aka How The British Monarchy Works (for Americans)
(and others who don’t have an unelected head of state)
In the wake of Coronationgate 2023, Twitter and other social media outlets were abuzz with vitriol towards the newly crowned king and queen (whether or not that is rightfully earned, I’ll leave that up to you and your sensibilities, dear reader). Much of said consternation is directed towards Camilla, the newly crowned queen of England. Here is a very small sample:
This is still pretty mild compared to some of the more unsavoury parts of Twitter. And while it’s for sure anti-Camilla, it’s also showing a misunderstanding of how British Monarchical Titles actually work – which is understandable for people who 1) don’t live in the UK or Commonwealth or 2) don’t really care about titles/monarchy in general. I get that Twitter is mostly just people complaining and bots who add in the harassment but this is something that I’ve seen more and more of in other outlets as well. A brief explanation of two titles (king and queen) + two descriptors (consort and regnant).
Who is Who in the British Monarchy?
Specifically today we’ll be talking about kings and queens and some of the descriptors attached to each.
Charles III is King.
He is a man with the fancy hat and chair. He is the one at the top of the hierarchy. He is king.
If we want to be specific and accurate, he is a regnant king. What this means is that he is king by virtue of his inheritance. Just as William will likely be after him and George after him. They are or will be kings because they were born to the right family with the right genitalia at the right time. Generally, a king is assumed to be regnant, but that is not always the case.
Camilla is Queen.
Camilla is a woman with a fancy hat and chair.
If we want to be specific and accurate, she is a consort queen. What this means is that she is queen by virtue of her marriage to the king. She has no claim to authority or power or legitimacy except through him.
No amount of potential declarations, proclamations, or Letters Patent could change that immutable fact.
Can kings also be consorts? Yes! Absolutely! We can look at the case of Philip of Spain who was only king of England by virtue of his marriage to Mary I in 1554. When Mary died in 1558, Philip ceased to be king of England anymore. Technically he was a dowager king (a dowager being a consort who survived their sovereign spouse but who does not have any particular codified set of powers).
In general conversation, Philip was called “King” even though he was technically the consort of Mary. Even though he was called king doesn’t mean that he was able to assume regnant powers (though he certainly would have liked it to be so!).
Can queens also be regnants? Yes! Absolutely! We can look at the cases of Mary I (reigned 1553-1558) or her sister Elizabeth I (reigned 1558-1603). Mary and Elizabeth were rulers based on their heredity – they both were daughters of Henry VIII.
In general conversation, Mary and Elizabeth were “Queen” even though they were “Queens regnant.”
Their mothers, Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn were both also crowned consort queens. Katherine was crowned in a ceremony very similar to Camilla’s – both at the same time as their husbands. Anne’s coronation was a somewhat different affair as Henry had already had his coronation and didn’t need to do it again.
Both Katherine and Anne were crowned queens – just like Camilla. Both were queens through the same mechanism as Camilla – by virtue of their marriage to the king. Both were simply called “queen” in conversation and in contemporary documentation.
The only way that either of them or Camilla would ever become a regnant queen of England would be for them to have overthrown their husbands and stage a full-on coup. To be honest, the only one of the three would probably could have done it was Katherine of Aragon. Regardless of the what-ifs, none of them have done or likely will pull a Wu Zetian and have their husband’s other heirs murdered and/or exiled and take over the throne themselves.
Whether Twitter likes it or not (which, this is Twitter, it doesn’t like anything), Camilla is queen. Yes, she is also a consort queen, but her rank is queen.
Earlier this week, on April 5, 2023 (updated on April 6, 2023), NPR and BBC ran stories that honestly… are not stories at all.
The Hubbub? Calling Queen Camilla, well… “Queen Camilla” instead of the mouthful “Consort Queen Camilla” or “Queen Consort Camilla.”
Basically all these articles show is a lack in understanding the nuances of monarchical history. It is a whole field of study for a reason. Just like Shakespeare’s works. Just like 19th century American West. Just like military history of the Pacific Theater in World War II.
I know that not many people decide to devote their teen and adult years to the study of British monarchy. I’m the odd duck here. I get it. But even a quick look at the very documents that these outlets post in other places would tell them that they’re choosing to make a big deal over literally nothing.
Before we begin, a quick discussion on terminology.
Throughout most of English and British history… the monarchs have been men (also, NPR, here’s the definition of a monarch – a consort is decidedly not a monarch).
A monarch is the sovereign, or someone who holds sovereign power. The head honcho. The one in charge (nominally – there are always people behind the throne who also hold power and influence, but they may or may not have royal titles). For the vast majority of English & British history – a king.* So this whole thing of having to have different titles for women hasn’t really much been a thing for much of the last thousand years. It didn’t need to be. In English/British history, since the days after the fall of the Western Roman Empire (476) and the Heptarchy (476-829), there have been…. 7 undisupted and un-overthrown ruling queens? If you add in disputed, you get 10? In over 1500 years?** Having a title for a ruling woman was largely an afterthought for most of English history.
