The Evolving Power of Tudor and Stuart Royal Women, 1485-1603

Here is a paper idea which I will develop and expand upon once I graduate at the end of this semester and have more time (I am currently in the midst of final papers and exams):

The Evolving Power of Tudor and Stuart Royal Women, 1485-1603: A three-generational development from securing dynastic alliances through marriage, to ruling as regents, to reigning as Queens Regnant.

When Henry Tudor, the Lancastrian heir, took the English throne from Richard III by right of conquest at Bosworth Field in 1485, it was unthinkable to anyone in England or Continental Europe that less than 70 years later his granddaughter Mary would be ruling as England’s first crowned Queen regnant. Henry VII soon realised that a dynastic marriage with Princess Elizabeth of York, King Edward IV’s daughter by Queen Elizabeth Woodville, was essential to legitimising his tenuous grasp on the throne. Insisting on his right to the throne by blood and conquest, Henry deliberately had himself crowned and anointed as monarch *before* marrying Elizabeth, who received her own coronation and anointing as consort after their wedding.

That Elizabeth of York was crowned in a ceremony separate from and *after* her husband, in the French manner, signified that she was no monarch in her own right, despite being the Yorkist heir to the throne. In having himself crowned as King without a queen consort beside him — a queen who was the sole-surviving daughter and therefore the heir of a King — Henry VII sought to emphasise that his claim on the throne did not depend on his marriage to the Yorkist heiress, but instead that his marriage to Elizabeth served only to bolster his right to rule as King over a reunified England.

While some Yorkists continued to view Elizabeth as England’s rightful monarch, none of the many rebellions against Henry VII were done in her name or with the aim of deposing him to install her as monarch in his place. Instead Yorkist pretenders were invariably male, often claiming to be one of the Yorkist “princes in the Tower” — Elizabeth’s brothers — allegedly murdered by their uncle Richard III after Edward IV’s death. Elizabeth never pressed the matter or seems to have regarded herself as rightful queen regnant. Instead, she became a popular, model queen consort, renowned for her piety, courtly demeanor, and quickly producing a succession of heirs. She died on her thirty-seventh birthday, like so many queens consort before and after her, of childbed fever, devastating Henry and their young children.

While Elizabeth seems to have meekly accepted her status as consort, her formidable mother-in-law, Henry’s mother the widowed countess Margaret Beaufort, insisted on walking only a half-pace behind her daughter-in-law. Since Margaret had never been married to a king, she was not actually a dowager queen, so to solve the issue of how to treat her and what her status was, she received the unprecedented title of “My Lady the King’s Mother” and was treated in all respects as if she was a dowager queen, second in rank only to her son’s wife. Despite that her only son was King, Margaret viewed herself as the Lancastrian heiress. Seeing herself as somehow sharing in her son’s authority, she signed her letters during his reign as “Margaret R”, for Regina. Outliving Henry, Margaret insisted on planning much of her grandson Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon’s wedding and coronation, dying shortly thereafter.

While Elizabeth and Margaret were both married for primarily dynastic reasons and valued above all for their giving birth to sons and heirs, only a generation after their deaths two of their (respectively) son and grandson Henry VIII’s queens — both Catherines — would govern England as regents during his absences while at war with France.

Catherine of Aragon, the pious Catholic, highly intelligent, and capable daughter of King Fernando of Aragon and Queen Isabel I of Castile, “los reyes catolicos”, served as Regent during her husband Henry VIII’s absence in 1513 as he led an invasion of France to press his claim to the French throne. James IV, King of Scots and Henry’s brother-in-law, invaded England with an army in Henry’s absence. Despite being pregnant, Catherine, following in her parents’ footsteps, quickly raised an army to confront the Scots at Flodden. She addressed the English troops herself, who then proceeded to annihilate the Scottish army, killing King James and the flower of the Scots nobility in battle. Far from downplaying her role in the conflict, Catherine sent her husband James’ bloodstained cloak as a macabre sign of her victory, a victory achieved for Henry and in Henry’s name, but in Henry’s absence. Thirty years and five wives later, in 1545, Henry appointed his intelligent, pious Protestant and twice-widowed sixth queen, Catherine Parr, as regent in his absence as he sought to relive the glory days of his youth with another invasion of France. While Henry’s forces managed to capture the strategic fortified city of Boulogne, Catherine calmly and diligently administered the kingdom’s affairs. She constantly wrote Henry for his advice, but this did not mean that she only followed his instructions during her regency.

The powerful example of early and mid-sixteenth century female regencies under Henry’s two queens undoubtedly paved the way for the acceptance, in 1553 and 1558, of England’s first two queens regnant, Henry’s daughters Mary and Elizabeth. Catherine of Aragon certainly would have told her daughter, the future Mary I, about her regency, while Catherine Parr’s regency influenced the young future Elizabeth I as an example of women ruling effectively in a king’s absence. Likewise, while 1513 and 1545 saw English queens consort govern as regents, the Continent already had a long history of women regents and several notable precedents for queens regnant in Spain, Hungary, Sicily, Navarre, and Poland.

Tying in Mary Queen of Scots, I would posit that Mary could have, had she stayed in Scotland — instead of being sent to France as a child where she was trained to be the future French queen consort rather than rule as the Scottish Queen in her own right — received a thorough training in rulership from two sources, her paternal grandmother and her mother. James V’s mother, Mary’s grandmother, Queen Margaret Tudor, Henry VII’s daughter and Henry VIII’s older sister, married James IV in a grand alliance between “the thistle and the rose” in 1503. She ruled as regent in several tumultuous tenures following James IV’s death at Flodden in 1513. Mary’s own mother Marie de Guise, James V’s widow, ruled Scotland effectively as regent while Mary grew up at the French court. Mary’s rather weak, disastrous approach to ruling Scotland shows the clear impact of her political and educational formation as a future French queen consort, not a queen regnant, as well as her lack of benefitting from her mother and grandmother’s examples as regents. In contrast, both Mary I and Elizabeth I of England received thoroughly more “masculine” educations in politics and statecraft typical of Renaissance princes trained to rule.