers when their father died in 51 bce. Although female corulers were common in Egypt, they were expected to be subordinate to their husbands and were invested only symbolically with power. Cleopatra, however, dominated her younger comonarch, leading him to exile her in 48 bce. Ptolemy formed an alliance with Rome but in a diplomatic error angered Julius Caesar, who took control of Egypt.
Cleopatra returned from exile rolled into a carpet given to Julius Caesar. When it was unrolled she emerged from it naked, presenting herself to Caesar. Although he was thirty years her senior, the two became lovers, and she gave birth to Caesar's son, Caesarion, in 47 bce. Caesar overlooked Caesarion and named a distant nephew, Octavian, as his heir. Cleopatra's brother died under mysterious circumstances in 44 bce, making Cleopatra and Caesarion corulers. In 42 bce Cleopatra met Mark Antony on a state visit and became his lover. In 40 bce she bore him twins, and when he returned to Egypt in 37 bce, he married her (although he was already married to a Roman woman) and lived in Egypt until his death in 30 bce. When Roman forces led by Octavian attacked Egypt, Antony committed suicide, followed by Cleopatra a few days later. According to legend she put two asps into a basket of figs from which she ate, knowing that she would be bitten.
Although there is evidence that Cleopatra was quite plain in appearance, she is nonetheless popularly conceived of as a beautiful seductress. It is true that she convinced two of the most powerful men in the world to be her lovers, at least one through presenting herself to him naked. Some see her actions as opportunistic and self serving, but others view her as using her savvy and intellect to endear herself, and thus Egypt, to men who had the power to destroy both.
Theodora (c. 500–548 ce) was empress of the Byzantine Empire and wife of Emperor Justinian I. Her background is poorly documented, although it is known that she was born into the lower classes and rose to fame as an actress specializing in physical, often eroticized comedy. Some sources also claim that she had been a well-known courtesan and was scandalous and ridiculed among the elite. It is unclear how she came to Justinian's attention or why he considered her to be suitable as a bride. They married in 523, however, and he made her coruler. She seems to have been well suited to government and politics, and Justinian endowed her with actual, not merely symbolic, power. Many of her initiatives involved the rights of women. She is the first recorded official Byzantine proponent of abortion; she also publicly proclaimed women's right to commit adultery. In addition to her voicing her opinions, she accomplished a great deal of legislation concerning women, including revoking the ban on nobility marrying lower-class women. She also outlawed forced prostitution, gave women rights in divorce, and established severe penalties for rape, including the death penalty. She is seen by many women as a champion of power and rights for women but is recognized by the Orthodox Church (who made her a saint) as a woman of exemplary morality who opposed prostitution.
Empress Suiko (554–628 ce) was the first female emperor of Japan. A royal princess from birth she was consort to her half-brother, Emperor Bidatsu. She bore him several children and eventually became his official wife after the death of his first wife. After Bidatsu's death her brother became emperor for a brief period. Upon his death Suiko was asked to take the throne to avoid a civil war among rival families over the succession. She ruled from 593 to 628, and although princes were established as her regents, she is considered to have held considerable power. In addition to having risen to power via an incestuous marriage, she is remarkable in that after her husband's death, she became a Buddhist nun. She is responsible for official recognition of Buddhism in Japan and ruled as a nun. She also adopted the Seventeen-Article Constitution in 604 ce. Rather than a legal document, it was a treatise on the moral codes underlying the Japanese monarchy, stressing the kind of virtues expected of a monarch and government officials to ensure and legitimate an absolute monarchy.
Zenobia (third century ce) was queen of Palmyra, an ancient city located in modern Syria. She is descended from several important families in the ancient Middle East and Greece and claimed Dido of Carthage and Cleopatra of Egypt as ancestors, although these claims are doubtful at best. Beautiful and well educated she married Septimius Odaenathus, King of Palmyra, around 258 ce In 267 ce, her husband and his son from his first marriage were assassinated, leaving Zenobia as regent until her own son came of age to rule. She did not merely maintain the kingdom but expanded it, leading her army to conquer Egypt in 269. She then conquered much of Asia Minor and the Levant before expanding eastward toward the Euphrates River. Her forces were finally defeated by the Roman Emperor Aurelian, who took Zenobia and her son to Rome as captives. Zenobia entered Rome in golden chains as part of Aurelian's victory procession. He and the Romans were so taken with her beauty that she was freed. She established herself as a socialite and a woman of education and eventually married a Roman senator. She is known for both her beauty and her education as well as being one of the few documented warrior queens who assembled an important empire.
