England’s Reigning Queens, by Elizabeth Norton
Some of England’s (and later, Britain’s) most memorable monarchs have been queens. It is therefore surprising that only eight women can claim to have ruled as reigning queen in the post-Conquest period and, then, only six effectively. As our current queen approaches Queen Victoria’s record of longest reigning monarch, let’s look at some of the key female rulers who came before her.
Matilda, who was the only surviving legitimate child of Henry I, has a claim to being England’s first ruling queen. She was named as her father’s heir, with his leading nobles swearing oaths to uphold her claim. Most prominent amongst these was Henry’s nephew, Stephen of Blois. Nonetheless, on hearing of his uncle’s death in 1135, he hurriedly crossed the channel and seized the crown. The two cousins vied for the crown for nearly twenty years, but Matilda’s ‘reign’ proved a brief one. After capturing Stephen in 1141, she was declared ‘Lady of the English’ and travelled to London to await her coronation. Soon afterwards, she was driven out of the capital and forced to release her cousin. It was Matilda’s son, Henry II, who eventually won the English crown.
Matilda’s ‘reign’ was an unhappy precedent. Although both the House of York and House of Tudor claimed the throne through women, it was only with the death of Edward VI in 1553 that a ruling queen became inevitable. His teenaged cousin, Jane Grey, was proclaimed queen in a bid to keep England Protestant. Yet, her ‘reign’ lasted just over a week, with Edward’s Catholic half-sister, Mary I, sweeping to power as England’s first effective queen regnant.
Mary was determined to return the English church to adherence to Rome which, coupled with her marriage to Philip of Spain, caused controversy. Her finest moment came in 1554, when rebel troops entered London. When urged to flee, the queen instead urged those around her to ‘fall to prayer and I warrant you, we shall hear better news anon’. She kept her crown but, following an embarrassing phantom pregnancy, the loss of English-held Calais and a campaign of burning Protestants, her death in 1558 was met with rejoicing.
Mary’s successor was her twenty-five year old half-sister, Elizabeth I, who was expected to quickly marry and provide England with a king. She surprised everyone by resolutely refusing to marry, although she was close to male favourites, such as Robert Dudley. Her reign saw great advances in technology, exploration and the theatre while her navy defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588. Although the myth of ‘Gloriana’ began to tarnish towards the end of her long reign, the Elizabethan era is remembered as a golden age in English history. On her death, she was succeeded by her cousin, James VI of Scotland, heralding the union of the two crowns.
The Scottish Stuart Dynasty proved to be unlucky in England, with the seventeenth century troubled by Civil War and religious conflict. The Catholic James II succeeded to the throne in 1685, with many in England looking forward instead to the reign of his Protestant daughter, Mary, who had married her cousin, William of Orange.
On 10 June 1688, however, James’s second wife gave birth to a healthy son, with forty-two people present in the room. This did not stop rumours quickly spreading that the baby was an imposter, smuggled into the royal bedchamber in a warming pan. Indeed, James’s daughter, Anne, was one of the main rumourmongers, writing to her sister that ‘I shall never now be satisfied whether the child be true or false’. Isolated in the Netherlands, Mary agreed. In late June, her husband received an invitation to invade England. William complied, arriving in November with 300 ships. James fled, leaving the way clear for William and Mary to take the throne as joint sovereigns. Mary II largely served the role of queen consort during her reign, before dying of smallpox in 1694.
Mary’s younger sister, Anne, supported her brother-in-law’s invasion, but was disconcerted to find her place in the succession usurped by William. She looked forward to her eventual accession as her ‘sunshine day’ and modelled herself on Elizabeth I when she finally took the throne in 1702. By then Anne, who had endured seventeen pregnancies but had no living child, was an invalid and grossly overweight. She was dominated by her female favourites, although she presided over a period of international success for her country. She was the first monarch of Great Britain, with the throne then passing to her German cousin, George I, after her death in 1714.
Disaster struck the royal family just over a century after Anne’s death when Princess Charlotte, George III’s only legitimate grandchild, died in childbirth. Her death led to a race by her middle aged uncles to marry and beget an heir, with Edward, Duke of Kent, emerging the victor. His eighteen year old daughter, Victoria, became queen in 1837, ruling for over sixty-three years. Personally, the queen’s life was blighted by the death of her husband, Prince Albert, in 1861. Yet, she presided over a remarkable period in Britain’s history, with invention, industry, exploration and conquest.
Just over fifty years after Victoria’s death, her great-great-granddaughter, Elizabeth II, came to the throne. The current queen was not born to reign, with her father only the second son of George V. Nonetheless, she has devoted her life to her role and, at nearly eighty-nine years old, will soon become England’s longest reigning monarch.
England’s reigning queens have left fascinating legacies. You can read more about them, as well as queen consorts and king’s wives in England’s Queens: From Boudica to Elizabeth of York and England’s Queens: From Catherine of Aragon to Elizabeth II, which are available now.
Find out more about Elizabeth Norton on her author page: https://www.amberley-books.com/community-elizabeth-norton