A consort is, well, not the monarch. They are the spouse of the monarch. They don’t technically have powers of their own. They have roles and duties to fulfill that are derived from ceremonial and tradition, but they don’t have constitutionally defined powers (as I argue in my forthcoming monograph). That doesn’t mean that they can’t affect the events around them, or enact change. They certainly can, but it can’t be done through means of proclamations like a king/monarch can do. As Elizabeth I once wrote to her sister, “A king’s word is [worth] more than another man’s oath.” In this case, she was writing to her sister, a female king (or regnant queen). When we get women in the mix, things like titles become a bit tricky. Because kings… were kings. Queens were the wives of kings. It’s more an anomaly than the norm for a woman to be in the position to rule.
When women did take the throne, they were called quite a few different terms. Dread Sovereign Lady is one of my favorites. Prince (a gender neutral term for ruler, generally). Princess. Lady. Queen.
Wives of kings were simply called “queen” as they had been for the vast majority of history. Yes, they were consorts, but that was implied by the word ‘queen.’ Usually, these women were called ‘queen’ when being addressed by their subjects, sometimes described to others as “the king’s consort, Queen Whatsherface.” Since England became a thing, a female consort’s title there has always been “queen.”
So why is it such a big deal now? Why are people up in arms about Camilla being called “queen” and not “queen consort”? Because for the vast majority of people, around the world, the ruler of the Commonwealth, the sovereign head of the United Kingdom, was Queen Elizabeth. The title ‘queen’ took on a more powerful meaning than it had before, except perhaps in the reign of Victoria. Elizabeth was the only ruler that many have ever known, until her recent death in 2022. However, just because it became synonymous with Elizabeth and her powers/prerogatives during her lifetime doesn’t mean that the historic usage of the title changed. Instead, during her use of the term, it took on the meaning of ‘female king’, instead of ‘female consort,’ which is a definition it has had since the undisputed reign of Mary I in 1553.
Calling a consort queen “queen” is not unheard of, indeed, it’s quite common place. Here’s an example from 1727 of a title page of a book published about coronations.
What’s super fun about this is you can see exactly who are recent queens in good esteem and who were not. As this was published to celebrate the joint coronation of George II and Caroline, Queen Caroline is held in high esteem (which she was for pretty much all of her time in England) by the general populace. Queens Anne and Mary were regnant queens. George I was married, but he… was honestly a terrible human being to his wife, she wanted to separate from him and he wouldn’t let her because he needed her dowry. When Sophia Dorothea fell in love with someone who wasn’t horrid to her, George had him murdered. When George left for England, he divorced her and had her imprisoned for the rest of her life in Germany. What a great guy. So that’s why her name doesn’t appear on the title page. The other mysterious queen is the nameless consort of James II – Mary of Modena. James and Mary had a joint coronation in 1685, and were ousted in favor of his daughter Mary and her husband/cousin William. Mary of Modena was an Italian Catholic, and largely unpopular because of that.
Calling a queen consort “queen” is also quite a normal occurrence in modern times. Take a look at this invitations to a more recent coronation:
This type of announcement is quite common – ‘consort queen’ when there is a sovereign king about is honestly rather redundant. People were fine with calling Elizabeth the queen because… she was the queen. In exactly the same way that Camilla is — because she is married to the king.
Eventually in their article, NPR gets to the point with a royal historian who knows what she’s talking about. Marlene Koenig is quoted as saying:
Koenig is absolutely right here – and for the coronations of Alexandra of Denmark, Mary of Teck, and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, with their reigning husbands, were all called “queen” to their husband’s “king” in the invitations and announcements.
So the final word? This is a non-story of a story. It’s there to not really educate the audience (seriously, they use cosmo as a source? There are plenty of other accessible and academic sources they could have used), it honestly feels like the person saddled with writing this just googled ‘british historian’ and emailed the first people who popped up, hoping for a response.
Camilla is both a queen and a consort. She will never be a queen in the sense that Elizabeth II was, nor will she ever be a queen mother like Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon. But she is a Queen, by right of her marriage to Charles.
*Why do I say English and British history? Well, England is a country on the island of Britannia – and “British” history encompasses Scotland as well as England. England and Scotland have always technically been their own countries, but have, through various contrivances, been ruled by a singular head of state. Since 1603, the head of state/monarch of England is also the head of state/monarch of Scotland, through a web of intermarrying. “Great Britain” has technically been a thing since the Act of Union in 1702 under Queen Anne and the “United Kingdom” has been a thing since 1801 under George III (which is when the king dropped FRANCE from his list of royal titles, as monarchs of England had been claiming to be, somewhat rightfully??, rulers of France since Edward III. To keep the English off the throne of France, the French made up an ‘ancient’ tradition called the Salic Law which basically means that the throne of France can’t be claimed through any matrilineal descent), when they technically brought Ireland into the mix, even though Ireland had been an unhappy colonized neighbor for centuries.
** Those queens are:
Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians (c. 870-918) – she was daughter of Alfred the Great and had been married off to Æthelred, king of Mercia, and ruled undisputed after his death in 911 until her death in 918. Their daughter, Ælfwynn, became Lady of the Mercians in 918 but was overthrown later that year and probably retired to a nunnery.
Matilda, Lady of the English (c. 1102-1167) – she was daughter of Henry I and was his rightful heir after her younger brother died. Henry even had all his nobles swear to uphold Matilda’s claim. Spoiler: they didn’t and her cousin Stephen stole the throne and ruled instead. Matilda’s eldest son ruled after him to become Henry II.
