The next biography I read was Sovereign Ladies by Maureen Waller. It’s about the six reigning Queens of England, and is worth reading if you don’t know much of anything about them, but it leaves out a lot (understandably, since each of these Queens is worthy of her own 600 page biography).
Mary Tudor: Mary I (18 February 1516 – 17 November 1558)
Mary I, Henry VIII’s eldest daughter, is the first queen. After her brother, Edward, died, Northumberland tried to usurp the crown for his Protestant daughter Jane Grey. Mary rallied her own supporters however, and took back her birth right. She hesitated to put Jane to death at first, knowing she had merely been a pawn of her parents’ agenda, but eventually had no choice after various uprisings used her as a figurehead.
Mary married Phillip of Spain when she was in her late 30s and he was in his 20s. She was ecstatic, he and the people of England were not. Phillip slept with her only when he had no choice, and spent most of the time abroad leading battles in the Spanish Netherlands. Mary suffered two mortifying phantom pregnancies during their marriage. She’s remembered for the loss of Calais to the French after Phillip had pressured her to join the long-standing Franco-Spanish conflict, and for the burning of Protestants under her reign. Though, to be fair, only a few hundred were murdered this way, while thousands died in the civil wars in France and during the Spanish Inquisition. Sure, that was a few hundred too many, but scale-wise, it was almost nothing. On her deathbed, Mary was reluctant to name Elizabeth as her successor, but eventually was convinced, after getting Elizabeth to “promise” to uphold the Catholic religion.
Elizabeth Tudor: Elizabeth I (7 September 1533 – 24 March 1603)
I’m sure almost everyone knows about Elizabeth I, so I’ll try to keep this brief (hard to do, considering her extraordinary life). She was her brother’s favorite, but her sister’s perceived enemy. In order to keep her head she had to pretend to be a Catholic while Mary was alive (though everyone knew she was a fervent Protestant). It took her great acting skills to convince Mary that she had truly changed. Though, whether Mary really believed this is debatable: it’s possible she just recognized how popular Elizabeth was with the people, and to execute her would be to incite rebellion.
Elizabeth ascended after Mary, inheriting a bankrupt country. She pulled out of the war with France while maintaining cordial relations with Spain, and undid many of Mary’s religious laws. Unlike her father and sister, Elizabeth saw religious tolerance as the best way to save England from the civil wars dividing France. It worked. Not even the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (the devout Catholic) generated much prolonged fury.
Throughout her long reign she worked tirelessly to promote herself as England’s wife and mother, brushing off suggestions that she marry. Her virginity would come to represent the impregnability of England, especially after the defeat of the Spanish Armada (which was actually more due to bad weather than English tactics).
All in all, she was a very successful Queen, proving that women were capable of ruling (though she did nothing to promote the advancement of women). She turned England back into a world power from a broke nothing. She manipulated other monarchs and nobles effortlessly, and frustrated them by refusing to name an heir. She knew what it was like to be heir–it meant being the figurehead of those who disliked the present monarch, and Elizabeth wasn’t willing to risk an uprising. When she died in 1603, James of Scotland (Mary of Scots’ son, but a Protestant) ascended and the Tudor dynasty ended.
Mary Stuart: Mary II (30 April 1662 – 28 December 1694)
Mary Stuart was the niece of King Charles II, who had reclaimed the throne of England after a brief period of republicanism. She was the daughter of James, Duke of York (brother to the king) and Anne Hyde, a commoner he had met while in his brother’s exiled court. She and her sister Anne were the only two of eight children to survive infancy. The two were made children of the state in 1668 after their father converted to Catholicism. When she was fifteen she married William, Prince of Orange, and moved to the Netherlands, a country she came to adore. Their marriage is often portrayed as unhappy, but they seemed to be content. The only trouble was Mary’s inability to have children. Her three pregnancies ended in miscarriage or stillbirth.
Charles II died in 1685 and James ascended as King James II. In 1688, William led a coup for the crown, driving James II, his second wife, and their son (who the Protestants claimed was a changling, and not a legitimate child) into exile. William wouldn’t be content to simply be Mary’s consort, so they had a joint-monarchy. Except, it wasn’t joint at all. Mary was Queen only in name, William had all power, and would remain King even if Mary died.
William was away on military campaigns often, leaving Mary to rule as regent. Though her education was limited, she was a firm and fair ruler. She didn’t even balk from arresting her own uncle for plotting to restore James II. She donated great sums to the College of William and Mary in Virginia and founded The Royal Hospital for Seamen in Greenwich.
Compared to someone like Elizabeth, Mary II seems a bit insignificant. She yielded all power to her husband and Council, rarely making polical decisions without checking with one or both first. She was a great patron however, and helped restore some of the dignity of the monarchy. She died of smallpox in 1694, leaving William to rule alone for another 8 years.
