Sovereign Ladies: Sex, Sacrifice, and Power--The Six Reigning Queens of England

Sovereign Ladies: Sex, Sacrifice, and Power--The Six Reigning Queens of England

by Maureen Waller

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In the bestselling tradition of authors Antonia Fraser and David Starkey, Maureen Waller has written a fascinating narrative history---a brilliant combination of drama and biographical insight on the British monarchy---of the six women who have ruled England in their own names.

In the last millennium there have been only six English female sovereigns:


In the bestselling tradition of authors Antonia Fraser and David Starkey, Maureen Waller has written a fascinating narrative history---a brilliant combination of drama and biographical insight on the British monarchy---of the six women who have ruled England in their own names.

In the last millennium there have been only six English female sovereigns: Mary I and Elizabeth I, Mary II and Anne, Victoria and Elizabeth II, who celebrated her eightieth birthday in 2006. With the exception of Mary I, they are among England's most successful monarchs. Without Mary II and Anne, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 might not have taken place. Elizabeth I and Victoria each gave their name to an age, presiding over long periods when Britain made significant progress in the growth of empire, prestige, and power. All of them have far-reaching legacies. Each faced personal sacrifices and emotional dilemmas in her pursuit of political power. How to overcome the problem of being a female ruler when the sex was considered inferior? Does a queen take a husband and, if so, how does she reconcile the reversal of the natural order, according to which the man should be the master? A queen's first royal duty is to provide an heir to the throne, but at what cost? In this richly compelling narrative of royalty, Maureen Waller delves into the intimate lives of England's queens regnant in delicious detail, assessing their achievements from a female perspective.

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Sovereign Ladies

The Six Reigning Queens of England

By Maureen Waller

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2006 Maureen Waller
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-5802-2



When they are born, princesses are expected to live happily ever after. They seldom do. Mary Tudor was a cherished only child, the darling of her family. Heiress presumptive to her mighty father, King Henry VIII, she was betrothed first to one great prince, then an emperor. But she was not the son her father wanted. Bewitched by the seductive charms of another woman, Henry banished his wife, good Queen Katherine, sending her to the unhealthiest place of confinement in all England. Cruelly separated from her beloved mother, Mary found herself alienated from her father, who withdrew his affection. She was degraded from princess to bastard. Her 'wicked' stepmother ordered her to wait on the sibling who had supplanted her as the heir of England, and threatened to force her into a base marriage or poison her. Her father, who had overturned Church and state to replace her with a son, was determined to have her submission and would not scruple to chop off her head.

All that seemed far away on a glorious May morning in 1515, when King Henry VIII and Queen Katherine, accompanied by their gorgeously attired courtiers, rode out from Greenwich Palace, up Shooters Hill and disappeared into the forest. Henry, a golden giant of a man, had always taken a childlike pleasure in May Day, rising at dawn to gather may and green boughs to mark the beginning of summer. Once, disguised as Robin Hood and his merry men, Henry and his cronies had burst into the Queen's chamber, sending her ladies scurrying with fright. Katherine, far more mature than her husband, smiled indulgently at the prank, pretending surprise. Now, deep in the forest, the royal party was greeted by 200 of the palace guard in green costumes masquerading as Robin Hood and his outlaws. Proud of their skill as bowmen, which had won the English the battles of Crécy and Agincourt, they fired a volley of arrows before the admiring company. Robin Hood then led the royal couple into an arbour decorated with flowers and aromatic herbs, where a great feast of venison and wine had been laid. On the way back to Greenwich, the party was met by the Queen of the May, who sang to them.

It was, of course, a fertility festival. Just over nine months later, on 18 February 1516, the Queen gave birth to a daughter at the riverside palace of Greenwich, where she and Henry had been privately married shortly after his accession seven years before. Katherine had already lost several babies, not least her first-born son. Pilgrimages to the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham to pray for an heir had not proved fruitful, until now. Any disappointment at the child's sex was outweighed by the fact that she was healthy and likely to live.

