The study of queenship brings together the biographical study of the lives of royal women with an analysis of their agency and activity. This is a simplification and covers many elements but at its core is the exercise of the office of queen. While the field could be quickly described as sitting at the intersection of women’s history and royal studies, queenship scholars draw on a number of different disciplines including history, literature studies, art history, politics, gender studies, archaeology, and religious studies in order to thoroughly scrutinize the wide variety of evidence from the lives of royal women. In order to examine the queen’s role, it is necessary to develop a wider understanding of the construct of monarchy and theories about how it functions in order to place the queen within that framework and understand the expectations and limitations of her position. It is important to grasp both elements of the queen’s role which are more or less constant across time and place, such as the ceremonial aspect of her role and her central place with regards to dynastic continuity and the succession, and elements which are shaped by local, temporal, and cultural variations in both gender roles and monarchy itself.
Indeed, to understand both the lives of particular queens and queenship itself, it is necessary to move beyond the individual and examine the multi-layered environment in which the queen both lived and exercised her office. First, her natal family must be considered, in terms of the court culture that she was raised in, the context of her dynastic and familial connections and the impact that her education and preparation (or lack thereof) had on her later role as queen. Then a queen must be examined in connection with her spouse and their personal and political partnership must be assessed as it sits at the core of the monarchical framework. As Theresa Earenfight stressed in her seminal article “Without the Persona of the Prince,” we cannot investigate royal figures in isolation but must bring them together in order to understand their relationships and how their collaborative efforts reflect the corporate nature of monarchy. Next, we must investigate the relationship that the queen had with her children, stepchildren, or adopted children. We must recognize the changing nature of this relationship at various stages of her life and her potential role as educator, negotiator of their futures, and at times co-ruler with her offspring, as regent or trusted counsellor. The final layer to consider is the queen within the context of the court and her household. Consort queens in particular often had to adapt to different court protocols and practices, often with the additional barriers of differences in culture, religion, and language. The queen’s household was vital to the practice of her office and was the centre of the networks of power and influence that radiated out through the court, across the realm and beyond.
A long-term interest in the history of queens stems arguably as far back as the classical period with treatments of the lives, reigns, and loves of Dido and Cleopatra. This interest was kept alight by contemporary chroniclers and biographers over the centuries, who documented and discussed the lives of royal women. An early example is Fan Ye’s biographies of the Chinese empresses and consorts in the Hou Han shu of the fifth century CE. Queens featured regularly in European collections of women “worthies” from Boccaccio in the fourteenth century onwards, with many collective biographers creating collections dedicated exclusively to queens from the early modern period to the heyday of queenly prosopography in the nineteenth century. While many works, such as the well-known multi-volume Lives of the Queens of England produced by the Strickland sisters, take a nationalistic approach, Mary Hays’ Memoirs of Queens is an example of collections that feature female rulers and consorts from beyond Europe. Indeed, Hays’s work encompassed various periods and geographical locations, including figures such as the sixth-century Persian queen of Susa, Panthea, and the seventeenth-century Mughal empress of India, Nur Jahan—demonstrating perhaps an early interest in the premise of global queenship.
The modern discipline of queenship studies has built upon this long-term interest in the lives of queens but it has taken the study of their reigns in new directions. While biography has not been ignored by queenship scholars, newer emphasis has developed concerning other areas previously underexplored, such as queenly patronage, political agency, household dynamics, reputation, and representation and, more recently, diplomatic activity. Queenship studies, like the aforementioned collective biographies of queens, have also seen nationalistic and dynastic groupings in various collections, such as Queenship and Political Power in Medieval and Early Modern Spain and Tudor Queenship and Early Modern Habsburg Women. Queens have also been grouped by type, such as queens consort, which are the focus of the “Marrying Cultures”project (
) which demonstrated the role of consort queens in cultural exchange, or queens regent, as in the case of Katherine Crawford’s insightful Perilous Performances: Gender and Regency in Early Modern France.
Yet, while this impressive and ever-increasing study in the field of queenship has considerably improved our understanding of particular queens, as well as their activities and roles in both the political dynamic of the realm and vis-à-vis their natal and marital dynasties, the field has focused almost exclusively on a European sphere, from the early medieval to the end of the early modern period. This is not to say that examinations of queens and royal women do not exist beyond these boundaries; in temporal terms there have been studies of queens and queenship in the ancient and classical period, such as Lana Troy’s examination of Egyptian queens or Atlay Coskun and Alex McAuley’s study of Seleukid royal women. Studies of modern queens (defined here as subsequent to the eighteenth century) have also been numerous, but with a greater emphasis on biographical treatment, rather than comparative works that seek to assess their reigns within the same framework employed by queenship scholars of earlier periods.
