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From the Archives: Crowned and Anointed

Sovereign Ladies, Sex, Sacrifice, and Power, the Six Reigning Queens of England

By Maureen Waller
St. Martin’s Press, 2007

“The Queen,” Maureen Waller declares in her lively, companionable new book Sovereign Ladies, “is the embodiment of the nation, the universal representative of society, and it is in her we see our better selves reflected.”

  The same of course could be said or at least hoped of kings as well, but Miss Waller’s focus is on the distaff side of monarchy, specifically on six individuals: Mary I (known to history and to happy hour alike as ‘Bloody Mary’), Elizabeth I (the much-storied Virgin Queen, immortalized by actresses of stage and screen), Mary II (she of William and Mary fame), Anne (better known to most people for the eponymous chairs made during her reign than for anything else), Victoria (whose invincible stupidity failed to stop an age from being named after her), and our present queen, the redoubtable Elizabeth II, who has faced the worst of the 20th century’s many disillusionments and weathered them all in sensible shoes.

A book with such an open, friendly premise virtually invites a measure of picky fussiness, and we must deal with the biggest of these persnickety objections before we move on to the book itself. Because the first question anybody with any knowledge of British royal history is going to ask Miss Waller is: why these six women and no others?

Let’s not say there are no others, that simply won’t do. It’s only natural we would call to mind the near-legendary Boadicea, who led a famed revolt against her Roman occupiers in the first century; she has some rather pricey statuary devoted to her in some rather prominent places. But she was after all only queen of the Iceni, a savage and fractious tribe in Roman-occupied Britain. Perhaps, despite her renown, Waller discounts her on that basis.

But what about Boadicea’s sister-queen Cartimandua? In her own hereditary right, she ruled over the Brigantes, who were native Britains and whose territory encompassed virtually all of present-day Lancashire and Yorkshire. She faced the Romans during the Claudian invasion of 43, and after some initial hostilities, she made the impeccable decision to ally herself with the invaders, who respected her authority mainly because things would have gone very much worse for them in their territorial endeavors had they not. But perhaps Miss Waller disqualifies her for territorial reasons; she didn’t command all the island, after all, although the surety that her six chosen exemplars did could be challenged on several unrelated grounds. Cartimandua herself would have been rather rudely surprised to learn she didn’t rank as a rightful queen of the British, but perhaps the ruling is a just one.  

But there’s also the redoubtable Atheflaed, the tenth-century wife of ealdorman Athelred. She too was queen in her own right, and perhaps more importantly, she was the eldest child of King Alfred, the only English monarch to achieve and retain the title ‘the Great.’ She possessed every bit of her father’s politic acumen, which she amply displayed when Athelred grew ill. It was she, not he, who fought the Welsh along her border. It was she, not he, who first fought and then negotiated with no less a foe than the Vikings. She had free use of the Mercian treasury, the Mercian armed forces, and the hearts of the Mercian people, who adored her far in excess of her ailing husband. The Welsh and the Vikings, but still no ‘sovereign lady’ for Athelflaed? That august lady herself might not have cared (she routinely had more important things on her mind), but we are within our rights to wonder.

And that’s just for starters. That’s all Roman-occupation and Rome-abandoned. Perhaps much stronger are the claims of those few who come later, when the murk of the Middle Ages yields to the light of more thorough record-keeping. Cartimandua and Boadicea had already begun the transformation from material to mythical even during their own lifetime, and Athelflaed (and other pre-Conquest examples like her) have only a ghostly factual suggestion on which to hang their crowns. But there is nothing wraithlike about a king’s daughter, still less so when a) she lives post-Conquest, b) her times are comparatively well-documented, and c) her kingly father not only acknowledges her as his heir but forces his barons to do likewise.

Such a person was Matilda, daughter of Henry I, to whom he left his kingdom. She was married to Emperor Henry V and was more often than not styled (and styled herself) ‘Lady of the English’ rather than queen, but the fact remains: she was the king’s named successor, and she fought a civil war with Stephen of Blois for nineteen years to keep her kingdom. In order to maintain her six-woman roster, Miss Waller must first deal with the woman contemporaries and posterity would refer to as the Empress Maud.