Lady Jane Grey (c. 1537-1554) – another disputed queen. After Edward VI, son of Henry VIII, died leaving no heirs, he potentially supported his cousin Jane’s accession to the throne, instead of his half-sister Mary’s. Jane was super protestant and Mary was, well, super Catholic. Edward was also protestant and couldn’t find a way to exclude Mary without excluding his Protestant half-sister Elizabeth as well, so both of his half-sisters saw themselves barred from the throne through his “little devise”. Jane was queen for about 13 days before she was captured and spent the rest of her life in the Tower of London before her execution in 1554.
Mary I (1516-1558) – Mary was the oldest daughter of Henry VIII and his first wife, Katherine of Aragon. Mary mustered forces to take her throne after her younger brother’s death in 1553 (I’ve got a chapter about public perception of her martial capabilities, “More to be Feared than Fearful Herself” in Mary I in Writing edited by Valerie Schutte and Jess Hower). She ruled as undisupted queen regnant until her death in 1558. Her throne passed peacefully to her half-sister, Elizabeth.
Elizabeth I (1533-1603) – Elizabeth is probably one of England’s best known rulers – Elizabethan Golden Age, Shakespeare, etc etc.
Mary II (1662-1694) – To be honest, I hesitated to put Mary II on here, since even though she (well, Parliament) overthrew her father, James II to put her on the throne… they only really did it to get her husband/cousin, William III. He refused to take care of the Catholic threat that was James unless he got to be king of England out of it, since being Prince of Orange wasn’t enough. He outlived her, and got to continue being king, unlike when Mary I was queen on her own before her marriage to Philip. Mary II never really got to be queen and rule in her own right, even though it was through her hereditary right that William got to be king.
Anne (1665-1714) – Mary’s younger sister. It wasn’t a foregone conclusion that Anne was going to get to be queen – William had it built into his contract that he could remarry after Mary’s death and if he managed to have kids that they’d get to supersede Anne’s place in the succession. He didn’t, so Anne got to become England’s fourth regnant queen. Unfortunately for her, all of Anne’s 17 potential children died (one survived childhood but died as an adolescent). The English throne, or at that point in time, British throne, went to some German cousins who were descended from Elizabeth Stuart, the Winter Queen of Bohemia.
Victoria (1819-1901) – As all the Georges petered out (there were four of them), there was a mad race within the royal family to have a legitimate heir (poor beloved Princess Charlotte, who was George IV’s daughter and heir, died in childbirth, and took the hopes of a generation with her). The brother who ‘won’ that race was Edward, the fourth son of George III, though he died long before he ever became king or saw her become queen. Like Elizabeth, she ruled for an age and became one of England’s most powerful, beloved, and well-known monarchs.
Elizabeth II (1926-2022) – Much like in the leadup to Victoria’s accession to the throne, Elizabeth was the eldest daughter of a younger brother. Unlike Victoria’s father Edward, Elizabeth’s father became king himself after the abdication of his elder brother. Like Elizabeth I and Victoria before her, Elizabeth II ruled over a long period of great change for Britain, and has become one of the most respected and well-beloved figures in recent history.
To be entirely honest with you, I’m super excited for this post. I’ve been geeking out since I picked out this topic back in the first week of January. My academic career started with masquing – in 2014 as a post-bacc I presented my first paper at the Kings & Queens conference in Winchester. At the suggestion of my mentor, I wrote a paper on Anna of Denmark, and when I found out about masques and her involvement in them, I was hooked. They were so beautifully dramatic and opulent – and Anna was involved in the innovation of the art form in England. I was recruited to a PhD program from that conference where I continued to build my expertise in theatrical performance with a special interest in masquing. It jives really well with my interest royal women since it was, at least in England, one somewhat acceptable way for pre-Restoration women to take to the stage and perform in a public spotlight. I love researching how performance was used as a way to bolster ideas of power (upholding a current monarch/dynasty) and as a way to offer resistance against and speak truth to power. Typically, masques were paid by monarchs/people trying to curry favor with monarchs so this type of performance was usually one big monarch-propaganda machine. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t resistance or truth to power within certain productions, but largely they were used as a means to showcase the divine right, might, and wealth of monarchs. Masques were performed all over European courts, but I’ve specialized in those performed at the English court.
So, what was a masque?
A masque was a grand performance. Typically, a masque included music, scripted monologues, a ballet-esque dance, singing, larger than life scenery, over the top costumes, state of the art special effects, and a take-out part at the end when performers would invite important guests to be ‘taken out’ to dance together. There was normally a theme/running motif which connected the various elements of the performance together called a ‘device’. Sometimes, especially with royal patrons such as Anna of Denmark, devising credit was given to the patron if they’d suggested a general idea or theme which was elaborated by a profession author or artist (Samuel Daniel, Ben Johnson, and James Shirley wrote several masques for the Jacobean and Caroline courts and were frequent ‘devisers’). An addition during the Jacobean years which was refined in the Caroline period was an anti-masque, which was another phase which showcased a somewhat chaotic opposite of the device (so if part of the main theme was about angels, the antimasque could be played by demons).
