After her accession ceremony on 13 December 1474, Isabella of Castile rode through the streets of Segovia – behind a horseman holding a naked sword. Even her husband, Ferdinand of Aragon, was shocked, protesting that he had never before heard of a queen “who usurped this masculine attribute”. But Isabella’s reign ushered in an explosion of female rule, unequalled until our own day. In the 16th century, England, Scotland, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal and Hungary all came at one time or another to be controlled by a woman, whether as regent or queen regnant.


These rulers were linked by a complex web of mothers and daughters, mentors and proteges. Lessons were passed from Isabella of Castile to her daughter Catherine of Aragon and thence Mary I, and from the French regent Anne de Beaujeu to Louise of Savoy, through Louise’s daughter Marguerite of Navarre to her daughter Jeanne d’Albret, to Marguerite’s admirer Anne Boleyn and thus to Elizabeth I.

Their experiences are echoed today. Headlines about Angela Merkel, Theresa May, Nicola Sturgeon and Hillary Clinton emphasise a powerful woman’s looks and likeability; the problem of gendered abuse, of seeming tough enough for high office without being dubbed unfeminine; the question of whether female leaders will relate to each other, and exercise their power, in a specifically female way.

The age of queens did not outlast the 16th century. Women had found themselves at the forefront of the great religious divides that tore Europe apart, but those divisions meant that, though Anne Boleyn could be educated in two foreign countries, her daughter Elizabeth never set foot out of her own land.

We introduce 10 key female figures who dominated 16th-century Europe, and explore the relationships that linked them.

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Isabella I of Castile (1451–1504)

Before she even took the throne, Isabella broke with tradition by arranging her own marriage to Ferdinand of Aragon, uniting the two main Spanish kingdoms. They ruled together as the mighty Catholic Monarchs, famous for their expulsion of the Moors and Jews, for establishing the Inquisition in Spain, and for their sponsorship of Christopher Columbus. Ferdinand and Isabella produced only one short-lived son but several influential daughters – among them Catherine of Aragon who in 1509 married England’s king Henry VIII.

Catherine of Aragon (1485–1536)

Catherine was defined by Spanish heritage. Henry VII of England sought the valuable Spanish alliance by wedding her to his eldest son, Arthur Tudor; after Arthur’s early death she married his younger brother, Henry VIII. As regent in 1513, “in imitation of her mother Isabella”, she rallied English troops to resist a Scottish assault. But as daughter to a successful queen regnant she was poorly placed to understand her husband’s obsessive desire for a son. When her marriage was rent by Henry’s infatuation with her former protege Anne Boleyn, Catherine still, after almost 30 years in England, described herself as a stranger in the land, appealing for help to her former sister-in-law Margaret of Austria.

Margaret of Austria (1480–1530)

The child of Mary of Burgundy (ruling duchess of what would later be known as the Netherlands) and future Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian, Margaret was, while still a toddler, contracted to the French king-to-be Charles VIII. When that alliance fell through she married Juan, heir of Isabella and Ferdinand, and then, after his early death, the Duke of Savoy. After he died she returned to the Netherlands where for many years she ruled as regent on behalf of her nephew, the future emperor Charles V. She raised four of his sisters, all of whom became queens consort – of France, Portugal, Denmark and Hungary. Mary of Hungary succeeded her aunt as regent of the Netherlands and raised another generation of influential nieces. Though Margaret of Austria never bore a living child, she has been called the Grand Mère – ‘Great Mother’ – of Europe.

Anne de Beaujeu (aka Anne of France, 1461–1522)

Eldest daughter of the French king Louis XI, Anne was widely noted as a woman of great ability. The Salic Law, however, prohibited her from acceding to the throne. Instead, on Louis’ death she acted as regent in all but name during the minority of her younger brother Charles VIII. Anne wrote an advice manual for noblewomen, Enseignements [Lessons for my Daughter] that has been compared to Machiavelli’s The Prince. “When it comes to the government of their lands and affairs, [widows] must depend only on themselves; when it comes to sovereignty, they must not cede power to anyone,” was one of her maxims. Anne was in charge of the upbringings of Margaret of Austria during her marriage to Charles VIII, and of Louise of Savoy.

Louise of Savoy (1476–1531)

Louise’s status rose steadily as several French kings in succession died without heir until the closest in line to the throne was François, her son by the Count d’Angoulême. After François I became king in 1515, Louise was widely regarded as the power behind his throne. In 1529 she sat down with Margaret of Austria (her childhood playmate when they were both raised in Anne de Beaujeu’s care) to negotiate the so-called ‘Ladies’ Peace’ of Cambrai. Neither Louise’s son François nor Margaret’s nephew Charles could compromise their dignity by being the first to talk of reconciliation but, Margaret wrote: “How easy for ladies… to concur in some endeavours for warding off the general ruin of Christendom, and to make the first advance in such an undertaking!”