Medieval studies of queens and queenship have been particularly plentiful, but primarily in a European context. Indeed, some of the earliest studies in the field were based on royal women of the Middle Ages, such as Marion Fascinger’s “A Study of Medieval Queenship: Capetian France, 987–1237” which was published in 1968. Other notable collections which expanded the field are John Carmi Parsons” Medieval Queenship and Anne Duggan’s Queens and Queenship in Medieval Europe. These collections, and many others that have followed, offer intensive case studies of individual women or themes in medieval queenship, expanding our understanding of the expectations, parameters, and practice of the queen’s role in the Middle Ages. While the majority of works on medieval royal women have concentrated on Western Europe, primarily France, Iberia, and England, an increasing number now focus on Northern and Eastern Europe, as well as considerable scholarship on Byzantine empresses and queenship in the Mediterranean, in both Christian and Islamic contexts.
A brief survey of recent works in the field demonstrates attempts to redress this imbalance, both in terms of increasing the number of studies of queens and royal women beyond the European sphere and in bringing diverse case studies together to understand queenship in other religious contexts and cultural settings. For example, Sarah Milledge-Nelson has edited a collection that examines ancient queens around the world through archaeological finds. A surge in works that examine queenship within the framework of Islamic monarchy and culture is also underway. Fatima Mernissi has challenged the notion that Muslim women had little or no engagement in the political sphere in her work, Forgotten Queens of Islam. Leslie Peirce’s insightful study of Ottoman royal women is incredibly useful for understanding how Islamic queenship operated in the context of the polygamous harem. Sher Banu A. L. Khan disputes the assumption that regnant queenship was an impossibility in the framework of Muslim monarchy with a collective study of the seventeenth-century sultanas of Aceh. Moving further east, Jack Weatherford explores the legacy of the female descendants of Genghis Khan, with a particular case study on the political and martial successes of Queen Mandhuhai. Keith McMahon has published two studies that bring together the lives of the empresses and royal concubines of China from 1250 BCE until the end of the Qing dynasty in the twentieth century. Finally, a truly global and comparative perspective is offered in Anne Walthall’s collection Servants of the Dynasty, which makes a valuable contribution by bringing together work on women from the classical Mayan court to the halls of Versailles, though this collection is not focused exclusively on queenship, as it includes examinations of servants, concubines, ladies-in-waiting and other royal women. A Companion to Global Queenship developed this trend towards an increasingly global outlook for the field of queenship studies further. This collection deliberately mixed case studies of women from different periods, places, and religions in order to compare and contrast the realities of queenship in varied settings to encourage comparison of the framework and practice of queenship in various contexts.
As indicated in the “Approaches” section, a major issue in terms of developing a comprehensive understanding of the queen’s role in the global Middle Ages is the lack of studies in particular regions or periods.
We must also address the issue of nomenclature when working on queenship in a global context. Clearly, the word “queen” itself is an entirely European construct. Indeed, it is a word of Germanic origin that evolved from the Old English word cwēn to the Middle English quene. This word links to the concept of wife—that is, the queen as the wife of the king—which in itself is more limiting in scope than the Latin word regina, the root word for “queen” in all Romance languages, being the female equivalent of rex, or “king,” rather than a mere descriptor of the ruler’s spouse. Moreover, titles can be linked to the political entity itself; the first lady of the land might be an empress in an imperial context or a princess in a sovereign principality, but her role is clearly the equivalent of a queen. Fatima Mernissi discusses the lack of a clear equivalent to the word “queen” in Arabic, which is not unique as often a lack of a direct counterpart in many other languages and cultures where the political framework is different from the European conception of monarchy is apparent. Indeed, we must recognize the considerable difference between the political structures and succession mechanisms across the various realms of the global Middle Ages. Differences in matrimonial customs, particularly regarding whether monogamy or polygamy (or even polyandry) was practiced, also had a clear impact on the place and position of the “queen” within her societal and political framework. While recognizing these linguistic and cultural differences, the purpose of using the word “queen,” even while recognizing that the term may be anachronistic in many contexts, is a way of expressing the position of the pre-eminent woman in the political and societal context of the realm. Likewise, the concept of “queenship” itself can be still be used, beyond its original European context, as a means of understanding the political agency, activity, and position of those women who were at the epicentre of power in their respective territories.
