Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Bad Queens - Part I

By Danielle Marchant

On Sunday 7th September 1533, Elizabeth, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, was born at 3 o’clock in the afternoon at Greenwich Palace. This was supposed to be a happy occasion, but there was one detail that cast a shadow over this important event.

The baby was a girl.

Both her mother and father were disappointed that she was a girl. Up until now, all of the best astrologers and doctors had predicted a boy. Henry had spent time wondering whether to call his son Edward or Henry and was making plans for the celebratory tournament. Anne had even seen in advance the letter announcing the birth. In the letter, it gave thanks to God for sending her “good speed, in the deliverance and bringing forth of a prince”.

However, as soon as the baby girl was born, Henry decided to name her Elizabeth, after his mother Elizabeth of York, instead. The tournament was cancelled and the letter announcing the birth was slightly altered with an extra “s”, giving thanks to God for the birth of a “princes”.

Why was there so much disappointment over the baby being a girl? The reason for this was that at the time, there was a fear of having a female ruler. A history of what has been perceived as a series of “Bad Queens” had made it all the more important for the heir to the throne to be a boy, to keep the stability of the country. Henry had even divorced his first wife, Catherine of Aragon and had broken away from the Catholic Church because of Catherine’s failure in producing a healthy, male heir - despite the fact that they did have a healthy daughter, Mary.

Here is a part I of a list of Queens that helped to create the climate of fear of having another female ruler… (part II tomorrow)

Queen Boudicca (died circa AD 60)

Boudicca was maybe not necessarily a “Bad Queen”, but her reign was definitely not a quiet and peaceful one. She ruled over the Iceni people of Eastern England and led a major uprising against occupying Roman forces. She was married to Prasutagus, ruler of the Iceni people of East Anglia.

When the Romans conquered southern England in AD 43, they allowed Prasutagus to continue to rule. However, when Prasutagus died, the Romans decided to rule the Iceni directly. They confiscated the property of the leading tribesmen. It is also believed that they stripped and thrashed Boudicca and raped her daughters. These actions helped to intensify widespread hatred at Roman rule.

In 60 or 61 AD, while the Roman governor, Gaius Suetonius Paullinus, was leading a campaign in North Wales, the Iceni rebelled with the help of members from other tribes.

Boudicca's warriors successfully defeated the Roman Ninth Legion and destroyed the capital of Roman Britain, which as the time was in Colchester. They went on to destroy London and Verulamium (St Albans). Thousands were killed. Finally, Boudicca was defeated by a Roman army led by Paulinus. Many Britons were killed, and Boudicca is thought to have poisoned herself to avoid capture. Where the battle had taken place and the site of Boudicca's death are unknown.

Empress Matilda

Once again, she was probably not exactly a “Bad Queen” (and Matilda was never crowned a Queen either), but it was down to the fact that she was a woman and the resulting dispute over her disregarded claim to the throne that led to years of civil war. Empress Matilda was the granddaughter of William the Conqueror and daughter of Henry I. She is known today as the Lady of the English, having never been crowned queen. She was married for a short time to the Holy Roman Emperor and was the rightful heir to the throne. If she had become Queen, she would have been the first reigning queen of England in 1135, being descended from Norman, Scottish, and English (Saxon) kings. However, on her father’s death in 1135 – and partly because she was a woman – her cousin Stephen of Blois seized the throne.

Like Matilda, Stephen was a grandchild of William the Conqueror. He had, on at least two occasions, promised Henry I to support Matilda as Queen of England, as had all other nobles in the realm. But after Henry died, Stephen claimed Henry made these promises under coercion and that Henry had named Stephen as his successor. In spite of this, the nobles and the Pope supported Stephen’s claim to the throne, and he became King of the English and Duke of Normandy, which was another title he had inherited from Henry I.

However, his reign was not a peaceful one, and this was the start of almost 20 years of civil war. Within four years of Stephen’s accession, Matilda had gathered a force to challenge him for the crown. She had a lot of political support, because along with other estranged nobles, she also had her husband, who was one of the most powerful nobles in France, Geoffrey, Count of Anjou.

In 1141, she was in London and was ready to be crowned. However, within a few months Stephen ruined her chances and forced Matilda out before the coronation occurred. In spite of this, Matilda’s supporters continued to fight for her claim by challenging Stephen. However, neither she, nor they could win and to make matters worse, her husband Geoffrey never sent a major force to England to assist them.

However, Geoffrey did eventually force out Stephen from Normandy and then, took over as its Duke. Geoffrey and Matilda had a son, Henry, who Geoffrey named Duke of Normandy in 1150. Henry inherited the titles and lands as Count of Anjou following his father’s death in 1151.

With the support of his mother, Henry claimed the English throne from Stephen. Eventually, Henry and King Stephen made an agreement that Henry would be the heir to the throne after Stephen died, even superseding the claims of Stephen’s son, Eustace. This ended the civil war. Within two years, both Eustace and Stephen’s wives were dead, and Stephen was forced to relinquish the crown to Henry. In 1154, Stephen died of natural causes and was succeeded by Matilda’s son, King Henry II.

Eleanor of Aquitaine

Eleanor was one of the most powerful and controversial women of the Middle Ages. She was beautiful, intelligent and headstrong. There were rumours about her in her lifetime, but definitely within reason and her contemporaries were shocked by her behaviour. Eleanor was the elder daughter of William, tenth Duke of Aquitaine. She was raised in one of Europe's most cultured courts and given an excellent education. She later became an important patron of poets and writers. It was also a relaxed and licentious place, where the arts of the troubadours thrived, and she even presided over the fabled Courts of Love.