To give credit where it’s due, our author knows this and brings Matilda up on the first page of her book:

‘Great by birth, greater by marriage, greatest in her offspring,’ ran the epitaph for Matilda, who was never crowned or anointed queen. Nor did she ever call herself Queen. Possibly she thought the term, derived from the Saxon cwen, inappropriate, since hitherto it had been applied only to queens consort, or possibly she hesitated to call herself Queen before coronation had taken place. At any rate, the title she used was Lady of the English. There can be no clearer indication than her epitaph that as a woman she was seen merely as a vessel through whom the right to the crown would pass from one male to another, from her father Henry I to her son Henry II.

This is a rare factual lapse on Miss Waller’s part, and she is not saved by her documentation, since for all this she provides none. The ‘epitaph’ she quotes was a popular refrain, not an official document, and Henry I had many failings as a king and as a man, but being daft enough to appoint a ‘vessel’ as his successor wasn’t one of them. Most tellingly, although Matilda did often use the term ‘Lady of the English’, she most certainly also referred to herself as queen – and was so referred to by others (Rossler’s once-famous biography of her is replete with examples, but he is not in Miss Waller’s 7-page bibliography).

The heart of this shilly-shallying seems to be that ‘crowned and anointed’ business, and it’s a shame that Miss Waller has chosen to put so much store by it, since a longer guest-list could only have made her very interesting book all the moreso. And it’s poppycock in any case: was not the young Victoria queen the instant William IV died, and was she not called so and thought so by all her subjects? Was not King George V’s imperious (and yet beloved) consort Mary far more rightly queen than Mary II, the simpering, idiotic wife of William III? Certainly she was thought so in her lifetime and afterwards, as the many thousands of passengers who sailed aboard the Queen (not the Consort) Mary will attest.

In short, it’s a tricky business picking queens, whether one is planning a dynasty or writing a history. Miss Waller leaves out the Lady Jane Grey, who was queen for nine days in 1553, even though Jane was indeed ‘crowned and anointed’ and on the throne long enough to enact legislation and stamp her elfin face on the coinage. Perhaps this is understandable, since Jane’s brief tenure would have made it difficult to fill out her requisite chapter (Miss Waller tends to spend about a hundred pages apiece with her sovereign ladies), although our author’s twin themes of sacrifice and compromise could scarcely find a more poignant exemplar than a teenaged girl who never wanted to be queen in the first place getting crowned and decapitated in just under a fortnight.

Miss Waller can be forgiven for cutting all these corners – even Matilda’s legitimacy as a true queen can perhaps be questioned on the grounds of her spectacular failure to hold onto her crown. The one unpardonable sin in “Sovereign Ladies” involves none of the aforementioned women but rather one who was greater than all of them combined, and who, despite this, fails to make the grade of inclusion in Miss Waller’s book.

That woman is, of course, Eleanor of Acquitaine. Matilda is at least granted the dignity of a quick dismissal. Eleanor isn’t mentioned once in this entire 500 page book.

She was ten years older than Henry II when she married him, and that was after she’d spent years as the Queen of France, married to a well-meaning dolt for whom she did a great deal of actual governing. She was Henry’s acknowledged proxy during his absences from his new kingdom (like, for starters, his first six years on the throne, which he spent almost continuously warring on the Continent); only she and William Marshall had access to the royal treasury, and only her signature made motions into law while Henry was away. True, in later years she moved Henry’s sons to war against him, but her continued and ruinous success at doing just that must count as a dark mark in her favor, mustn’t it? If Miss Waller were able to TARDIS her way back to the 12th century, would she really have the bloody cheek to tell this magnificent warrior-queen ‘sorry luv, you don’t quite meet standards. Weren’t anointed, you see. Sad that.’ It’s highly unlikely.

Then again, perhaps Miss Waller herself furnishes the real rationale lurking behind all this business of crowning and anointing. She writes:

England’s queens regnant have presided over some of the greatest triumphs and events in our history. Three of them have given their name to an era. They have encouraged the growth of overseas empire, inspired cultural achievement, made possible a glorious and bloodless revolution, and almost always have been equated with good government.

