Controversial queens are sort of a guilty pleasure of mine. Growing up in the shadow of an Anne Boleyn obsessive, I found myself yearning to learn more about women who were regal, yet not always ladylike. Novels and TV series feature a lot of these women, but for the sake of sensationalized viewing, their lives are often taken way out of context. These ladies are just seven of my favorite controversial queens.
Oh Margaret of Anjou, I have loved her for so long, and now she is setting tongues wagging once again thanks to the White Queen! Contrary to popular belief, she wasn’t THE most gruesome of all controversial queens. Sure, she was a little forceful, but rumors of her proudly riding with the Duke of York’s head on a stick following the Battle of Wakefield are largely unfounded. Margaret did orchestrate the campaign that saw Elizabeth Woodville knocked off her throne in 1471 — with a little help from Warwick and her cousins in France. Come 1475 when nobody had any use for her, she was left to live a shadow of her former life in Angers. Sadly, French revolutionaries chose to do Margaret one more disservice by throwing her remains everywhere in the 1770s.
Elizabeth Woodville is sort of a medieval Kate Middleton. Both married a king/would-be-king. Both are described as ‘commoners,’ yet have quite impressive lineages! And yes, they were/are quite the beauties. Poor old Elizabeth Woodville was accused of being a cunning sorceress who wanted to catapult dozens of Lancastrian relatives to fame (quite the controversy in Yorkist England, I can assure you). Tragically, her sons were the "Princes in the Tower," and their fates are still hotly debated today.
Okay, so not everyone discusses Isabella of Castille hotly today. And her daughter Catherine of Aragon is probably way more famous than she is. However, I sort of admire her because she refused to just be a queen consort, and insisted on ruling alongside her husband Ferdinand of Aragon II. Go Isabella! Now for the not-so-nice side of this Spanish queen: she successfully re-established Catholic rule in Moorish Spain, but was brutal in her approach.
Let’s face it, no controversial queens list would be complete without so much as hinting at Anne Boleyn’s existence. She was accused of all sorts in the weeks before her downfall: adultery, incest, being a witch, and treason. Loosely, she was sort of guilty of the last one, as she accused Henry Norris of picturing himself in the king’s shoes, which comes under the whole 'imagining the death of a king' business. But let’s be fair to Anne, and all women living in the first half of the 16th century: who wouldn’t wish Henry VIII dead at one point or another? Anne’s major downfall was not producing a son. If only Henry had realized it was his chromosomes dictating the outcome of the matter!
It is sort of poetic that Henry VIII’s determination to re-marry catalyzed the Protestant Reformation in England, and his (unwanted) daughter’s determination to not marry finalized it by establishing the religious settlement and passing the crown to the Stuarts. Rising from bastard child to beautiful queen was no easy feat in the 16th century. Okay, so Elizabeth was sort of a last resort after Edward, then Jane, then Mary. But still, she achieved more as a female queen than her father managed as a king. Elizabeth rarely discussed her mother in public, but there are rumors that a ring found on her when she died had a picture of Anne inside.
Larger than life Caroline was a Georgian queen with an extra dose of girl power. I adore the way she engaged in a little mistress management. Her husband George II had mistresses, literally because it was fashionable to do so. Caroline knew that one mistress, Henrietta Howard, was not a patch on her as far as appealing to George was concerned. Using her head, she kept Henrietta around as long as she could. Poor old Caroline was mocked by a British press that was getting its first taste of freedom following staunch Tudor and Stuart rules. Her weight was often joked about, showing that journalists have always been the callous bunch we love to roll our eyes at today.
Here comes yet another queen that this list would be empty without. Marie Antoinette was France's last and grandest queen. Accused of bisexual relationships (quite atrocious in 18th century France, at least publicly), extra marital affairs, and squandering the country's fortunes, she lost her head in the 1790s. Rather unfairly, she is remembered for blithely telling France's poor to simply 'eat cake' when they ran out of bread. The historian Antonia Fraser believes that Marie asked ″Why don't they eat brioche?,″ a sign of her royal naivety rather than a callous attitude towards France's 18th century citizens.
To me, these queens are such an ongoing source of fascination, because we are unlikely to see anything like them again! By stepping outside of the roles society expected them to fulfill, many of them have been able to capture our imaginations. A lot are also incredibly tragic, with unfair executions surrounding them. They are all great in novels and they certainly come alive on our TV screens, but nothing beats reading about the women themselves to dig out the truth behind historical rumors! Which of these queens are you most fascinated with, and why?
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