Anne Stuart: Anne I (6 February 1665 – 1 August 1714)
Anne was Mary II’s sister, though the two had a falling out over political differences after Mary became Queen.
when she was 18, Anne married Prince George of Denmark, though the two remained in England, something Anne would use as propaganda later against the “Dutch Abortioners” (William and Mary). Anne was a fervent Protestant, and possibly behind the rumor that her step-mother’s pregnancy was fake–a plot by the Catholic faction to keep Catholic rulers on the throne. She was also heavily involved in William’s coup and the overthrow of her father, encouraging her husband to support the Prince of Orange in his endeavor.
Anne had even worse trouble than Mary when it came to producing offspring–though Anne’s problems were probably more heartbreaking. Mary couldn’t get pregnant, Anne had been pregnant 18 times by 1700. 13 had resulted in miscarriages or stillbirths, four of the five surviving children died before age two, and her beloved son died at age 11.
Anne ascended to the throne in 1702; her husband was content to be her consort, so the co-regency of William and Mary was not repeated. During her reign, two party politics became prevalent (Whigs v. Tories) and the absolute power of the monarch waned. Anne preferred Tories, but tried to be fair and appointed an equal number of each into positions of power. Power struggles between the two parties would lead to numerous court scandals, falling outs, and threats.
On of the triumphs of Anne’s reign was the union of Scotland and England into Great Britain, passed by Parliament in 1707. Her husband died a year later and she grieved deeply.
Though she succeeded in Ireland, she was failing with Spain. Her councilors had advised her to continue a long, expensive, and unpopular war with Spain, and her image (and the image of the monarchy itself) suffered. The matter was finally resolved in 1711 when Anne created 12 new peers (nobles) to erase the Whig majority in Parliament and allow the passage of a peace treaty.
Like Mary’s, Anne’s reign was short and highlighted a declining monarchy. She presided over a great era of change, but it was more the actions of Parliament and the party leaders who spurred it than her own. All the pregnancies from before she was crowned had ruined her health, and she spent much time preoccupied with that, leaving ministers to run the country.
Anne was the last of the Stuart monarchs. After her came her cousin, George I, of the House of Hanover.
Alexandrina Victoria Hanover: Victoria I (24 May 1819 – 22 January 1901)
Victoria was the daughter of Prince Edward of Kent, 3rd in line to the English throne behind his three heir-less brothers. No one paid much attention the her, as it was believe she was too far down the succession to ever wear the crown. Her father died when she was 8 months old and she spent her childhood dominated by her mother, raised in near isolation in Kensington. Her mother and her mother’s lover, Conroy, attempted to make Victoria completely dependent on them, planning to rule the country through her as it became more clear that she would ascend. But Victoria’s will was too strong for that–even when she was desperately ill she refused to bend to their pressure to grant them regency if the King should die before she reached her majority (which they tried to prolong from 18 to 21). Luckily for everyone, Victoria turned 18 one month before she became Queen.
She was very independent–constantly testing the boundaries of the well established constitutional monarchy. For example, monarchs were supposed to be apolitical and appoint an equal number of attendants from each party, but Victoria made her entire household Whigs, creating a major scandal. She initially didn’t want to marry, but then fell in love with Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (it didn’t hurt his case that marriage was the only way she could remove her mother from her household without creating another scandal). Victoria was helplessly devoted to him and the two had 9 children together.
Albert’s death in 1861 plunged her into a prolonged mourning which would damage the image of the monarchy as she refused to take part in official events. Citizens began to question why they were paying for the upkeep of the royal family if they never even got to see the queen. Her isolation didn’t end until over 15 years later, when she began attending public functions (such as the opening of hospitals) again. Just as she had been wildly popular in the beginning of her reign, she became wildly popular again, and people conveniently seemed to forget the long period of unpopularity.
Under Victoria, the modern constitutional monarchy was established with the passing of several laws through Parliament which extended voting rights to more citizens, lessening the monarch’s ability to influence MP appointments. As her role became less political and more symbolic, she placed a strong emphasis on morality, family values, thriftiness, and the advancement of the lower classes. This was a huge contrast to the sexual and financial scandals of monarchs past. Through the marriages of her 9 children and 42 grandchildren to various heads of state, she became known as the “Grandmother of Europe.” Unfortunately, another legacy of hers was the hemophilia that would plague so many of these rulers and their children.
Victoria died in 1901 at age of 81, after nearly 64 years on the throne. To date, she’s the longest reigning English monarch. Her death ended the House of Hanover, giving way to the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (which would be renamed the House of Windsor by George V in 1917).
Elizabeth Alexandra Mary: Elizabeth II (21 April 1926-)
The current queen, Elizabeth II, only had a small section. She grew up very isolated from other children and the world in general, and under her the monarchy has lost even more power. By her actions she gave up the ability of the monarch to appt the PM, and is notorious for showing no opinon and being willing to go along with what Parliament wants. The monarch now pretty much only attends state functions in a ceremonial role. She’s always put her country before her family, and it’s perhaps for this reason that her children are notoriously arrogant and undisciplined. Their affairs, marriages, and “morally degrading” actions have torn apart the image and mystique of the monarchy and many speculate that after Elizabeth, it may cease to exist.