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The lesson of royal history and International Women’s Day

Royal history is peppered with stand out women. In the annals of all monarchies are queens and princesses who packed a punch and made a mark. But there is still a tendency to categorise the girls as the also rans, the second bests, the pretty and sometimes witty but when push comes to shove, they are always relegated to the role of background players. It only shows that men wrote history and, as is often the case with compliments and birthday presents, they got it wrong.

Many a monarchy, including our own, was built on the toil and backs of women.  The House of Norman, seen as the starting point for our modern royal story, was shaped by women yet we count its years by the stories of men, even though their stories are duller and less important than those of their female counterparts. The Tudor dynasty, still the best known and most analysed of all royal houses partly because of the huge role it had in reshaping England, is so female heavy that you should really start to feel sorry for the blokes for being left behind. Except the tale is nearly always written as two power crazed Henrys and the women they happened to marry. We still look at royal history as a bloke show with female frills at the side. And that totally misses the point.

Take the Normans. William the Conqueror might have turned up spewing testosterone from every pore in 1066 but his standing in royal circles, fundamental to success in the messy battle for the throne of England, was boosted by his wife, Matilda, had given him a big dose of regal prestige from a bloodline she was always careful to boast about. William and Matilda were a pair and conquering England was as much about his sharp elbows as her regal line. Their granddaughter, also Matilda, was all but Queen of England within sixty years of their power grab. She levered herself into such a position of power during the Civil War of the 1140s that the crown was virtually on her head and when her own plans fell apart, she was the main player in making sure the conflict ended. But her place in history usually starts with a description of the less interesting men she happened to be related to. Her own daughter in law, Eleanor of Aquitaine, would go on to shape the dynasty Matilda put on the throne – the Plantagenents might have been named after a flower chosen by a man to spruce up his hat but it was Matilda and Eleanor who lay many of the foundations that led to it ruling England and much of France.

Henry VIII’s six wives are another reason to rethink the way we view royal history. Often relegated to a list of how their marriages ended, Henry thought more of his many missuses than we sometimes do and he cut off two of their heads. The Tudor turned tyrant made Catherine of Aragon and Catherine Parr regent of England when he went off on foreign travel while the  elevation of Anne Boleyn to royal favourite involved a heavy reliance on her political opinion as well as a very public chase to the altar.

Even our queens regnant can suffer from the ‘appears to be a girl, moving on’ syndrome in royal history. Mary I was kept on the sidelines of royal life by the ever changing face of her angry father’s administrations yet she had formed enough alliances to be able to march on London and seize the crown on a huge wave of popular support. Her story now is summed up as that of a religious zealot playing fast and hard with England’s church to keep her husband on side but Mary was a power player, even if she did play badly once she got real power. Elizabeth I is best known to many for never marrying but this princess, left on the regal scrapheap by her father before her third birthday, was so sure of her ability to rule well that she, too, built a powerbase that would give her the throne. Her administration is one of the best the country has ever seen yet open a history book and you get big red hair, a big sparkly ruff and a big long list of men she might have slept with.  

These two queens, who changed the monarchy and their country forever, were both shaped by Catherine Parr. The last of Henry’s wives is usually seen as a matronly woman with a bizarre love of bathing royal leg ulcers when in reality she was such a powerful figure at her husband’s courts that her enemies tried to have her executed. Catherine was instrumental in the lives of Mary, Elizabeth and their tragic cousin, Lady Jane Grey, the first three women to rule in their own right. Yet may prefer to see her as the Tudor version of a community nurse, smiling sweetly while wringing pus out of a royal bandage and so missing the whole point of the later part of Henry’s reign.

The idea of royal women as add ons to manly husbands and tyrannical fathers and brothers is as much out of date as crinolines and ruffs. To paint them as such is to misunderstand history, to drain our rich past of much of its life and colour and to only tell a small part of the story. And it’s not to say we go the other way and paint men out of the picture. The great figures of British royal history are both female and male, kings and queens, princesses and princes. But by only seeing the women as accessories to the men, a big part of the story is lost.

Queen Camilla has hit the nail on the head as she marks this year’s International Women’s Day. She’s accepted a Barbie version of herself with good grace while delivering a knock out speech on how women today are smashing glass ceilings. Barbie was the summer film sensation of 2023 and anyone who’s seen it knows the message is all about treating everyone the same, not boxing people away according to past gender stereotypes. The same could be said of royal past and the royal present – let’s look at what people do rather than what we expect them to be and then we might just see reality.

About author

Lydia Starbuck is Jubilee and Associate Editor at Royal Central and the main producer and presenter of the Royal Central Podcast and Royal Central Extra. Lydia is also a pen name of June Woolerton who is a journalist and writer with over twenty years experience in TV, radio, print and online. Her latest book, A History of British Royal Jubilees, is out now. Her new book, The Mysterious Death of Katherine Parr, will be published in March 2024. June is an award winning reporter, producer and editor. She's appeared on outlets including BBC 5 Live, BBC Radio Ulster and BBC Local Radio and has also helped set up a commercial radio station. June is also an accomplished writer with a wide range of material published online and in print. She is the author of two novels, published as e-books. She is also a marriage registrar and ceremony celebrant.