Boudica (also spelled Boudicca or Boadicea) was a first-century ce Celtic queen in Britain. When her husband died the Romans forcibly annexed his kingdom (in current-day Norfolk), Boudica was flogged and her daughters were raped. In response she led an uprising against the Romans, destroying three Roman cities (including Londinium, now London), burning them to the ground and killing between 70,000 and 80,000 people. The Romans eventually rallied and defeated her, reclaiming their lost territories. Boudica was forgotten through the Middle Ages (476–1350), but a Renaissance (1350–1600) find of ancient texts helped historians rediscover her. Particularly in the Victorian era she was recognized as a national hero. In 1905 a statue of her was placed on Westminster Bridge next to the Houses of Parliament.
Amalasuntha (sixth century ce) was a queen of the Ostrogoths in Italy. As regent for her young son she attempted to bring the Gothic and the Byzantine Empires closer together through negotiations with Justinian I, husband of Theodora. After her son's death in 534, she took her cousin Theodahad as her coruler and was murdered in her bath on his order in 535. Totila, one of Theodahad's successors, sacked Rome in 546.
MEDIEVAL AND RENAISSANCE QUEENS
Eleanor (1122–1204) was queen consort of France then queen consort of England; in addition, she held the French region of Aquitaine in her own right, making her one of the most powerful women of the medieval period in Europe. She was married to the heir to the throne of France, but the marriage contract stipulated that Aquitaine and France would not be merged until the following generation, keeping Aquitaine in Eleanor's own control. Her husband entered into a series of religious conflicts in France leading to the deaths of thousands of people. To atone he agreed to the Pope's wish for him to go on a crusade to Jerusalem; Eleanor accompanied him, one of the few noble women to go on a crusade. A massacre en route was popularly blamed on a delay caused by her excessive baggage, even though this had little to do with the events, and her popularity in Europe decreased. Her experiences on the crusade led to her opening trade with Constantinople for the Aquitaine and later for England, a major economic development. Her lack of popularity among the French and the lack of a male heir (Eleanor and Louis had two daughters) caused Louis to annul their marriage. The Church granted his request based on the fact that he and Eleanor were third cousins and thus not eligible to marry. Their daughters became illegitimate and Eleanor retained control of Aquitaine.
Immediately after her annulment, Eleanor proposed marriage to Henry of Anjou, Duke of Normandy. Not only did she take the lead in their courtship, but she had been rumored to have previously taken Henry's father as one of her many lovers. In 1154, two years after their marriage, her husband became King Henry II of England. They had eight children, two of whom (Richard and John) would become kings of England. Her husband was openly unfaithful, fathering many illegitimate children and carrying on a long-term relationship with Rosamund Clifford. Eleanor seems to have accepted Henry's infidelities, although their marriage became strained over Henry's desire to rule Aquitaine independently of Eleanor. In 1173 their son Henry attempted to depose his father, and Eleanor encouraged her other sons to join the revolt. Her husband put down the revolt, captured Eleanor, and imprisoned her in various castles in England for the next fifteen years. It is this period of their marriage and power struggle that was fictionalized in James Goldman's 1966 play The Lion in Winter. From 1184 to 1189 Eleanor was free to travel but was kept under guard by Henry. Upon Henry's death in 1189 Eleanor was freed and her son Richard was crowned. He went on the Third Crusade, leaving Eleanor as regent in his absence. After Richard's death and John's accession, she was a trusted advisor and political ally. Eleanor is famed both for her sexual freedom as well as for her political power.
Katun Börte Ujin of Mongolia
Börte (twelfth and thirteenth centuries ce) was the wife of Genghis Khan, the founder of the Mongol Empire. Her father married her to Genghis (then called Temujin) at age seventeen to form a political alliance. Immediately after the marriage Börte was kidnapped by a rival tribe, raped, and held captive for eight months. She gave birth to a son shortly after she was recaptured by Temujin; the unknown parentage of the son clouded the issue of succession. After Temujin became Khan Börte was crowned his empress, and she became one of his most trusted advisors. She was left in charge of the Mongol homeland while Genghis was on his military campaigns.
