Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Five Great Queens

On this date in 1533, Elizabeth I ascended to the throne of England. Her 45-year reign was a golden age in British history, a new height of intellectual, military and economic success. To mark the occasion, five other women who ruled with absolute authority.

1. Hatshepsut, Pharoah of Egypt. The historical records are sketchy, but she reigned for almost 22 years, from approximately 1479 BCE to 1458 BCE. She brought peace and prosperity to Egypt, restoring international trade and sponsoring building projects that survive to this day. She married her half-brother, Thutmose II, and had one daughter by him, Neferure. Hatshepsut became regent for Thutmose's son by a concubine, Thutmose III, but ruled as de facto pharoah until her death. Among other things, she is credited with importing the first frankincense trees to Egypt.

2. Isabella, Queen of Castile. With her husband, Ferdinand of Aragon (who was also her second cousin), she united Spain and ruled half the known world between 1474 and 1504. A fervent Catholic, she oversaw the conquest of Granada and, later, the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain. (In historical terms, "great" does not always equal "good.") She granted — on his fourth or fifth request — Christopher Columbus' petition to follow a western route to the Indies. She sponsored the Inquisition, and placed her five surviving children (a sixth died in infancy) on thrones around Europe.

3. Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia. She was Sophie Auguste Frederike von Anhalt-Zerbst, a German princess, when she went to Russia at the age of 14. She converted to Russian Orthodoxy and took the name Yekaterina before she married her second cousin, Peter, heir to the Russian throne. Peter's reign lasted less than seven months; rumors that he was retarded or syphilitic were probably propaganda, but he was unacceptably pro-Prussian, and the Imperial Russian Guard deposed him in favor of his wife. Catherine ruled for 34 years (1762–1796), expanding and consolidating Russian power and modernizing the Russian economy and political system. As far as social reforms went, she talked a better game than she played; the term "Potemkin village" dates to her reign, describing reforms that happened only for show. But she did preside over the beginning of the Russian enlightenment, an unprecedented era of creativity in literature, painting and especially opera. She died of a stroke; the rumor about the horse came from her resentful, long-persecuted son and heir, Paul.

4. Victoria, Queen of England and Empress of India.
England's longest-reigning monarch (1837–1901), she was the living symbol of an empire where the sun never set. Having nine children did not keep her from taking an active role in government, presiding over military campaigns that conquered most of the world and an industrial revolution that transformed the British economy for good. The death of her husband, Prince Albert, in 1861 changed her; she never came out of mourning, and if she wasn't amused, that was why.

5. Tzu-Hsi, Empress of China. She was a low-ranking concubine to Emperor Hsien-Feng, but she bore his only son, and served as regent after the Emperor died. As Dowager Empress of China, she ruled with absolute authority from 1861 to 1908, refusing to give up power even when her son, Tung Chih, came of age. Tung Chih died of venereal disease at the age of 20, and the concubine who was pregnant with his child died under mysterious circumstances. Tzu-Hsi opened China to the West, which ultimately led to the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. It's not clear whose side Tzu-Hsi was on in the Boxer Rebellion, but she managed to hang on to power after Western armies intervened to suppress the rebellion. She began to make reforms and promised a constitution and representative government, but died before putting those in place. Her heir, her three-year-old nephew Pu Yi, was China's last Emperor.


John Schramm said...

What about the Aretha, Queen of Soul?

Kevin Wignall said...

One slight correction - Elizabeth's reign was a golden age in English history, not British - Scotland was still a separate country. Although Elizabeth's successor, James, was also King of Scotland, the Act of Union and formation of Great Britain didn't take place until a century later.

AnswerGirl said...

Thanks, Kevin. What about Wales, then?

Kevin Wignall said...

Funny, but Wales doesn't count. I don't mean that, of course, and I have a fondness for Wales and the Welsh. But Wales is considered merely a Principality and would have been treated at the time as an appendage to England. It's easy to blame "the English" in this regard, but all of this really stems from the order in which the Normans gradually established themselves in the years after 1066.

Okay, I'm becoming a history bore...