In 1137, both her only brother and her father died, leaving her with a vast inheritance. At just the age of 15, she became the most eligible heiress in Europe. That same year, she married Louis, heir to Louis VI of France, who shortly afterwards became King Louis VII. The couple had two daughters.

In 1147, Eleanor accompanied her husband on the Second Crusade, travelling to Constantinople and Jerusalem. The Crusade was a failure. The relationship between Eleanor and her husband – which was already in a vulnerable state - worsened even more. Eleanor failed to produce a son, and this added to the tension. In 1152, they were divorced.

Two months later Eleanor married Henry of Anjou, who in 1154 became King of England. The couple had five sons and three daughters. For nearly twenty years, Eleanor played an active part in the running of Henry's empire, and she travelled back and forth between their territories in England and France.

In 1173, two of Eleanor's sons involved her in a plot against their father. Subsequently, Henry imprisoned her. After Henry's death in 1189, his eldest son, Richard I, ordered his mother's release. Despite her age (at this point, she would have been in her mid-sixties), Eleanor played a major part in government. In 1190, she acted as regent in England when Richard went to join the Third Crusade. She even played her part in negotiations for his release after he was taken prisoner in Germany on his way home.

Queen Isabella

Queen Isabella was the wife of Edward II. Isabella is definitely viewed as a “Bad Queen” because she helped to remove her husband from the throne, alongside her lover Roger Mortimer, one of Edward’s enemies. Edward was later imprisoned and murdered. In addition, Isabella’s reign alongside Mortimer was a failure.

Edward became King in July 1307. On his accession, he immediately recalled his favourite, Piers Gaveston from exile, whom his father, Edward I, had banished to France for having a bad influence on his son. Gaveston was given the earldom of Cornwall, which had previously been a title conferred on royalty.

This act sparked opposition to the king and his favourite. In 1311, the nobles issued the “Ordinances”. This was an attempt to restrict royal control of finance and appointments. Gaveston was twice exiled at the demand of the barons, but returned to England soon afterwards. In 1312, he was captured and executed by the barons.

In 1314, Edward invaded Scotland. He was defeated by Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn. Power was now in the hands of the barons led by Edward's cousin, Thomas of Lancaster, who by 1315 made himself the real ruler of England. Yet Lancaster did very little to pledge reform and as a result, some areas of the country collapsed into anarchy.

By 1318, Edward and Lancaster did resolve some issues between them, but the king had two new favourites - Hugh le Despenser and his son. When Edward supported the two Despensers' ambitions in Wales, a group of barons banished both father and son. This made Edward want to fight back. Edward defeated Lancaster - who had begged the Scots to help him - at Boroughbridge in March 1322. He executed him and recalled the Despensers, with whom he now ruled.

This is where Isabella comes in, because at this point, she emerged as a focus for Edward’s enemies. In 1325, she was sent on a diplomatic mission to France. There she met and became the mistress of Roger Mortimer, an exiled opponent of Edward. In September 1326, they invaded England. Fortunately for them, there was almost no resistance. The Despensers were captured and executed, and Edward was overthrown in favour of his and Isabella's son, who was crowned Edward III in January 1327. Edward II was imprisoned at Berkeley Castle and murdered there.

As Edward III was still a minor, the country was ruled by Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer. However, their reign was as bad as Edward II’s. They had even gone so far as to recognize Robert the Bruce as the King of Scots, something even Edward wouldn’t do.

As soon as Edward reached the age of 18 in 1330, he decided to take matters into his own hands. He had Mortimer arrested, but instead of having him killed straight-away, Edward had Mortimer tried for treason in Parliament. Despite Queen Isabella’s protest, Mortimer was then hanged.

Isabella, however, escaped such a similar fate when Edward allowed her to retire from public life for the rest of her life. She died in 1358.

Tomorrow, Part II will explore the lives of the 'Bad Queens' of the Wars of the Roses...

Sources and further reading:
Elizabeth – David Starkey, 2001
Eleanor of Aquitaine – By the Wrath of God, Queen of England – Alison Weir, 2000
Blood Sisters – The Women Behind the Wars of the Roses – Sarah Gristwood, 2013
Anne Neville – Queen to Richard III – Michael Hicks, 2007
Elizabeth Woodville – Mother of the Princes in the Tower – David Baldwin, 2012.
She-Wolves: the Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth - Helen Castor, 2011


Danielle Marchant is an Independent Author from London, UK. Parts 1, 2 and 3 of her series of historical novellas based on Jane Boleyn Lady Rochford’s life, The Lady Rochford Saga, are available now:

Visit her pages at and at

1 comment:

  1. Hmm. I'm not quite sure what you want to achieve with the label "Bad Queen". And while Isabella definitely helped depose Edward II, it is incorrect to state that the following four years were years of "bad government". In fact, Mortimer and Isabella did a lot to reinstate the rule of law in a country where Edward II and the Despensers had pretty much done as they pleased during the last few years. Did Isabella and Mortimer overreach? Yes. Were they incompetent rulers? No - as demonstrated by the fact that Edward III retained most of the officers Mortimer and Isabella had put in place.
    And I don't understand why Eleanor of Aquitaine has been bundled into a post labelled Bad Queens...


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.