Catherine de' Medici
Catherine (1519–1589) was the daughter of Lorenzo II de' Medici, ruler of Florence, and a French princess. She inherited the title Countess of Auvergne from a maternal aunt. Her second marriage was to Henry II of France, who also had a lifelong relationship with Diane de Poitiers, whom Catherine exiled following her husband's early death. She ruled as regent for her young son François II, who died young, and for her second son, Charles IX. She held power for many years and was particularly deft at handling the internal struggles of the French wars of religion between Catholics and Protestants. As Victoria I of England did three centuries later, she succeeded in marrying her children into the most influential dynasties of Europe, thus creating familial ties among many of the monarchs of the day. Her third son, Henri III, took the throne late in Catherine's life, but her power had waned by this point, and he ruled independent of her influence.
Elizabeth I of England (1533–1603) was the first major queen regnant of England and Ireland. She succeeded her half-sister Queen Mary (also known as Bloody Mary for her ruthless burning of Protestants) and Queen Jane (also known as the Nine Days' Queen and often not considered an actual queen). She came to power in a period of religious and political turmoil. Her father, Henry VIII, had refused to recognize the authority of the Pope while remaining a Catholic. His son Edward VI was a staunch Protestant and continued his father's religious reforms. Mary was a devout Catholic who reversed the Reformation and reestablished ties with Rome. Elizabeth is known for a hands-off religious polity in which she maintained the authority of the monarchy over that of Rome but chose to not openly support or outlaw most religious practice, herself a practicing Protestant. This stance, combined with her lengthy reign following several short ones, allowed England to settle into a largely peaceful domestic period. Her foreign policy was strong yet restrained. Her predecessors had all but bankrupted the crown through unsuccessful wars with France and alliances with foreign powers. Elizabeth largely focused on maintaining the stability of the English nation without concern for expansion. Her greatest military success was the English defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Elizabeth is given credit for the victory largely due to her speech to the troops at Tilbury, in which she declared "I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a King of England too!"
Aside from her political and military prowess, Elizabeth is well known for her refusal to marry, causing her to be referred to as the Virgin Queen. The colony (now state) of Virginia in North America was named after her. Whether Elizabeth was actually a virgin has been a subject of much debate; her status as virgin stems from her unmarried status. She certainly was in love with men throughout her life. Her earliest infatuation seems to have been with Thomas Seymour, the fourth husband of her stepmother Katherine Parr. Rumors of an illegitimate child born of their relationship circulated, but nothing more than some overly affectionate embraces has ever been determined to take place. The most long-term love of her life was with Sir Robert Dudley, one of her courtiers, but they never married or publicly announced their love. As a queen with no heir Elizabeth was much sought-after for marriage, and she often used this to her political advantage in international dealings. She died unmarried and without heir, ending the Tudor Dynasty and passing the crown to James VI of Scotland, the son of her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots. He became James I of England and joined the crowns of England and Scotland into the United Kingdom.
Mary, Queen of Scots
Mary Stuart I (1542–1587) is the most famous of all Scottish monarchs, although her fame derives from scandal more than from political acumen. The only child of King James V of Scotland, she became queen at the age of six days when her father died. Afraid for her safety her French mother sent the child to live with her relatives on the Continent, where she grew up speaking French and eventually marrying François II, making her queen of France. After his death less than a year into his reign, Mary returned to Scotland and reclaimed her throne. She ruled as a foreigner and an outsider, however, and never truly came to understand the Scots. As a descendant of Henry VII of England, she had a claim to the English throne, making her a rival to Elizabeth I. For much of her life Elizabeth (whom she never met in person) promised to name Mary as her heir assuming Elizabeth had no children. Mary made a series of unwise political moves, including marriage to Lord Darnley without the consent of Elizabeth or any of her own advisers. She took a series of foreign officials into her confidence, excluding the Scottish nobility, and was also criticized for having a series of lovers rather openly. She was later implicated in Darnley's death, the first recorded regicide by explosion. She was forced to abdicate by the Scottish nobility and was later tried for treason in England and beheaded at the order of Elizabeth I. Although an unwise ruler Mary is romanticized by many as a woman who put passion ahead of her status as queen.
Christina of Sweden
Christina (1626–1689) became queen regnant of Sweden at age six during the turbulent years of the Thirty Years War with Germany. She is often considered a selfish queen, caring more for the arts and her study of the sciences than for her official duties. She refused to marry and provide an heir to the throne, sided with the aristocracy against the lower classes in many disputes, and nearly bankrupted the crown by creating and funding new noble titles. She favored Catholicism and had no patience with Protestants, even though queen of an overwhelmingly Protestant country. In 1654, at the age of twenty-seven, she abdicated her throne in favor of her cousin Karl X Gustav, converted to Catholicism, and moved to Rome. When Gustav died in 1660 she attempted to return to Sweden and reclaim her crown, but the people rejected her. She returned to Rome where she lived until her death. She is one of only four women to be buried in St. Peter's Basilica.