Marguerite of Navarre (aka Marguerite d’Angoulême, 1492–1549)

Louise of Savoy’s daughter Marguerite was also in Cambrai when the ‘Ladies’ Peace’ was negotiated. Louise, François and Marguerite were so close that they were known as ‘the trinity’; neither of Marguerite’s two marriages (to the Duc d’Alençon and to Henri II of Navarre) impeded her devotion to her brother, nor her sway over his court. Author of the book of short stories known as the Heptaméron, Marguerite was an intellectual leader among the great ladies who sought to reform the Catholic church. The number of ideas, books and contacts they had in common suggests that Marguerite became a role model for Anne Boleyn during the latter’s years in France. Anne would later send word to Marguerite that her “greatest wish, next to having a son, was to see you again”.

Anne Boleyn (c1501–36)

In 1513 Anne came to the court of Margaret of Austria as one of her maids, before spending seven years at the French court. This continental education gave her a glamour that made her a star when she returned to England. But it also gave her the opportunity to witness the religious reforms promoted by Marguerite of Navarre, and to see women exercising power in a way still unfamiliar in England. Before her marriage to Henry, Anne – as an active promoter of French interests – was seen as a useful alternative to the Habsburg Catherine. But a few years later, when a Habsburg alliance was desirable, that French identification contributed to her fall.

Elizabeth I (1533–1603)

Thanks in part to her long reign, Anne Boleyn’s daughter is remembered by many as England’s greatest monarch. She represents the apogee of an age of queens – which, however, was perhaps already waning before her death. Elizabeth might be seen as exemplifying many of the maxims laid down for powerful women at the beginning of the 16th century by the French regent Anne de Beaujeu (above). Elizabeth’s motto was Video et taceo – I see but say nothing. “Have eyes to notice everything yet to see nothing, ears to hear everything yet to know nothing,” Anne de Beaujeu had urged.

Elizabeth corresponded with Jeanne d’Albret, Catherine de Medici and the influential Ottoman consort Safiye. But the religious divisions of the Reformation denied her the easy contact with other women across the continent that had been enjoyed by earlier generations, and fostered her long rivalry with her Catholic kinswoman Mary, Queen of Scots.

Elizabeth I of England (Greenwich, 1533-London, 1603), Queen of England and Ireland in procession to Blackfriars, June 15th, 1600. Detail of a painting by Robert Peake the Elder (ca 1551-1619).
Detail of a painting by Robert Peake the Elder depicting Elizabeth I in procession to Blackfriars. (Photo by De Agostini/Getty Images)

Jeanne d’Albret (1528–72)

In 1555 Marguerite’s daughter Jeanne inherited her father’s Navarrese kingdom. Reared in her mother’s reforming tradition, in 1560 she publicly converted to the Protestant faith. Joining France’s Huguenot rebels inside the besieged fortress of La Rochelle, she became a heroine of the Reformation. When summoned to appear before the Inquisition, Jeanne was saved by the intervention of Catherine de Medici, even though the latter was on the other side of the religious divide. Catherine tried to promote religious tolerance, but the marriage of her daughter Marguerite to Jeanne’s son Henri in 1572 provoked the slaughter of Huguenots known as the Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (pictured below). “You cannot govern too wisely with kindness and diffidence,” Anne de Beaujeu had said – the final bitter ‘Lesson’ with which her daughters were to end the century.

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1989: Fran?ois Dubois (1529-1584) - St. Bartholomew's Night, August 24, 1572. (Photo By DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini/Getty Images)
Painting depicting the Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. (Photo By DEA/G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini/Getty Images)


Mary I (1516–58)

Catherine of Aragon inculcated in her daughter Mary her own belief in the validity of her marriage to Henry VIII, and her own resolute Catholicism. “We never come unto the kingdom of Heaven but by troubles,” she assured her daughter. Mary’s determined resistance to her father’s religious reforms was attributed to her “unbridled Spanish blood”. She endured years of real hardship before, in 1553, the death of her younger brother Edward (and a passage of armed resistance reminiscent of her female forebears) brought her to the throne. Once on it, as observers noted, she always favoured Spain and promoted her mother’s religion. She married Philip of Spain and her efforts to restore the Catholic faith, involving the persecution of Protestants, earned her the sobriquet ‘Bloody Mary’
This article was first published in the November 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine


Sarah GristwoodHistorian, biographer and broadcaster

Sarah Gristwood is a best-selling biographer, historian, and broadcaster, and a regular media commentator on royal and historical affairs. Her latest book is 'The Tudors in Love: The Courtly Code Behind the Last Medieval Dynasty' (2021)