Game of Queens: when women ruled Renaissance Europe

For more than 100 years from the late 15th century, women came to hold positions of power in Europe. Sarah Gristwood traces the intricate network of interrelated queens and regents

From left to right: Queen Isabella of Castile; French regent Anne de Beaujeu; and Catherine of Aragon. (Photos by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/DeAgostini/Imagno/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the November 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine

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.

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