Perhaps it’s that last bit, about how queens have had a better track-record than kings at being ‘equated with good government,’ that prompted Miss Waller to carve out her list the way she has. Boadicea, Matilda, Eleanor, even poor little Jane Grey – they’re all remembered primarily for social unrest and upheaval (although even this score Eleanor deserves better, since her court was a famous gathering place for all the best poets and troubadours of her age). Maybe what our author is secretly looking for is success stories.

And how better to emphasize this than to start with a cautionary failure? First up for our examination in this book is Henry VIII’s eldest daughter, Queen Mary I, who could not by any stretch be called a successful monarch. Miss Waller is extremely fair and balanced in her recounting of Mary’s life and reign; indeed these long and intensely readable pages, shared in length with those of Elizabeth I and Victoria, could easily stand alone as a small but very serviceable biography. The airless over-detailing of the monograph is nowhere to be found in Sovereign Ladies.

Miss Waller is especially sensitive to Mary’s phantom pregnancy, detailing not only the medical science of it (of which this reviewer was ignorant, and of which he is now, blinkingly and somewhat queasily, full appraised) but the sad ways it twisted Mary’s already-twisted psyche. Miss Waller is also consistently good at firmly situating her readers in the sensory reality of her distant settings:

By now, Hampton Court stank. The unusually long occupancy of the royal household and the additional hangers-on who had taken up residence at the Queen’s expense to be present at the birth, living in crowded conditions with sixteenth-century sanitary arrangements, had had the inevitable result.

The sovereign ladies our author describes were forced to ply a mastery of matters both personal and political, and our present author, perhaps better than any popular historian has yet managed, does likewise in her abbreviated accounts of their reigns. Miss Waller is smart enough to know that she can say nothing new or more insightful than what has already been said about such lodestar figures as Elizabeth I or Victoria (her relegation of Mary II and Anne to thirty pages and twenty respectively can therefore be regretted), so she contents herself with fitting some of the most well-known incidents of these reigns into her shifting kaleidoscope of queenship’s complexities. Here is Elizabeth I dealing with her importunate favorite:

Elizabeth did not hesitate to slap him [Robert Dudley, her lifelong friend] down when necessary. On one occasion, he had an altercation with one of her servants who had, rightly, barred one of his men from access to the Privy Chamber. When the servant cleverly appealed to Elizabeth, asking her if she was still queen, or whether Dudley was King, she had rounded on Dudley, reminding him that she could undo him as rapidly as she had made him: ‘God’s death, my Lord, I have wished you well, but my favor is not so locked up in you that others shall not participate thereof … and if you think to rule here, I will take a course to see you forthcoming. I will have here but one mistress, and no master.’ It was not until the mid 1570s that Leicester finally gave up his pursuit. In the meantime, his presence was felt in Elizabeth’s marriage negotiations as he intervened whenever he could hinder them, pitting the French against the Habsburgs as he intrigued with their rival ambassadors.

A lesser author would have stopped with Elizabeth’s famously defiant quote, but always Miss Waller opts in favor of presenting her readers with a fuller, more complex view of goings on.

Which is not to say our author is above having her favorites. The fact that her book’s notes run to some thirteen close-packed pages is ample testimony to how much time she spent in the company of these royal ladies, so it’s understandable if some of them made more favorable impressions than others. Poor ill-fated Queen Mary II, for instance, is granted our author more personal probity than the Queen apparently granted herself:

On the night of 21 December 1694, Mary, suspecting that she had contracted smallpox and was likely to die, sat up all night in her closet, going through her papers, preserving some and burning others. She was sufficiently conscious of her image to destroy anything discreditable. It is significant that her journal remained virtually intact. These memoirs abound with traditional notions of the proper place of women, according very much to the way the Whigs presented her and which would remain the standard view of her over succeeding centuries. Fortunately, enough of her letters to Frances Apsley, discovered in an attic 300 years later, and to William survived to provide insights into her lively, engaging personality and her acute political sense.

