From Mary Tudor to Elizabeth II, the Ruthless Power of England’s Queens
The royal wedding looks so quaint. But the royal family allowed women to gain absolute power centuries before any other institution—thanks to Mary Tudor.
It all looks so gloriously feudal. The royal wedding is another pageant in the long list of productions so exquisitely staged for the world’s entertainment. We love them because they are so otherworldly—and so proud of it.
But behind the façade of quaintness is a startling and challenging truth: in one respect the British monarchy has been for centuries one of the most daringly progressive institutions in the western world—in its empowerment of its queens.
When you think of medieval power systems, of paranoid kings surrounded by treacherous factions, of bloody battles of dynastic succession, of vicious religious and sectarian slaughter, it may seem hard to imagine how men would ever cede ultimate authority to a woman. In England they did, and early.
The first woman to achieve that authority remains one of the least acknowledged (and most maligned) people to claim the English throne, Mary Tudor, whose story has always been far eclipsed by that of the half-sister who succeeded her, Elizabeth I, the dubiously titled Virgin Queen.
Here’s just a taste of the calumny heaped on Mary during her lifetime: “a horrible monster Jezebel.” That’s from John Knox, a Protestant zealot, in a diatribe titled First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (you get some idea of where he’s coming from in the general as well as the specific nature of his attack.)
It should be conceded that Mary, a devout Catholic, showed no mercy to Protestants who opposed her. Hundreds of them, including women and children, charged with heresy, were burned at the stake.
“Bloody Mary” had little choice but to be ruthless in order to survive. She came from the murderous Tudor brood of that bestriding megalomaniac, Henry VIII, the daughter of his first wife Catherine of Aragon, and was, therefore, half Spanish. Her progress to the throne (and her life) was threatened by many intrigues before she succeeded her younger brother, Edward VI, in 1553 when he died at the age of 15.
According to the law, Mary, at the age of 37, was now queen regnant, the first woman in the history of England to wear the crown in her own right. Moreover, a year later, she persuaded her parliament to pass the Act for Regal Power. That declared explicitly that queens held power as “fully, wholly and absolutely” as kings. It followed that when she chose as her husband Philip of Spain he had to accept being second fiddle with the lesser power of consort.
But behind the names and calendar dates of history a transformation was in the making. Knowledge of the world beyond Europe was growing fast.
Mary reigned over an island population of only 2.9 million. Of those, 120,000 lived in London and this was a city of growing wealth with a new mercantile class trading in goods being discovered all over the globe. Political power was shifting from a small cabal of aristocrats to a broader base that Mary realized she could appeal to.
With every major office of state around her occupied by men, her court’s language and habits essentially masculine, and the powerful burghers of London skeptical of her strength, she struck a tone that was bold.
She made no attempt to masquerade as a manly woman. Instead, to popular acclaim, she made speeches in which she said that a woman’s qualities were every bit as suited to the exercise of power as a man’s.
With popular support she built on the designs of Henry VIII to create a modern state, managing the parliament firmly, rebuilding the navy and reforming the economy to take advantage of international trade (the crown’s own coffers gained mightily from the more efficient gathering of customs revenues). She was also a workaholic. One ambassador noted that she would “transact business incessantly until after midnight.”
To be sure, royal families in other nations produced formidable queens: Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of France and Catherine the Great of Russia, but none converted their respective cultures to the idea of the legitimate equality of the sexes—in fact, these queens were disparaged as aberrant by the men they displeased.
Eleanor was imprisoned for 16 years by her husband for siding with her sons against his rule; Isabella was stigmatized as a “She Wolf” and Catherine as a sex-crazed pervert who copulated with horses.
It was very different in England. In a relatively short time, something consequential had overtaken public attitudes. The idea of a woman as absolute monarch was no longer intolerable or even strange. And historians now recognize that the Tudor bloodline produced two redoubtable queens, not one.
Mary died suddenly, at the age of 42, after only five years on the throne. She had prepared the ground for her half-sister, Elizabeth, in a way that later historians, smitten with the achievements of Elizabeth’s long reign, long ignored.
In 1588, before Elizabeth’s greatest military victory, the defeat of the Spanish Armada (greatly assisted by wild storms that wrecked the invasion fleet) she addressed her troops with a famous line that was right out of Mary’s own rhetoric: “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king.”
Elizabeth died in March, 1603, six months before her seventieth birthday. During her reign England had become a world power. It took another woman to take that power to its zenith.
At 6 a.m. on June 20, 1837, 18-year-old Princess Victoria, still in her nightclothes, became Queen Victoria. “A woman on the throne of England, how ridiculous!” snarled a cousin, Prince George of Cambridge, when he heard the news—as though ignorant of Tudor history as well as representing the unrepentant misogyny of his times.
It’s ironic that the age to which Victoria gave her name still represents uptight social conservatism. In every other aspect of British life women had a long struggle ahead to win equal rights with men and yet, once more in the person of a queen, even the most powerful men in the land acknowledged her as far more than the figurehead of a constitutional monarchy.
