A Study in Queenship ~ How Queens Exercised Power


My current writing project includes a section on queenship.  Because the study of how queens exercised power is a relatively new discipline, it is challenging to define.  If we look up the word queenship in the dictionary, the meaning is “the state, office, or dignity of a queen”.  The dictionary states the first time the word appears is in 1530-40 but doesn’t cite an actual reference to support this.

In the last several years, much new scholarship has arisen in queenship and the true meaning of the word is not as simple as that given in the dictionary.  If we look up the word “kingship”, there is an additional definition saying “kingship” is an “aptitude for kingly duties”.  This could be changed to say an “aptitude for queenly duties” and be considered a more apt definition for queenship.

What constitutes queenship?  What are some examples of women in history exercising these duties?  Historians have identified several components and duties for queenship, covering the nature of a queen’s power and her role within the court.  Some of the more important components include giving birth to an heir, intercession, religious patronage, cultural patronage and governmental responsibilities.

Giving Birth to a Royal Heir

Most royal marriages were largely arranged for political purposes but giving birth to the royal heir constitutes the primary duty of a queen consort.  Having an heir, especially a male heir, could cement a woman’s position as queen.  Once she was a mother, it was difficult to depose her.  It was up to the queen to oversee her children’s upbringing, religious instruction and education.  She would supervise those who took care of the children and their tutors as well as manage and direct her own household and those of her children.  The queen was the heart of the royal family.

If a queen failed to produce an heir, her position was tenuous or even perilous.  In some instances, a queen could survive this omission but they could lose their position if not their life.  Let’s take a look at some examples.

Several English and French queens produced plenty of heirs, including Eleanor of Aquitaine, Eleanor of Castile, Philippa of Hainault, Elizabeth of York, Isabeau of Bavaria and Marie of Anjou.  These women had at least one male heir.  Their positions were safe.  Some queens who had no children are Eleanor of Austria, Louise of Lorraine-Vaudemont, Anne of Bohemia, and Catherine of Braganza.  Other queens had children but didn’t produce males.

Eleanor of Aquitaine is a good example of a queen who did and didn’t have acceptable heirs.  When she was married to Louis VII of France, she produced two daughters.  But women couldn’t inherit the throne of France and also Louis may have tired of Eleanor.  Louis had the marriage annulled and Eleanor promptly married Henry of Anjou and gave birth to ten children, five of which were male.

Eleanor of Austria was not treated well by her husband François I and lack of conjugal visits may have contributed to her childlessness.  François had two sons from his prior marriage to Claude de Valois so it wasn’t imperative for Eleanor to have children.  She had a daughter from her prior marriage to the king of Portugal and when François died, she didn’t remarry.

Louise of Lorraine-Vaudemont is a sad case.  Her husband Henri III loved her and they probably had normal sexual relations.  Perhaps there were health reasons for her lack of children and this did not help the unstable political situation in France at the time.  The situation of Anne of Bohemia is similar to Louise of Lorraine-Vaudemont.  Richard II may have been bisexual or may have practiced celibacy to emulate his idol, Edward the Confessor and unfortunately, Anne of Bohemia died young.  Anne Boleyn was an example of a queen who had a child and was pregnant several times but unable to give birth to a surviving male heir.  In her case, she lost her life.

Catherine of Braganza was pregnant several times but never carried to full term, probably due to health reasons.  This was a great disappointment to her and devastating to her status as queen.  However, her husband Charles II was solicitous during each pregnancy and did not blame her for being unable to have a child.  Her childlessness and being a Catholic in a Protestant country put her in a weak position but Charles protected her to his great credit.


Another component of queenship was intercession.  In some political situations, it was injudicious for the king to appear to yield or capitulate.  A queen had the ability to intervene and moderate the king’s policies without him losing face.  There are some dramatic examples of intercession in history.

In 1392, Richard II requested a loan from the city of London which was refused.  The city was suffering from food shortages and plague and had not come to Richard’s aid in a quarrel with recalcitrant noblemen in an earlier uprising.  The king arrested the mayor and sheriffs, revoked many of the city’s privileges and named his own wardens.  On top of this, Richard charged the city an enormous fine of one hundred thousand pounds.

Richard’s queen, Anne of Bohemia interceded for the Londoners, begging him to forgive them at Windsor and Nottingham.  The Londoners submitted and the king and queen entered the city in great splendor, making their way to Westminster Hall where, in a public ceremony, Anne made intercession once again.  Richard raised her from her knees and seated her next to him, assuring the city officials of their renewed favor.  Formal pardon was granted to the mayor, sheriffs and aldermen a few months later.

Another dramatic episode of intercession by a queen occurred in 1347 during the Hundred Years War.  Jean Froissart wrote about it in his chronicle.  Edward III had captured Calais after a drawn-out siege.  Being a chivalrous king, he agreed to spare all those left in the city except six burghers who were forced to bring him the keys to the city, bare-footed and bare-headed, with ropes around their necks.  These men came before the fuming king, many knights of his court and Queen Philippa.  The burghers begged for mercy but the king demanded all six be beheaded on the spot.