“regnant,” “regent,” “dowager,” and “consort” to the title of “queen.” These words are more than mere adjectives; they have clear connotations as to the specific role that the queen held and the means through which she accessed power. As a queen moved through her life, her title might have changed. For example, a woman might first become a queen consort on her marriage to a king; then serve as queen regent, if her husband predeceased her, leaving an underage heir; finally, when her child reached maturity, her regency might finish, and she would become a queen mother or dowager queen. Given the etymology of the word “queen” as discussed earlier, without an adjective we might assume that the woman in question was the consort of a king. As consort, her access to power was through her spouse; while this factor delimited her authority, consorts could have considerable political agency, becoming true and relatively equal co-rulers, or even exercising the sovereign’s role on behalf of an absent, incapacitated, or incompetent husband. The agency of queens consort has often been dismissed as difficult to quantify due to its often subtle, behind-the-scenes nature, yet recent scholarship demonstrates that, whether consorts visibly ruled or used techniques of “soft power,” their political activity cannot be denied.
It might be easy to assume that, once a queen consort’s husband had died, her access to power died with him, yet regency could offer a queen an enhanced access to power; even if a consort had co-ruled with her spouse, being regent would make her effectively sole ruler until her child came of age. Indeed, maternity was a central aspect of the queen’s role as a dynastic progenitor—producing an heir often greatly enhanced her authority and influence with her husband and within the realm. Motherhood was a key bulwark for the position of all queens—for a consort it confirmed her position, warding off any suggestion that her marriage might be annulled for barrenness and ensuring her continued relevance and legacy. Regnant queens, like all monarchs, benefitted from the dynastic security promised by the birth of an heir—if it was a son, it might be seen as a reassurance to those who were uncomfortable with the concept of female rule that this was a temporary state of affairs. However, some regnant queens were encouraged to step aside in favour of male offspring, as in the situation of Petronilla of Aragon in the twelfth century. In polygamous societies, where a male ruler might have several wives and concubines, becoming the mother of potential heir could greatly enhance one’s status. For example, in an Islamic context, slave concubines who bore a child gained the protective status of an “ umm al-Walad” and gained the potential to rise to the very centre of power. The career of Hurrem Sultan in the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth century is a perfect example—she rose from being a slave of Russian origin to become the Haseki or favourite of Suleyman the Magnificent and later his wife and queen, bearing Suleyman several children. Motherhood made queens long-term arbiters of the fate of the realm through the succession. As Jeroen Duindam has noted in his book Dynasties, queen mothers and dowagers often played a crucial role in the succession of the realm, as a physical link between one reign and the next—whether she produced, or selected, the heir. Her bloodline would continue to be a crucial part of the dynasty for as long as it survived and in some cases, it was the matrilineal link which provided the right to the throne. Susan D. Gillespie has noted how it was the royal women of the Aztec line who provided the blood link which legitimated both the king and the dynasty.
A regnant queen wielded power in her own right as sovereign, normally inheriting the right to rule as an heiress—though, as the careers of Wu Zetian in seventh-century China or Shajar-al-Durr in thirteenth-century Egypt demonstrate, she could also rise to power after the death of a spouse, even engineering it herself to seize the throne. Regnant queens normally had to negotiate co-rulership with their king consort, which could prove challenging, as case studies of Tamar of Georgia and the queens of both Navarre and Jerusalem have demonstrated. Yet other regnant queens were able to rule alone—either unmarried, or as widows. A woman’s right to rule was defined by the legal and cultural constructs that allowed her to come to the throne in the first place and more opportunities for female rulers were created in political systems that gave more weight to close blood links to the previous ruler, rather than gender. For example, the Byzantine emphasis on porphyrogeniture, or the throne right of those who were “born in the purple” during the rule of their fathers, enabled women like Zoe and Theodora Porphyrogenita to become ruling empresses in the eleventh century. Some ruling women were able to leverage the precedent of previous regnant queens to justify their own rule, while others had to forge a path to demonstrate the validity and viability of female succession to the throne. While the inherent flexibility of developing succession practices in the Middle Ages offered some opportunity for women, not all female claimants were able to successfully assert their birthright—for example the Empress Matilda failed to oust her cousin Stephen from the English throne that she had been heir to in the twelfth century and Juana II (Jeanne) of Navarre became the negative test case concerning the right of women to the French throne during the Capetian succession crises of 1314–1328.
