Queens know best: survival lessons from powerful historical women
As we navigate modern life, it is sometimes easy to forget there are many timeless tactics to be learned from past historical figures – even more so when these figures happen to be women, who are so often consigned to more subservient roles. Here, Dr Estelle Paranque highlights three powerful women from history and the qualities they possessed…
As a historian, I have always been fascinated by what we can learn from past queens and other female leaders. Upon studying their speeches, letters, prayers and other achievements recorded in pamphlets and print, it becomes obvious that we can learn a great deal from these powerful women, especially if we apply their advice, their words and the examples they set to our own modern lives. If we do so, perhaps we can experience a fairer and more equal society, where women are encouraged to embrace both their leadership skills and their dreams.
It becomes obvious that we can learn a great deal from these powerful women, especially if we apply their advice, their words and the examples they set to our own modern lives
Catherine de Medici: the power of resilience
Catherine de Medici was the queen consort to Henry II of France and the mother of three French kings: Francis II, Charles IX, and Henry III. The most valuable quality we can learn from this powerful woman is, without a doubt, patience; and you cannot have patience without resilience. Born into a noble Florentine family, Catherine was never meant to be queen. In 1533, she was married to Prince Henry, the son of French king Francis I, at the age of 14; at the time of their marriage, Henry was not in line for the throne, and only became heir apparent upon the death of his elder brother in 1536. For a long time, Catherine remained in the shadows of the French royal court, both of her father-in-law and later her husband. Her spouse allowed her little political influence, and even worse, Catherine became the ‘third wheel’ in her own marriage, having to suffer the presence of Henry’s royal favourite at court: Diane de Poitiers.
Yet she never created any drama around the situation, instead remaining a humble, devoted, and discreet wife, as per the ideals of the day. That is, until fate decided it had more in store for her. Following the death of her husband in 1559, and after more than 25 years of countless humiliations, Catherine finally had the opportunity to overshadow Diane and cast her rival away from court. She went on to become a powerful influence in 16th-century France during the reigns of her sons, particularly during the French Wars of Religion.
Another example of 16th-century resilience is the case of the Ottoman sultana, Hurrem (also known as Roxelana). Born in what is now Ukraine in c1505 and sold into slavery, she became a concubine in the harem of Sultan Suleiman ‘the Magnificent’. During her time at Suleiman’s court, Hurrem changed the course of her fate and, consequently, of Ottoman history. She seduced Suleiman and the couple fell in love, which led to Suleiman breaking with centuries of tradition in order to please her: he gave up on all other concubines, freed her, and married her – making her his queen. By 1534, after the death of the sultan’s mother, the couple became inseparable. Hurrem remained in Suleiman’s palace and became his trustworthy confidante. This turn of events did not happen overnight and, in many ways, Hurrem showed great patience, resilience and incredible intelligence during this time.
Mary I: the power of compassion
Mary I of England is all too often only remembered as ‘Bloody Mary’, to the point where most people forget that she also knew how to rule with compassion and care for her people. In 1554, when a group of rebels led by Sir Thomas Wyatt took arms against her to protest her marriage to Philip II of Spain, Mary showed prudence. When the traitors were later apprehended and arrested, she gave a moving speech at London’s Guildhall, during which she professed: “On the word of a prince, I cannot tell you how naturally the mother loveth the child, for I was never the mother of any; but certainly, if a prince and governor may as naturally and earnestly love her subjects as the mother doth love the child, then assure yourself that I, being your lady and mistress, do as earnestly and tenderly love and favour you.”
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It was a quality also favoured by Mary’s sister, Elizabeth I of England, who would reiterate and used this motherly love to her people during her own reign. She claimed in her 1559 speech: “And reproach me so no more that I have no children: for every one of you, and as many as are English, are my children and kinfolks.” Mary had clearly paved the way for her becoming the mother of England.
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Two centuries later, Marie Antoinette, wife to Louis XVI of France and the last queen of France before the French Revolution, also demonstrated that the right path to happiness and fulfilment was via forgiveness. Before her own execution, in her last letter to her sister-in-law Madame Élisabeth. Marie insisted that her children should “never seek to revenge our death”. In her final moments, the queen wanted her legacy to be about forgiveness and compassion instead of hatred and revenge.
Njinga of Ndongo and Matamba: the power of overcoming misogyny
In a male-dominated world, it was no easy task for a female ruler to command the respect required to govern effectively. On more than one occasion Elizabeth I had to remind her members of parliament who was in charge. Many people are familiar with her 1588 speech at Tilbury, Essex, where she pronounced these famous words: “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too.” This was not the first time, however, that Elizabeth illustrated her strength and her dominating nature.
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In a 1566 speech, when she was responding to yet another petition made by her parliament to get her to marry and settle the succession, Elizabeth made her authority clear to her audience: “The second point was the limitation of the succession of the crown, wherein was nothing said for my safety, but only for themselves. A strange thing that the foot should direct the head in so weighty a cause.” At the time, women were considered to be the ‘foot’ and men the ‘head’; by suggesting it was the other way around, Elizabeth bypassed misogyny and presented herself as their legitimate and uncontested ruler.
Elizabeth was by no means the only queen who had to overcome misogyny in order to rule. Njinga of Ndongo and Matamba – in present-day northern Angola – ruled in the 17th century; she assumed power over the kingdom of Ndongo in 1624 after the deaths of her father and brother, later conquering Matamba and joining the two kingdoms in c1630/1. Like Elizabeth, Njinga also had to find ways to legitimise her power and authority because of her gender.
This queen, however, went further in her goal to override the misogyny around her. Her biographer, Professor Linda M Heywood, explains that the queen forced her inner circle and followers to refer to her as a man, and no longer as a woman. She even married a man and made him dress as a woman, demanding that everyone address her as king rather than queen. She also took several men as her concubines and acted like any other king of the time. With her new role, she continued to fight the foreign forces that tried to invade her homeland. She was the ultimate warrior queen of the 17th century.
In many ways, one might wonder why we bother learning about the lives and accomplishments of past female leaders? We all do it – women and men – for several reasons. We do it to be inspired, to understand the struggles they faced and how they overcame them, and to continue the fight for women to be respected and valued as true leaders in their own right.
Dr Estelle Paranque is a lecturer in early modern history at New College of the Humanities. Her books include Elizabeth I of England Through Valois Eyes (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018) and a forthcoming joint biography of Elizabeth I and Catherine de Medici (Ebury Press). Find her on Twitter at @DrEstellePrnq
Want to find out more about historical women? Why not read about 100 women who changed the world
This article was first published in May 2021