The 10 best English queens in history
Thanks to some much-married monarchs, England has had many more queens than kings. Each has made a significant contribution to English history, whether she wielded power as a queen consort (like Eleanor of Aquitaine) or as a ruler in her own right (like Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria). But who were the best women rulers?
Here, Elizabeth Norton, the author of England's Queens: The Biography, reveals in chronological order her top 10 English (and later British) queens in history...
Bertha of Kent (539–c612)
Perhaps the most well known of all the pre-Conquest queens, Bertha played a crucial role in the establishment of Christianity in England. She was the daughter of the Christian king, Charibert I of Paris, who insisted that she be free to practise her own religion when she married the pagan king, Æthelbert of Kent.
Bertha crossed the Channel with her chaplain, Bishop Liuthard, and the pair converted an old Roman building into a chapel. She discussed her beliefs with her husband, ensuring that he welcomed the pope’s missionary, St Augustine, when he arrived in 597. She also corresponded directly with the pope, with the pontiff flattering her with comparisons to Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine.
Bertha and Æthelbert were buried together inside a Christian church in England’s first Christian kingdom.
Eadgifu (c904–after 966)
Few English queens were as influential as Eadgifu, the great matriarch of the House of Wessex. At 20, she became the third wife of the elderly King Edward the Elder. The marriage was unsurprisingly brief, and she was rarely at court during the reign of her stepson, Athelstan (reigned 924–39).
As Queen Mother, however, Eadgifu was pre-eminent, residing at court and advising her sons, Edmund (r939–46) and Eadred (r946–55). She was deeply involved in the monastic reform movement, patronising leading churchmen, including St Dunstan.
After Eadred’s death, her grandson, Eadwig, confiscated her property when she offered her support to his younger brother, Edgar. On becoming king in 959, Edgar restored his grandmother to her property. By the 960s, Eadgifu was elderly and living in semi-retirement, but she maintained an important role in the royal family. Her last public appearance was at the refoundation of the New Minster at Winchester in 966.
More like this
Matilda of Scotland (1080–1118)
Although a Scottish princess by birth, Matilda was also a descendant of the Anglo-Saxon kings of England, making her a dynastically important bride for Henry I, the son of William the Conqueror.
Matilda was raised first at Romsey Abbey and then Wilton Abbey. Her aunt, Abbess Christina of Romsey, was anxious that her niece should become a nun. She forced the girl to wear a veil, although Matilda reportedly tore it off and stamped on it when her aunt left the room. On his accession to the throne in 1100, Henry cemented his position by marrying Matilda – overcoming church objections that she was a nun.
The couple had two children but were frequently apart, with Matilda acting as regent of England during the king’s long absences in Normandy. She issued her own charters, and administered justice. She was also renowned for her charity, with calls for her canonisation following her death in 1118.
Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122–1204)
As Europe’s greatest heiress, Eleanor of Aquitaine was married at 15 to the monkish Louis VII of France. The couple proved incompatible and, with no son, divorced in 1152.
Within weeks Eleanor had married Henry of Anjou, who became king of England in 1154. Eleanor and Henry worked together to rule an empire that, as well as England, included much of modern France. By 1166, however, the couple, who had eight children, were estranged. Eleanor returned to Aquitaine in 1168.
Five years later she rebelled against Henry, and consequently spent the next 16 years imprisoned in Salisbury Castle. She returned to prominence as queen mother in 1189, governing England on behalf of her absent son, Richard I. Following his death in 1199, Eleanor helped to secure the throne for her youngest son, John. She was John’s greatest and most active supporter, finally dying in April 1204 at the age of 82.
- Listen | Who was the most beautiful medieval queen, how much power did medieval queens have, and how did they balance motherhood and royal life? Dr Elena Woodacre answers the most popular listener and internet search questions about medieval queens
Philippa of Hainault (1314–69)
Philippa of Hainault’s marriage to Edward III was agreed between his mother, Isabella of France, and her father, the Count of Hainault. The count provided troops for Isabella’s invasion of England, in which she deposed her husband, Edward II, in favour of her teenage son. Philippa and Edward couple were soon devoted to each other, producing 12 children.
Edward’s reign was dominated by war with France, and Philippa often accompanied him on campaign. At other times she served as regent, with her army capturing the king of Scots at the battle of Neville’s Cross in 1346. She was also a merciful influence upon her husband, regularly interceding with him on behalf of captives. She is remembered as the founder of Queen’s College, Oxford and as a patron of scholars.