Masques (and again, while they’d been performed all over the courts of Europe, I focus mostly on England for this) had been performed in England throughout the Tudor period, but largely they’d been performed for royal or noble audiences, not by noble or royal performances. Famously, Anne Boleyn’s first exposure at the court of Henry VIII was at a pageant called Chateau Vert which had elements of a later masque— but she was decidedly not royalty at the time. Later, Anne’s daughter Elizabeth was entertained with a full-blown two-week masque by a friend who was trying to woo her, Robert Dudley, in 1575’s summer progress where he hosted her at Kenilworth.
In the Stuart period, though, things took a bit of a shift. Instead of being performed for royalty, some members of the royal family decided to perform in them. To be fair, Henry VIII loved to take part in guisings, of which Chateau Vert was one, but those were an earlier form of the masque. Anna of Denmark, especially, loved to perform and dance. She had certainly enjoyed dancing in her youth (even though for some reason one of her biographers says that she didn’t learn to walk unassisted until the age of NINE. I call shenanigans), as queen of Scots, and certainly as queen of England in her masques. Anna loved to perform, and it was one of her greatest joys to devise a masque, rehearse it, and when they were old enough, include her children in performances as well.
Masques were not just a time for the who’s who of England’s elite to spend absurd amounts of money just to show off their might and power. While they certainly afforded the opportunity to do just that, masques also provided royalty with an internationally significant diplomatic event. Anna of Denmark pissed off the French ambassador by inviting the Spanish ambassador to her masque as her guest of honor, so much that the French man complained to James who tried to get her to relent and allow the French ambassador to come too (but then the Spanish ambassador would have felt slighted since he’d gotten to feel special that the French weren’t invited). This… happened a lot, especially with Anna’s masques – she liked who she liked and invited who she liked (she was very anti-French). When Anna wouldn’t relent, James just moved the date of her masque so that the French ambassador could attend James’ event on Twelfth Night and the Spanish ambassador could attend Anna’s masque (which had been originally scheduled for Twelfth Night), and ne’er the twain had to meet.
If you’re interesting in learning more about masques or Anna’s performances in them, I’d highly suggest Susan Dunn-Hensley’s Anna of Denmark and Henrietta Maria, Leeds Barrol’s Anna of Denmark, and Roy Strong’s Art and Power.
I don’t know about you, but one of the coolest things for me in learning about history is getting to see just how in so many ways our world is completely different from that of the past, but so so similar in others. One of those ways in which it is both so familiar and so foreign is in how networks were created and interacted across distances. While the people in Eadgyth (c. 906-946)’s lifetime didn’t have internet, phones, telegrams, or other near immediate communication lines across long distances like we do – they found ways around it using the technologies at their disposal. Namely – marriages.
This is one of the reasons why, as a noble, aristocratic, or royal couple, that you wanted to have sons (as heirs for all your names, money, titles, etc) as well as daughters. While daughters were, in the coldest sense, a drain in terms of providing dowries – by marrying them off to other well-off or well-connected families you were able to recoup some of that cost because daughters were ways to link your family in a very concrete alliance to another family. With that alliance, you got to have various trade benefits, military help, or honestly, it could just make you look like you’ve ‘made it’ since you were able to snag an important marriage partner for your kid (Like with Katherine of Aragon marrying Arthur, Prince of Wales. She was the daughter of the most powerful monarchs at the time and Arthur was the son of a usurper who’d not been on his throne for too long).
So for Eadgyth, it was probably expected from the moment she was born that she would be used as a negotiating tool in brokering alliances – the same for all of her sisters. When she was at around 18 years old she was sent to the Continent to be married off to Otto (who luckily for her was about her age). Her younger sister accompanied her on this trip – she was also sent to be married off to a different French prince. Eadgyth married the man who eventually became the King of the East Franks, and her sister Eadgifu married the King of the West Franks. Having two sisters as queens of neighboring kingdoms was meant to ensure peace between the two realms. Another sister, Eadhild, became the Duchess of the Franks and Countess of Paris through her marriage to Hugh the Great. The marriages were also meant to bind England to France and Germany, as Eadgyth’s brothers didn’t marry outside the island or didn’t marry at all. In some ways, the marriage alliances were really successful and provided extra means of communication and common ground between many realms in early Medieval Europe.
This type of marriage alliance continued until long into the twentieth century, when monarchies became less and less involved in the day-to-day ruling of countries. Binding together families into tight alliances was exactly the strategy of the early modern Habsburgs but instead of marrying into other families, they married into themselves (lots of instances of uncles marrying nieces, cousins of all stripes marrying cousins). While that was great for maintaining a grasp on wealth, power, and land, it wasn’t so great for genetics.
This week I’ve gotten to write about a lot of royal history! Perhaps my favorite topic that underlies a lot of these events is the study of royal ceremonial – especially coronations. I LOVE getting to look at all of the intended and interpreted connotations of each and every little known aspect of these ceremonies, which were meant to be talked about and thought about for generations to come. The #OnThisDay which inspired this post, specifically, was the one about Elizabeth I’s coronation in 1559.
