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  • Kristin Bundesen, PhD

In a Century of Queens, where are the girls?

Notes from a lecture - The Ya-Ya Sisterhood of Queens

Within England, Scotland, France (encompassing Brittany) and the Low Countries (what we now call the Benelux countries), there were 165 years of formal female rule between 1500 and 1599 - over 1 and 1/2 as many years of female rule as calendar years.

Elizabeth I's 42 years are the longest in this set, but Margaret of Austria was regent in the Low Countries for 23 years, and Mary of Hungary for 24. There is one case of double counting here; Mary Queen of Scots' reign from her coronation as a baby in 1542 to her exile from Scotland in 1567 equals 25 years, six of which also include her mother's Mary of Guise, regency. In this case, there was a female regent for a young and distant female queen regnant. More women than men ruled three out of the four states in 1531 and from 1560 to 1563. (Brittany was formally incorporated into France in 1532 through marriage. reducing the number of 'states' available to rule.)

These women were actively involved in political, military, economic, and dynastic affairs. The 1529 Treat of Cambrai, known as the 'Ladies Peace', ended nearly nine years of warfare between France and the Hapsburgs over territory in the Italian peninsula and was negotiated by Louise of Savoy representing France and Margaret of Austria representing her nephew, Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor.

This treaty's nickname may sound slightly pejorative to modern ears, a bit like 'the ladies who lunch'. Yet, female rulers established their legitimacy through the same methods used by male rulers, including right of succession, physical possession of minor monarchs, access to money, relationships with foreign powers, and control of military might.

For women who did not inherit thrones through direct succession, their relationship with the acknowledged monarch underlined their legitimacy to wield power: for example. Louise of Savoy as mother to Francis I and Catherine de Medici as mother to Charles IX. Mary of Guise established her legitimacy to rule not only by being the mother of the anointed monarch, Mary Queen of Scots, but also because she commanded substantial military and monetary resources sent to her by her very dear friend the French King Henri II. She wielded considerable power even prior to her formal appointment as sole regent in 1554. This idea of exercising power without office is important. One of the stumbling blocks to including women in the political narrative is the traditional insistence that only those who hold office wield power. Christina Duchess of Lorraine, without formal office, exercised considerable influence over her cousin Philip II who invited her into his councils and employed her as ambassador.

If there was this much political agency at the executive level, there must have been other women exercising agency as well. How much sense does it make that only one woman in a kingdom was involved in politics? If nothing else, the cult of celebrity - hardly a 20th/21st century phenomenon - would imply that there must have been significant inspiration for other women to flex their political muscles.

After all, we know of several men who were not kings but were active in politics. Think of Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester, William Cecil Lord Burghley, Cardinal Wolsey, Sir Thomas More, Charles Brandon Duke of Suffolk, Robert Devereux Earl of Essex, and the dukes of Norfolk who seem to have a talent for getting their heads chopped off, and many more. Where were the girls?


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