Queenship in Early Modern Europe:  The Conference Papers
These papers are derived from my manuscript in progress

“Dynastic Loyalty and the ‘Queenships’ of Mary Queen of Scots”  
I delivered this paper at the 5th annual Kings and Queens Conference, Greenville S.C. April 9,

    Over the course of her tumultuous and ultimately tragic career, many of the momentous decisions
made by Mary Queen of Scots were motivated by dynastic concerns. As the only surviving legitimate
issue of King James V of Scotland and his French consort Mary (or Marie) of Guise, Mary became queen
regnant at the age of six days upon her father’s death (14 December 1542).  
    Thus, the first phase of Mary’s queenship was that of a royal minor resident in Scotland.  As the font
of royal power, control of the person of the monarch was vital for the stability and legitimacy of any
minority regime; dowager queen Mary of Guise worked tirelessly to retain custody of her daughter for the
first six years of her life, moving her to the safety of Stirling Castle in July 1543, where she was crowned
two months later.  For the next few years Guise shuffled her around various Scottish fortresses in
response to a plethora of both domestic and foreign attempts to take physical possession of her
daughter.  In 1548, at the age of five, Mary was transported to the France, where she would live for the
next twelve years, while her mother remained in Scotland to safeguard her daughter’s rights, one of the
most important dynastic tasks she could perform as the mother of an underage queen regnant.  
    In the meantime, Mary’s prospective father-in-law, Henri II of France, integrated Mary into the intimate
lives of the French royal family, while Mary’s Guise relatives, Charles, Cardinal of Lorraine, and Francis,
Duke of Guise, emerged as major players in French domestic and foreign affairs.  While Mary had
Scottish attendants, including a group of young aristocratic women known as the “Four Mary’s,” and was
tutored in various aspects of Scottish culture, Mary’s queenly training was for the role of French consort,
rather than Scottish regnant.  
    Mary’s training as a consort reflected the dynastic expectation that her future husband would rule
both France and Scotland, and in the marriage treaty Mary granted her husband the Dauphin Francis
the Scottish crown matrimonial, which vested the Scottish crown in the house of Valois, shortly before
their April 1558 wedding.  In July 1559, Mary’s husband Francis II ascended the French throne, after
Henri II died in a jousting accident, which inaugurated the next phase of Mary’s queenship, as consort of
France. But Francis, never robust, died on 5 December 1560, leaving Mary an eighteen-year-old
dowager queen of France as well as the sole proprietor of the Scottish crown.  With the accession of the
underage Charles IX, and the accompanying ascendancy of dowager queen Catherine De Medici, as well
as the death of her own mother, Mary made the fateful decision to return to Scotland to actually rule as a
queen regnant.  
    During the period of Mary’s residence in France, Scotland had undergone a full-blown Calvinist
Reformation.  Mary of Guise had compromised with the Protestant Lords of the Congregation as regent
in order to retain her power and safeguard her daughter’s sovereign rights.  By the time she died in July
1560 the Protestant Lords, whose ostensible leader was Mary’s illegitimate half-brother James Stewart,
later Earl of Moray, had taken effective control over the Scottish government, negotiating the withdraw of
French forces and an accord with England, the Treaty of Edinburgh, that in the long term put Scotland
on the path of becoming a Protestant ally of England.  The Lords also negotiated the terms of Mary’s
return as Queen of Scotland, in which she agreed to accept the political legitimacy of the Protestant
ascendancy in return for her right to worship as a Roman Catholic.
    For six years, from 1561 to 1567, Mary attempted to rule Scotland.  Landing in Leith on 19 August
1561, Mary was initially greeted enthusiastically by the subjects of a kingdom that had not seen its
monarch for twelve years.  Mary was not particularly concerned with formulating and executing policy;
she rarely attending council meetings, and when she did so she remained a mostly passive participant
doing her needlepoint.  Her initial royal council was heavily weighted with the Protestants who had taken
control of the kingdom during the final phase of the Scottish Reformation and had negotiated the Treaty
of Edinburgh, which Mary refused to ratify because it required her to renounce her English succession
rights.  In an age when religious dogmatism was the rule, Mary’s relative pragmatism towards her
Protestant nobility was heavily influenced by her own dynastic ambitions for the English throne.
    Mary’s claim to the English throne derived through her grandmother, Margaret Tudor, Henry VIII’s
elder sister.  Soon after her return to Scotland, Mary dispatched William Maitland of Lethington to
England to negotiate with Queen Elizabeth I on her English succession rights.   In these actions, Mary
prioritized the dynastic aspects of her queenship over the execution of her royal office, viewing her
queenship primarily as an estate to be managed, rather than an office to be wielded.  In Mary’s eyes, the
English kingdom represented a heritable estate that no earthly law could deprive her of; her queenship
remained focused on estate planning, not only for herself but for her as yet unborn children.  Thus Mary’
s eventual second marriage had significant repercussions upon the English succession, as Elizabeth
continued to decline to either marry or allow the English Parliament to name an official successor.
    Nevertheless, it took Mary three and a half years to take a second husband after she arrived in
Scotland. Elizabeth’s probable motivations behind the chain of events that led to Mary’s second marriage
continues to vex historians.  In 1564, Elizabeth suggested to Mary that she marry royal favorite Robert
Dudley, Earl of Leicester, in exchange for official recognition of her English succession rights.  As
dynastically motivated as she was, Mary never seriously considered marrying Leicester.  Not wishing to
antagonize Elizabeth, however, Mary was willing to listen, but Dudley was not, nor was Elizabeth actually
prepared to provide any surety for Mary’s succession rights, so the plan fell through.  
    A year earlier, however, Elizabeth had written to Mary asking her allow Matthew Stewart, Earl of
Lennox, to return to Scotland after a long English exile.  Lennox was a Catholic, married to Margaret
Douglas, daughter of Margaret Tudor by her second husband, Archibald, Earl of Angus, with whom he
had two sons, Henry, Lord Darnley, and Charles, both with a hereditary claim to the English throne.  In
early 1565 Elizabeth granted Darnley permission to go to Scotland to join his father, despite the fact that,
like his father, he was Catholic.  As some historians have argued, if Elizabeth did favor Mary as her
eventual heir, a marriage with Darnley would unite two rival British claims, as Darnley was both Scottish
and English, while preventing a Catholic continental match.  In July 1565 Mary, aged twenty-two and
Darnley, aged nineteen, were married with Catholic rites.  