So, what on earth is Liber Regalis? The Little Device? What do they have to do with coronations? Honestly? Pretty much everything! The Liber Regalis is a manuscript that is now owned by and housed in Westminster Abbey (which makes complete and utter sense). Liber Regalis translates from Latin as “royal book” which is a truthful and succinct description of its contents. The Liber Regalis contains in it the ‘script’ for coronations in England – the order (ordo) of the prayers, the step-by-step of the ritual used to crown a new monarch to make it super official that they’re the one in charge. The divinely appointed person – the one that God chose – was the one that got to enjoy their triumphant coronation. Typically in England, the monarch was a man – but not always, and the inspiration of this post was one of those outliers. Elizabeth I was England’s second virgin queen and second woman king. She’d borrowed much from her sister Mary’s image-building and coronation 5 years earlier (even the golden robes she’s wearing in the portrait above!). Mary’s coronation was England’s first for a ruling queen – and because she saw herself as no less a rightful ruler than her brother before her, she followed the same coronation procedure as had the men in preceding generations.
The Liber Regalis and Little Device worked together to try and provide guidance in any foreseeable coronation combination – a king alone, a queen (consort) alone, and a king and queen together. When the Liber Regalis was developed in the late 14th century (likely for Anne of Bohemia, consort of Richard II), the authors did not conceive of a woman ruling in her own right (the only time in English history that had come close to happening was the potential rule of Matilda, daughter of Henry I. Her rule had been usurped by her cousin, Stephen), and so did not write a set of instructions on how to crown one.
It was up to Mary to decide exactly how she wanted to be crowned – and she largely followed the procedure as laid out and followed by her brother and father and grandfather before her.
Typically, a coronation celebration begins with the procession to the Abbey ahead of the ceremony itself, where the monarch presents herself to her people, decked out in the best clothes and jewels she can muster. Mary wore crimson (along with her sister Elizabeth) in her procession, changed to a white gown for the anointing in the church, and then purple for her recessional to her coronation banquet. Elizabeth followed this same pattern for her own coronation.
In the coronation itself, the monarch is both anointed and invested. What this means is that they are dabbed with holy oil or chrism at various points on their body – for a king, that meant hands, breast, shoulders, elbows, and head. So, that’s what Mary did. After the anointing, the monarch is then given objects which represent various parts of their kingly authority – spurs, sword, scepter, orb, and then crowns. The spurs symbolize knighthood and are a key part of investiture for knights. The sword demonstrates a king’s martial authority – life and death and justice – over their realm. The scepter (with a dove) symbolizes a monarch’s role in the spiritual lives of their people. The orb literally is taken to mean the Christian world (it has a cross up top) and the power of the monarch to rule it. She was then given a ring – symbolizing her marriage to her realm. Mary was crowned with three different crowns in succession, either in imitation of her brother or her cousin (Charles V). These three crowns – one an ancient one, one commissioned by her father, and then one purpose made for her, symbolized her connection to both the legacy of her brother, father, and the empire of her cousin. Mary’s England wasn’t just and island set apart from the rest of Europe by dint of the Channel – it had aspirations of empire, going back to Mary’s grandfather, Henry VII. By appropriating the triple crowns, her coronation was in line with that of a papal investiture, coronation of the Emperor, as well as that of her brother. And the Liber Regalis goes into all of this, in detail. If you’re interested in reading it, I’d suggest looking at its adaptation for James VI/I for his coronation in 1604. James’ is slightly different in that it was England’s first coronation for over forty years and the Church was very different in James’ day than it was in Elizabeth’s (technically Elizabeth’s ceremony was done under the same Catholic authority as Mary’s), but the text is made to have been performed in English. I’d also suggest anything by Alice Hunt – especially the Drama of Coronation.
Margaret of Austria cannot be contained within the mere 500 characters of a Mastodon post – so I wanted to give her a little more room here! Margaret was born 10 January 1480 to the royal house of Habsburg. Her father, Maximilian, was elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1508. Her mother, Mary, was the duchess of Burgundy in her own right (and also incredibly wealthy). Margaret was the second child born to her parents – her other brother Philip was born in 1478. Much like many other girls born to wealthy or noble families, Margaret was used as a marriage pawn from an early age. After her mother died in 1482, little Margaret’s hand was signed away by her father to the king of France, so she would wed his son, Charles the dauphin. Her brother became the titular ruler of the Low Countries (having inherited it from their mother), though their dad was the actual power. Of course, Margaret and Charles were far too young to actually get married, but she was sent away from her home to go and live in France, to be brought up as a dauphine. She was educated well in France, and got along well with Charles. However, she was dumped for her stepmom, Anne of Brittany (Anne was only 15 at the time, having been married to Maximilian for a couple of years and then married at army-point to Charles).
After Charles’ marriage, Margaret was forced to stay in the French court in the background as a pseudo-sort of ghost. She was no longer dauphine-to-be and did not have a proscribed place in the very strict hierarchy of the royal court. Once the political ramifications of the Great Wife Swap of 1492 concluded she was able to go home.
Little Margaret was, very quickly, used as a marriage pawn again by her father. This time, instead of marrying her to the French heir, he married her to the Spanish heir and the marriage actually happened this time! When Margaret was 17, she was shipped off to Spain to marry Juan, Prince of Asturias, the only son of Isabel I of Castile and Fernando II of Aragon (the Catholic monarchs). Her brother also got a bride in the bargain, as he married Juana, a middle daughter of Isabel and Fernando. Juana left to live in the Low Countries and Margaret sailed to Spain.
