Queens, Power and Sexuality

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Queens, Power and Sexuality

In her Elegy I the poet Louise Labé (1516 or 1523–1566), to evoke the invincible powers of Love, adduced the infelicitous example of legendary Assyrian queen Semiramis—a celebrated and fearsome warrior reveling in victorious combat and bloodshed, she was felled by the harshest conqueror, Love. She thus went from impetuously charging into battle to languishing in her bed in the throes of an incestuous passion for her own son, "her virile heart" corrupted (vss. 61-90). The story of Semiramis—notably exonerated, nonetheless, by Christine de Pizan (1363–1430) in her City of Ladies—was a mainstay of male Renaissance discourse on the flaws of women and their inability to rule (Richards 1997, pp. 108-114).

To speak of queens and power one has to factor in the publicity of their sexual comportment and the driving public concern to control their sexuality. At the core of the specific nature of queenship lie the tensions between the concept of queen as a powerful sovereign, sometimes imbued with sacred or supernatural powers, and the subjected, subaltern status of a woman in any given society where women/the female are at the bottom in a hierarchy of sex and gender. The sacred character of kingship and the dangerous, ambiguous, or even abjectified nature of queens as women pull in opposite directions and create restrictions on their exercise of political rule. The ambivalence toward a female ruler may have reflected two competing concerns: that the good, masculine behavior will render her unfeminine, and thus barren, and that lust and lack of chastity will remain likely. These complexities have attracted considerable attention from scholars of medieval and early modern Europe in particular (including Theresa Earenfight [2005] and John Carmi Parsons [1993]).

The king is said to have two bodies, one public and one private, but queens have two bodies as well—one stamped with the aura of the sacred, the other marked with the staining threat of pollution. In France where queens were excluded by law from political power as heirs to the throne, the queen's person and her office were distinct, a doctrine that confers only one body, albeit an exalted one, to the queen consort (uxor regis), for instance, in the coronation and privileges of office of Anne of Brittany, Queen of France (1477–1517). In another model, in which the queen is not equal to the king, her symbolic body may unfold into simultaneous and competing incarnations: besides the king's consort, that of his mother or sister. The latter is suggested by the role of Anne de Beaujeu (1461–1522; also called Anne de France or Anne de Bourbon), elder sister of Charles VIII (r. 1483–1498), named regent over the boy king with her husband by her father, Louis XI (r.1461–1483), on his deathbed. Better known in that capacity is Margaret of Navarre (1492–1549), sister of Francis I (r. 1515–1547), and, at times, "queen in all but name" (Cholakian and Cholakian 2006, pp. 40, 43).

The subject/subjected role of queens is not particular to a given part of the world, and in many cultures queens have been held to strict rules of propriety, ceremonial behavior, and to subject status—both as subject of the king and to his social, political, and sexual power—yet at times have exercised considerable power of their own. Thus, diverse structures of royal power have interfaced with gendered norms to harness sexual power and the display of sexuality.

When women are banned from exercising full power and a woman seizes power through intrigue or force of arms or both, rebellion and political upheaval ensue. Thus, the sultana Shajarat al-Durr (c. 1223–1257), widow of the last Ayyubid ruler of Egypt, died 648 HE/1250), came to power through the Mamluk army, whose soldiers she had impressed for her leadership role in the battle of Damiette against the French. The caliph of Baghdad condemned her rule, and she tried to operate without him, giving herself the title Malikat al-Muslimi (Queen of the Muslims). Deposed, she married the new sultan, a Mamluk general, and ruled with him for seven years. But when he attempted to displace her with another sultana and return her to the harem, she had him murdered, and even though a portion of the army still supported her, she was then brutally put to death. In her case male gender ideology was not uniform: for the clergy she was anathema, but for the military, skill and courage could overcome her status as a woman; in the end, however, she met her death as a disobedient, rebellious consort.