Mabola Bai of Bhopal
Mabola Bai (1715–1795) was the wife of Yar Mohammad Khan of Bhopal, India. Her background is uncertain, although she seems to have been of noble birth and likely was a Hindu. She was part of Yar's victory spoils in his campaigns to gain control of the Bhopal region. Mabola Bai was childless but was stepmother to Yar's children from his Muslim wives. After Yar's death his sons were ineffective rulers, and Mabola Bai ruled in their names for almost fifty years until her death in 1795.
Marie Antoinette (born Maria Antonia Josefa Johanna von Habsburg-Lothringen, 1755–1793) was married to King Louis XVI of France at age 15 and was the queen of France during the French Revolution. She is most famous for her extravagant tastes and expenditures on luxuries. Most likely she was no more extravagant than many other royals of her day and before, but in contrast to the majority of French citizens of the day, she is remembered as caring only for her own comfort over those of her people. She was executed by guillotine on October 16, 1793, during the Reign of Terror.
Catherine II of Russia (born Sophie Frederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst, 1729–1796) was a German princess who, through marriage and coup, came to rule Russia from 1762 to 1796. Although a rather minor princess in her own right, Catherine was closely related to many reigning monarchs in eighteenth-century Europe, making her a politically advantageous match for the future tsar, Peter III. Her husband (then Grand Duke Peter of Holstein) was also German and had been selected as heir by Empress Elizabeth of Russia. Catherine (the name Sophie took in the Russian Orthodox Church) and Peter married in 1745. By all accounts Peter was mentally immature at best and probably impotent. Catherine, a brilliant woman who needed to produce an heir to secure her own safety and who desired intellectual stimulation as well, almost immediately began extramarital affairs with courtiers.
Catherine learned the Russian language, which Peter did not, and became familiar with Russian politics, whereas Peter remained interested only in German affairs. Peter also tried to force the Russian Orthodox Church to adopt Lutheran ideas, whereas Catherine conformed to the church of her adopted homeland. As such she was far more popular than her husband. When Peter became tsar in 1762 and almost immediately used his power to interfere in a war between Denmark and his native Holstein, palace officials overthrew him and established Catherine as empress. Peter was reigned for only four months before being exiled to a place outside of St. Petersburg. He died six months later and there are indications that his death was by Catherine's order, or at least took place with her approval.
Under Catherine's rule Russia expanded geographically and economically. Although she maintained a tight, often ruthless, control, she was also a wise ruler who brought Enlightenment (1600–1800) ideals to Russia and made her country a major European power. She is also widely known as a sexual figure; her affairs during and after her marriage are well documented and numerous. Her own diary strongly suggests that her son, Tsar Paul I, was conceived extramaritally. Her sexual life during her reign was not secret, and her appetites were remarkable. Her last lover, when she was in her sixties, was forty years her junior. Legends about her sexual encounters developed even during her own lifetime, and the most notorious began shortly after her death. Catherine died of a stroke at age sixty-seven, but it was almost immediately rumored that she had died while attempting to copulate with a stallion, something that she was also said to have done as a young woman. Although no evidence substantiates this myth, it is possibly the most lasting legacy of her sexual life.
Nandi (1760–1827) was a member of the Nguni nation in modern-day South Africa and became the wife of Senzangakona of the Zulus and later the mother of Shaka Zulu. As a minor wife of the chief, Nandi had little power, even though she was mother of his oldest son. His other wives convinced Senzangakona to disinherit Shaka in favor of their sons. Zulu legend claims that Nandi encouraged her son to become ruthless and warlike so that he could take back his birthright by force when his father died. Shaka not only became chief but expanded the Zulu Empire and brought much of southern Africa under his control. When Nandi died Shaka is said to have ordered a ritual slaughter of thousands of his enemies and to have ordered his people into a year of forced mourning.