    The Darnley marriage was a disaster, the first of a series of costly mistakes that ultimately cost Mary
her Scottish throne.  Scholars who argue that Mary’s downfall was the result of her sexual appetites point
out how Mary fell quickly and very publicly in love with Darnley.  It is difficult to avoid the interpretation
that Darnley’s attractions were primarily physical and dynastic.  Yet on paper the marriage worked for
Mary on a variety of levels.  As a sovereign queen, Mary was free to choose her own husband; she was
undeniably in love and may have hoped for a companionate marriage, creating her husband duke of
Albany and granting him the courtesy title of king.  Darnley’s royal Stewart and Tudor blood also
reinforced Mary’s own hereditary claims, affording their joint heirs an enhanced claim to both the English
and Scottish thrones.  But the Darnley marriage created a wide body of dissention, upsetting the fragile
equilibrium within the Scottish Protestant nobility that Mary had established in the first years of her
personal reign, causing Moray to rebel and flee to England.
    At the same time, Mary’s Italian secretary David Riccio became widely perceived as having undue
influence over the queen, while Mary had quite visibly grown disenchanted with her husband, refusing to
grant him the crown matrimonial that her first husband had enjoyed, which created a public relations
nightmare that called into question the Queen’s own chastity.  In these actions Mary had effectively
isolated herself politically, resulting in the plot led by Lords Ruthven, Morton and Lindsay to murder
Rizzio that included Darnley.  But following Rizzio’s vicious murder within her private apartments (9 March
1566), a heavily pregnant Mary rallied, wooing back Darnley before managing her escape from
Edinburgh.  Mary returned a week later with an army commanded by the Protestant magnate James
Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, reconciling with Moray while Ruthven, Morton and Lindsay fled to England, fast
becoming the refuge for anti-Marian Scots.  In June 1566, Mary give birth to the future James VI, fulfilling
the fundamental dynastic duty of queenship, a feat not lost on Elizabeth, to whom Mary had dispatched
James Melville to bring the news, who reported her saying, “the Queen of Scots was lighter a fair son,
while she was but barren stock.”  
    Mary’s dynastic achievement coincided with renewed attempts in England to get Elizabeth to
designate an heir.  However, Mary squandered her momentary tactical strength through a bewildering
chain of events that ultimately led to her deposition.  Mary’s council, including lords Moray, Maitland,
Bothwell, and Huntly, were united only in their mutual desire to be rid of Darnley, to whom Mary had
outwardly reconciled, but whether Mary actually consented to the plot to kill him can never be proven
conclusively.  In the aftermath of Darnley’s murder on Feb 10. 1567, Mary endured the loss of her
queenly honor that proved crucial in her fall from power and grace in Scotland and England, as she
became widely perceived as colluding with the lead suspect, the Earl of Bothwell, who was acquitted in a
private prosecution on April 12.  These events caused Moray to break with Mary and flee to England,
while on April 12 Bothwell took custody of Mary, willingly or not, while she was on her way from Stirling
Castle to visit her son.  Whether Bothwell raped her or she consented, an already pregnant Mary married
him on May 15 with Protestant rites.  
    It is impossible to say what Mary’s actual motivations were in this sordid and inexplicable chain of
events, whether she had fallen in love with Bothwell, the usual trope deployed, or wished to protect the
legitimacy of any further children, or whether she simply desired a powerful ally to help her rule a
decidedly fractious kingdom.  But the result was that the hitherto universally despised Darnley’s death
provided the pretext for efforts to depose the Queen and replace her with her infant son.  On June 15, a
group of Scottish nobles, the Confederate Lords, successfully defeated Mary and Bothell’s forces at
Carberry Hill, and imprisoned the Queen on Loch Leven.  On July 24 Mary was forced literally at
knifepoint to abdicate her throne in favor of her one-year old son.  Soon after she miscarried twins.
    However, through the assiduous use of her charm, Mary engineered her escape from imprisonment.  
But following the defeat of her Scottish military forces, Mary made the fateful decision to flee to England
in May 1568, presumably to gain assistance from the still heirless Elizabeth.  But Mary’s presence in
England was complicated and unprecedented.  On the one hand, Elizabeth could hardly countenance
the deposition of an anointed queen.  Nonetheless, Elizabeth’s advisors argued that a pro- English
minority regime in Scotland that would raise James VI as a Protestant was in England’s best interests.  
Mary’s presence in England as a Catholic alternative to Elizabeth amid increasing religious polarizations
across Europe made her a potentially dangerous figurehead for Catholic conspiracies.  Because of these
factors Mary was taken into protective custody, much as she was an infant queen, shuffled around
various fortified residences in the midlands and north of England, in the final phase of her queenship, as
an exiled and imprisoned dowager queen.
    But the imprisonment of a sovereign queen on foreign soil need to be justified.  Moray’s discovery of
the so-called “Casket Letters,” which allegedly proved Mary’s guilt in Darnley’s murder, provided the
pretext for a commission of inquiry to examine Mary’s possible guilt which met from October 1568 to
January 1569, whose authority Mary refused to recognize as a sovereign queen, insisting she was not
subject to English law. The authenticity of the letters is impossible to ascertain, although scholars still try,
and Elizabeth refused to either vindicate or condemn her, and assigned her to the custody of George
Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury and his wife Bess of Hardwick at Tutbury Castle, where Mary lived off and on
for a decade and a half.  