Queen Philippa interceding for the lives of the burghers of Calais. Painting by Benjamin West, 1788

A pregnant Philippa came forward on her knees, weeping before the king.  She said she had asked for nothing since joining him in Calais but she was now asking him to take pity on these poor men and for the love of her, to spare them.  Edward could not resist the pleas of his wife and released the men into her custody.  She fed and clothed them, gave them some money and returned them to Calais.  There is some doubt whether Philippa was pregnant at the time of the incident so Froissart may have taken liberties with the story.  But Philippa most likely did intercede on behalf of the men.

Queens often interceded privately for family members.  Elizabeth of York pleaded with her husband Henry VII to not allow her daughter Margaret to travel to Scotland and consummate her marriage with James IV.  She felt Margaret was too young at the time and James might injure her if she was allowed to have sexual relations in her early teens.  Henry did follow his wife’s advice.  Another example of family intervention relates to the eldest illegitimate child of Charles II.  James Scott, Duke of Monmouth was constantly getting in trouble and enraging his father.  But Catherine of Braganza had a soft spot in her heart for Monmouth and pleaded with Charles to forgive his son on several occasions.  She would also intercede for Charles’ mistresses in some instances when they were in trouble.

Religious Patronage

Religious patronage was one of the preferred means by which medieval queens practiced queenship and expressed their power. To attract qualified men to enter her service, a queen needed to demonstrate the ability to reward exceptional talent. The queen relied on the benefices which she could present to her clerks. A benefice was a permanent Church appointment, typically that of rector or vicar, for which property and income are provided in respect of pastoral duties.

The ability to award these honors came from the churches on or near the Queen’s manors, whether held in wardship or in fee. When a Queen acquired a new manor, it was typical for them to include an advowson. This is a right of a patron (avowee) to present to the diocesan bishop a nominee for appointment to a vacant ecclesiastical benefice or church living. This process was known as “the right of presenting”. In some cases, these advowsons could be purchased separately from the acquisition of a manor.  In this way, the Queen’s clerks would obtain lucrative positions in the churches.

Religious patronage could be expressed in overt ways.  Queens would go on pilgrimage to certain shrines, sometimes in an effort to get pregnant but often to visit the monks and nuns and to display their piety.  They would donate to charities and buy gifts for churches, monasteries and cathedrals such as golden chalices, candlesticks or religious statues.  The queen and her women would embroider items such as robes, table clothes, surplices, etc. to donate to the church.

The endowment of nunneries and monasteries was carried out by both the kings and queens.  Ealhswith, wife of King Alfred the Great, established the Nunnaminster (St Mary’s Abbey) at Winchester.  She may have dedicated the land of an urban estate she owned there for the institution.  She was responsible for the four stages of the foundation: construction of the monastic buildings, assembling the group of nuns to inhabit the Nunnaminster, the appointment of the first abbess and for the provision of the community’s endowment.  She was prevented from finishing her project by death but her son Edward the Elder completed the foundation and dedicated his own daughter Eadburh as a nun.

Matilda of Flanders and William, Duke of Normandy (the Conqueror) were married in 1053, despite a papal ban on their marriage due to consanguinity (being closely related).  William and Matilda fought the papal ban for almost a decade. When the ban was finally lifted in 1062, they both founded abbeys in Caen, Normandy in gratitude.  William founded St. Stephen’s, also called l’Abbaye-aux-Hommes where he was eventually buried.  Matilda founded the community of Sainte-Trinité, also called the l’Abbaye aux Dames and she was buried there.

Because Catherine of Braganza was Catholic in a Protestant country, she encountered difficulties in the distribution of religious patronage.  However, in subtle ways, she was able to support a few small religious foundations.  And through her private Catholic chapels in St. James’ Palace and in Somerset House, she could help other Catholics practice their religion and provide a place for marriages, funerals and other religious rites.

Cultural Patronage

Queens could really excel at cultural patronage.  Using their wealth and influence, they could sponsor and commission artisans to create various works.  They employed jewelers, dressmakers and cabinetmakers and weavers for the comforts of home.  Queens could hire architects, masons and builders to construct new homes or remodel existing palaces.  They could employ artists, printers, and musicians.

Elizabeth of York and her mother-in-law Margaret Beaufort jointly commissioned the printer William Caxton for an edition of the book allegedly written by St. Bridget “The Fifteen O’s”.  Several English queens founded or were patrons of colleges.  Margaret of Anjou asked her husband to grant a license to found Queen’s College, Cambridge.  Elizabeth Woodville was a patron of Queen’s College and also Eton College.

Queens could also encourage the economy in several ways.  Philippa of Hainault brought weavers from the Low Countries to establish an industry in Norwich.  Margaret of Anjou worked to increase England’s wool trade by importing skilled craftsmen from Flanders and Lyon.  She introduced silk weaving to England by bringing in foreign weavers and encouraged women to take up the trade.  She became the patron of the guild called the Sisterhood of Silk Women which was based in Spitalfields.  Margaret also financed the building of English merchant ships which sailed to ports in the Mediterranean.