Victoria (1819–1901) was queen of Great Britain and Ireland and the first empress of India. With a reign of sixty-three years, she is the longest-reigning monarch in British history. Her rule, often called the Victorian Era, covered much of the nineteenth century and saw a variety of political, social, and economic changes. The Industrial Revolution reached its height and the British Empire reached its greatest extent, both making Great Britain the world's richest country. Victoria became queen due to a series of untimely deaths among her male relatives and succeeded William IV when she was only eighteen years old. Because she was a woman, she did not inherit William's other title as king of Hannover, a German realm that followed Salic law and allowed only male rulers. As a political figure Victoria was quite weak. She was a political conservative during a period marked by growing liberalism and often disagreed with Parliament in her early years. As queen of England her major political function was to form a government following elections. In a situation known as the Bedchamber Crisis, Victoria attempted to form a minority government more in line with her political leanings. Robert Peel, who she asked to be prime minister, refused her invitation, and a majority Tory government was formed. This was the last time that a British monarch attempted to exert political power in defiance of the democratic process, and the position has been largely ceremonial since.
The reign of Victoria is most notable for a distinctly conservative turn in British society. Victoria chose to wear white for her wedding, initiating a custom that still continues. Many other traditions surrounding the marriage event in American culture can be traced to Victoria. She married her first cousin, Albert, in 1840, and her devotion to him became legendary. They had nine children together, most of whom were married into the ruling families of Europe. As such, World War I was, to some extent, a family crisis, as the czar of Russia, the German kaiser, and the king of England were first cousins and childhood friends. When Albert died in 1861, Victoria entered a lifelong period of mourning. She never again appeared in public without wearing black, and she became known for her unending devotion to Albert, even in death. As such, she initiated a kind of cult of widowhood. Whereas her ancestor Elizabeth I is known for her virginity, Victoria is known for both her fertility and her perpetual widowhood.
Cixi of China
Cixi (or Tz'u-hsi) was born in 1835 and lived until 1908, making her life roughly contemporaneous with the rule of Victoria of England. She was a minor concubine of Emperor Xianfeng of China, who ruled from 1850 to 1861. Upon his death she attained power as the mother of his only son (Tongzhi), for whom she served as regent. From 1861 to 1908 Cixi held power in China, either in her own right or in the name of her son or nephew (Guangxu). She is remembered as a conservative ruler and a despot, and many historians have credited her reign with the downfall of the Qing Dynasty, which effectively brought an end to the Chinese monarchy. Her role as a queen is overtly sexualized, as she began her relationship with the emperor as a concubine. She is also unusual among female rulers in that she orchestrated a series of coups to bring herself to power.
When Xianfeng died in 1861 Tongzhi was five years old. Xianfeng left power with a council of regents, and his imperial consort and Cixi were charged to jointly raise his son until he was old enough to rule. Cixi and the consort, now the Dowager Empress Ci'an, overthrew the council, taking power for themselves. The dowager empress, however, was uninterested in politics, leaving power largely in Cixi's hands. She ruled in her son's name and was in the process of teaching him the skills of statecraft when he died at age nineteen, probably from syphilis.
Cixi violated the normal order of succession by naming her three-year-old nephew, Guangxu, as heir to the throne, thus assuring herself many more years in power until he came of age in 1889. As emperor he instituted a number of reforms toward a system of constitutional monarchy. In 1898 Cixi assumed control as regent and worked to restore the absolute monarchy. She continued to rule in Guangxu's name until her death in 1908. Her later rule was marked by a series of political disasters, including the Boxer Rebellion and unsuccessful dealings with European powers.
Queen Lili'uokalani of Hawai'i
Queen Lili'uokalani (1838–1917) was the last monarch of Hawai'i. She married John Owen Dominis, an American statesman, in 1862 and inherited the throne from her brother in 1891. Her predecessor had approved the Bayonet Constitution of 1887 under force (hence its name), which stripped the monarchy of power and gave it to the wealthy citizens. The Constitution not only disenfranchised the poor but was completely discriminatory against Asians. Queen Lili'uokalani tried to write a new constitution restoring power to the monarchy but was resisted by Europeans and Americans who would lose the right of suffrage. They claimed that by trying to subvert the Constitution, she had effectively abdicated, and they deposed her. With the assistance of the U.S. government, the Republic of Hawai'i was established in 1894. The queen was held under house arrest until 1896 when she was voted a pension by the new government and officially abdicated to gain the freedom of her supporters. The Republic was annexed by the United States in 1898, and Queen Lili'uokalani lived in Honolulu until 1917, when she died of a stroke.
see also Zenobia.
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Brian D. Holcomb