In France all royal women were successfully excluded from titular royal power through a dexterous political slight of hand enacted in the late Middle Ages (1283–1386), producing a distorted interpretation of the Salic law. French queens could exercise political power due to circumstance but could neither be fully anointed as rightful ruler nor inherit the throne: thus, Claude of France (1499–1524), legitimate daughter of Louis XII (r. 1498–1515) and Anne of Brittany (r. 1491–1498 and 1498–1514), only became queen as spouse of the king, and the throne went laterally to the man she married, Francis of Angoulême, the future Francis I (r. 1515–1547). Catherine of Medici (1519–1589) crafted the position of queen mother to heights never attained before or after her in France, presenting herself in the imposing seal made for her as Governess of France' at the death of her son, King Francis II (1544–1560), not merely as queen mother, but as "Catherine by the Grace of God, Queen of France, Mother of the King" (Frieda 2003, p. 144). She is consistently referred to as the queen, my mother, even during the reign of her son, in the memoirs of her daughter, Margaret of Valois (1553–1615). In another twist of the gender/power interface, Margaret was the only one of her younger children capable of ruling and the one Catherine consistently mistreated and sacrificed to her sons.

In the void caused by dead, absent, ailing, or too young male heirs, royal women of the Renaissance (1350–1600) across Europe rose to such authority and power that this period—of which feminist historians have asked whether women actually had a Renaissance—could paradoxically be seen as the rule of women. Catherine ruled forcefully (and effectively) through her sons, whereas her husband had kept her in a subjected and invisible position below his mistress. The sons were quite willing to leave the hardships of on-the-ground governance to her, the details of which, involving the work and support of women as much as men, transpire in her lengthy correspondence. Her long-lasting and often effective rule hinged not only on her significant personal political skills but also on the elaborate public performance of faithful widowhood and devoted motherhood, visually signaled by the cloaking, indeed veiling, of her body in black.

The world over, some queen mothers have been formidable figures, with enough prestige and authority to be the effective leaders of their nation. One such woman was Yaa Asantewaa (c. 1840–1921), the queen mother of one of the Asante states in Ghana, who led a largely successful military uprising in 1896 against British occupiers, much to the latter's astonishment.

The concept of two bodies of the king incarnated in a parallel female sovereign is most clear in certain African nations. In the east-African kingdom of Buganda (northern shore of Lake Victoria), the institution of queen mothers was a crucial regulator of good government and remained so until the combined upheavals due to long-distance trade and wars of plunder between chiefs at the end of the nineteenth century. In Buganda, queen mothers did not rule as a side effect of their son coming to power. On the contrary, as "in Asante, Dahomey, Lagos, and many other African polities, queen mothers built up political coalitions that brought their sons to power." (Hanson 2002, p. 220). Since the sixteenth century the authority of the Bugandan queen mother "mirrored that of the king" (Hanson 2002, p, 221), as she held her own lands, had her own palace, and appointed her own ministers, independent from the king. Queen mothers acted to place their son on the throne by mobilizing their powerful lineages and brokering vast alliances, and they protected (or sometimes turned against) their son, the king, against his enemies through these networks. Most importantly the function of the queen mother in Bugandan government was to constrain excessive power exercised by the king, in particular, his urge to be too violent and to behave cruelly. The gendered power structure was thus that the mother's role as guardian, nurturer and civilizing influence was folded into the office of queenship.


Elizabeth I of England (r. 1558–1603) maintained her position on the throne in spite of numerous attacks on the ability of women to hold power and maintained her sole rulership by refusing to marry and be subject to the rule of a husband. Contemporary historians and ambassadors alike were baffled by her ability to remain crowned and unmarried, whereas, for her, the assertion of her own preferences in marriage—or to not marry, if she did not meet the spouse of her liking—was "proof of her political consequence" (Bell 1995, pp. 69-72). Yet she was never fully allowed by her subjects to forget that she was female and, as a single woman, an anomaly on the throne. She had to reinvent herself and construct her personal life along a multiple deployment of female roles—wife, mother, sister—which she revisited to affirm female power.