The christening was held three days later with great pomp and solemnity at the nearby Church of the Observant Friars. Four knights held the canopy of estate over the baby Princess, who was wrapped so tightly against the cold that not even her face was visible. Under all the layers, she wore an exquisite christening robe, which her mother had brought from Spain. She was carried in the arms of the Countess of Surrey, flanked by the premier dukes, Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, representing the old nobility, and Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, the King's boon companion and parvenu husband of his favourite sister.

The procession stopped at the church door, where the priest blessed and named the child, and then proceeded into the church, richly hung with jewelled cloth of arras gleaming in the light of hundreds of candles. A brazier provided warmth, as the infant had to be dipped naked into the silver font, brought specially from Canterbury for the occasion. After the baptism, Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, daughter of that Plantagenet Duke of Clarence who was drowned in a butt of malmsey, stood godmother at the confirmation. From the front of the church, the herald proclaimed the style and title of the Princess: 'God give good life and long unto the right high, right noble, and right excellent princess Mary, princess of England and daughter of our sovereign lord and king.'

After taking refreshment, the torch-lit procession returned in the same order to the palace to be met by Henry in the presence chamber. It was not customary for the King of England to attend his child's baptism, while the Queen was still confined to her lying-in chamber, where she would remain until her 'churching', the purification ceremony that took place a month after the birth. To honour the King's children was to honour the King and Mary received many rich christening gifts: a gold cup from her godfather Thomas Wolsey, Cardinal Archbishop of York, a commoner of low birth but her father's indefatigable servant; a gold pomander from her aunt and namesake, Mary, Dowager Queen of France and Duchess of Suffolk; a gold spoon from her godmother and great-aunt, the Lady Katherine Courtenay, daughter of Edward IV and sister of the King's late mother, Elizabeth of York; and from her other godmother, the Duchess of Norfolk, a richly illuminated primer. After receiving her mother's blessing, the infant was taken away to the nursery in the Queen's apartments, where she would remain until she was weaned.

The Venetian ambassador, Sebastian Guistinian, took his time in coming to court to congratulate the King on the birth of his daughter. 'Had it been a son,' he told the Doge, 'it would not have been fit to delay.' He had the temerity to tell Henry that, of course, the Republic would much rather the child had been a boy. The remark must have irritated Henry, but his reply was determinedly optimistic. If 'it were a daughter this time, by the grace of God the sons will follow'.

All queens were under pressure to bear a male heir – indeed, it was their prime function – but for Katherine there was the added burden of knowing that her marriage was contentious. She was the widow of Henry's brother, Arthur, and although she maintained that her marriage to Arthur had not been consummated and a papal dispensation had been issued for Henry and Katherine to marry, there were lingering doubts about the propriety of the marriage. By the standards of the time, Katherine, at thirty-one, six years older than her husband, was already old for childbearing. She had a string of failed pregnancies behind her and time was running out.

For someone as macho as Henry VIII, a daughter was a deep injury to his self-esteem and hence to the glory of the monarchy, of which he was the personification. One of the most magnificent princes in Europe, Henry had used his charisma, his ebullient personality and his father's carefully hoarded millions to restore the monarchy to unprecedented heights and splendour, but what guarantee of its future if he did not have a son to succeed him? Was the King not the nation's leader in war; had he not personally led a military campaign in France to regain the conquests of his predecessors? How on earth could a woman do that?

Katherine knew different, sharing none of her husband's doubts about female sovereignty. When she herself was acting regent during Henry's absence in France, the English army won a resounding victory over the Scots at Flodden. Triumphant, she had sent the bloodstained coat of the slain James IV to Henry as a trophy. She had the example of her own mother, Isabella, before her. Isabella had not just been Queen of Castile and León in her own right, but also a warrior-queen. Katherine, the youngest of Isabella's children, had spent much of her childhood with her mother in military camps and she had been with both her parents at the conquest of Granada in 1492. Exhibiting a zeal for religious purity which would be mirrored in her granddaughter, Mary of England, Isabella had not rested until she had made Spain wholly Christian, eradicating Islam, forcing the Moors and the Jews either to convert or to leave. In that same year, she had also funded a Genoese seaman, Christopher Columbus, on a voyage that would end in the discovery of the New World in the Americas. It is reasonable to assume that Katherine regaled her daughter with stories of the great queen who was her grandmother, as she began quietly steering her towards her destiny as Queen of England.