    But Mary’s mere presence in England was destabilizing.  English Catholics considered her a viable
alternative to Elizabeth while Mary herself considered a marriage with the proto-Catholic Thomas Howard,
Duke of Norfolk, Elizabeth’s cousin.  Internationally, continued violence between Catholics and
Protestants in Europe, as the Calvinist Dutch revolted against the Catholic Philip II, and the French Wars
of Religion paralyzed France, was aggravated by the revolt of the Northern Earls in 1569, in which the
earls of Northumberland and Westmoreland attempted to depose Elizabeth and replace her with Mary,
placing Mary in exactly the same position as Elizabeth endured during her sister Mary I’s reign, as a
religious alternative to the current occupant of the throne resident in England.  While the revolt was
crushed, and the principals, including Norfolk were eventually executed, Pope Pius V issued the bull
Regnans in Excelsis in early 1570, which declared Elizabeth a heretic and released her subjects from
their allegiance to her.
    It was within the context of this volatile domestic and international situation that Mary continued her
quest to gain support to free herself from imprisonment and restore her to her Scottish throne.  Elizabeth
had initially supported this idea on 1569, which the Moray minority regime soundly rejected, and the idea
of Mary being restored to Scotland and ruling jointly with James VI was an idea that was intermittently
floated until 1585.  In hindsight, however, it is hard to escape the conclusion that by 1570 Elizabeth and
her ministers had decided that Mary’s incarceration would be indefinite.  Elizabeth softened the blow by
allowing Mary to enjoy the trappings of her queenship, observing royal protocol and dining
ostentatiously, maintaining the pretense of an estate that was at variance with the reality of her
incarceration.  Living within the relative bubble of her isolation, Mary became willing to entertain all
manner of strategies to achieve her objectives.  While no foreign governments ever came close to
coming to her defense or offering her help, Mary did not lack for private individuals both in England and
in Europe willing to include her in their plots to dethrone Elizabeth.  
    The first of these, a plot by Florentine banker Roberto Ridolfi, aimed to depose Elizabeth and replace
her with Mary, who would be married to the Duke of Norfolk.  The diligence of Elizabeth’s spy network
exposed the plot and its confederates in September 1571, including John Leslie, Bishop of Ross, Mary’s
chief agent, who made a full confession under threat of torture.  Lacking explicit proof of Mary’s guilt,
which she hotly denied, Elizabeth was reluctant to proceed judicially against Mary, despite the ferocity of
the 1571 parliament’s calls for her blood, and refused to ratify a parliamentary statute barring her from
the throne.  For the next twelve years Mary endured her continued imprisonment, although the fortified
residences she lived in offered less than healthy environments which eventually took a toll on her health,
already subject to stressed induced maladies, as the Marian party in Scotland was driven in oblivion by
successive minority governments, which raised James VI to believe his mother was complicit in his father’
s death.   As James entered his teenage years, he displayed no real desire to help his mother in any
way, much less to share his throne with her, and finally rejected all plans to bring her back to Scotland in
    Mary also suffered collateral damage as foreign plotters placed her at the center of their Catholic
fueled conspiracies.  The uncovering of the Throckmorton plot of 1583, which involved English Catholics
in collusion with the Spanish ambassador and a murder plot by William Parry, resulted in an even more
strict confinement, at Chartley Hall in Staffordshire, along with an equally stricter jailer, the Puritan Amyas
Paulet.  As international tensions increased, particularly with Spain, Elizabeth’s councilors spearheaded
the Bond of Association, a form of lynch law that stated that any individual who attempted to assassinate
Elizabeth should be executed.  
    Although Mary herself subscribed to the bond, she remained cut off from the outside world, existing in
a fantasy world as Elizabeth’s spymaster Francis Walsingham concocted a scheme to entrap her.  
Creating a system where he could monitor her secret correspondence, Walsingham produced evidence
that Mary had given her consent to the Babington Plot, uncovered in September 1586, which was yet
another plot to kill Elizabeth and replace her with Mary.  Soon after Mary was arrested and removed to
Fotheringay Castle in Yorkshire, where in October she was tried under the Statute for the Queen’s
Safety, which was essentially the Bond of Association enacted as law.
    Thus the final phase of Mary’s queenship, the one she wished left for posterity, was that of the
martyred queen.  Throughout the last twenty years of her life, Mary deployed the trope of plausible
deniability for all the crimes she was accused of, from Darnley’s murder to the Babington Plot, a strategy
Elizabeth also employed to distance herself from Mary’s fate.  As she had during the inquest over the
Casket letters, Mary refused to recognize the authority of any legal tribunal in England to try her.  
Nevertheless, she offered a spirited defense at her trial, denying the charges as she had done so many
times in the past. Convicted and sentenced to death, Elizabeth hesitated, waiting until Feb. 01, 1587 to
sign the warrant, which members of Elizabeth’s Privy Council spirited up to Fotheringay, allegedly without
Elizabeth’s knowledge, so she could later deny that she had authorized its deployment.  Confronted with
the news of her impending execution on Feb. 07, after Paulet had refused a suggestion from Elizabeth to
have her killed, Mary had less than twenty-four hours to prepare herself for her final moments as a
queen, which, she invested with the visual trappings of Catholic martyrdom.  
    From our modern perspective, Mary was much more a martyr to the dangers inherent in regnant
queenship in early modern Europe.  While in Scotland she attempted to wield a male gendered kingly
prerogative through the rubric of queen consortship, focusing on the dynastic aspects of her crown at
the expense of shoring up the authority of her office, which eventually cost her Scottish throne.  As an
exiled dowager queen, her desire to escape from her confinement was inseparable from her continued
dynastic ambitions, making her queenship a high profile danger to Elizabeth’s.  Despite the many
attempts to rehabilitate her historical reputation, or feminist attempts to emphasize the formidable
challenges to her queenship, the Mary Queen of Scots story remains a cautionary tale of a woman who
lost control over her queenship.  While the issue of her supposed guilt in her alleged crimes remains a
thorny topic not attempted in this essay, Mary’s inability to control perceptions about her queenship
proved her downfall not only to contemporaries but to posterity as well.  Ultimately, she traded her
queenly honor and her womanly virtue, two qualities essential to a successful queenship, for political
expediency and a desire to escape imprisonment that led to plots that encompassed Elizabeth’s death.  