In contrast, the late fifteenth-century rule of Isabel of Castile (r. 1474–1504) successfully blended the obligations of marriage and sexual convention with the exercise of power and the conquering projects of an expanding empire. In this case her husband, Ferdinand II, was actually king of lesser Aragon, and she was the legitimate feudal ruler (señora) of Castile, where he was merely the prince consort. Isabel also came into power in circumstances that were doubly unusual with respect to sex and gender. First, all the contenders for the throne at that point were women, and she held distinct advantages over her rivals. Second, in contrast to the late king—her hated half-brother Henry IV, accused of having favored Jews and Muslims, of being impotent and not the father of his daughter, and of homosexual tendencies—she was legitimized as the restorer of the faith and of normative sexual conduct on the throne. Isabel aptly bridged the gaps between the status of queen and leader of the land with the duties of a wife, picking and blending both conventional and unusual gendered behavior traits. She accepted admonitions from her religious advisers to act as an obedient wife, bearing numerous children, and, against custom, appeared in public during the visible stages of pregnancy; she acted as a sovereign in all matters, casting herself in that role through elaborate ceremony, and, with Ferdinand, took ultraconservative measures to curb the sexual wantonness ascribed to women, by enforcing strict claustration of nuns.

Dona Ana de Sousa Nzinga Mbande (c. 1581–1663), Mbundu monarch of the Ndongo and Matamba Kingdoms in present-day Angola, skillfully manipulated the independence of celibacy coupled with a careful reinvention of self, first as regent, then as legitimate queen from a royal line, and, intermittently, as good Catholic dealing directly with the Portuguese envoys, or as Imbangala convert. She became viceroy in 1622 and fully succeeded her brother, Joao, in 1624, having had her nephew killed, and ruling until her death in 1663 at the age of 81. She alternatively attempted to accommodate the demands of the Portuguese rule over her nation and its riches and to resist its encroachments, engaging at times in protracted warfare. She came to power with the support of the growing class of court slaves and eventually created a controversial alliance with the Imbangala, a warrior people who held to a common origin as "slaves" (Thornton 1991, pp. 29-31). She had to fight, on and off the battlefield, to affirm her legitimacy as ruler against the Portuguese and her local rivals, including on the very point of whether a woman could hold the kingdom.

In the last decades of her life, Nzinga responded to claims against her legitimacy by twisting the obligation of marriage around: She "became a man" and married several dependent men at once, who were her "concubines," had to dress in female clothes, sleep among her maids in waiting, but not touch them sexually under the threat of death. She also engaged in male pursuits, leading troops, handling weapons expertly, and transforming her female retinue into a personal guard dressed as soldiers (Thornton 1991). She held to the ideas of female power and royal descent, and in her 1655 negotiations with the Portuguese, she tried to have them recognize her sister as heir to the throne—neither she nor her sister had children of their own. In effect, having established the precedent of female rule, in part through her gender transformation to becoming a man, she paved the way for a string of female rulers. Her sister ruled briefly after her, followed by Veronica I from 1681 to 1706, then by Ana I, Veronica II, Ana II, and Ana III over a period of eighty years after Nzinga's death, until 1767.

In conclusion, whereas the sacred could make the power of the prince, male or female, more efficacious, sexuality has always lurked, for good or ill, behind the power of queens. This holds true whether they act as ritual mothers of their people, as mothers to the royal brood, as spectacular anomalies as single women, or most often, through the carefully crafted performance of chaste behavior—perhaps the most powerful weapon for queens and their supporters to subvert rules barring women from access to the throne.

see also Africa: I. History; Catherine the Great; Celibacy; Elizabeth I; Gender Roles: I. Overview; Marriage; Royalty; Sex, Race and Power: An Intersectional Study.


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                                         Francesca Canadé Sautman

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