Royal children were traditionally given their own establishments, but as a precious only child Mary was rarely too far away from the court, so that Katherine could visit her frequently. In this way, she forged a close bond with her daughter, getting to know her, as Henry did not, as a person. It was Katherine who probably taught Mary her letters and prayers, setting an example in religious devotion, and who later brought her influence to bear on her education.

Following the movements of the court, Mary's household made its circular progress from one royal manor to another in the Home Counties. It seems that Henry, fastidious and fearful of infection, was an early believer that cleanliness was a key to good health. Instructions for Mary's living arrangements paid particular attention to hygiene, 'so that everything about her be pure, sweet, clean and wholesome, as to so great a princess doth appertain; all corruption, evil airs, and things noisome and unpleasant, to be eschewed.'

As each residence was vacated to be 'sweetened', the Princess travelled on to the next by litter or barge, her gold cloth of estate denoting her royal status, her miniature throne of gold and silver, the little gold cushions for her feet, her tapestries, feather beds, coffers and plate following in a procession of carts. Only on great festivals such as Christmas – the most important in the Church and the court calendars – was Mary brought to join her parents at court. The twelve days of Christmas were a time of feasting and play-acting. There was a Lord of Misrule – a mock king with his own jester – and mummers with brightly coloured costumes and bells to delight a small princess.

On New Year's Day the King and Queen would exchange presents and make gifts of cash or plate to the chief personages of the realm and the officers of their households. Presents to Mary listed in the accounts were those valuables deemed worthy of her status or designed to impress; only one, a tree covered in gold spangles from a poor woman of Greenwich, was likely to have captured the imagination of a child. Christmas ended on 6 January, the Feast of the Epiphany, which began with a dramatic religious service recalling the recognition of Christ by the Three Kings, followed by feasting. Appropriately, the King and Queen wore their crowns on this day. The festivities that night were the most sumptuous of the whole year, including a pageant prepared by the Master of the Revels.

Mary would also be brought to court on particular diplomatic occasions. It was then that her boisterous father would proudly display the lovely little delicate blonde creature and make a fuss of her. The vainglorious Henry, so used to applause, desired the world to rejoice at the accomplishments of his daughter, which reflected well on him. She had inherited his passion for music. The King's Musik was the finest royal orchestra in Europe and his court resounded to the sound of trumpets, flutes, shawms, rebecs, tabourets, sackbuts, lutes and viols. As a small child held in her father's arms, Mary spotted among the crowd Friar Dionysio Memo, the organist of St Mark's, Venice, who had been invited to England to 'wait upon the King in his chamber'. Crying, 'Priest, priest!' she imperiously indicated that Memo should play for her. Something of a musical prodigy, she would be summoned to perform for foreign dignitaries, looking her over as a possible bride for one of their princes.

For all Mary's prettiness, charm and intelligence, however, she was not the boy Henry wanted and he was reluctant to recognize her as his successor. There was no precedent for female sovereignty in England. The Wars of the Roses, between the rival houses of York and Lancaster, were sufficiently recent for Henry to fear that everything he and his father had accomplished in establishing the Tudor dynasty and unifying the country under a strong monarchy would be thrown into jeopardy. Henry's mind was far too conventional to take seriously the idea of a female successor.

If Henry was at best ambivalent about female sovereignty, he had no compunction about treating his daughter as a valuable marriageable asset. Perhaps if he married her young, he might be succeeded by a grandson, rather as Henry I through his daughter Matilda had been succeeded by Henry II. There was an inherent danger in the marriage strategy, however. If he married her to a foreigner, England might lose its independence; if he married her to an Englishman – say, to Reginald Pole, the son of Mary's governess the Countess of Salisbury and a scion of the House of York – it could cause jealousy and faction at home.