Try as they may, neither scholars, nor novelists, nor filmmakers will ever free Mary Queen of Scots from
the trope of the tragic queen.  
"Queen for a Day:  Royal Deportment and Political Dialogue in Early Modern Europe"
I delivered this paper at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Medieval and Renaissance Studies
Program, Twentieth Anniversary Conference, Lincoln, NE. , October 2015

    During the European Renaissance, the royal deportment of ruling queens like Isabel of Castile, Mary,
Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth I of England was in important means of communicating with their subjects
and other observers.  This paper will discuss three momentous occasions in the careers of these three
queens:  Isabel’s entry into the newly conquered kingdom of Granada in 1492, the execution of Mary
Queen of Scots in 1587, and Elizabeth I’s Golden Speech of 1601.  Like their male counterparts who
reigned as kings, ruling queens engaged their subjects through their representational strategies, which
included apparel, hair-dos, jewelry, commemorative artwork, as well as their own words.  As women,
these queens accommodated and appropriated contemporary notions of womanhood into the material
facets of their representations to maximum effect, to achieve their queenly objectives during the three
iconic moments I am about to describe for you, all a day in the life of three queens, whose royal
deportment spoke just as loudly as their words.
    So I am in the middle of writing a book about queenship in early modern Europe.  This is not a book
specifically about queens, although there are a lot of queens discussed within it.  Rather, it is a book
about queenship- what was it that queens did?  what kinds of strategies did they pursue?  How did they
conceptualize their role as queen?  The contours of queenship varied by region and changed through
time, with different kinds of queens possessing different types of personalities accessing and wielding
different types of power.  It also depended on what kind of queen you were:  the most common form was
the queen consort- the wife of a king kind of queen.  What was rarer was the queen regnant, a woman
who had inherited and taken possession of what Ernst Kantorowicz conceptualized as the eternal body
politic of kingship within the body natural of a woman.  Despite the kingly power they wielded,
contemporaries called these women queens, in English and other European languages, which, to provide
a modern analogy, would be to call a female president of the United States a first lady.  Thus, the
particular challenge for early modern queens regnant was how to wield kingly power in a fashion
reflective of being a woman.  Of the three queens I am going to discuss, only two of them are usually
considered good at doing this, but all three realized their queenly objectives in the three days in the life I
am about to discuss.
    We will take them chronologically, which means first up is Isabel of Castile, one of the most successful
queens in all of European history.  A big part of the secret of her success was her ability to cloak the iron
fist of her kingly power within the velvet gloves of her queenship.  Even as a teenager Isabel was always
her own woman, defying her predecessor and half-brother Enrique IV by marrying the man of her choice,
her cousin Fernando, heir to the Aragonese crown, but only after he agreed to a set of Capitulaciones, a
form of pre-nuptial agreement that guaranteed Isabel full possession of the Castilian crown.  Five years
later in 1474, when King Enrique died, Isabel muscled out his daughter Juana to take full possession of
the Castilian throne without her husband by her side.
    This was not a queen you wanted to tangle with- like other Renaissance monarchs Isabela was
focused on maximizing her income by reasserting royal authority at the expense of both the nobility and
the town and cities represented in the Cortes General, establishing greater control over the Church in
her kingdom, and kicking the Moors, or Spanish Muslims, out of Spain for good.  The results Isabella
desired required a hard boiled approach, but the unique power sharing arrangement she worked out with
her husband served to mitigate the less feminine aspects of Isabel’s royal prerogative as she crafted the
image of a devoted, chaste, and pious wife and mother, in hagiographies as well as works of art.  In his
acquiescence to Isabel’s sole proprietorship of the Castilian throne, Fernando enjoyed precedence over
his wife, his name coming first in royal proclamations and documents, and serving as her military
commander in Castile, providing the masculine public face for Isabel’s ambitious domestic agenda.  In
time, Isabel relaxed the restrictions of the Capitulaciones, allowing Fernando wider latitude in his position
as a representation of their joint selves, symbolized by the motto, “Tanto monta, monta tanto” ("It's one
and the same, Isabel the same as Fernando").  As Christian belief comprehended marriage as being of
one flesh, Isabel and Fernando gave this concept a tangible political dimension for the manner in which
their joint power flowed between them and out into their kingdom, which allowed Isabel to enjoy her
sovereign rights as queen without damage to Fernando’s masculine reputation as king consort in
Castile.  While she herself exercised the prerogatives of kingship within her council chamber, for public
consumption Isabel inhabited the more recognizable role of queen, even though she was, for all intents
and purposes, Castile’s ruling prince.  By playing public roles that outwardly conformed to gendered
expectations for kingly and queenly behavior, Isabel was able to avoid becoming a target for the kind of
theoretical challenges to female rule that plagued later sixteenth century queens regnant in Europe.  
    Nothing demonstrated this more than on the occasion of the surrender of Granada, which capped a
decade long conflict, known as the “Queen’s War,” as it had been principally a Castilian initiative.  
Although Ferdinand was quite occupied with ruling his own conglomerate of kingdoms with interests in
various facets of Western Mediterranean dynastic politics and commerce, he served as Isabel’s partner
and top military commander in this final phase of the Spanish reconquista, exhibiting the martial qualities
requisite in a military leader.  Isabel’s own representations as military leader combined elements of Joan
of Arc in the donning of armor and the enthusiasm in the way she exhorted her troops to victory, even
while pregnant.  But Isabel also drew inspiration and maintained her identification with the Virgin Mary,
the Queen of Heaven, as she exhibited such queenly qualities as compassion and mercy as she forbid
acts of violence against her Muslim adversaries.  Behind the scenes, Isabel served as an efficient
allocator of military resources, such as during the Baza campaign of 1489, where Isabel bankrolled the
provisioning of the camp which in turn attracted a steady of stream of merchants, all the while imposing
fixed prices on grain imported from Andalusia and the Barbary Coast.  But publicly Isabel emulated the
virtues of the Virgin, establishing military hospitals and granting tax exemptions for the wounded and their
families that overshadowed the more martial aspects of her duties as a warrior queen.  As the war wore
on, Isabel assumed a maternal- like concern for her armies and their moral welfare, which did much to
contribute to her growing reputation for saintliness.  