Philippa, who was queen for just over 40 years, was the archetypal medieval queen, and one on whom many later queens modelled themselves.
Elizabeth I (1533–1603)
No list of the best English queens is complete without Elizabeth I, who reigned between 1558 and 1603. Elizabeth was the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, and had an unpromising start, being declared illegitimate following her mother’s execution. She survived interrogation and imprisonment during the reigns of her half-siblings to become England’s greatest ruling queen.
Elizabeth presided over a period of exploration and great invention, as well as the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. She also ordered the execution of her Catholic cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1587. One of her first acts as queen was to create a Protestant religious settlement for the Church of England, which has proved lasting.
At times ruthless, the queen refused to share power with a husband, although she ultimately paved the way for the smooth succession of her cousin, James VI of Scotland, and the union of the two crowns.
Anne may seem a surprising choice as one of England’s best queens but, as the first monarch of a united Great Britain, she deserves her place.
Queen Anne was the younger daughter of the Catholic James II and VII. She helped to spread rumours that James’s son, ‘the Old Pretender’, had been smuggled into his mother’s chamber in a warming pan at his birth in 1688. When her Protestant brother-in-law, William of Orange, invaded, Anne joined with him against her father.
She was a virtual invalid by the time she succeeded William in 1702, but presided over an important period in British history, including the Duke of Marlborough’s victories in the War of the Spanish Succession, and the Act of Union of 1707, which established her as queen of Great Britain.
Although she endured 17 pregnancies, Anne left no heir, and her Protestant cousin, George of Hanover, succeeded her in 1714.
Caroline of Ansbach (1683–1737)
Caroline of Ansbach was one of the most politically influential queen consorts, and is popularly considered to be the power behind George II’s throne. She was highly intelligent, managing affairs in such a way that her husband never suspected her true influence. In 1727, for example, when George decided to replace his father’s prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole, with his own candidate, Caroline was able to quietly persuade her husband that it was his idea that Walpole should remain.
She worked closely with Walpole throughout the reign, with the pair meeting to discuss policy privately before raising it with George, manipulating him to ensure that he followed their wishes. She also acted as regent during the king’s absences in Germany.
Although he was never faithful, George was devoted to Caroline – on her deathbed when she urged him to remarry, he refused, saying he would only have mistresses. He was devastated when she died in 1737.
Before Elizabeth II, Queen Victoria – who came to the throne as an 18-year-old in 1837 – held the record as Britain’s longest-reigning monarch. Her reign of more than 60 years saw great changes: she presided over the peak of Britain’s power and influence, while her nine children married into most of the royal houses of Europe.
Victoria married her cousin, Prince Albert, in 1840, and remained devoted to him for the rest of her life – she entered perpetual mourning following his death in 1861. She was, however, able to retain control of her affairs, regularly meeting with her prime ministers, as well as becoming empress of India in 1876. She reached the peak of her popularity at her golden jubilee in 1887 and diamond jubilee in 1897.
Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (1900–2002)
While Victoria was Britain’s longest-reigning monarch (until Elizabeth II), the longest-lived queen was Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (better known as the Queen Mother), who was 101 when she died in 2002.
Her husband, George VI, became king unexpectedly in 1936 following the abdication of his elder brother, Edward VIII. The couple proved a successful team, with Elizabeth coming into her own during the Second World War. Hitler is supposed to have called her the most dangerous woman in Europe and, from the outset, she strove to improve British morale. She refused to allow her two daughters to be evacuated, while declaring that she could “now look the East End in the face” when Buckingham Palace was bombed.
Elizabeth spent half a century as Queen Mother after her husband’s death in 1952, during which time she was arguably the most popular member of the royal family.
Elizabeth Norton is the author of England's Queens: The Biography (Amberley Publishing, 2011). To visit her website, click here.
This article was first published by HistoryExtra in September 2014
To read more about kings and queens in history – from Henry VIII's wives to the worst-ever monarchs – click here.
Subscribe to BBC History Magazine and receive a signed copy of 2023 edition Windrush: 75 years of modern Britain by Mike Phillips and Trevor Philips
As a print subscriber you will also get FREE access to HistoryExtra.com worth £34.99