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.

Reflections on a superb article on the differing childhoods of rival queens Mary and Elizabeth

Conor Byrne is a history student at the University of Exeter whose research interests include gender, cultural, and social history. His excellent blog focuses on historical issues but also touches upon contemporary political and social events. 

The Creation of Anne Boleyn, a fascinating website maintained by controversial feminist author Susan Bordo and her former research assistant Natalie Sweet, republished this incisive short article by Conor Byrne, a graduate of the British University of Exeter, who maintains a superb blog here.

I would urge you to read Mr Byrne’ essay in its entirety. It is very well done. I offer but one small correction to this otherwise excellent article:

Byrne writes that
John Knox, the vehement Scottish Protestant preacher, opined in his The first blast of the trumpet against the monstrous regiment of women, attacking the rule of female monarchs such as Mary Tudor and Mary of Guise and published in 1558, that female rule was contrary to Biblical law.
Knox did indeed write this 1558 polemical treatise, which he published in exile at Geneva, arguing that, as Byrne notes, “female rule was contrary to Biblical law”. The treatise was all well and good for him when Scotland and England were both ruled by Catholic queens he despised, but in November 1558 his enemy Mary Tudor, first queen regnant of England, died, leaving her Protestant half-sister Elizabeth as monarch. While Elizabeth should have been a natural political ally to Knox, she took tremendous umbrage at his scathing treatise, which has the worst possible timing of release, and refused to treat with him. Mr Byrne’s one error here is his description of Mary of Guise as a “monarch” alongside England’s first queen regnant, Mary I Tudor.
While it is common enough to refer to both a king and his queen consort as “monarchs”, this is factually incorrect. In a royal marriage, the monarch is the sovereign, he or she to whom the throne has passed and in whom sovereignty resides. His or her consort is the royal spouse, the husband or wife of the monarch. The indomitable Queen Marie de Guise (1515-1560), a widow before her second marriage to the also widowed King James V of Scots (1512-1542) and mother to Mary Queen of Scots (1542-1587), was not a monarch, a queen regnant in her own right. She was a queen consort as the wife of her sovereign husband and then, after his December 1542 death when their only surviving daughter Mary as only six days old, Marie de Guise remained a dowager queen of Scotland and Queen Mother (the mother of the reigning monarch) until her own death in 1560.
Born to Claude de Guise (1496-1550), duc de Lorraine, and his intelligent wife Antoinette de Bourbon (1493-1583), in 1534, at 18, Marie married Louis II d’Orléans (1510-37), duc de Longueville and comte de Dunois (1). Theirs was a happy marriage, but short-lived; the Duke did in 1537, leaving Marie a young, pregnant widow (she had given birth to a son, Francois, in October 1535, and after Louis’ death gave birth to a son, Louis, who lived for only four months). (2)
Detailed oil painting showing James V, King of Scots, and his second wife Queen Marie de Guise, daughter of Claude, duc de Lorraine and head of the powerful House of Guise.

Detailed oil painting showing James V, King of Scots, and his second wife Queen Marie de Guise, daughter of Claude, duc de Lorraine and head of the powerful House of Guise.

Beautiful stone engraving showing Marie de Guise's coat of arms as Queen (consort and then regent) of Scotland. She is referred to as Maria of Lorraine because she was born in Lorraine, where her father Claude was Duke and Head of the House of Guise. Her arms and those of Lorraine are quartered with the Scottish royal lion, her husband and daughter's royal standard.

Beautiful stone engraving showing Marie de Guise’s coat of arms as Queen (consort and then regent) of Scotland. She is referred to as Maria of Lorraine because she was born in Lorraine, where her father Claude was Duke and Head of the House of Guise. Her arms and those of Lorraine are quartered with the Scottish royal lion, her husband and daughter’s royal standard.