    The surrender itself was a remarkable display of political theater that served to mask Isabella’s martial
queenship behind queenly reticence and modesty.  On January 2, 1492, Isabel, Fernando, and their son
and heir the infante Juan, rode out to the gates of the city to accept the formal surrender of the Nasrid
kingdom of Granada from the hands of Muhammed XI, also known as Boabdil.  According to a somewhat
romanticized contemporary French source, as the royal party approached the city Boabdil rode out to
meet them accompanied by fifty knights on horseback.   Dismounting before a resplendently dressed and
bejeweled Isabella, Boabdil attempted to kiss her hand, which Isabel demurely declined as her husband
looked on, indicating that the keys of the city should be presented to Ferdinand rather than herself.
    This account of the surrender cast Isabel in the role of a victorious yet conventionally deferential
queen whose behavior complemented that of her husband and co-ruler, as Fernando took pride of place
in the ceremony before handing the keys of the city over to the Count of Tendilla.  Other versions of the
event describe a more pro-active Isabel, admonishing Boabdil for trying to kiss her hand and accepting
the keys of the city from Fernando, but after he had received them first.  But despite their differences,
the point all contemporary descriptions agree upon is that Isabel and Fernando were acting in perfect
concert with one another, with Isabel doing her very best Nancy Reagan, looking on adoringly as
Fernando took center stage during the greatest triumph of her queenship.  Masterly performed for
maximum public relations benefit, the surrender was the closing ceremony of the Spanish Reconquista
and the pinnacle of Isabel and Fernando’s joint achievements as co-monarchs of their two Iberian
    If Isabella went from hard fought queenly triumph to queenly triumph, Mary Queen of Scots pretty
much went from disaster to disaster.  The death of her father, eight days after her birth in 1542, her early
life as an infant Queen of Scots on the run from Henry VIII of England, until she was sent to France in
1548 as a small girl where she survived an horrific assassination attempt, only to witness the horrific
death of her father-in-law Henri II of France in 1559, when she became queen consort of France, only to
endure the horrific death of her husband Francis I a year later, when she decided to return to Protestant
Scotland as a Catholic queen, and then the horrific death of her second husband, Lord Darnley, the
father of her son James VI, for which she was blamed, which led to her deposition and flight to England in
1568, where she lived in protective custody for the next nineteen years as the not so welcome guest of
Elizabeth I.
    What we can say in favor of Mary, Queen of Scots was that she usually looked good as she rode the
float of her parade of queenly disasters.  Standing nearly six feet tall, a consensus of contemporary
opinion was that she was lovely, graceful, and charismatic.  Trained as a consort, she possessed an
enviable queenly style, in terms of the latest in French and Milanese fashions, in the easy accessibility of
her personality, and her facility with languages, which served her well during her long English
incarceration.  Even in her early years in Scotland as a twenty-something widowed queen, she
accessorized new life into the wearing of widow’s weeds, in contrast to her mother Mary of Guise and her
mother-in-law Catherine de Medici, whose own brand of widowed apparel broadcast the news that these
queens had no intentions of marrying again.
    In the early years of her imprisonment, as a dowager queen resident in England, Mary did her best to
keep up queenly appearances, living the life of an exiled dowager queen as she enjoyed a cloth of
estate, devoting significant portions of her income for clothing, wigs, and jewels, and engaging in leisure
activities such as hunting, and riding, and distributing alms to the local populace.  But her confinement
dragged on, and her alleged complicity in Catholic plots against Elizabeth, the Ridolfi plot of 1571, and
the Throckmorton plot of 1583, only served to increase the severity of her incarceration, which took a toll
on her health.  By 1586, the year spymaster Francis Walsingham entrapped her in the Babington plot,
resulting in a death sentence in her subsequent trial, Mary was overweight and virtually lame.  But her
health did not stop her from making the grandest of queenly exits.  
    On the morning of February 8, 1587, Mary, was led out to the great hall of Fotheringay Castle in
Yorkshire to be beheaded.  She had less than twenty-four hours to prepare for her final moments on
earth, but it appears she already had put a lot of thought into her royal deportment.  Protesting her
innocence to the last, and fully cognizant of the significance of her final moments on earth as a queen,
Mary invested her execution with as much symbolic meaning and iconic representation as she could
muster. Her performance was flawless.  Literally dressed to die, she wore black satin and a veil, as a
thrice widowed woman, with an abundance of accessories that proclaimed her devotion to the Roman
Catholic faith.  After ostentatiously reciting loud prayers to drown out the words of a Protestant
clergyman, her attendants peeled off layers of clothing that revealed her bright crimson red petticoats,
symbolizing the martyrdom she was claiming as the cause of her death.  You could hear a hush
throughout the great hall as her attendants prepared her for her death, which all accounts agree she met
both bravely and serenely, a final display of queenly courage and fortitude.  Only after her head was off
her body was it revealed that her close cropped hair was perfectly gray.  
    For Elizabeth I of England, death was more sublime.  Despite the hard fought triumphs of her long
reign, by the end of 1601 she was tired and depressed.  All of her most trusted and intimate servants,
William Cecil, Francis Walsingham, Robert Dudley, Christopher Hatton, were long dead, while earlier in
this same year her final favorite, Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex, was executed for treason, following his
botched rebellion against her.  At the same time, she had to have known that her current ministers were
all currying favor with James VI of Scotland behind her back.  For a queen whose legendary beauty had
longed served as the catalyst for the courtly dialogue of love that is famous for, Elizabeth was now
wrinkled, with blackened teeth, all the while continuing to maintain the fiction that she an ageless object
of Petrarchan-like desire, weighed down with elaborate wigs, precious stones, circus tent like dresses,
and a lot of face makeup.  It was a lot of work being Elizabeth in 1601.  All of this had to have been
getting old.  Really old.  But like the Rolling Stones of 2015, whose median age is the same as that of
Elizabeth in 1601, Elizabeth was not about to let the ravages of time and age prevent her from getting
her act together one more time, in order to defuse a parliamentary crisis.