Compare this to, say, a choice bit about Queen Victoria, who Miss Waller seems to dislike more the older the old queen gets:

The middle class image of the Queen which was assiduously cultivated bore little relation to the reality of her life. When she traveled abroad, staying on the Riviera, she did so with an immense retinue of servants and ate off solid gold plates; at home the increased opulence of the age meant that her household budget had to stretch to champagne rather than wine and hothouse flowers and fruit. As ever, her ugly fingers were so weighted with jewels that on occasion she could barely lift a knife and fork.

Ugly fingers! The horror! One doubts King George I’s digits were any manicurist’s dream come true, but one wonders if his gender has helped his biographers refrain from saying so.

A reader picking up Sovereign Ladies in the local bookshop, it must be grudgingly admitted, will perhaps have little interest in any of these matters, however. His (or more likely her) curiosity will have the pages flipping to one reign and one reign only: that of our present Queen, Elizabeth II (this is again done by passing over Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, whose steadfast courage during the London Blitz should have earned her better). Indeed, one of the happier accomplishments of Miss Waller’s book is to impress upon her readers just how long a history and how weighty and varied a tradition have brought us down to this lady in Buckingham Palace we so often take for granted.

Curiously, Elizabeth II presents in some ways more obstacles to the biographer than did her illustrious namesake of four centuries past. The present monarch famously grants no interviews whatsoever, and those servants and intimates who’ve gone to the press with personal details over the years (especially recently) have done so under a cloud of dismissal and disgrace, bearing a mark of distrust upon them before they even open their mouths. Never in the history of the monarchy has their been a sovereign at once so publicly present and so personally private as Elizabeth II. The vast majority of her subjects were born and raised under her reign and recall no other monarch, and yet she remains formidably aloof, and her biographers are forced – for the first time in Miss Waller’s case – to fall back on such disappointing guesswork-phrases as ‘some say’ or ‘it’s thought’ or even ‘it’s rumored.’

It would be understandable if this situation raised our author’s ire, which makes her final chapters on Elizabeth II so refreshingly surprising. Far from criticizing her for being old-fashioned or cold or out of touch, Miss Waller stops only just this shy of calling the present Queen the best ever to sit on the throne. She does this by a canny mixture of reportage and barely-disguised sentiment:

The sixth queen regnant could become our longest-reigning monarch, if she exceeds her great-great-grandmother’s sixty-four years on the throne. At twenty-one Elizabeth made a vow ‘that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service,’ and she has remained true to that promise. Perhaps one of the greatest yardsticks of her success is that there can be no question of Britain becoming a republic while she lives. For many of us she has always been there – the Queen – ubiquitous. She exists somewhere deep in our collective consciousness, a sole fixed point in a world that has changed beyond all recognition. It is impossible to imagine life without her.

And yet for all that Miss Waller does imagine life without her, as anyone even remotely young in Britain must. The Queen is a remarkably healthy woman (a fortuitous side-effect of infusing the royal line with horse-healthy Hanoverian stock), but she is still in her eighties. Even if, as is entirely likely, she rules for another decade or more, there still looms before us – and before any such book as Sovereign Ladies – the uncertain future. It’s telling that Miss Waller chooses to end her chatty and ultimately optimistic book on just such a note of uncertainty:

All monarchs are dependent on popular approval – no more so than in the present age of media exposure. Victoria, whose popularity dipped and rose in the course of her reign, feared she would be the last sovereign. ‘How long will it last, we wonder?’ asked the Pall Mall Gazette in the week of her 1887 Jubilee. ‘As long as the Queen lasts, yes, but after the Queen, who knows.’ Victoria would have been surprised and pleased to know that her great-great granddaughter had taken the thousand-year monarchy into the twenty-first century. Will she be Elizabeth the Last, as one newspaper speculated on her eightieth birthday. Who knows.

Who knows indeed? We can only hope that whatever happens, able and insightful popular chroniclers like Miss Waller are on hand to tell the tale. And in the meantime, might we not hope for a sequel to Sovereign Ladies? Perhaps something along the lines of They Also Reigned, to appease the ghosts of the slighted great? Who knows.

I.M. St. Cyr is a London freelancer and avid royal-watcher. He once came close to seeing Prince William, and his brother Nigel, in certain lighting, slightly resembles Prince Edward. This is his first American publication.