The Tudor Queens of England is not for the faint-hearted. The writing’s not that tricky, nor the subject matter but what’s confusing is the intricacies of the royal world where people change names or have the same names as other people and where the nationality of your relatives is everything. I felt like a needed a huge family tree as a reference while reading this book! However, it’s a fascinating read as David Loades devotes about a chapter to each Queen in the Tudor line.
Here are a few general things I learned reading this book:
- Prior to Henry VIII, the English monarchy was a very shaky affair. There were parties looking to get ‘their king’ in, sometimes on very tentative grounds! If you were male and had a bit of royal blood, you were a fair chance both of becoming king at some point and of being deposed.
- Because many marriages were used as political tools, some queens were substantially older than their husbands or fiances.
- For all the affairs that the royals seemed to carry on with, some of them had remarkable difficulty consummating their marriages.
- The question of legitimacy of heirs changed according to who was king at the time. Convenience, not truth determined legitimacy. Same deal with marriage betrothals – easily made, easily broken!
- Falling pregnant wasn’t a guarantee of producing an heir. Some women had over 10 pregnancies, with no children living past infancy.
- Even if you wanted to be a traditional queen, you were swept up into the political machinations of the time, either because of your nationality (most queens of England were not British!) or ability to bear children. Even if you didn’t participate in the politics, they were still inescapable.
The really interesting thing about this book, though, is the characterisations of each queen. These are not Loades’ work alone: he considers, for example, how Margaret of Anjou’s political work with her husband saw her perceived as a Dominatrix, while Elizabeth of York’s very similar behaviour was perceived as being a Helpmate. Other roles he sees queens playing were Trophy, Lover, Foreign Ally, Whore, Married Sovereign and Unmarried Sovereign.
I particularly enjoyed the discussion of Queen Mary I (Married Sovereign) and Queen Elizabeth I (Unmarried Sovereign). These two were ruling Queens rather than women married to kings and had to reconcile that with their femininity. In a very real way, these queens were actually kings, or at least, they were being asked to fulfill roles that previously had only been inhabited by Kings.
Mary struggled: how was she to serve both her country as their king and her foreign husband as his loving wife? She was a traditional woman and wanted to be an ideal wife but that stood in opposition to her role of king. Elizabeth, on the other hand, was a much more creative character and used the stereotypes of femininity as a weapon as a ruler. She oozed sexuality and used it to manipulate, capitalising on ‘female indecisiveness’ by delaying decisions and exploiting ‘female irrationality’ by keeping her councillors guessing about her next move. While Mary tried to be a King even though she was female, Elizabeth worked out how to be a King precisely because she was a woman, a Queen in the fullest sense of the word.
Loades’ conclusion: you can be a wife or a ruling queen, but you could not be both. Later, Queen Victoria was to manage both very successfully, and, indeed to build her motherhood of the nation on the basis of her own motherhood. However, by that time the monarch was more of a figurehead than an actual ruler. I enjoyed this book for how it filled out the picture of women whom I previously only knew of from the two dimensions of portraiture.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.