    The issue was monopolies.  Elizabeth had long financed her governments under essentially feudal
fiscal principles, in the face of out of control runaway inflation as royal income essentially flat-lined.  She
could always call a parliament and ask for taxation, but Elizabeth was not a fan of parliament- she found
their incessant demands to marry, to name a successor, to further reform the church, exasperating.  So
she managed her finances carefully, avoiding wars, the black holes of royal income, like the plague.  
Hers was government on the cheap, “her majesty does everything in halves,” as Walter Raleigh once
quipped, as Elizabeth winked at official corruption, allowing her top ministers to give themselves their own
quarterly and year-end bonuses, while handing out monopolies on various commodities to valued
servants in lieu of gifts from her own royal purse.  
    But it was continued, sustained war that drove Elizabeth to a fiscal breaking-point, causing her to do
what she normally hated to do, which was to call a parliament to ask for taxation.  By the 1580s, Elizabeth
was inexorably sucked into the role of Protestant savior, which led a long drawn out war with Spain, in
which the Armada was simply the opening ceremonies, while she was compelled to spend untold sums on
sustained military operations to pacify Tyrone’s Rebellion in Ulster, which outlived her by a few months.  
    By the fall of 1601, when Elizabeth’s final parliament met, the Commons were fed up, and adamant on
addressing the issue of monopolies, which Elizabeth had failed to resolve adequately in the previous
parliament of 1587/98, as she had promised to do, and the issue dominated discussion during the first
week of the session, despite the efforts of Robert Cecil to direct the parliamentary agenda towards the
goal of the much needed subsidy.  This was more than enough to rattle Elizabeth’s cage.  The attack on
monopolies was an attack on the prerogative; on the other hand, she needed that taxation.  Above all,
Elizabeth was a pragmatist- this is why we love her today- she thinks on her feet, when she has to, this
was not the occasion for her usual procrastination or her anger.  So, quite unlike her immediate Stuart
successors, who always took the bait of parliamentary intransigence, mostly to their disadvantage,
Elizabeth decided upon a shock and awe approach, to disarm the Commons, making them feel like she
had made concessions as she played the card of the selfless and caring queen, sending the Commons a
message, saying she would deal with the situation by proclamation.  Then she sent word that she would
address a parliamentary delegation at Whitehall on November 30.
    Needless to say, she looked every bit the virgin queen, despite her age, as portrayed by Glenda
Jackson in the 1970s miniseries Elizabeth R, like an early modern version of Mae West, another icon who
maintained the image of perpetual youth without apology or any need to acknowledge the reality defying
logic of their own self-representation.  With her packaging in place, Elizabeth deployed her rhetorical skill
to maximum effect.  First, she proclaims her love for her subjects, which is more precious than the gold
and jewels whose brilliance was probably blinding the MPS kneeling in the front row.  She then moves on
to say she was never a covetous prince, wardrobe and accessories aside, before she thanks the
Commons for bringing this issue to her attention, which she knows was not born out of malice, but an
honest concern for their prince who now feels that her honor is at stake.  In fact she rejoices she has now
been enlightened so she can take action.  
    But in the final stretch of the speech, Elizabeth makes a rhetorical distinction between kingship and
queenship.  As Carole Levin has argued, Elizabeth was in fact king and queen all at the same time.  She
had identified herself as a queen earlier on in the speech, but in the final stretch she makes it clear that
she bears the heavy burden of kingship, “To be a king and wear a crown is a thing more glorious to them
that see it than it is pleasant to them that bear it.”  But as she gets ready to close her own show, she
identifies herself once again as a queen, whose ability to love is greater than that of a king,
      There will never Queen sit in my seat with more zeal to my country, care to my subjects and
      that will sooner with willingness venture her life for your good and safety than myself. For it
      is my desire to live nor reign no longer than my life and reign shall be for your good. And
      though you have had, and may have, many princes more mighty and wise sitting in this seat,
      yet you never had nor shall have, any that will be more careful and loving.

In other words, no king can love you like a queen can, and no queen can like I can- delineating a
difference between male and female monarchs in their ability to create that intangible quality of love for
her subjects.  Yet to those of us who study Elizabeth, who feel like we know Elizabeth, we know that,
despite the obvious calculation, at the root of the success of this speech was the ability to project a
sincerity that ultimately was the bedrock of her queenship.  Never did a queen ride off into the Sunset
with more style and grace as Elizabeth did, waiting regally and patiently as the commons filed by to kiss a
hand still as ageless as Astraea, goddess of innocence, purity, and justice.
“An Unexpected Queen?  Isabel of Castile”  I delivered this paper at the 51st annual Medieval
Congress, Kalamazoo, MI. May 12, 2016

    Isabel of Castile (r. 1474-1504) is usually ranked among the most successful queens regnant in late
medieval and early modern Europe, but the historical path she travelled to gain her throne was hardly
assured.  The daughter of Juan II and his second wife Isabella of Portugal, Isabel stood third in line to
the Castilian throne behind her elder half-brother Enrique and her younger brother Alfonso.  After
Enrique became king in 1454, and Alfonso died in 1568, Isabel stood second in line to the throne
behind Enrique’s daughter Juana (b. 1462).  But accusations that Juana was not the king’s daughter,
coupled with increased dissatisfaction with Enrique’s rule, allowed the teenaged Isabel to emerge as a
viable alternative to her brother’s throne.  When a 1468 rebellion forced Enrique to disinherit his
daughter in Isabel’s favor, Isabel agreed to seek her brother’s consent before she married.  Isabel,
however, chose her own husband, Fernando of Aragon without his consent in 1469.  Five years later,
upon Enrique’s death, Isabel assumed the Castilian throne alone, without her husband by her side.
