The Rise of Female Kings in Europe, 1300-1800

March 1, 2012

William Monter's subject is female kings: a contradiction in terms, one might think. But as he points out, the word "queen", from the Anglo-Saxon cwén, in origin means a king's wife, not a female sovereign. The presumption against female rule in our history is so profound that it is embedded even in the language with which we describe royal power.

In examining the challenges to this presumption in medieval and early modern Europe, Monter flies high over countries and centuries, offering a bird's-eye view of 30 royal women from Jeanne II, who became the monarch of the Pyrenean kingdom of Navarre in 1328, to Catherine II, the only woman to be accorded the epithet "the Great", who ruled Russia for more than three decades until her death in 1796. Their experiences - seen against the background of a brief survey of female rulers across the globe in the centuries before 1300 - form the basis for an analysis of what Monter calls "Europe's increasing accommodation to government by female sovereigns from the late Middle Ages to the French Revolution".

Monter seeks out points of comparison between the disparate members of his cohort, focusing particularly on numismatics - how these queens, empresses and regents represented themselves on the coins their subjects handled, as an impressively literal measurement of the currency of power - and the art and architecture they commissioned. He arranges them into categories and "trends" - the "Navarrese solution" of crowning a female heir's husband as her co-ruler giving way, he suggests, to a later era of "husbands subordinated" - and offers striking vignettes from fascinating lives.

Some tales are unfamiliar and ambiguous - the formidable Margaret of Denmark, for example, who secured control of the three Scandinavian kingdoms of Denmark, Norway and Sweden in the late 14th century despite being the legitimate heir to none of them - while others offer an unfamiliar perspective on a well-known story. The carefully constructed persona of Elizabeth I of England, which depended on her status as a unique exception to the norms of womanhood, is so powerful that, as Monter points out, she "is almost never studied in the context of Europe's other female rulers".

Perhaps inevitably, given the size of the terrain, there are problems as well as insights here. Monter's wide-angle lens mistakes some points of detail, and there is the odd historiographical wrinkle, too; but the most significant difficulty lies in grasping what wider argument he wants to make from this survey of situations that were always, by definition, exceptional. Did a quantitative "rise of female kings" in Europe also mean a qualitative "increasing accommodation" to female rule? Certainly many states proved willing to accept the necessary evil of an occasional female heir as a by-product of hereditary royal succession; but, as Monter shows, government by a woman was never simple nor in any sense normalised.

Sometimes, too, the panoramic perspective, with its emphasis on shared experience, raises more questions than it answers. Catherine the Great, we learn, was unable to draft a coherent law of succession that would vindicate her own authority, because she - a German-born consort - had acquired her sovereignty only by overthrowing her husband, the Tsar, in a military coup. That was a construction of female rule that would have been utterly unthinkable elsewhere - and may tell us more about the specifics of power in 18th-century Russia than it does about the general situation of female kings. Monter's conclusion - a summary not of his argument but of portrayals of his queens in modern cinema - is a fittingly quixotic end to a book that frustrates and provokes thought in equal measure.

The Rise of Female Kings in Europe, 1300-1800

By William Monter. Yale University Press 304pp, £25.00. ISBN 97803001737. Published 17 February 2012.

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