Renaissance and Reformation Royal Regencies in Renaissance and Reformation Europe, 1400–1700
E. William Monter
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 March 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0105


“Regent” is a convenient general term to describe persons temporarily replacing the official sovereign of a major state who was either too young to govern, physically absent for a lengthy period, or undeniably insane. Such surrogate rulers might serve anywhere from a few months to more than twenty years, and their powers varied with the circumstances for appointing them; adult princes living abroad tried to retain as much personal authority as possible. In Renaissance and Early Modern Europe, such representatives were generally close relatives of the sovereign, uncles or mothers being the most common choices. Male regents might make themselves sovereigns, usually through violence; this occurred four times between 1483 and 1683 in states as different as England and Russia (a fifth regent married his employer’s daughter). Or they might suffer violence themselves; three of Scotland’s four regents were either murdered or beheaded between 1570 and 1581. Entrusting regencies to women prevented both usurpation and violence, and Renaissance Europe saw an increasing acceptance of women as suitable regents, particularly in France—Europe’s only major kingdom that completely prohibited female succession. While both traditional types of female regents—mothers of underage boys and wives of absent kings—continued to serve in this capacity, one also finds aunts, sisters, daughters, and even a grandmother governing major states in western Europe by the time John Knox published his notorious First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. However, there were limits to accepting women as regents. No wife or female kin ever became the official substitute for a mentally incapacitated ruler, and female regents seem rare throughout northern and eastern Europe; Knox’s Scotland had many extremely long royal minorities, but no female regents before 1513 or after 1560.

Comparative Studies

To say regencies have been understudied is a huge understatement. Although such temporary transfers of sovereignty are a necessary feature of hereditary states, political theorists seem uncomfortable with them and therefore avoid studying them. Both their individual situations and their official titles varied: until 1660, England preferred “Lord Protector,” a title also used in Russia in 1587; Sweden, often governed by regents, used riksförestandare, literally “representative of the realm.” Studies going beyond a single state remain rare. The only bilateral Franco-German comparison of the subject (Heckmann 2002) stops c. 1420. The only general comparative introduction (Corvisier 2002) comes from a French historian specializing in military history and is limited to regencies of minority, ignoring those due to physical absence or mental incapacity. The broadest exploration of female regents in Renaissance Europe (Wanegffelen 2008) conflates them with female sovereigns, whose legal authority was much greater; another comparative survey (Monter 2012) argues that female regents initiated novel claims for women’s capacities as rulers. An important contribution (Rabe and Marzahl 1987) discusses one sovereign, Emperor Charles V, who acquired three separate major states—the Low Countries, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire—between 1514 and 1519 and needed trustworthy representatives almost continuously for almost forty years. For such reasons, the remainder of this entry is organized around Europe’s major states, which offer different examples of substitute sovereigns.

  • Corvisier, André. Les régences en Europe: Essai sur les délégations de pouvoirs souverains. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2002.

    Only recent general survey of problem, based on 441 monarchical reigns in a dozen states from the 13th through the 20th century.

  • Heckmann, Marie-Luise. Stellvertreter, Mit- und Ersatz-Herrescher: Regenten, Generalstatthalter, Kurfürsten und Reichsvikare in Regnum und Imperium vom 13. bis zum frühen 15. Jahrhundert. 2 vols. Warendorf, Germany: Falbusch, 2002.

    Richly detailed study comparing substitute rulers in Europe’s two most prestigious polities, the Holy Roman Empire and the kingdom of France, from mid-13th century (Frederick II, St. Louis IX) until c. 1420 (“useless” monarchs, Wenceslaus and Charles VI).

  • Monter, William. The Rise of Female Kings in Europe, 1300–1800. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012.

    Suggests how female regents promoted female rule between 1500 and 1630, using eight examples in four states (pp. 94–122).

  • Rabe, Horst, and Peter Marzahl. “‘Comme représentant nostre propre personne.’ The Regency Ordinances of Charles V as a Historical Source.” In Politics and Society in Reformation Europe: Essays for Sir Geoffrey Elton on His Sixty-fifth birthday. Edited by Tom Scott and E. I. Kouri, 78–102. London: Macmillan, 1987.

    Compares regency systems of a monarch with dispersed possessions requiring several substitutes, arguing that a stable system emerged after 1530.

  • Wanegffelen, Thierry. Le pouvoir contesté: Souveraines d’Europe à la Renaissance. Paris: Payot, 2008.

    Mentions twenty-four female regents serving throughout western Europe between 1470 and 1650, indexed on pp. 451–456.

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