Marie married James V of Scots, Henry VIII’s nephew, in May 1538. Prior to this triumph, when the widowed Henry was looking for a new queen after Jane Seymour’s death, he sent representatives to propose marriage to the widowed Marie, then the dowager duchess of Longueville. Marie was all too aware of the fate that had befallen Anne Boleyn less than two years earlier. Anne had quipped before her May 1536 execution that the Calais swordsman should find beheading her easy because “I have a little neck”. Keeping this in mind, Marie responded to the King’s envoys with words that must have mortified them: “I may be a big woman, but I have a very little neck”. (3)
After her husband’s premature death following his nervous collapse in the wake of the decisive English defeat of the Scots at Solway Moss, Marie struggled to keep her infant daughter safe from various conspiracies that sought to control the baby queen regnant and, thus, to control Scotland through her. (4) After initially being excluded from power, Marie de Guise governed in her daughter’s stead as the official Regent of Scotland from 1554-60 with strong French support against the English who had been attacking Scotland since late 1543. (5) Marie insisted on being personally present to watch the siege at Haddington, and was nearly killed when English cannons fired upon the Scottish position, killing many in her entourage. (6). Under Henry VIII’s ‘Rough Wooing’, the English devastated Scotland, seeking to force the young Queen Mary to be sent to England and marry Henry’s heir, Prince Edward, uniting Scotland and England with Edward as king of both kingdoms (the opposite of what ended up happening in 1603 when Marie de Guise’s grandson James VI inherited the English throne as James I). Scotland’s reigning Queen regnant was just a child at the time, and Marie strategically sent her daughter to France in August 1548 to marry into and secure an alliance with the royal Valois House of France to strengthen then-Catholic Scotland’s position with the French against the English. (7). Henry VIII, who had twice sought Marie’s hand in marriage, was furious: he had earned the hatred of the Scots and his sought-after prize, his great-niece the child Queen Mary, had eluded him and gone to ally with France, his main rival.
In 1558-59 — right when Marie’s daughter Queen Mary married the Dauphin Francois of France and became, in 1559, queen consort of France — violent Calvinist-inspired iconoclastic mobs began destroying and ransacking Catholic shrines and churches across Scotland. (8) Popular anger linked the Queen Regent’s French political and military support — including the presence of French troops in key bastions — with anti-Catholic sentiment, and the ‘Lairds of the Congregation’, a group of leading Protestant lords, sought English support from Elizabeth I to remove Marie de Guise from power. Elizabeth’s natural religious sympathies and political desire to see a Protestant Scotland free of French Catholic soldiers were buttressed by her her offence at Mary, Queen of Scots’ naive provocation of quartering her and her husband Francois’ royal arms with those of England after Mary Tudor’s death in November 1558. Henri II of France, Mary’s father-in-law, had publicly proclaimed his son and daughter-in-law King and Queen of England, since most Catholics regarded the Scottish queen regnant as the rightful heir to the English throne after Mary Tudor, seeing Elizabeth as unacceptable due to her bastard status and her religion.
Portrait of James Stewart (Stuart), Earl of Moray, by Hans Eworth. He served as Regent for his half-nephew, James VI, Mary Queen of Scots' son, from her forced abdication in 1567 til his assassination in 1570.

Portrait of James Stewart (Stuart), Earl of Moray, by Hans Eworth. He served as Regent for his half-nephew, James VI, Mary Queen of Scots’ son, from her forced abdication in 1567 til his assassination in 1570.

Despite the Queen Regent’s best attempts to suppress it, the Calvinist-inspired Scottish Reformation was underway with strong English support; Marie de Guise combated it diligently, even offering a degree of religious toleration in the Articles of Leith as a means to avoid further bloodshed. (9). Bolstered by French arms, the Queen Regent maintained control of most of the key Scottish fortresses, and by late 1559 the Protestants were dreading their imminent defeat. Despite Elizabeth sending an English fleet to the Firth of Forth in January 1560, temporarily forcing the French to withdraw to Leith, Marie retained control of Edinburgh Castle and, with it, the Scottish capital. (10).
By early spring, however, Marie’s health began to fail: she succumbed to dropsy (edema), with which she diagnosed herself, in June 1560, devastating her daughter in France, whose husband, the frail King Francois, would die in December, leaving Mary a bereft widow just before her eighteenth birthday. Some of Marie’s French and Scottish Catholic supporters believed she had been poisoned on either Queen Elizabeth’s orders or by her late husband’s Protestant illegitimate son James Stuart, the Earl of Moray (who ultimately cooperated and helped organise her daughter Mary, his half-sister’s, forced abdication in 1567, ruling Scotland as regent afterward ). Most modern historians believe Queen Marie died of natural causes (dropsy/edema). As per her wishes, after the situation began to stabilise in Scotland, Marie’s remains were removed from Edinburgh Castle and transported to France, where in March 1561 the Scottish Queen, by then already widowed and thus a dowager queen of France, attended her mother’s June funeral along with a host of Guise relatives and French royalty. Marie de Guise was buried at the Convent of Saint Pierre in Reims, where her sister Renée was abbess.
Compared to her own politically ineffective daughter, Marie is generally regarded as a much more effective and capable ruler in Scotland. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of Mary Queen of Scots’ immensely tragic life was that her mother sent her to France for her own safety from the English, and thus Mary did not have the enormous political education of growing up close to her politically capable mother and seeing her govern Scotland with wisdom, fortitude, and, when needed, the ruthlessness which Mary herself never proved able to use in wielding power. Whereas her cousin and rival Queen Elizabeth grew up witnessing the example of her father’s sixth queen Catherine Parr serving as regent in England during Henry’s last French campaign (and thus Elizabeth developed a powerful personal and psychological impression of women’s capabilities at ruling in their husbands’ absence), Mary instead grew up at the Valois French court where all political power derived either from a very much male king (the womanising Henri II) or from women’s ability to clandestinely influence their husbands or lovers (especially the strong influence exerted over Henri’s long-term official mistress, Diane de Poitiers). Thus, while Mary showed a willingness to refer in her numerous letters to her “absolute” status as a queen regnant, she never seems to have learned how to effectively wield power and establish herself as supreme or even predominant over Scotland’s factious noble clans who were even more riven by the Catholic-Protestant religious divide. As I expand upon in my essay here, Mary was never able to conceptualize her own power apart from that which a husband could give her; in contrast, Mary’s own mother, like Elizabeth, learned firsthand the reality of what it meant to exercise power in the absence of a husband.