While Mary was young, Henry could cynically use her as a pawn on the chessboard of international diplomacy. It is surely significant that he called her his 'pearl of the world' – an ornament, a treasure to be expended for the good of his kingdom. It was the fate of royal women. The idea that as a mere female she needed a husband must have been imprinted on Mary's consciousness from her earliest childhood.

At the age of two and a half she was betrothed to the Dauphin, a babe in arms, in a spectacular ceremony at Greenwich. Dressed in cloth of gold with a black velvet cap on her silver curls, the bejewelled child held out her small finger as the red-robed bulk of Cardinal Wolsey slipped a diamond ring on to it. When the Frenchman representing the Dauphin slipped the ring down to the end of her finger in a final act of solemnity, Mary, thinking he was her bridegroom, tried to kiss him.

She was six when that engagement was broken off in favour of an even grander alliance. The newly elected Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, had inherited the Habsburg lands of his grandfather Maximilian in central and eastern Europe, the Low Countries from his father Philip the Fair of Burgundy, Aragon from his grandfather Ferdinand, and Castile and the Spanish Empire in the New World from his still living, but insane, mother Juana. He was, quite simply, the most powerful man in the world – and Katherine's nephew.

When Charles came to Greenwich in June 1522 Mary was waiting with her mother and the other ladies at the hall door to greet him. He knelt for his aunt's blessing, according to the Spanish custom. Flaxen-haired with brilliant dark eyes and the ungainly, under-slung Habsburg jaw, Charles was a serious young man, given to melancholy. Sixteen years older than his intended bride, he was evidently kind to Mary, because she remembered him all her life, until they died within weeks of each other. Henry resisted the Emperor's request that Mary be sent to Spain to be prepared for her future position as his consort, telling him that 'the young princess is not meet as yet to bear the pains of the sea, nor strong enough to be transported into the air of another country.' Besides, there was no one more suitable than her mother, a daughter of the royal house of Spain, to prepare her.

It was time for her education in England to begin in earnest. A memo later prepared for her governess, Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, outlined her routine. Mary's first duty must be to serve God. She was 'to use moderate exercise, taking open air in gardens, sweet and wholesome places, and walks (which may conduce unto her health, solace and comfort)'. She was to practise her music – on the lute, harpsichord and virginals – and study French and Latin, but not so intensely as to make her tired. 'At other seasons to dance, and among the rest to have good respect to her diet, which is meet to be pure, well prepared, dressed and served with comfortable, joyous, and merry communication, in all honourable and virtuous manner.'

It does not sound too arduous, yet she was receiving the best education available for a woman in England at that time. Her parents' friend, Sir Thomas More, had been chiefly responsible for popularizing the concept of a classical education for women and it became fashionable in court circles to extol the capabilities of the 'weaker sex'. Katherine herself was one of the best-educated women in Europe, being well read in history, theology, philosophy, the classics and canon law and being able to converse easily in Latin. She was more than Henry's match intellectually. On a visit to Oxford in 1523 she met her compatriot, Juan Luis Vives of Valencia, who had become Reader in Latin, Greek and Rhetoric at Cardinal College. He presented the Queen with his A Plan of Study for Children and was duly rewarded with an invitation to spend Christmas at Windsor and a request to draw up a programme of studies for Mary.


Excerpted from Sovereign Ladies by Maureen Waller. Copyright © 2006 Maureen Waller. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Meet the Author

Maureen Waller was educated at University College London, where she read medieval and modern history. She took a master's degree at Queen Mary College, London, in British and European history 1660–1714. After a brief spell at the National Portrait Gallery, she went into publishing. She has worked at many prestigious publishing houses.

Maureen Waller was educated at University College London, where she studied medieval and modern history. She received a master's degree at Queen Mary College, London, in British and European history 1660--1714. After a brief stint at the National Portrait Gallery, she went on to work as an editor at several prestigious London publishing houses. Her first book was the highly acclaimed 1700: Scenes from London Life. Her other books include Sovereign Ladies: The Six Reigning Queens of England and Ungrateful Daughters: The Stuart Princesses Who Stole Their Father's Crown. She currently lives in London with her husband, who is a journalist and author.

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