Sometimes women in literature are portrayed as the power behind the throne, the silent partner who advises from the shadows, or from the other side of the pillow, cleverly controlling the king by their side. However for some women in history, this arrangement hasn’t been enough to fulfil their ambitions, and they have felt moved to take the throne themselves. This is the case for the following four remarkable women, all who have seized the crown themselves. What is interesting about all four figures, is the different motives and methods that each used to achieve power.
Cleopatra used her sexuality to manipulate the most powerful men of her age, whilst Margaret of Anjou’s motives were one of a protective mother and guardian of her enfeebled husband. Isabella of France was so angered by her treatment by her husband and his mismanagement of his realm that she felt she had no choice but to act, whilst Catherine the Great took control so that reason, science, and the arts could hold sway in her adopted land of Russia. Whatever their motives, each changed the world in a dramatic fashion, and history would be very different if not for their remarkable stories.
The fascination with this incredible woman has never faded over the millennia. The descendant of Alexander the Great’s companion Ptolemy, she was fated to become the last true Pharaoh of Egypt. She came from a remarkable family, (the full history of which you can read on my earlier post here). She had been left as co-heir to Egypt by her father Aulutes, alongside her brother Ptolemy, who she married as was expected in the Egyptian royal family. However, despite the tradition of the female Pharaoh being subservient to the male, Cleopatra had other ideas. She soon dominated the relationship with her younger brother and husband, dropping his name from official documents and her face appearing on coins rather than Ptolemy’s. The eunuch Pothinus and the general Achillas assisted Ptolemy regaining control of the country and Cleopatra was forced to flee to the desert. The story might have ended there if Egypt hadn’t become involved in the Roman civil wars that were raging through the Ancient world between Julius Caesar and his great rival Pompey. After Pompey’s defeat at the battle of Pharsalus, Pompey fled to Alexandria seeking sanctuary. The eunuch Pothinus persuaded Ptolemy to murder the Roman General in order to ingratiate himself with Julius Caesar. They discovered this was a bad move when Julius Caesar came to visit Alexandria and they presented him with the head of Pompey. Instead of being pleased he was infuriated and took control of the Egyptian capital whilst he decided what to do. This is when Cleopatra saw her opportunity and had herself smuggled into Caesar’s presence, rolled up in a carpet. The young Cleopatra seduced the Roman dictator and ensured that she was chosen to rule Egypt over her brother. Caesar then defeated Ptolemy’s army for Cleopatra and placed her on the throne. Ptolemy drowned in the Nile fleeing from the battle.
What is sometimes forgotten about Cleopatra was what a revolutionary monarch she was. The tradition of the Royal household was to speak Greek and to shun the Egyptian tongue to favour their Macedonian heritage. Cleopatra was different, and learnt to speak Egyptian and identified herself with the Egyptian goddess Isis, rather than flaunt her Macedonian family’s background.
After the assassination of Julius Caesar, the Roman world was once again thrown into civil wars that raged across the lands. To assure her position, she once again used her sexuality and her desirability to powerful men, and aligned herself to the strongest of the various participants, Mark Antony, who she bore three children. This should have assured her position; alas however, Cleopatra wasn’t as astute a commander of an army as she was a queen, and at the battle of Actium insisted that Mark Antony use the fleet she had paid for, when confronting the smaller forces of his rival, Julius Caesar’s nephew Octavian. This proved to be a disaster and after the two fled the naval battle decided to take their own lives rather than be left to the mercy of Octavian. Cleopatra ended her life by the bite of an asp, a fittingly dramatic ending to a larger than life queen who still fills the imagination as much as ever.
Isabella of France.
Daughter of Philip IV of France, sister of Louis, Philip, and Charles, who all became Kings of France themselves, her powerful family connections were obvious, but little did England suspect what they were getting when she married Edward II at the tender age of 12 in 1308.
As a very young bride to the new King of England, there was one obvious problem with her marriage: The young King preferred the company of his lover Piers Gaveston to hers. What’s more, Edward was proving to be a lousy King, alienating most of his Barons, and conducting a disastrous campaign against the Scots – where Robert the Bruce gave him a sound thrashing.
The Barons had enough and rebelled, but Isabella, despite finding a following of her own at court, decided to stay loyal to her husband. Unfortunately for Edward, this wasn’t enough to save the life of his lover Gaveston, who was captured by the Barons and executed before Isabella managed to sure up support for her husband from her brothers in France.
Isabella gave her husband two sons, but the tensions in England rose, and when Edward took a new lover – Hugh de Despenser – things started to reach breaking point. Isabella went down on her knees asking the king to exile Despenser, this he did but soon brought him back and after a victory over the rebellious Barons, Edward and Hugh ruled over England harshly taking revenge against their former foes.
Isabella started to be snubbed by the King and his lover Hugh, and Edward’s unpopular rule began to deteriorate. The King and Hugh abandoned her in the North of England to the mercy of a Scottish army that was rampaging south – after another disastrous war of her husband’s. Isabella was lucky to escape with her life as two of her handmaidens were killed as her loyal knights cut a path to a ship and safety. Isabella was furious and decided enough was enough. She left for France, but if Edward and Hugh thought they’d seen the back of her they were wrong. She returned with an army made up of the many nobles that Edward had estranged during his reign, and several companies of Mercenaries funded by her rich relatives.
