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  • Queens On Top (or not?) August 3, 2012

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Medieval, Modern , trackback

    Beach has been waxing lyrical a lot about monarchy recently: there was Charles I with his head sewn back on (the bastards!), then there was environment vs the hereditary principle (or perhaps better environment within the hereditary principle) and today we come to queens.

    Queens, you’ve got to love them. For is it Beachcombing’s imagination or do queens as a rule score more highly than kings?

    It is very difficult to be empirical about this. But Beach certainly has the impression that if you gather together the names of the hundred greatest European monarchs, women make up almost twenty percent of that number, despite the fact that there have been far, far, far fewer queens than kings.

    The easiest answer to this, of course, is to say’ you’re wrong’ and redefine the list of top monarchs.  But if you accept the hypothesis (and let’s say that fifty percent of readers will) this begs the question why?

    Is it (i) that women have a better skill set for ruling: Beach can imagine that women probably do make better constitutional monarchs – Victoria, Elizabeth II… – but several exceptional medieval and renaissance women leap out from the list as well: Eleanor, Isabella, Elizabeth I…

    Another answer (ii) is the survival of the fittest. Monarchs are usually chosen by the blood line. However, as, through most of western history, there was resistance to the idea that women should rule, only those who were determined enough actually made it to the throne. In other words, to be a king you needed to have been born to a certain woman at a certain time. To be a queen you needed to have been born to a certain woman at a certain time and also to have very big cojones (intentional).

    Third, queens (iii) live longer, giving continuity? Weak, I know.

    A fourth possibility is (iv) the ‘shock’ factor. Beachcombing spent his formative years in a country ruled by a woman: Margaret Thatcher. And he often heard the sentence, ‘if she had been a man she would never have got away with it’? Reading cabinet diaries from the 1980s there seems to have been some truth to this. MT’s cabinet colleagues were so disorientated at being told what to do by a woman – this was thirty years ago remember – that they were often too shocked to react. Was this also true when a queen ascended to the throne in Castille or Sweden or Naples in the sixteenth century?

    Any other thoughts why women make for better monarchs? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com Or proof that they do not.