This time, it seems like Margaret was actually excited and was old enough to really take part in the marriage. Along the way, her ship was hit by a major storm (as seems to happen most ships bearing royal brides in the Renaissance) and she wrote a poem lamenting her impending death:
Here lies Margaret, the willing bride, Twice married – but a virgin when she died.
It was around this time that Isabel and Fernando were lining up the marriage of their youngest daughter, Catalina (Katherine of Aragon), to Arthur, Prince of Wales in England. When Margaret’s ship blew ashore in England (as many of these boats often d0) Henry VII, in a bid to show hospitality and to impress Isabel and Fernando (so that they’d want to keep the betrothal of Katherine and Arthur), ensured that Margaret wanted for nothing during her unexpected stay in England.
After managing to safely land in Spain, Margaret lived very happily with her husband for about six months before he died. Apparently his parents thought that they’d been having too much sex and it weakened his immune system and that’s why he died. It’s likely that it was tuberculosis and not a teenager’s sex drive that killed him, but it’s partly the reason why Isabel and Fernando were cautious when advising Katherine on how to have just the right amount of sex to have royal babies but not die (this is one of the reasons why it’s highly plausible that Katherine and Arthur hadn’t actually gotten around to consummating their marriage in 1501 as Arthur may have been a somewhat sickly young man and Katherine’s brother had died from potential sexual over-exertion, so of course they would take it slow, they were young and seemingly had all the time in the world).
Poor Margaret was left pregnant, but her daughter died prior to birth. Margaret stayed on in Spain for a little while, while she recovered and became very close friends with Juan’s sister Katherine. It’s likely that Margaret taught Katherine French before she left for England – French was spoken widely at the royal court (and it’s possible that Margaret also tutored her in some English. Having grown up with Margaret of York as a step-grandma, Margaret would have learned the language from a native speaker). For a little while, Margaret was able to live at home, but her father once again used her as a marriage pawn in 1501, when she was sent to Savoy to become its duchess. This marriage, too, ended up being a love match (Margaret was very easy to love, she was clever, caring, and capable). So much so that after her husband Philibert died in 1504, she threw herself out of a window in grief.
It was in this marriage that Margaret began to find her footing and wield her power. Her husband had no aptitude for government and had left the management of Savoy largely in the hands of his brother. This was an untenable situation for Margaret, and she removed Rene from power and centered the administration within the ducal couple (which meant in her own hands). She did well, having been tutored in the art of authority at the feet of Margaret of York, Anne of France, and Isabel of Castile. She had contacts in the leading families of the Continent and was not afraid to use them.
After Philibert’s death, she stayed in Savoy as regent for his successor, his younger brother. She’d had a taste of power and had been widowed twice in her short life – she refused to ever be made a pawn for someone else’s marriage games ever again. It wasn’t long after Philibert’s death that her brother and father tried to marry her off again, this time to the newly widowed Henry VII of England.
Philip, Margaret’s brother, died, which left a power vacuum in Burgundy and the Low Countries. Juana and Philip had left for Castile anyway, but now there was no one running the show there. Margaret, with her aptitude for rule, was tapped as Governor of the Low Countries, and also was tasked as guardian for her nephew Carlos (the future Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor). She was later elected governor in 1509, the only woman to have been honored so. She was ruler of the Netherlands from 1507-1515 and again in 1519-1530. She did so well that she was tapped by both her father and her former father-in-law to represent them (as well as herself) in peace negotiations and forming the League of Cambrai. She also was one of the major players in the Ladies Peace of 1529, wherein she negotiated with Louise of Savoy and Marguerite of Angouleme for the release of Francois I from Spain.
After becoming an adult, having been married thrice, Margaret learned how to play the game of politics and win. She ruled successfully, lived life on her own terms, and left behind a legacy for other capable and intelligent women to follow.
This Week in #History – where I have more than 500 characters in a post! I love getting to post on Mastodon (@firstname.lastname@example.org) and one of the things which has been a real boon to me has been posting a daily #OnThisDay post. I’ve gotten the chance to share some things I already knew but have gotten to learn so much more, and I’ve only been doing it for a couple of months now.
My hope is this year that I’ll be able to build up a regular posting schedule, which includes an extended version of my OnThisDay posts – InThisWeek, where I’ll take one of my daily mini-posts and go a bit deeper. Usually these will be topics where I have some fair expertise, or they’ll be a chance to geek out on something entirely new to me! It’s all fair game and I’m so excited to get going on something that I’ve written about in other formats: the death of Katherine of Aragon and the mythologizing of her final days.
Katherine (Catalina, Katharina) of Aragon was an infanta of Spain, Princess of Wales, and Queen of England throughout her fifty year long life. She was the youngest daughter of Isabel I of Castile and Fernando II of Aragon, born in 1485. Katherine was initially married to Arthur, Prince of Wales, who was the first born son of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, but he died shortly after their marriage. Instead of returning to Spain, she remained in England and eventually married Arthur’s younger brother, Henry. Henry had become King of England after his father’s death in 1509 and one of the first things he did was marry Katherine.
