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The forgotten women who ruled Europe during the Renaissance

Por: Diana Garrido 14 de noviembre de 2022

Remembering their achievements is the best way to honor these powerful women and inspire new generations.

History and its scholars are difficult to understand. Sometimes, rumors win out over true events, and myths are created that are difficult to disprove, especially when centuries have passed. This happens particularly with strong female characters in history. One great example is Marie Antoinette, who is often thought of as a selfish and self-centered character who only focused on her lavish life. In recent times, several historians have put all their efforts to prove that the last queen of France was not the soulless monarch that everyone believes.

Another female character that went through this historical treatment is Cleopatra. The first femme-fatale and a woman whose body passions ended up ruining her empire although it’s been proven that she was a very smart and devoted ruler. Now, these two women share something in common, their myths have turned them into some of the most popular characters in history, but many other women who actually held positions of power, are often forgotten. Here are 5 women who were at the head of a European nation during their Renaissance, and history took care of burying their legend.

Catherine of Aragon

At the age of 3, she was engaged to Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales, who fell in love with her because of her beauty. However, shortly after the wedding, the (already crowned) King of England fell ill and passed. She was then married to Arthur’s brother Henry, who ascended the throne as Henry VIII with her as Queen.

Catherine, daughter of Isabella of Castille and Ferdinand of Aragon, was an educated woman who received a privileged education from a very young age. She was always interested in the arts and the education of others. This made her a patron who supported all artists who required a little help and credibility, which made England a key center of the Renaissance. She studied canon law, and even William Shakespeare described her as “the Queen of all queens and model of female majesty.”

King Henry VIII infamously divorced her to marry Anne Boleyn. Catherine lived the rest of her days in seclusion, far away from court and forgotten by history. But that’s another story.

Anne of France

She was the eldest daughter of King Louis XI, from whom she learned many things, even more than her brother, who was still very young. After her father’s passing, she pretended to accede to the throne; however, the Salic Law forbade her to do so, although she was allowed to act as regent until her brother came of age.

During this time, she devoted herself to writing and publishing a manual of advice for noblewomen, called Teachings, which is often compared to Machiavelli’s The Prince. It was not a manual of behavior or one in which women became the subservient monarchs that many people thought they should act like. The manual was dedicated to empowering women and making them see that when their husbands were absent, they should take care of themselves and their families and, if possible, their nations.

Margaret of Austria

She can boast of having received direct education from Anne of France since she was at her court. She was manipulated and “guided” by Charles VIII. She married John, heir to the throne of Isabella and Ferdinand, who soon passed. Thus she devoted herself to the upbringing of noblewomen while a new husband was found for her.

After another pair of husbands passed, her niece Mary of Hungary offered her regency of the Netherlands, and there she returned to the education of sophisticated and empowered women. This earned her the nickname “Great Mother of Europe.” That was until Queen Victoria took the title after having all her offspring settled on Europe’s most influential thrones in the 19th century.

Marguerite de Navarre

She married the Duke of Alençon, Charles IV, with whom she did not conceive any heir. When her husband passed, she married Henry II of Albert, King of Navarre, and had two children. However, her true vocation was reading and writing, which she practiced since her youth and never stopped despite the refusal of her husband.

Margaret published novels and poems, which gave life to a very prolific artistic legacy. At the end of her life, she wrote The Prisons of the Queen of Navarre, a philosophical and theological text, as well as Heptameron, a collection of 72 stories that take place over seven days (in fiction). Simone de Beauvoir based a novel on it and even mentions it in one of her works.

Mary Tudor

The eldest daughter of King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon was excluded from his court for a long time, thanks to his engagement with Anne Boleyn. The girl was reconciled with her father long after the passing of her mother, and it was thanks to Jane Seymour, her father’s third wife, that the doors to his court were opened to her again. When the King passed, his little brother, Edward VI, inherited the throne; however, she was still in the line of succession, so -almost- in arms, she snatched the throne from the child who was ill and intended to leave it to her distant cousin.

Mary, who was Catherine’s daughter, carried the same impetus as her mother, so the people cheered her at her public appearances. However, because she withdrew from the Protestant religion and implemented Catholicism again, many citizens attacked her, making her look like the rest of her family: corrupt, capricious, and unreliable. Even so, she continued to do her best to implement her ideas until she became obsessed with her feud against Protestantism.

Not only Marie Antoinette and Cleopatra were victims of gossip and misrepresentation. Also, these other women were seen only as the wives of great monarchs, tyrants, or people who were clumsy to take control of a nation. They have remained on the wrong side of history, as their exploits have been relegated. However, not all of them have been forgotten. Remembering their achievements is the best way to honor them and inspire new generations.

Story originally published in Spanish in Cultura Colectiva

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