Apart from her bitter enemy Knox, the preeminent leader of the Scottish Reformation, historians have generally regarded Marie de Guise favourably. Historian Rosalind K. Marshall says that “her biographers, Strickland in the nineteenth century, McKerlie and Marshall in the twentieth, [have] been unanimous in praising her intelligence and fortitude”. In evaluating her life, Marshall observes that:

Sacrificing her own comfort, interests, and ultimately her life, Mary of Guise had fought a long, desperate, and, in the end, hopeless struggle to preserve Scotland as a pro-French, Roman Catholic nation for her daughter….Charming, highly intelligent, and hard-working, with a diplomatic manner and an ability to fight on regardless of hostility, disappointment, and ill health, Mary was never merely a pawn of the French king.

End Notes:

  1. Wood, Marguerite, ed., Balcarres Papers: The French Correspondence of Marie de Lorraine, vol. 1, Scottish History Society (1923), p. 228, c. 1542.
  2. Marshall, Rosalind K, Mary of Guise, Collins, (1977), 36–39: Wood, Marguerite, ed., Balcarres Papers, vol. 1, SHS (1923), 1.
  3. Fraser, Antonia, Mary Queen of Scots, Weidenfield & Nicholson, (1969), 7.
  4. Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland, vol. 9 (1911), 195.
  5. Ritchie, Pamela, Mary of Guise, Tuckwell Press, Ltd. (2002), 94
  6. Calendar of State Papers Spain, vol. 9 (1912), 569: Teulet, A., ed., Relations politiques de la France et de l’Espagne avec l’Écosse au XVIe siècle, vol. 1 (1862), 220-221
  7. Marshall, Mary of Guise, 175.
  8. Ritchie, Pamela, Mary of Guise, 205–207.
  9. Magnus Magnusson, Scotland: the Story of a Nation (New York: Grove Press, 2000) p. 337.
  10. Ibid.

Further Reading (besides the sources above):

  • Lee, Patricia-Ann (1990). “A Bodye Politique to Governe: Aylnter, Knox and the Debate on Queenship”. The Historian 52 (2): 242. doi:10.1111/j.1540-6563.1990.tb00780.x.
  • Healey, Robert M.; et al. (1994). “Waiting for Deborah: John Knox and Four Ruling Queens”. The Sixteenth Century Journal 25 (2): 371–386.doi:10.2307/2542887. JSTOR 2542887.
  • Fitzsimmons, Tracy (2000). “A Monstrous Regiment of Women? State, Regime, and Women’s Political Organizing in Latin America”. Latin American Research Review 35 (2): 216–229. JSTOR 2692141.
  • Brammall, Kathryn M. (1996). “Monstrous Metamorphosis: Nature, Morality, and the Rhetoric of Monstrosity in Tudor England”. The Sixteenth Century Journal 27 (1): 3–21. doi:10.2307/2544266. JSTOR 2544266.
  • Richards, Judith M. (1997). “‘To Promote a Woman to Beare Rule’: Talking of Queens in Mid-Tudor England”. The Sixteenth Century Journal 28 (1): 101–121. doi:10.2307/2543225. JSTOR 2543225.
  • Felch, Susan M. (1995). “The Rhetoric of Biblical Authority: John Knox and the Question of Women”. The Sixteenth Century Journal 26 (4): 805–822.doi:10.2307/2543787. JSTOR 2543787.
  • Kyle, Richard G. (1988). “The Church-State Patterns in the Thought of John Knox”. Journal of Church and State 30 (1): 71–87. doi:10.1093/jcs/30.1.71.
  • Abernethy, Susan. “Marie of Guise, Queen of Scotland”. The Freelance History Writer. 1 October 2012. Accessed 11 November 2015.
  • Abernethy, Susan. “Antoinette of Bourbon, Duchess of Guise”. The Freelance History Writer. 17 May 2013. Accessed 11 November 2015.
  • Abernethy, Susan. “Claude, Duke of Guise”. The Freelance History Writer. 24 August 2012. Accessed 11 November 2015.