For a while the young Victoria required the tutoring of male mentors. But from her accession to the throne to the mid-19th century the British empire almost quintupled in size. By the end of the century it covered a quarter of the Earth’s population.
In that time the imperial queen morphed from a vivacious young woman to a moping matron in widow’s weeds, her personal life subject to scandalous rumors but in her public life every inch the queen regnant.
Victoria’s secret was her pleasure and vigor as a lover. Recently discovered letters reveal that Prince Albert, her consort, and she produced their nine children with great enthusiasm.
Albert, a polymath who promoted science and the arts, greatly broadened Victoria’s outlook. His early death in 1861 left her inconsolable and, for a while, brittle in manner. Her later relationship with John Brown, manager of her Scottish estate, went well beyond her description of him as “groom, footman, page and maid”—other members of the household called him “the Queen’s stallion.”
Victoria understood the constitutional limits of her power, but within them shrewdly influenced her prime ministers and their policies. Technically her rights were described as “to be consulted, to encourage and to warn.” But as she grew in stature and confidence she was frequently a serious scold to her ministers.
She declared that once she approved a measure she did not expect it to be “arbitrarily altered or modified by a minister.”
Lord Palmerston, the most imperious of her foreign secretaries, had to resign because he failed to consult either Victoria or his cabinet colleagues on policy toward France. By that time there was little doubt who was boss.
(It took 258 years from the first prime minister, Robert Walpole, for Britain to accept the idea of a woman, Margaret Thatcher, in that role. As for a woman as U.S. president…)
Matriarchal versions of Victoria, as statues, were planted in every capital city and many minor ones of her empire. She believed in and epitomized the underpinning conceit of the empire, that it was the white man’s way of civilizing the world, and the world should be grateful.
In fact, her empire was the ultimate result of the mercantile system that Mary Tudor encouraged in embryonic form, raiding the natural resources of several continents to feed the fortunes of a small offshore European island.
The longevity of Victoria’s reign gave her an institutional authority that no politician could have achieved. She died in 1901 after 63 years on the throne. A king during that period might not have fared so well. The English royal family was tied to many of the royal houses of Europe where the men failed to smell the sulfur of revolution. As a result, many of them were swept away in the wake of World War I.
In 1917, aware that the family’s German associations were a liability in a war where Germany was the principal enemy, King George V changed the dynastic name from Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to Windsor. And so here we are, with a wedding at Windsor Castle presided over by a queen whose reign has surpassed Victoria’s in duration, encompassed 13 British prime ministers, 13 US presidents and seven popes.
Elizabeth II has never had, nor sought, the power of a queen regnant. She has certainly never scolded ministers in the way that Victoria felt able to do. When she came to the throne in 1952 Winston Churchill was prime minister (for the second time), failing in health but still the lion in winter.
Deference to the monarch was still customary. According to opinion polls, a third of the population still believed that the queen had been chosen by God. Churchill had no such illusions, and (as deftly portrayed by John Lithgow in The Crown) patiently tutored her in statecraft until he suddenly realized that she had a mind and personality of her own.
Churchill’s private secretary, John Colville, noted, “At a respectful distance he fell in love with the queen.” Another courtier went further: “Winston Churchill was old enough to be her grandfather… and I think she had him round her little finger. I think he was absolutely crazy in love with her.”
However, the monarchy was in trouble. It was a time of economic austerity. The public purse paid for what seemed the royal family’s excessive trappings: a royal yacht, a special R.A.F. flight of airplanes reserved for their use and a royal train, plus the numerous palaces, castles and houses. And the empire was vanishing almost overnight as nation after nation demanded independence.
And yet, 66 years after she ascended the throne, the queen has survived and, eventually, after some missteps like her distant response to the death of Princess Diana, she has become above reproach.
In her reign the monarchy has been accused of being misogynistic. The traumatizing experience of Princess Diana within the family, and the role of brides like her and Kate Middleton—beyond guaranteeing royal heirs—has long been a thorn for progressives and feminists.
Still, since 2013, female children have been equal to male children when it comes to the royal line of succession.
The queen herself has not so much given the monarchy a new relevance as steered it toward a superb irrelevance, lifting it clear of any political role. She has proved to be majestically inscrutable on the most contentious issues.
She has betrayed no feelings on the most challenging of those, first an effort by Scotland to break from the union (narrowly defeated in a vote) and now the ineptly conceived and executed departure from the European Union, Brexit.
To an extraordinary degree Queen Elizabeth II is the monarchy, defining it on her own terms and within its greatly reduced powers. There is little public appetite for King Charles III. The heir is too obviously cranky, petulant, and given to meddling in areas, like architecture, where his tastes are atavistic. Beyond him are Will and Kate, charming but little more than future stars of an entertaining, high class soap opera.
Mary Tudor was the first of the great English queens. Elizabeth II is likely the last.