E. William Monter

 

On his book The Rise of Female Kings in Europe, 1300-1800

Cover Interview of January 19, 2012

In a nutshell

This is the first modern history of officially-acknowledged female rulers in major states.

It focuses on Europe between 1328 and 1796 because that is the only time and place with a sizable number of them.  Women were never candidates in Europe’s major elective polities like the Holy Roman Empire or the Papal states.  But in most European kingdoms—France became the outstanding exception—women could inherit thrones after 1300 in the absence of suitable males.

In order to identify these female rulers, I use numismatics, a discipline ignored by “mainstream” political history.  Ever since Cleopatra VII, bona fide women rulers almost everywhere were literally “on the money,” and their coins survive.  This criterion locates thirty women sovereigns in fourteen widely-separated European states, including the “westernizing” eighteenth-century Russian empire (the book includes a map on pages xiv-xv).

My 458-year sample seems long enough to sketch meaningful changes in the conditions under which women exercised supreme political authority, but also small enough to permit at least a brief sketch of every one. Their failures are as instructive as their successes.

The thread that gives the book its conceptual unity is how these female sovereigns handled the problem of matrimony. Like conventional queens, they were expected to produce legitimate heirs. Unsurprisingly, ninety percent of them married at some point; Elizabeth I of England became the first of three exceptions.

But should women invested with sovereign authority be expected to show conventional subordination and deference to husbands?  The answers varied with individuals, but evolved over time towards greater wifely autonomy. The anomalous situation in which women became “kings” (and were frequently crowned as such) created enormous problems in defining the role of their husbands.  Five of them succeeded their wives on the throne, in 1395, 1399, 1401, 1441, and 1694.  But three were murdered (in 1345, 1567, and 1762), while another fled to a French monastery in 1421 and yet another died insane in a foreign prison in 1586.