Katherine’s life after that was a series of ups and downs – she become patroness of many schools, head of her household, became pregnant many times and unfortunately lost those very wanted children, went on pilgrimages and progresses around England, and elegantly turned her eye away from Henry’s wandering codpiece. She gave birth to Mary in 1516, her only child to survive infancy. Katherine knew that Mary could rule just as well as any son could, given her mother Isabel’s history, so Katherine had Mary educated with a curriculum fit for a prince (which, as ‘prince’ can be a gender-neutral term, Mary certainly was).
Unfortunately for Katherine, Henry was both desperate for a male heir and bored with her and he unilaterally decided to divorce her and marry one of her attendants, Anne Boleyn. Divorce wasn’t really a thing, though kings had put aside wives before (usually for the wives’ own sexual indiscretions or for infertility). What Henry really wanted was an annulment, which was a way of retconning the whole marriage and saying that it never happened. Henry was convinced that because Katherine had married his brother before him, that they totally must have had sex, and that meant that his marriage to her was null and void (which completely ignores the instances in recent memory where kings had married sisters or other similar kin-related situations – in Katherine’s own family. Katherine’s oldest sister, Isabel, had married Afonso, the prince of Portugal. He died not long after. Isabel married Afonso’s uncle, Manuel, after a few years. Isabel died. Maria, Isabel and Katherine’s middle sister, married Manuel. Some of their children married the children of the other sister, Juana. That’s a whole different story after the Habsburgs, Juana and Philip, come into it).
Katherine, understandably, did not take too well to that. She insisted until the day she died that she was still the rightful queen of England.
She died at Kimbolton on 7 January 1536 at around 2pm (Earenfight, 183). Katherine was not alone – one of her friends, Maria de Salinas, managed to spoof her way through Henry’s guards (as he’d sent her from palace to palace to house to keep her away from court, away from Mary, and away from the eyes of her loving people) to be at Katherine’s side when the end came.
One of the most romantic notions which surrounds the death of the noble queen was her last letter. I’ve seen it circulated about on the internet for a long while now, and have tried to track down the manuscript — the original, handwritten letter, from 1536, or at least a verified copy of it. I mean, how cool would it be to: 1) get to hold something that she’d held in her hands? 2) examine something that old? 3) analyze it for my research?
So to figure out where it lives, first we track the citations. The letter is quoted in her Wikipedia entry in its entirety, and they actually cite where they pulled the text from. The Wiki says that this:
Okay – that’s easy enough to track down. It’s from 1828, which means that it is super into public domain and because it’s a history book from the nineteenth century it’s likely that Google Books has a scan. Lucky for us! And not to be too nitpicky, the publication isn’t cited properly in the wiki. It should be The Modern History of England, Part the First – The Reign of Henry VIII, vol. 2, and it was published in 1827, not 1828. I’ll have to log into my editor login on wiki to fix that up at some point in the near future.
After finding the appropriate page, which isn’t in the Wiki citation (page 433) this is in a footnote talking about Katherine’s death.
So — what, then, my friends, is “Herb. 403”? This appears to be where Turner got the letter from, so let’s take a gander at the book to see what that abbreviation could mean.
After doing a search in the book (I do love living in the 21st century), one of the results came back with this:
So now, to find who this particular historian must have been, the title of his work, and hopefully it’s available online! After doing a couple of quick searches, looking for historians/antiquarians from before the early 1800s (as this “Herbert” must have published before the 1820s so as to have been influential and available for Turner’s reference). Here’s a promising lead –
So Herbert could possibly be Edward Herbert, first Baron Cherbury. This edition of this Life and Reign of King Henry the Eighth was published in 1672, but an earlier edition dates to 1649 (though it was finished in 1639). He had actually met Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth I, on several occasions. He was particularly handsome enough for her to have remarked “It is pity he was married so young!” This book – on Henry VIII – was requested by Charles I, and with a royal patron, Herbert gained access to all sorts of official documents as well as the manuscript collection of Robert Bruce Cotton.
Herbert, not on page 430 as Turner suggests (but this could be a difference in editions as the book had been reprinted several times over the 150 odd years between its initial publication and when Turner referenced it), does mention that Katherine dictated a letter to Henry (which he wept when he read it, blah blah. It really is hard to feel any sympathy for the man who kept a mother away from an ill daughter, divorced her because none of her sons survived as if she wasn’t already sad about that, and forced her into unfit accommodations and tried to keep her alone and broken until she died).
So – and I do love these older chronicles for this – Herbert is saying that he is pulling from Polydore Vergil. Vergil was the author of another English history, the Anglica Historia, which was originally commissioned by another king, Henry VII. Like Herbert’s history, Vergil’s also went through several reprints. It was originally published in 1534, which covered events through 1509. The second edition (1546) was a revised version, and kept the end date through 1509. The third (which is the one linked, 1555) added the bulk of Henry’s reign through 1537.