Ultimately, whether we name them “queen” or “empress” or “malika,” or “rangatira”and regardless of the type of position they held as a consort, regent, dowager, or ruler, a vitally important place for women always resides in the core mechanism of monarchy. Yet, we must acknowledge that the place of the premier woman of the realm, no matter what her title actually was, varied considerably due to cultural, regional, and temporal variations in the framework of monarchy itself. One key difference, which is particularly important when considering queenship in a global sense, rests on whether the religious context of the realm allowed for polygamy or enforced monogamy. This fundamentally changed the environment of the court and dictated whether a woman was a male ruler’s sole consort with a clear and unchallenged place as the first lady of the court, or if she might be one of many seeking to claim that role as the ruler’s preferred partner and/or the mother of the heir.
While in Christian Europe the Catholic Church’s increased emphasis on monogamy over the course of the Early/High Middle Ages reduced the practice of concubinage and affirmed the queen’s role and authority as the king’s sole consort, beyond this region in realms across Asia, Africa, Polynesia, and the Americas, as well as Muslim areas of Europe, such as the Islamic areas of Iberia, monarchs were often able to have multiple spouses and/or concubines. This had a major impact on the practice of queenship, introducing a potentially competitive aspect between women who might vie to become the ruler’s acknowledged consort, or to promote her offspring as the heir to the throne. Polygamy and other cultural practices also had an impact on the environment that royal women inhabited, which may have been in a harem or a similar scenario where a particular area of the palace, or royal compound was restricted only to women. While such cultural constraints limited women’s access to the public sphere and to the men outside their family, including politicians and bureaucrats who formed the backbone of the government, and may have seemed to be an impenetrable barrier to the female exercise of power and authority in the realm, examples from polygamous areas across the Middle Ages demonstrate the women were still able to be actively engaged in the political arena. Examples of women who crossed boundaries in this way to exercise considerable power include Subh, who rose from slavery to become a favourite concubine of al-Hakam II Caliph of Cordoba and later acted as a regent for her son, Hisham II, in the tenth century. In China, the Song dynasty in the eleventh century gives us examples of two powerful empresses in Empress Cao and her niece who later became known as Great Empress Dowager Gao ruling as a regent for her grandson. We can also see examples of Islamic women as rulers including al-Sayyida al-Hurra or Arwa of Yemen in the eleventh century and even as sovereigns in their own right, such as Razia Sultan, who briefly ruled the Delhi sultanate in the thirteenth century.
The period itself and the challenge of assessing continuity and change across the entire medieval period on a global scale is important to consider in queenship studies. As Catherine Holmes and Naomi Standen have noted, defining the “global Middle Ages” itself is challenging and clearly contextualizing the major political changes which had an impact on the practice of queenship is vital. Issues like the events that shaped the local and regional context of monarchy, as well as religious and cultural changes have to be taken into account. Some issues that need to be considered for the Mediterranean region for example, include the impact of the fall of Rome and the subsequent political turbulence at the beginning of the period in Europe, and the rise of Islam from the seventh century onwards. Both of these major shifts created a completely new environment for queens and royal women. Earlier models could still be leveraged however, as Stefany Wragg considers in “Helena’s Heirs” in A Companion to Global Queenship where she demonstrates the way in which the queens of the eighth century blended the tradition of the Roman and Byzantine augusta with Germanic customs in order to create a new model for queenship. Dynastic change is also important to consider, as is the impact of outright conquest or the advent of a foreign dynasty such as the Turkish “slave” or Mui’zzi dynasty which took power in India in the thirteenth century, which could enforce new models of rulership and even a change of religion and culture on the region. This, in turn, impacted both the role of the queen and the practice of queenship.
A final area to consider when studying queens and royal women is the sources available that allow us to examine their lives. When working on the medieval period, the survival of sources, both textual and material, can be a key problem to overcome, particularly for those scholars working at the beginning of the period. As Theresa Earenfight has noted, queens might be “highly visible” as the foremost women of the realm but their activities can be obscured in the documental evidence from the period. Annals, chronicles and histories written in the Middle Ages were normally written by men—often churchmen in Christian Europe. This has skewed the depiction of queens and royal women; they are often noted only when fulfilling their expected roles, marking their weddings, coronations, and when they gave birth to heirs. An imbalance between a near-total omission of some royal women on the one hand, and the excessive focus given to women when they transgressed expected behavior often exists. For example, Queen Sibylla of Jerusalem’s surprising decision to crown her husband Guy de Lusignan alongside her in 1186, in spite of the opposition of the barons of the realm who had urged her to divorce her controversial husband, is depicted in several contemporary chronicles, by both Christian and Islamic writers.