Quite unlike most European queens regnant, who succeeded to their thrones by hereditary right, in
default of male heirs, Isabel of Castile had to fight for her right to succeed against another female
    Nevertheless, for the first sixteen years of her life, Isabel was prepared for and anticipated a future
as a queen consort, as her brother Enrique IV pursued marriage negotiations for her with Carlos, heir
of Juan II of Aragon, and half-brother of her future husband Fernando and later Edward IV of England,
before she was direct for the throne.  All this changed with her younger brother Alfonso’s death in
1468, as Isabel emerged as the dynastic alternative to her brother’s increasingly unpopular rule.  
Much like Isabel’s contemporary Henry VII of England, the patron of historians who characterized his
predecessor Richard III in the most negative of terms, Isabel’s own chroniclers later told the story of an
impotent, effeminate king, who preferred to schmooze rather than fight Castile’s bitterest enemies, the
Spanish Muslims. whose daughter Juana (b. 1462), dubbed Beltraneja, was widely suspected to have
been fathered by his major- domo Beltran de la Cueva. In the face of continuing armed conflict with his
nobility, Enrique acknowledged Isabel as his heir in his final years, in place of his daughter, although he
attempted, unsuccessfully, to exert control over her eventual marriage.  In turn, Isabel accepted as
gospel the idea that her half-niece was conceived in adultery, spending the rest of her life getting it
written into the histories of her reign.
    She was also not about to let Enrique decide who she was going to marry, an issue that was an
inescapable part of Isabel’s future.  As a female heir to the Castilian throne, Isabel’s marriage was
capable of rearranging the power dynamics of the Iberian Peninsula regardless of whom she married.  
Indeed, early evidence of the force of her character is the manner in which she resisted pressure from
Enrique IV to marry Afonso V of Portugal (who later married Enrique’s daughter Juana) and Charles,
duke of Berry, the brother of King Louis XI of France.  In direct defiance of both her brother and wider
European social mores which dictated that unmarried women submit to the will of their male guardian,
Isabel chose her cousin Fernando, heir to the Aragonese and Sicilian thrones, a distant cousin whose
royal line was a cadet branch of the Trastamara dynasty.  It appears that Isabel selected Fernando of
her own free will, and married him in haste in Valladolid on October 19th, 1469, when she was
seventeen and he a year younger.  
    In terms of land and resources, Castile was by far the larger, wealthier, and more powerful kingdom;
Fernando possessed little leverage in the marriage negotiations.  But just as important was Isabel’s
intelligence and force of character, which compelled her to clearly outline her expectations for the
power sharing that would ensue when she became Queen of Castile.  In acquiescing to the terms of the
Capitulaciones, a form of pre-nuptial agreement, Fernando gained Isabel’s hand by recognizing her
position as sole proprietress of the Castilian crown and all of its powers and prerogatives.   He also
agreed to obey Castile’s laws, and pledged not take Isabel or their future children out of the kingdom.  
    Five years later, on Dec. 11, 1474, Enrique IV died.  Unlike other western European states such as
England and France, Castilian kings were not crowned, but underwent a form of inauguration, usually
an acclamation, that signified their accession to the throne.  Because there was an alternative
candidate to the throne, Isabel wasted no time by literally proclaiming herself Castile’s next sovereign in
Segovia in what Peggy Liss has described as a form of self-coronation, before Fernando could join her
and participate in her accession. Fernando was somewhat alarmed; Isabel had borne before her the
sword of justice, which had previously only been done for Castilian kings, which, on paper, Fernando
now was.  
    But Fernando had little to worry about.  Early on, Isabel realized that if she were to be a successful
queen, Fernando must also be a successful king.  Nonetheless, although they had been married for
five years prior to Isabel’s accession, her new status as Queen inaugurated an initial period of
adjustment as the issues of joint sovereignty were negotiated between the pair.  In his acquiescence to
Isabel’s sole proprietorship of the Castilian throne, Fernando shared jointly in the exercise of his wife’s
royal prerogative, serving as her military commander in Castile.  In time, Isabel relaxed the restrictions
of the Capitulaciones, allowing Fernando wider latitude in his position as a representation of their joint
selves, symbolized by the motto, “Tanto monta, monta tanto” ("It's one and the same, Isabel the same
as Fernando").  As Christian belief comprehended marriage as being of one flesh, Isabel and Fernando
gave this concept a tangible political dimension for the manner in which their joint power flowed
between them and out into their kingdom, which allowed Isabel to enjoy her sovereign rights as queen
without damage to Fernando’s masculine reputation as king consort.  While she herself exercised the
prerogatives of kingship within her council chamber, for public consumption Isabel inhabited the more
recognizable role of queen, even though she was, for all intents and purposes, Castile’s ruling prince,
while Fernando inhabited the recognizable male gendered role of king.  By playing public roles that
outwardly conformed to gendered expectations for kingly and queenly behavior, Isabel was able to
avoid becoming a target for the kind of theoretical challenges to female rule that plagued later sixteenth
century regnant queens.  
    For the first few years of their reign, Isabel and Fernando’s initial joint task was to defeat the
pretensions of Enrique’s daughter Juana la Beltraneja, whose claims to the Castilian throne were
backed by her husband, Isabel’s former suitor, king Afonso V of Portugal, in a civil war that lasted four
years.  Although Fernando commanded the Castilian royal troops, Isabella began creating her own
reputation as a militant monarch, which all her successful predecessors as Kings of Castile had done.  
In this particular facet of her queenship, Isabel emulated Joan of Arc, who also rose above her feminine
limitations to fulfill a divinely inspired military purpose.  As a warrior queen, Isabel also identified with the
Virgin Mary, whose attributes of humility, compassion, and maternal love was the flip-side of Fernando’s
masculine militancy.  
    Nevertheless, in the summer of 1575, after Fernando lifted the siege of Toro and retreated, Isabel
castigated her husband for a less than martial spirit, “I wish to pursue uncertain danger than certain
shame . . . there must first be a battle in order to have a victory.”  Isabel’s rebuke, and Fernando’s
answer, much more pious and prudent than Isabel’s martial sense of honor, revealed the makings of
their working relationship in progress.  During the course of this campaign, according to one
contemporary, “not only did the Queen take charge of governing and dispensing justice in the kingdom,
but even in affairs of war no man could show such solicitude and diligence.”  A year later, following the
battle of Toro, which Fernando claimed as a Castilian victory, Isabel convened the Madrigal-Segovia
Cortes, which confirmed the right of her first born daughter Isabel to inherit the Castilian throne, amid a
rather public quarrel with Fernando, allegedly over her discovery of his two bastard daughters.
