Holding the Reigns

Four queens condemned to live in interesting times

From left: Elizabeth I, Mary Stuart, Mary Tudor, and Catherine de’ Medici (Wikimedia Commons)
From left: Elizabeth I, Mary Stuart, Mary Tudor, and Catherine de’ Medici (Wikimedia Commons)

When Women Ruled the World: Making the Renaissance in Europe by Maureen Quilligan; Liveright, 320 pp., $29.95

Maureen Quilligan begins her provocative new book with a tirade: in 1558, the Scottish reformer John Knox published The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, in which he declared, “To promote a Woman to bear rule, superiority, dominion, or empire above any realm, nation, or city is: A. Repugnant to nature. B. Contumely to GOD. C. The subversion of good order, of all equity and justice.” (The seething italics are his.) Quilligan’s response to this rant reveals why she is such a good historian. She notes that the tract has “done history a real service” by pointing out how many women wielded sovereign authority in Knox’s day. He is not wrong, she continues, to see these queens, regents, and consorts as an army—they did indeed form a regiment, a close-knit group that acted, overtly and covertly, on each other’s behalf. Unfortunately for Knox, another queen was added to their number a few months after he wrote his diatribe: Elizabeth I of England, who promptly banned the misogynistic Scotsman from English lands. Knox would try to ingratiate himself by protesting that his Blast was directed at Catholic, not Protestant, queens, but Elizabeth rejected the sectarian ploy. God’s order, to her mind, distinguished monarchs, both male and female, from other mortals, Catholic or Protestant or in between.

Among the “monstrous regiment of women,” Quilligan focuses on four well-known and interrelated figures: Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I, the two daughters of Henry VIII; their cousin, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots; and Mary’s mother-in-law, Catherine de’ Medici, wife of one king of France and mother of three others. They are only four among a legion of queens and regents who also included Margaret of Austria, Mary of Hungary, Juana of Austria, and Isabella of Castile—all of them linked by ties of marriage and a constant exchange of gifts that worked, as Quilligan shows, in different ways from the gift exchanges that prevailed among men. Men presented public gifts in a public way. Women rulers gave each other personal presents of baptismal fonts or jewelry, “inalienable possessions” that could be passed down from generation to generation (although she argues that the gold baptismal font presented by Elizabeth I to Mary Queen of Scots was also a form of monetary support, and indeed Mary melted it down for cash). When Women Ruled the World thus takes as its secondary theme several of these objects: an immense teardrop-shaped pearl, a baptismal font, embroideries (Mary Stuart was a formidable needlewoman, her cousin Elizabeth much less so), and the Valois Tapestries, a lavish series of woven historical scenes commissioned by Catherine de’ Medici, in which she appears in her widow’s weeds as an unassuming but unavoidable protagonist.

All four monarchs were condemned to live in interesting times, with the Protestant Reformation driving an increasingly violent wedge between their nations and their people. Not one of them hesitated to take extreme revenge on her perceived enemies: “Bloody Mary” Tudor burned some 300 Protestant heretics at the stake during her five-year reign; Elizabeth punished “traitors” by hanging, drawing and quartering, or sending them—most notably her cousin Mary Stuart—to the executioner’s block. Catherine de’ Medici, the Florentine who married into the French royal family, has been accused of being the mastermind behind the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of August 1572, in which thousands of French Huguenots (Calvinist Protestants) were killed in a wave of planned assassinations and uprisings.

Queens, whether they exerted power in their own right or as consorts to the king, were expected to produce dynasties. In this duty, Catherine de’ Medici performed outstandingly. The daughter of a French countess and a grandson of Lorenzo the Magnificent, Catherine counted in French royal eyes as a commoner, although the Medici were hardly common Italians, and her refined manners and taste in food famously altered customs at the French court. Orphaned as an infant, she was brought up amid seething political intrigue in Florence that stood her in good stead for the equally deadly tensions of the French court. Quilligan shows how Catherine managed to maneuver herself from neglected but fertile wife into the position of regent and literal kingmaker.

Neither of the two Tudor queens ever gave birth. For Mary Tudor, married to Philip II of Spain at the age of 38, her false pregnancy was a searing disappointment. For Elizabeth, politics—and her own safety—ultimately topped every other concern; furthermore, as Quilligan emphasizes, “Gloriana,” a fervent believer in the divine right of monarchs, would never have accepted any husband who was not a divinely anointed king himself. An unfortunate choice of husbands helped to condemn Mary Stuart, Elizabeth’s cousin (and for 18 years her prisoner) to death as a traitor, but her son James would succeed Elizabeth on the English throne, apparently to the Virgin Queen’s satisfaction.

After tracing the lives of these remarkable women—Catherine and Elizabeth, undeniable survivors; Mary Tudor and Mary Stuart, less brilliant maneuverers in the corridors of power—Quilligan turns her attention to a king, Philip II of Spain, who married Mary Tudor and unleashed the Invincible Armada against Elizabeth in 1588 (years after she had refused his proposal of marriage, both because of his Catholicism and for what the power of Spain meant for English autonomy). The arts, in particular, have been unkind to Philip: Titian’s portraits show him as a spindle-shanked nerd, a pale shadow of his virile father, Charles V. Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Don Carlo gives the king one of the world’s great and poignant arias, Ella giammai m’amò (“She never loved me”), but then has him confer with the Grand Inquisitor about murdering his own son (the inquisitor’s reply, “To redeem us, God sacrificed his” gives even Philip pause). Don Carlo plays merry havoc with history (Philip’s son was a sociopath, not a hero, and died young, to everyone’s relief, in an accident), but it is hard to forget Verdi’s auto-da-fé scene, knowing that Philip staged four of them in Madrid’s Plaza Mayor. Quilligan pleads expertly not only for a reconsideration of Philip’s position on the historical stage (she reminds readers that Elizabeth I, on the Protestant side, slaughtered some 700 rebellious peasants and had traitors disemboweled in public) but also for an acknowledgment of the respect and affection with which he treated female rulers—so long as they were Catholic—and his four wives, all of whom died not by his hand but from natural causes, and two of whom he loved dearly. (I’ll still put my trust in Titian, who met him face to face.)

In a book that consistently demonstrates the revelatory power of new points of view, this defense of the unlikely Philip provides a final, fantastic flourish. Quilligan’s ability to regard the denizens of this harsh, cruel century with compassion is as remarkable as the clarity with which she pierces through the complexity of the political and religious turmoil they confronted without flinching. When Women Ruled the World reads as quickly as a novel, but its probing questions and keen analysis will stay with readers long afterward.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Ingrid Rowland is the author of From Heaven to Arcadia. Her most recent book is Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic.


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up