Documentary evidence, such as administrative records, can offer further insight into the activities of queens, filling the gaps left by chroniclers. Examples of just a few of the range of sources available include charters and diplomas, letters and household accounts. Charters and diplomas have been used to demonstrate political engagement and the witness lists have been closely scrutinized by scholars to attempt to piece together the networks and activity of queens. Letters can demonstrate queenly diplomatic agency and authority, from letters that facilitated matrimonial alliances to those which directed a queen’s officials to take action on her behalf. Account books can be extremely useful in understanding the composition and function of the queen’s household, which also served as a key power base and the centre of her political networks. These financial records can also show the queen’s administration of her revenues and expenditure—an important aspect of queenship which has recently begun to attract greater study. However, the survival of these documents is an issue—while this is always a consideration for scholars working in the premodern period, the issue can be more acute when working on queens as the records which pertain exclusively to their activities and households have not always been prioritized for storage and retention, as the central governmental documents have been considered of greater importance to preserve by some archivists in the past.
Many of the central debates around queens and queenship involve the issue of the queen’s power and authority. Looking at European cases, in their contemporary perspective, in the early modern period we see a “gynocracy debate” around the ability of queens to be effective rulers but this appears to be a reaction to the so-called “Monstrous Regiment” of the sixteenth century. By contrast, in the Middle Ages, the querelle des femmes was the main setting for debates about the role of aristocratic women. While it is outside the scope of this particular entry to delineate the full scope of this debate around the role of women in the political sphere and European medieval society, it is important to note the role of Christine de Pizan as a particular defender of women in this intellectual discussion. Her City of Ladies and the Treasure of the City of Ladies also give a useful window into guidance and ideals for both queens and elite women in the Middle Ages.
On a related note, an intensive debate was started by Joan Kelly’s provocative essay from 1977, “Did Women have a Renaissance?”which argues that elite women had greater freedom and agency in the Middle Ages than the Renaissance that followed. However, JoAnn McNamara and Suzanne Wemple posited almost the opposite back in 1973, arguing that women’s power declined from the twelfth century from a high point of agency and influence in the Early Middle Ages. This theory has been much debated in the field of queenship and medieval studies, with papers from a series of roundtable sessions at the international medieval congresses at Kalamazoo (USA) and Leeds (UK) being published in Medieval Feminist Forum in 2016. These papers comprehensively challenged the McNamara/Wemple theory, demonstrating the continuing or even increasing power of royal and elite women over the course of the Middle Ages.
Yet the vocabulary used to discuss and describe power has been a source of debate itself in the field of queenship studies. In recent years, the term “agency” has gained increasing popularity as a term to demonstrate the activity of queens. However, there has been a debate in the field about how appropriate this terminology is—while many have used it as a means of expressing the political influence and activity of queens, others have viewed it more to describe a royal woman’s autonomy to act both in and beyond the political arena, not necessarily to express her authority. Once again, roundtable discussions at major international conferences, such as the “Rethinking Agency” sessions at the International Medieval Congress in Leeds in 2018, have debated the idea of agency and the use (or overuse) of this particular term. Leading queenship scholar Theresa Earenfight has also posited that the tendency to use the term “power” when discussing how men assert authority, yet those same actions, when carried out by a woman are often termed as “agency,” therefore downplaying their significance.
A final recent debate to engage with in the field of queenship studies is the idea of “exceptionalism.” One of the criticisms of the field of queenship studies itself was that examining the lives of queens gave too much prominence to women who were exceptions to the experience of “normal” medieval women and therefore skewed the wider understanding of women’s history during this period. Yet, how “exceptional” was it for a woman to rule or to wield power and authority in the Middle Ages? Scholars have begun to push back on the concept that the medieval political arena was completely dominated by men or that the framework of authority was entirely patriarchal, making ruling or politically active women undesirable anomalies. The conference “Beyond Exceptionalism” was held in 2015 challenged this perception of elite women in the Middle Ages, papers from this were later published in Medieval Elite Women and the Exercise of Power, 1100–1400: Moving Beyond the Exceptionalist Debate.
These examples of debates are arguably all confined to scholarship focused on the European sphere of queenship studies, but the issues that they highlight resonate across the field and should be considered by those examining royal women in any geographical context. They all highlight central issues which are fundamental to understanding queenship, which due to its very nature of being at the epicentre of monarchy, is deeply tied to the exercise of power. Thus, considerations around how the power of women waxed and waned over time and how we understand and describe the authority and political activity of women are central to any work on the theory and practice of queenship in any setting.