    But this was the last recorded episode of royal dissidence.  Through time, as they seamlessly
worked out the power dynamics of their kingships, they proceeded to make their joint reputations as
highly successful Iberian monarchs.  For Isabel, the primary objectives were restoring royal power,
which had dissipated during the reigns of her father and brother, principally though the prosecution of
law and order and extension of royal control to the municipalities, providing for the succession,
defeating the Muslims, and defending the Catholic religion.  Isabel achieved all these objectives with
her husband by her side or representing their joint authority in the saddle as her warrior king.  
    Such behavior was part and parcel of a larger model, as Isabel worked hard to create and control
public perceptions of her queenship, drawing from the historical precedents of medieval Castilian
monarchs and the literary examples of biblical and classical queens.  As a queen regnant, Isabel was
invested with the powers and prerogatives of Castilian kingship.  However, she wielded this power as a
woman, wife, and mother.  Thus, Isabel’s queenship was complex; her virago like prosecution of her
kingly duties was tempered by the performance of her queenly duties, rendering her own historical
legacy as instructive for early modern European queens, consort and regnant alike.   
    The breadth of her learning is a testament to the arrival of Renaissance humanism to the Iberian
kingdoms.  Like her sixteenth century counterpart Elizabeth I of England, Isabel was a diligent student
of her kingdom’s history in the construction of her queenship.  One must remember that in the fifteenth
century a “history,” as opposed to a chronicle, often contained a moral purpose that frequently
conflated fact and fiction, especially in the reliance upon legends and myths.  The various Iberian
kingdoms, Castile, Navarre, Portugal, and the Crown of Aragon, all traced their historical roots to the
Visigothic kingdoms that ruled the Iberian Peninsula following the fall of the Western Roman Empire.  
Isabel’s own library, of over 400 titles in Latin and Castilian, was firmly rooted in the classical and post-
classical past; Isabel owned Livy’s Decades, as well as histories of Alexander the Great, the labors of
Hercules, Arthurian romances, and even Boccaccio’s racy Decameron, which suggests a wide ranging
intellectual and artistic curiosity beneath the exterior of a chaste and modest queen.  Isabel would have
certainly owned a copy of the Cantigas de Santa Maria, “Songs for Mary” written by her illustrious
thirteenth century ancestor, Alfonso X, “the wise, “which praised the Virgin Mary as the special protector
of Castilian kings and Queens and the patron saint of the Reconquista.  In her middle years, Isabel
undertook the study of Latin, still the international language of scholars and princes, partly so could
read some of the works in her library herself.
    Indeed, Isabel possessed a number of didactic and prescriptive medieval manuscripts, such as the
late 13th century Primera Cronica, commissioned by Alfonso X, a form of Iberian Aeneid in the way that
it summoned the pagan, classical past to legitimize a sense of Castilian hegemony over the peninsula,
with Hercules, who was also a descendant of Noah, cast in the role of founder of the “Spanish’
monarchy.  Isabel may have also encountered Alfonso’s translation of the Secret of Secrets, which
contained descriptions of the Machiavellian-like wisdom Aristotle allegedly imparted to Alexander the
Great, which counseled practical wisdom over virtue while creating the perception of virtue, controlling
one’s emotions, dazzling one’s subjects with displays of majesty, and ruling strongly and guarding
against rebellions, qualities which all made their way into the construction of Isabel’s queenship.  This
reverence for Castile’s classical and Visigothic origins is reflected in the histories she herself later
commissioned as queen, which revealed Isabel’s queenship as the fulfillment of Castile’s moral and
religious destiny as a crusading kingdom.  
    Isabel may have also derived historical guidance from the fourteenth century Alfonso XI of Castile,
who had commissioned a Mirror for Princes guide for his son and heir Pedro.  This genre was standard
reading fare in medieval European aristocratic culture, and gained new life with the advent of the Italian
Renaissance in the hands of such figures as Boccaccio, whose De Casibus Virorum Illustrium spawned
imitations all over Western Europe.  Alfonso’s own version stressed self-control and a right relationship
with God, whose representatives on earth were kings, attitudes that Isabel exhibited in her own
    All of this advice was for male kings and heirs to the throne.  It was Isabel’s challenge to incorporate
many of these male gendered qualities into her own queenship, which also drew from a millennium of
history concerning the role of queens in medieval European states.  The Siete Partidas (Seven Parts) a
law code also written during the reign of Alfonso X (r. 1252-1284) outlined the basic features of
Castilian queenship, with its exhortations for a queen to be an honorable wife and mother, take care of
her daughter’s education, and manage her household with discretion.  In the domestic facets of her
queenship Isabel demonstrated how she had absorbed this advice in the raising of her own children, all
of whom received educations steeped in the new humanism with particular emphasis on virtue and
piety.  In these efforts, Isabel was highly successful in creating the perception that she was both a good
wife and a good mother.
    Yet the final historical examples Isabel could draw from were created by the two women who were
her father’s queens, Maria of Aragon and Isabel of Portugal.  Juan II was essentially a weak willed king
highly susceptible to the influence of his long standing privado, Alvaro de Luna.  Both of Juan’s queens
went to battle against de Luna, in the tradition of Castilian queenship, functioning as counselors and
companions to their husband, and providing for Isabel the final Castilian precedents for a confident and
politically engaged queenship.  
    Isabel’s success as an unexpected heir owned a great deal to her to instincts, her political skill, and
her ability to create and control perceptions about her that served to legitimate her rule and hers and
Fernando’s dynasty.  In all likelihood, Juana la Beltraneja was her father’s legitimate heir, but she was
simply no match for her Aunt Isabel, who secured the right husband, and then moved with lightning
speed to secure her accession, while employing the written word to castigate her rivals while praising
her as the ultimate dynastic fulfillment of Castile’s destiny.