She seized control of the country and captured and executed all of the Despenser family. Edward was forced to abdicate so Isabella could rule as regent for their son. During her reign Isabella was responsible for finally making peace with Scotland, and settling the enmity and bitter wars between the two nations by relinquishing England’s claim over the Scottish throne. An incredible achievement, one she managed despite the animosity of entrenched powerful enemies, who against all reason favoured war over a peace that would benefit both nations.
She ruled until her son came of age and deposed his mother to take the throne for himself. However, she will always be remembered as the She-Wolf of France and her place in England’s and Scotland’s history secured.
Margaret of Anjou
Daughter of ‘Good King Rene’ of Anjou who was described as ‘a man of many crowns but no kingdoms’ she was married to King Henry VI of England, son of one of England’s greatest warrior Kings, Henry V. Unfortunately for Margaret, Henry VI never inherited his father’s martial prowess and despite inheriting most of the Kingdom of France (won by his father after the battle of Agincourt) managed to fritter away his French lands by his inaction and peaceful nature. Although interested in religion and learning, he was mentally unstable and became completely incapacitated at times – drifting off into oblivious fugue states for months, and then later in his life, for years on end.
The young bride and mother of their son Edward, soon took a more active role when the Duke of York started to sniff around the incapacitated Henry’s crown. Due to Henry’s mental state and trusting nature, Margaret found it easy to manipulate her husband and get him to agree any decree that she wanted.
Margaret called for a great council and excluded the Yorkists from influence over the king. A conflict started, that would later be known as the ‘War of the Roses’. I couldn’t possibly give a breakdown of the War of the Roses here as it is far too complex and too tangled a tale to cram into a few short paragraphs, but suffice to say that this war split England in two, lead to the deaths of virtually all of the main protagonists, great swaths of the English nobility and a generation of men from either side. The thirty years of war brought England to its knees and the bitter rivalry and enmity between the houses of Lancaster and York remained long into history.
Margaret’s involvement ended after the battle of Tewkesbury which she lost and resulted in the death of her only son. This completely broke her, and she was placed in the custody of her former lady in waiting until her death.
So how do we sum up Margaret? Some will judge her harshly, many powerful women in history have been (because it tends to be written by men!) but remember Margaret was only trying to protect the throne of her husband – who she genuinely loved – and also the throne for her son, the rightful future King of England.
Incidentally Henry VI was finally done away with after the battle of Tewkesbury too, but by then hardly anyone noticed.
Catherine the Great.
Born in Germany, as Sophia, to a family of surprisingly little money, she had strong blood-ties to the ruling dynasties of Germany and an even stronger set of connections through her mother, who was well known among the wealthy royalty.
She came to the attention of the Empress Elizabeth of Russia when visiting the country as a young girl. She learnt the Russian language by walking barefoot at night, repeating her lessons, something that gave her a bought of pneumonia that nearly killed her. She said later of the episode that she had ‘made up her mind when she came to Russia to do whatever was necessary, and to profess to believe whatever was required, to become qualified to wear the crown.’
This level of dedication worked on the Empress, and she chose Sophia to be the bride to her son Peter. Her name changed to Catherine on her betrothal. The marriage wasn’t a happy one, not only did Peter take a mistress, he also drank to excess and held a famously abusive personality. This didn’t sit well with the cultured and intelligent Catherine who was drawn to a cabal of political groups opposed to her husband – ironically enough, she was introduced to this group through her friendship with her husband’s mistress’ sister.
When the Empress Elizabeth died in 1762 Peter took the throne and the Royal couple moved into the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. As Tsar it wasn’t long before her husband’s eccentric and ill thought-out policies alienated most of the nobles in Russia, and the group Catherine had aligned herself with started to plot against him.
When Peter took his holiday in Oranienbaum, leaving his wife in St Petersburg, things came to a head. Forces loyal to her husband arrested one of her co-conspirators so she appealed to the Ismailovsky regiment stationed near her to protect her from her brutal and unpopular husband. She then had the Orthodox Church, who she’d developed a strong bond with as Empress, declare her the sole sovereign of Russia. When her husband returned from holiday she had him arrested and forced him to sign a document abdicating the throne. Eight days after signing this document Peter was dead, and although historians can find no evidence that Catherine had a part in this, I think it’s obvious that she must have.
Catherine had shown herself to be both ruthless and determined but her long rule of Russia is remembered as the Golden age of the Russian Empire. She established its position as one of Europe’s great powers, defeating the Ottoman Empire at its borders, whilst turning St Petersburg into a centre for the arts and learning. Catherine was a great proponent of new thinking and ideas, championing the smallpox vaccine by inoculating herself, her son, and several members of her court after smallpox killed 20,000 in Siberia. This led to inoculation being taken up in a Russia.
By the time of her death in 1796, The Russian Empire had expanded beyond measure and she’d dragged Russia from a backward improvised nation to one in the centre of European and world affairs. It is perhaps unsurprising that she was also one of the few men or women to have ever have been awarded the honorific ‘The Great’.