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MIHE Blog News, views and insights from Macmillan International Higher Education

How To Be A Successful Queen

by Charles Beem 17th September 2019

What made a successful Queen in Europe? Charles Beem explores how queens of the past were able to reign and gain queenly legacies.

In my book I explore the various strategies queens followed to create powerful and influential queenships. So, the first question I asked was, what makes a successful queen? Generally, a successful Early Modern queen usually, but not always, starts with a successful king. As Early Modern Europe was a male dominant society, queenly power was usually legitimized by a queen’s kinship relationship to a king, whether father, husband, or son. Not surprisingly, the most successful queens were also those who maintained loving and productive relationships with their husbands, who were the source of all royal power. Queens who enjoyed their king’s favor gained access to patronage, acted as political counselors, influenced foreign policy, and exercised control over the raising of their children, especially the heir to the throne. Queens such as the sixteenth century Bona Sforza of Poland and the eighteenth-century Elisabeth Farnese of Spain, who dominated their husbands Sigismund the Old and Philip V, both wielded a king’s prerogative with no objections from their husbands.

Like many modern American first ladies, successful queens strove to provide positive examples of queenly behavior for their subjects. While kings served as role models for their male subjects to emulate, queens did the same thing for their female subjects, emulating such virtues as modesty, fecundity, charity and compassion, obedience to male authority (at least outwardly!) as well as being a good wife, mother, and household manager. As Early Modern Europe was a Christian society, queens also gained prestige for their religious works and observances, such as going on pilgrimages, distributing charity, and founding religious houses, as did Anne of Austria, Queen of France, who founded the convent of Val-de-Grâce, which became a retreat for several English dowager queens. Some queens took their religiosity to the extremes, such as Marianna of Spain, who lived like a nun during her widowhood, and Maria of Portugal, whose religious impulses bordered on insanity. Not surprisingly, most of the successful queens of Europe, such as Isabella of Castile and Maria Theresa of Austria, took their religiosity seriously, and were ostentatiously pious.
Isabella of Castile - Queenship
Image credit: 'IsabellaofCastile02' by Sir Gawain. Available on Wikimedia Commons via CC BY-SA 3.0.
Queens also served as cultural pollinators. Queenship was a peripatetic vocation; most queen consorts (the wives of kings) were not native to the kingdoms where they served as queen. Most successful queens swiftly learned the language and adopted the customs of their adoptive kingdoms, such as Anna Jagiellon, Queen of Hungary and Bohemia, who became fluent in German, Czech, and Magyar, and Caroline of Ansbach, Queen of Great Britain, who underwent a crash course in English language and culture. Nevertheless, Queens brought their native cultures with them, with several Italian Holy Roman Empresses being responsible for the importation of baroque art and Italian opera into Central Europe. Being fluent in several languages was also helpful, as it was for Elizabeth I of England, famed as a superlative diplomat, who could converse with all the ambassadors of Western Europe in their native tongues. Even Marie Leszczyńska of France, who is usually considered a powerless non-entity, spoke Polish, German, and Swedish with diplomats at court, something her husband, Louis XV of France, was unable to do.

Motherhood also was a ticket to queenly power, especially when a king died prematurely, and the next king was an underage minor. The idea of the state as a family writ large embraced the idea of the mother as the natural protector of their children, even if their child was an underage king or queen. An entire parade of French queen consorts, Catherine de Medici, Marie de Medici, and Anne of Austria, marginalized during their consortships, achieved the pinnacle of power as regents for their underage sons. Such queens were also able to create their queenly legacies. This was accomplished through serving as the patroness of artists, scholars, and scientists, and the commissioners of royal portraits and architectural works, such as the various tombs at royal mausoleum in St. Denis, France, which houses a magnificent Renaissance tomb built by Catherine de Medici for her and Henri II. The tombs of Isabella of Castile in Grenada and Bona Sforza in Bari, Italy, all serve as testaments to the power wielded by Early Modern Europe’s most successful queens.
Featured image: Photo by LouisPhilippeCharles. Available on Wikimedia Commons via CC BY-SA 3.0.