    3 August 2012: Invisible has several theories: 1) Women rulers, certainly women rulers of the 12th-19th century, who had been told from babyhood that women were weaker, prone to hysteria, would go mad with too much learning, and needed to be under the dominion of a husband or father, knew that they had to be better than their male counterparts just to keep their thrones. Loose analogy: They had to do everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels. 2) There was a revulsion against murdering kings, but it could be justified when necessary. But there was a particular revulsion against killing women rulers. Queens (other than Henry VIII’s brides and Marie Antoinette) were normally sent into exile or convents, rather than being murdered. Possibly this squeamishness contributed to queen regnant survival rates. Exile might allow a queen to live long enough to make a triumphant comeback. 3) Women may be more ruthless than men. I’ve had police officers tell me that you do NOT want to mess with a female officer–she will just shoot you if you give her trouble–since she probably cannot win in a physical  fight. Remember, too, the Russian women soldiers of the Second World War. I suspect (but offer no proof) that queens may have been more apt to order pre-emptive strikes on enemies and to have been more willing to eliminate anyone they regarded as a threat–that would certainly be my policy, should I ever come to the throne! 4) Your point about shock is well-taken. Think of Dr Johnson’s remark about female preachers: “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” DY writes Without entering the debate whether Queens really do make better monarchs or not, I suggest that if they do, then – apart from the possibilities that you have raised – the simple reason is that they rely upon a wider spectrum of advisers than Kings. Maybe they need to build more of a consensus to make up for political weakness, maybe women are more inclined to group decisions, maybe the males politicking for advancement are more a threat to any weaknesses in a Queen than a King and thus need to be appeased more, maybe a Queen tends not to develop a ‘band of brothers’ before accession so has no single power base of confirmed supporters and needs to politic herself, maybe women are better listeners and less driven by the demands of ego, maybe the accession of woman tends to be supported by more of a consensus as it tends to be an event that solves a problem and involve compromise more than a male successor and that political deal making carries on into the reign…. My assumption here is that listening to a range of perceptions from the experienced and taking into account differing points of view will tend to make a better ruler. I think that’s a very defendable proposition. To test this somebody could compare the ‘top’ male monarchs against the lesser ones, and see if the top ones relied on  broader spectrum of advisers.’ Then the Count: Anyway, your interesting point about queens being disproportionately better than kings has set me to thinking. One obvious suggestion is that, quite apart from women being basically less aggressive than men, under the European system, the oldest male child will automatically become monarch, but all female children must take second place to any males there happen to be. Thus the firstborn male will be raised from infancy to assume that he is special and wonderful and literally appointed by God Almighty to rule the country one day. That kind of conditioning must surely have a less than ideal effect on a growing boy’s ego! Whereas a little girl won’t get the same treatment, since as long as there’s any possibility of further additions to the Royal Family, she’ll probably be supplanted by a younger brother. They’ll only start grooming her for the throne once it becomes certain that no male heirs will be forthcoming. Queen Elizabeth I would never have gotten the top job if her brother Edward hadn’t been too sickly to outlive his dad. It might be interesting to see if male monarchs with deceased older brothers also happen to be unusually good at their jobs? So in England and thereabouts, it was pure luck if a woman ascended to the throne. And they weren’t necessarily ideal rulers – consider Elizabeth’s predecessor Mary Tudor, who probably didn’t really drink vodka and tomato juice, but is remembered almost entirely for being a horrible person who turned into a cocktail. And of course Mary, Queen of Scots, who could have been Mary, Queen of England too if her power-struggle with Cousin Liz had gone the other way – If Mary Tudor had lived a bit longer, they could have done The Good, The Bad And The Ugly in drag, which would have been interesting. A more interesting civilization in this respect is Ancient Egypt, where the system of electing a new ruler from the previous one’s huge and very complicated family was fairly flexible, but, although women had a surprising number of rights considering the period, the pharaoh was supposed to be male every time. Thus female pharaohs were very rare indeed – the accepted number of women who, over that entire period of several thousand years, were the undisputed sole ruler is between four and six, probably nearer four. So obviously a woman couldn’t become pharaoh unless they were having very serious problems finding an appropriately royal male person. Which, what with all that inbreeding, must have been a major problem at times. So it’s interesting that, out of those very few women to get the job, one of them was Hatshepsut, often compared directly with Elizabeth I, and definitely one of the best – arguable the very best – pharaoh Egypt ever had. Her 22-year reign was marked by unprecedented economic growth, and willingness to expand trade far beyond Egypt’s borders to hitherto unknown lands. It’s a mark of how insular the Ancient Egyptians were that Hatshepsut gained massive kudos for personally opening up trade links with some mysterious and impossibly distant land called Punt that was probably Libya. Also, she doesn’t seem to have been particularly interested in unnecessary wars.  It should be noted that, if I remember correctly (wikipedia is unhelpful in this respect, as in so many others), to keep it all legal, Hatshepsut was declared to be officially male in all respects other than actually being male, and for ceremonial purposes sometimes wore a false beard. Unfortunately, that tiny clutch of female pharaohs also includes Cleopatra VII, who, despite being much more famous than Hatshepsut, mainly for being incredibly sexy (though actually surviving statues would seem to suggest that there wasn’t really a lot to choose between them in that respect – Cleo didn’t remotely resemble Liz Taylor, but may have been a dead ringer for Barbara Streisand), was so spectacularly disastrous that she was the very last pharaoh of them all (that honor sometimes goes to her teenage son Caesarion, but he was never officially crowned or did anything regal at all, and outlived her by a matter of weeks). And then of course you have Catherine the Great, a female man to make Thatcher proud who seems to have gone out of her way to marry a man who she detested, who may have been insane, and who was certainly already an alcoholic at the age of ten, who reigned as tsar for six months before his wife deposed him and probably had him strangled. And then she became the longest-reigning and most important ruler Russia ever had, and that includes Stalin (fortunately she was much nicer than him – though that isn’t hard to achieve). Sadly it’s not true about the horse. And let’s not forget Boudica, a classic Strong Woman who was a victim of circumstances, if only because she’s allegedly, though highly implausibly, supposed to be buried between platforms nine and ten of King’s Cross Station. Presumably under that magical in-between platform where you catch the Hogwarts Express.’ KMH writes We should understand that queens do not have the divine right to rule over a country that kings have.  No religion (the source of kingship)  has ever given  women the right or opportunity to rule over men. Queens exist for the purpose of bearing the children who will become kings. Of course, theory is one thing, practice is another. Because the institution of monarchy has suffered long-term degeneration over the centuries, producing too many bad or indifferent kings, the rule by queens can  compare favorably to that of kings at this point in history.  All existing monarchies are destined to disappear, probably by the end of the next world war, due to the hostility of communism/socialism. “After us, the deluge,” And last but not least Celeste Culpepper: t seems to me, during the post-Cold War period, that some nations turned to female rulers as a sign that they wished to change, to progress. In the 1990s, Bangla Desh had elections with two women running against one another. This was perhaps a reaction to the military rule and disruption of the past. During that same era, several notable women won Nobel Peace Prizes, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who was blocked from power. There was a sense, for a little while, that the world was making a new start and putting women in positions of power seemed part of that. Of course, you were speaking of monarchy. I was recently looking at the last years of the Tuscan Grand Duchy where there were legal impediments to female accession to the throne. When Cosimo III lay dying, he tried desperately to have his daughter become grand duchess as opposed to his son, Gian Gastone, who wasn’t really all that interested in questions of governance. In the end the female accession was blocked by larger powers, who wanted to control the Tuscan throne — but this was so late into the decay of Italian mini-states that it probably didn’t make much of a long term difference to Tuscany. Anyway, Gian seems to me to have some things in common with Sweden’s Queen Christina, who also wasn’t that interested in ruling and eventually abdicated. So perhaps the question isn’t one of sex, but rather that of a taste for power — something you take for granted in democratic candidates for office, but is more hit and miss in hereditary situations.’ Thanks, Count, Invisible, Celeste, DY and KMH.

