The history of the monarchy in the British Isles has been littered with iconic and fabled reigns of kings. From the legendary conquest of England by William of Normandy in 1066 to the stoic courageousness of King George VI during World War II, the monarchy in the United Kingdom has largely been a man’s story. It is worth exploring how some of the monarchy’s most influential reigns have been helmed by a queen regnant.
England and Scotland and later the United Kingdom have featured eight reigning queens since the medieval era. In Scotland, the first reigning Queen of Scots was merely an afterthought as Margaret, the Maid of Norway (r. 1286-1290) was designated as the next monarch after the death of King Alexander III in 1286. Margaret’s reign was brief, and she never even made it to Scotland to take her throne. Scotland’s next queen regnant was also one of its most controversial —Mary, Queen of Scots (r. 1542-1567). She is remembered for her turbulent marriage to Lord Darnley as well as her acrimonious and tempestuous relationship with her English cousin, Elizabeth I, which ultimately led to her execution after years in English capture.
Matters of female sovereignty were equally as problematic in England before and during the sixteenth century. Empress Matilda was declared the rightful heir to the English throne by her father King Henry I. After the usurpation of the throne by her cousin Stephen, Matilda fought for her right and even ruled England briefly in 1141—however her reign has never been given legitimacy. Lady Jane Grey also ruled England for nine days in 1553 and was also named as successor by the dying King Edward VI. Henry VIII’s first child won a rebellion against her and Jane lost her head.
Queen Mary I (r. 1553-1558) was the daughter and only surviving child of King Henry VIII’s first marriage to Catherine of Aragon, and she is generally recognised as England’s first queen regnant. Her reign was brief and is more remembered for her fierce denunciation of Protestantism and restoration of Catholicism to England. This religious policy was overturned by her successor Queen Elizabeth I (r. 1558-1603) who firmly established Protestantism as the faith of England and oversaw England’s Golden Age which included the defeat of the Spanish Armada and the beginning of a rich cultural renaissance with William Shakespeare at its helm.
After the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Queen Mary II (r. 1689-1694) and Queen Anne (r. 1702-1714) guided the United Kingdom into the age of constitutional monarchy with steady and measured reigns that would become templates for successful constitutional leadership. Although their reigns were brief, these two queens oversaw the official unification of England, Scotland, and Ireland into one United Kingdom, and Queen Anne holds the distinction of being the last monarch to veto legislation.
Queen Victoria (r. 1837-1901) continued the framework of Elizabeth I, and the time in which she ruled ended up bearing her name. It was during Victoria’s reign that Great Britain reached its zenith of influence on the world stage through the British Empire, and she was proclaimed Empress of India in 1876.
Queen Elizabeth II (r. 1952-present) has combined the steadfast stewardship of both her namesake predecessor Elizabeth I as well as Victoria. Britain’s current monarch is a preeminent example of the unique blend of security and cohesion that has been the definition of matriarchal leadership that has been the overriding theme of Britain’s reigning queens. With the Succession to the Crown Act of 2013 finally abolishing male primogeniture in succession to the throne, no princess will ever have to worry about becoming the monarch by an act of circumstance. It will now be their natural right.