In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Female Monarchy in Renaissance and Reformation Europe

  • Introduction
  • Comparative Studies
  • Renaissance Europe’s First Major Heiress
  • Young Heiresses and Husbands, 1377–1401
  • Older Women Ruling Alone, 1386–1435
  • Joint Monarchy in Small Kingdoms, 1425–1512
  • Joint Rule in Major States, 1474–1504
  • Shadow Monarchs, 1474–1621
  • Husbands Limited, 1553–1565

Renaissance and Reformation Female Monarchy in Renaissance and Reformation Europe
E. William Monter
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0229


Between 1362 and 1654, eighteen women claimed official sovereignty over thirteen different European kingdoms, and two more ruled its most important non-monarchical state, the Low Countries. Their collective political record has never been examined until quite recently. A handful of them are very well-known, but most remain obscure. This list includes a few fundamental works about Europe’s best-known women monarchs, three of whom (Mary Tudor, Elizabeth I, and Christina of Sweden) have or will soon receive individual treatment in separate Oxford Bibliographies articles (see Mary Tudor, Queen of England and Elizabeth I). At the opposite extreme, eight of them (40 percent) have never been studied in English. Few of these women governed alone. Fourteen (70 percent), including the first five, ruled jointly for part or all of their reigns with husbands who were expected to shoulder the kingdom’s military responsibilities and most of its administrative responsibilities—a medieval practice last followed in England’s so-called “Glorious Revolution” of 1688. Europe’s most successful joint monarchy was undoubtedly Castile under its “Catholic kings,” Isabel and Ferdinand (1474–1504). Overall, the political position of these early female monarchs evolved toward greater autonomy as two of the last three refused to marry. The political destinies of Europe’s female monarchs were often inglorious. By 1567 no fewer than six of them, including three of the first four, had been deposed. On the other hand, the fifth woman eventually became a saint, and in 1397 the sixth became the last ruler to unite all three Scandinavian kingdoms (Denmark, Norway, Sweden).

Comparative Studies

The divine-right female sovereigns of Renaissance and Reformation Europe have almost always been studied as isolated and exceptional individuals. In various ways, these studies constitute exceptions. Wolf 1993 examines female monarchs across Europe at the start of this period. Nassiet 2007 and Hunt and Whitelock 2010 compare two female rulers of Renaissance and Reformation Europe. Jansen 2008 and Wanegffelen 2008 combine female monarchs with queens lacking sovereign authority throughout early modern Europe. Beem 2006, Monter 2011, and Monter 2012 compare female monarchs over even longer periods.

  • Beem, Charles. The Lioness Roared: The Problem of Female Rule in English History. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

    Pioneering diachronic study of female rule in England from Matilda to Victoria, sketching the rise of the prince-consort after 1700.

  • Hunt, Alice, and Anna Whitelock, eds. Tudor Queenship: The Reigns of Mary and Elizabeth. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

    Useful comparison of Europe’s first pair of adult unmarried female monarchs: Whitelock’s essay is especially valuable.

  • Jansen, Sharon L. Debating Women, Politics, and Power in Early Modern Europe. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230611238

    Starting from Knox’s First Blast, it discusses Europe’s predominantly gynophobic “gynoecocracy” debate until the mid-1600s.

  • Monter, William. “Gendered Sovereignty: Numismatics and Female Rule, 1300–1800.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 41 (2011): 533–564.

    DOI: 10.1162/JINH_a_00155

    Investigates women’s claims to possess sovereign power through their high-value coinage. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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

    The first comprehensive overview of officially sanctioned female rule in European kingdoms.

  • Nassiet, Michel. “Les reines héritières: D’Anne de Bretagne à Marie Stuart.” In Femmes et pouvoir politique: Les princesses d’Europe, Xve-XVIIIe siècle. Edited by Isabelle Poutrin and Marie-Karine Schaub, 134–143. Rosny-sous-Bois, France: Bréal, 2007.

    Compares French efforts to absorb both Brittany and Scotland through royal marriages to legal heiresses.

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

    A pessimistic view of “phallocracy” in Renaissance Europe, surveying thirty-three queens and princesses who were politically active between 1470 and 1650 and concluding that “the effective exercise of power by a woman became harder and harder to envisage, to the point of seeming flatly impossible” (p. 433).

  • Wolf, Armin. “Reigning Queens in Medieval Europe: When, Where, and Why?” In Medieval Queenship. Edited by John Carmi Parsons, 169–188. New York: St. Martin’s, 1993.

    Investigates twelve female claimants among one hundred successions in eighteen European monarchies between 1350 and 1450.

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