    7 June 2015: HVDM writes Looking a bit further east, in search for mighty Queens in history, two remarkable ladies show up. In China, Wu Zetian, ( China 624-705) was the concubine of Emperor Taizong. When he died, she was supposed to spend the rest of her life as a nun in the monastry. Instead , the succesor to the throne, Gaozong, took an interest in her, she was to become his first Consort. Gaozong’s mind was bettter than his physical condition, and while they communicated very well, it was Wu Zetian in fact who had the reigns of the Tang Dynasty in her hands. After Gaozong died, her title changed. Due to different translations from Chinese to English, in English she would have been named First Consort or Royal Consort. Queen, or Empress fitted as well, because she was allowed to use the colors in her dress only reserved for the Emperor. But it was Wu Zetian who ruled anyway, for 50 years. With the only female Emperor in it’s history, China’s Tang Dynasty is regarded as probably one of the most glorious periods of an empire in human’s written history. Interesting fact is, that women had a lot of liberty, by law, they could have their own properties, there own money etc. Cultural life in many cities was very lively with people from very distant areas bringing there goods and knowledge, travelling along the Silk Road. In the area that is now called Korea , in the same century, Princess Dok Man, ( reign 632-647, date of birth unknown ) was involved in fighting against the intrigues of Lady Mishil. As a Royal Consort, Lady Mishil was able to have several Royal lovers at the same time, and do the actual reigning on the side as well. A very powerfull woman, but the people were suffering and starving. Princess Dok Man, who had the right of the throne, was exciled for a some years as a young kid. When she came back, she had to fight against Lady Mishil. There are several stories about her being a very intelligent woman, with strategic skills too. She won, and in the remaining years of her reign, she was able to form The Three Kingdoms, which is the base of modern Korea. Her knowledge of science, astronomy, mathematics and history was great. A lot of her energy went into giving the people acces to that knowledge, resulting in better farming and a better living in general. She died rather young, a few Queens succeeding her. The area has known three rather prosperous centuries after her death. Also during her reign, women could reach high positions, even in the armies. Confucious becoming the main philosophy after the 10th century in Asia did not improve that situation for women.