Monday, 20 August 2012
New books: Europe’s female monarchs
Some might perhaps object that there had been several female monarchs in between, but, Monter argues, the advent of constitutional monarchy in the early nineteenth century meant that these queens regnant were not executive heads of state. The women who reigned over European kingdoms during the preceding five centuries were, on the other hand, also heads of government.
There were thirty of them, ranging from the sixteen-year-old Jeanne II, who became Queen of Navarre in 1328, to the forty-two-year-old Maria I of Portugal, whose effective reign came to an end with her mental breakdown in 1792 and the regency of her son from 1799. Except from France, the Holy Roman Empire and the Papal States, female monarchs were found all over Europe, covering the map from Oslo in the north to Palermo in the south, and from Lisbon in the west to Nicosia in the east.
There had, as her numeral alone suggest, been female monarchs even before Jeanne II, and Monter gives an overview of female rule both before 1300 and outside Europe before embarking on his main subject. In Europe, female monarchs before 1300 were mostly found in Latin countries during the twelfth century, and must then be considered anomalies. After 1300, they became a more regular, although still rare occurrence, and, Monter points out, “centered in Christian Europe”, while vanishing from most Asian monarchies. The author identifies two ways through which most female monarchs acceded to their thrones: inheritance from fathers and usurpation by regents.
Monter shows how his list of thirty female monarchs through five centuries might meaningfully be split into two halves to find that most of the fifteen rulers during the first 250 years “were younger women who generally ruled in close association with and often politically subordinated to their husbands”. After 1550, on the other hand, the majority of the female monarchs “governed her kingdom autonomously for at least part of her reign”, while husbands as co-rulers became rarer and were eventually reduced to subordinated positions – if the female monarchs were married at all.
Fernando of Aragón and Isabel of Castile are without doubt the most famous – and arguably the most successful – couple to have served as joint monarchs, but the author highlights the pioneering role of the now mostly forgotten Kingdom of Navarre, which saw unusually many female monarchs, for the concept of joint rule between a queen regnant and her husband (Danish readers might well note that the part of France from which hails the family of Henrik the Prince Consort, who has often voiced the idea that he ought to be King Consort, was subject to the monarchs of Navarre).
When Jeanne II became Queen of Navarre in 1328, she and her husband insisted on a joint coronation, despite official Navarrese opposition, and the reins of power were thereafter left in the hands of the King Consort, Philippe of Evreux. This, which Monter calls “the Navarrese solution to female inheritance”, became the norm throughout Europe for most of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries – although there were of course exceptions. But, the author points out, this solution failed everywhere but in Navarre, and in Navarre itself it eventually unravelled following the death in 1441 of Queen Blanche, whose widower clung on to the throne until his death 38 years later, preventing their son from ascending the throne.
Female regents are not included in this book; although rulers, they held power only temporarily and were not monarchs in their own rights. Nevertheless Monter chooses to take a closer look at some female regents which he considers of great importance for the development whereby it was gradually accepted that women ruled on their own even while married. This, Monter considers, was “greatly assisted by various printed, painted, sculpted, and engraved endorsements of women’s capacities for ruling, [...] the most audacious of these [...] sponsored or commissioned not by female monarchs (whose sovereignty was permanent and divinely ordained) but by eight female regents, each of whom governed a major state for at least five years between 1507 and 1633”.
1550 marks the turning point in Monter’s book. The six queens regnant between 1550 and 1700 were married for a total of only 20 % of their reigns (nineteen of eighty-eight years), and two of them (Elizabeth I of England and Christina of Sweden) never married at all. In England, the husband of Mary I, Philip II of Spain, was accorded the title of King, but a prenuptial agreement left him no independent powers, an act which Monter considers “a watershed in the history of marriages of royal heiresses”.
While the first husband of Mary Queen of Scots was given the crown matrimonial, her second husband received the title of king, but without the right to act on his own, and her third husband did not receive the royal title. At the same time, the Navarrese pattern “broke down in Navarre itself”, where Jeanne III d’Albret, despite strong opposition from the estates, insisted on a joint role with her husband and got her way. But the Queen’s conversion to the Reformed church caused the marriage to break down, and Queen Jeanne and King Antoine found themselves on opposing sides in the religious wars (in which the King was killed).
There were two notable exceptions to the general trend at this time. The joint rule of William III and Mary II of England, Scotland and Ireland was in reality William III’s sole rule, and when the Swedish estates refused to agree to a joint rule, Queen Ulrika Eleonora abdicated in favour of her husband, who became King Fredrik I. But, as the author points out, “England after 1688 looks less like the dawn of modern liberalism than the last gasp of the Middle Ages”. And when William III died and Queen Anne came to the throne, her husband received neither title nor powers.
Like Queen Anne, Western Europe’s two other female monarchs of the eighteenth century – Maria Theresia of Austria, Hungary and Bohemia and Maria I of Portugal – “exercised power while finding various ways to keep their husbands in politically useful but subordinate roles”. And none of the four Russian empresses of the eighteenth century was married at any stage of her reign. So within five centuries, Europe moved from a situation where female monarchs were generally dependent on their husbands to a situation where male consorts, if they existed at all, were generally sidelined and the female monarch exercised her powers on her own. Thus it seems quite ironic that, after the 1790s, 180 years would pass before a woman again became the actual rather than merely symbolic head of a European government.
Monter finds that women did not generally rule very differently from men; “for all the talk about female inferiority and frailty, having a woman as divine-right sovereign made very little practical difference in the way governments actually operated”. However, the reigns of female monarchs were much likelier than those of male monarchs to be prematurely or dramatically terminated. The statistics also show that only 40 % of female monarchs, as opposed to 70 % of male monarchs, were succeeded by their direct descendants.
Monter’s analytical powers seem to be at their sharpest in the earlier parts of the book; towards the end it tends to read too much like a collection of short biographies of female monarchs. The book also suffers from its lack of a final and concluding chapter where the author might have summed up his findings; instead he treats the readers to an epilogue about how female monarchs have been represented in twentieth century films, pointing out that while “[s]uccessful women rulers from Hatsheput to Thatcher have been rulers first and women second [...], popular representations of them have always reversed these aspects because romance sells infinitely better than political power in female hands”.
There are some factual mistakes to be found and, when attempting to cover such a vast field, the author cannot possibly have as sure a grasp on all countries and persons involved. There are, obviously, also some language barriers to struggle with. A Norwegian historian like myself might notice that this colours some of what he writes about the Scandinavian female monarchs. And when covering such a vast topic in little more than 200 pages, there will necessarily be some summarising and generalising which causes some nuances to be lost – for instance one might argue that there were certain variances in Navarre which are lost and that the author’s view of “the Navarrese solution” is somewhat too static.
But although one may occasionally disagree with some of the author’s view, the main impression is that this is a significant contribution to the historiography of European monarchies as well as of female rule. There have in recent years been several studies devoted to female monarchs – among them Charles Beem’s The Lioness Roared: The Problems of Female Rule in English History (2006) and Karin Tegenborg Falkdalen’s Kungen är en kvinna – Retorik och praktik kring kvinnliga monarker under tidigmodern tid (2003), both of them excellent – but William Monter’s book is the first study to cover all Europe and such a large time span. This enables him to see individual queens regnant in an international context and to describe general trends which have until now not been clearly identified. That alone makes this book a study of great value which might well inspire many future works on the challenges which arose when women were kings.