Vergil tells the same story that Turner and Herbert do – but doesn’t really give a source of his letter. This is a quote pulled from the Anglica Historia – Henry VIII
But let me return to Catherine. After her divorce from her husband was made final, she retired to Bedfordshire, to a royal manor called Kimbolton, a very unhealthy place, where, wonderfully armed with true patience, she lived a pious life. But afterwards, when her health was undermined by sorrow, she began to ail. As soon as Henry heard of this he arranged for Eustache Chapuys, the emperor’s ambassador, to visit her and greet her on his behalf. Eustache did his duty diligently and with speed. But six days thereafter Catherine’s health deteriorated and, having a presentiment of her impending death, she had an educated lady in waiting write two copies of the same letter, one to the king and the other to Eustache, which she dictated in the following words:
61. My most dear lord, king and husband, The hour of my death now drawing on, the tender love I owe you forceth me, my case being such, to commend myself to you, and to put you in remembrance with a few words of the health and safeguard of your soul which you ought to prefer before all worldly matters, and before the care and pampering of your body, for the which you have cast me into many calamities and yourself into many troubles. For my part, I pardon you everything, and I wish to devoutly pray God that He will pardon you also. For the rest, I commend unto you our daughter Mary, beseeching you to be a good father unto her, as I have heretofore desired. I entreat you also, on behalf of my maids, to give them marriage portions, which is not much, they being but three. For all my other servants I solicit the wages due them, and a year more, lest they be unprovided for. Lastly, I make this vow, that mine eyes desire you above all things.
62. In her letter to Eustache she added that, should Henry not honor her final request, he should ensure that the emperor would remind Henry of his duty. And on that selfsame day she departed this life, on January 6 in the year of salvation 1535. Reading her letter, the king wept lovingly. For who could have been so harsh and hard-hearted that he would not be moved by that pure and sincere expression of good will towards himself? The body of this excellent queen was taken to Peterborough and honorably buried in the Benedictine monastery there. Let me pursue Henry’s marital affairs. Upon Catherine’s death Queen Anne was gladdened by the passing of that royal consort, because the legitimacy of her marriage would no longer be in doubt. Likewise the king was in high hopes of fathering children, especially male ones, which was his greatest desire, since Anne was pregnant. But see how quickly good fortune can be turned back in its course. For a little later Anne was caught out in adultery and immediately beheaded, together with her lovers.
So – now we have to look at the names listed here to see if we can find where that letter went after Katherine’s maid took it down. It says that there were two copies (how convenient). One went to Henry, which could ultimately end up in an official archive… like the one which Herbert made use of less than 100 years later. If it had survived, he surely would have cited the manuscript itself, rather than relying on Vergil’s account. The second went to a “Eustache” which was Eustace Chapuys, the ambassador from the Holy Roman Empire — Charles V, who was Katherine’s nephew. Eustace was a major ally and supporter of Katherine, and he seems to have really cared for her from the missives he sent back to Charles V. Eustace wasn’t informed immediately after Katherine’s death – and indeed was taken by surprise when he did hear, as he’d just left visiting her and she had seemed to have been on the mend. He’d heard about her passing when he’d gone to court to talk with Henry about getting her a better house that wouldn’t keep making her sick. Eustace immediately suspected that Henry was having her poisoned, which at this point, we can’t know for sure.
What we do know is that Eustace wrote a missive to Charles as soon as he’d learned of Katherine’s death (no. 3 – Eustace Chapuys to the Emperor). His missive didn’t mention a letter enclosed from Katherine. There was no reason to leave her letter out – he’d written almost entirely in cipher, and he would have mentioned that he was sending along the queen’s last words for safekeeping (it was with Charles that she’d trusted to keep the original papal dispensation OKing her marriage to Henry. Katherine trusted Charles – and she trusted Chapuys). He was fine talking about Henry having Katherine poisoned, so it stands that he would mention, even briefly, that she’d sent a letter along – the letter was much lower political stakes than alleging the king of England murdered his ex-wife (though to be fair, he did later have two of his wives murdered… I mean… executed. So it might not have been out of the realm of possibility).
So… it seems as though the buck stops here, folks. Either someone is mistaken along this path in where they got the letter from or where it went or there was really no letter left at all. To be entirely honest with you – I don’t think that letter ever existed. I could, of course, be wrong. I very much so could be.
Other ways of tracking it down also end up fruitless.
It’s quoted at length in Anne Crawford’s Letters of the Queens of England (179-180). She got it from Mattingly – Garrett Mattingly’s Catherine of Aragon (429-430). Mattingly’s footnote about it is as follows:
No original text of this letter survives. That it was written, at its general contents, we know from Chapuys. The differences and similarities of the two texts given, in Polydore Vergil (1556) II, 1742, and Sanders (1587), p. 119, point to the existence of English copies in the sixteenth century.
Mattingly, page 463
Here’s the rub though – you can look yourself through Chapuys’ letters to Charles. He doesn’t mention letters from Katherine. Several sent to the Queen, but none from. Unless I’m reading it wrong, which I will always be the first to admit that I’m quite fallible.
Other historians quote the letter from other sources – Patrick William’s Katharine of Aragon pulls it from Sander’s Intimate Letters, which doesn’t give a citation from where she pulled it from.
Two other recent biographies, that of Giles Tremlett and Theresa Earenfight either also doubt the existence of the letter or simply don’t address it at all. Earenfight focuses her work on other things – those which are verifiable and can be used to understand Katherine better. Tremlett calls it out as “almost certainly fictitious (364).” I’m inclined to agree.
It is interesting in how much this letter endures as part of Katherine’s mythos – it certainly is one which we want to be real and true. It fits what we think of as Katherine’s personality. It gets one more over on Henry and makes Katherine look amazing to anyone who reads it. It feels like truth. It’s got that truthiness to it – you feel it in your gut that it’s real. But I’m not sure that it really was.