Catherine of Braganza as Saint Catherine painted by Jacob Huysmans

Catherine of Braganza was instrumental in sponsoring Italian artists and musicians.  She patronized them so successfully she became identified with them.  At first she had her portraits painted by Protestant artists but later in the reign, when she was more secure, she patronized Catholic artists such as Jacob Huysmans.  Her chapel in Somerset House had many Italian and Portuguese musicians who produced fine music.  Through the provisions of her dowry, many items were introduced to England such as cane, lacquer, cottons, tea and porcelain, all of which revolutionized taste, manners and craftsmanship.

Exercising Governmental Power

Queens embodied royal majesty alongside their husband.  Unless, they were queen regnant, most queens could not exercise power in their own right.  However, under certain circumstances, they could govern in their husband’s stead, predominantly as a counselor or regent for the king or for their sons.

In earlier medieval times, queens had the ability to witness charters.  There is evidence in the 10th century of Aelfthryth, wife of Edgar the Peaceable, witnessing charters.  Emma, wife of Aethelred the Unready and King Cnut witnessed charters and even held the keys to the royal treasury at Winchester during the reign of her son Edward the ConfessorQueen Eadgifu, third wife of Edward the Elder, is commonly called The King’s Mother in documents from the period of the reign of her son Edmund.  Eadgifu appears in witness lists as one of the most regularly recorded witnesses of diplomas and charters during Edmund’s reign and is the only woman in the lists.  And her name appears directly after the king’s.  This meant she was included in the hierarchy of the newly expanded kingdom of her sons.

Queen Isabeau of Bavaria was designated by King Charles VI of France to act as regent when he was rendered incapacitated during his bouts of mental illness.  She would strive to train and prepare her son Louis, Duke of Guyenne for his future role as king.  Moving into the Tudor reign, Katherine of Aragon acted as regent for Henry VIII when he went to war in France in 1513 and was actually victorious in the Battle of Flodden against James IV, King of Scots.  Katherine Parr also acted as regent during Henry VIII’s absence later in his reign.  During the sixteenth century, Catherine de’Medici would, for all intents and purposes, rule France as regent for her sons François II, Charles IX and Henri III.  Marie de’Medici was regent for her son Louis XIII after her husband Henri IV was assassinated.

Although Catherine of Braganza was limited in exercising political power while she lived in England, she would return to Portugal as a widow and was named Regent during illnesses of the Portuguese king, her brother, Pedro II.  During her time as regent, she earned great praise for her management of the army amid the fighting of Portugal against the Spanish.  This was probably her finest hour and demonstrated her competency and expertise in performing the duties of queenship.


Further reading: “Queens & Power in Medieval and Early Modern England” edited by Carole Levin and Robert Bucholz, “Queenship in Medieval France, 1300-1500” by Murielle Gaude-Ferragu, “Queenship in Britain 1600-1837” edited by Clarissa Campbell Orr, “Forgotten Queens in Medieval an Early Modern Europe:  Political Agency, Myth-Making, and Patronage” edited by Valerie Shutte and Estelle Paranque, “Queen Emma & Queen Edith:  Queenship and Women’s Power in Eleventh Century England” by Pauline Stafford, “Eleanor of Castile:  Queen and Society in Thirteenth Century England” by John Carni Parsons, “Queens, Concubines and Dowagers:  The King’s Wife in the Early Middle Ages” by Pauline Stafford




12 thoughts on “A Study in Queenship ~ How Queens Exercised Power

  1. Enjoyed your article! I’ve been researching the time of Richard the Lionheart’s captivity in Germany, and I was struck by just how much power and influence Eleanor of Aquitaine had during these 13 months. Much of her power was based on the deep respect the Great Council and the people had for her. She spent these months in England, raising the ransom while also attempting to manage John. When I consider the power she wielded during this time, it seems unprecedented – after all, she was not officially in charge, yet she was actually in charge.


  2. I have been following you for a while now and I wish to beg your pardon for not commenting enough to thank you for great articles like this one. I had 2 strokes several years back and I have been reading your articles with numerous others to help me regain my concentration ability. Your numerous high quality, informative, well written articles are one of the easiest that I have found to focus my mind on. Thank you so much for all the hard work you put into doing your articles. I can attest only for myself, your articles are important and helpful in numerous ways, I find they have the ability to help me focus my mind. Unfortunately they do not help me in the area of competency of grammar and typing skills.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I think that a woman was assumed to be capable of inheriting the French throne before the early 14th century. When Louis X died, he left a pregnant second wife, and a daughter by his dead first wife. The baby boy born to his widow died. But there were serious doubts about the legitimacy of Louis’ daughter, as well as a dislike of the the situation of a queen regnant, especially a minor. Thus it was ruled that no woman could ascend France’s throne.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.