Queenship at the Renaissance Courts of Britain

How did queen consorts, especially those married to powerful kings of larger than life character, attempt to shape their own image at court? This becomes especially fascinating with foreign queens who sought to demonstrate loyalty while developing personal networks and working to exercise a degree of influence at the same time as making a new court their new home. Dr Michelle L. Beer explains how she was drawn to this matter of queenship, discussed in detail in her new book.

In 1520, the king of England, Henry VIII and his Spanish queen, Catherine of Aragon, hosted her nephew, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, on an official state visit to Canterbury. Having paid their respects at the shrine of St Thomas Becket, Charles and his entourage were treated to banquets and entertainments with the king and queen before a watchful court audience. The Venetian ambassador who observed these events keenly noted that “the Queen wore a petticoat of cloth of gold with a black ground, slashed and laced with gold and black cords, at whose extremities in lieu of tags, there hung pearls and jewels…Round her neck were five large strings of pearls, with a pendant of St. George on horseback slaying the dragon, all in diamonds.” Although Catherine was fiercely loyal and proud of her Spanish heritage, at this family meeting she used her jewelry to emphasize her allegiance to her husband and to England by wearing an image of the patron saint of England.

Engraving of Queen Catherine of Aragon
by WH Mote, From Biographical sketches of the Queens of England. Wikimedia Commons.

Modern leaders and their wives are used to having their appearance and dress parsed for political meaning, but the survival of this kind of observation was relatively new in the sixteenth century, as sources like the Venetian dispatches are nearly non-existent before this period. For historians, accounts like this are pure gold, and they give us insight into the expectations and actions of royal women in particular, who tend to be ignored by official chronicles. My book on Catherine of Aragon and her sister-in-law, Margaret Tudor, wife of James IV of Scotland, uses sources like these (among others) to understand how queens acted as the political partners of the king at the Renaissance courts of England and Scotland in the early sixteenth century.

I was first drawn to the sixteenth century as an earnest undergraduate history major at an all-women’s college because this is a century where women ruled, figuratively and literally. Elizabeth I loomed large in my early historical imagination, but overall the sixteenth century was undeniably the age of powerful women, including ruling queens like Mary I of England or Mary Queen of Scots, and queen regents like Catherine de Medici or Mary of Guise. As my studies matured, I became fascinated by the royal women who didn’t rule, the queen consorts. Married to larger-than-life figures like Henry VIII and James IV of Scotland, the careers of queen consorts like Catherine of Aragon and Margaret Tudor are difficult to trace and yet are undeniably important, as they successfully achieved personal and political goals for themselves, their households, and their dynasties.

Posthumous portrait of Margaret Tudor (1489-1541), Queen consort of Scotland, presumably painted for Charles I, 
circa 1620-1638. From the Royal Collection RCIN 40118, Wikimedia commons.

This period and its royals are incredibly popular subjects for novels, films, TV series, and popular biographies, so imagine my surprise when I found that neither Catherine nor Margaret had been studied in detail by historians since the 1940s. There have been many changes in historical scholarship in the intervening decades, and historians now have a new understanding cultural and social values, patronage, and gender roles of the royal court, all of which I have incorporated in my study of these two queens. But, like any well-trained historian, I wanted my work to do more than “update” the biographies of these two women. Instead, I set out to show how they used important areas of court life–clothing and dress, hospitality, patronage, and piety–to become respected and honored royal partners and consorts.

Because these women are well-known but not well-understood, my book is not a traditional biography of either of them. Instead, I look at specific areas or themes in court life to show how Catherine and Margaret interacted with their husbands, courtiers, and servants. In one chapter, I show how they helped to arrange marriages for their foreign ladies with members of the native nobility, building connections between themselves and important members of the elite. Their involvement did not stop once the matches were made, however. Catherine ensured that her ladies were well-taken care of by making her own officials and lawyers trustees of the wedding contracts, and one of Margaret’s gentlewomen and her husband continued to receive grants of lands and titles from the king and queen in the years after their arranged match. For Catherine and Margaret, this sort of patronage allowed them to build the influence and connections that they needed as foreign queens in England and Scotland.

My book shows that Catherine and Margaret interacted with their husbands and their subjects in many other important ways, such as going on royal pilgrimages, hosting banquets and entertainments, or distributing clothing, positions, or income as patronage. All of these queenly actions helped to build strong relationships between these queens and their royal husbands, giving them access to power, authority, and legitimacy. I think that understanding how Catherine and Margaret wielded power and influence can help us understand the complex, personal and political relationships that run through the corridors of power, both in the sixteenth century and today.

This guest post was written by Michelle L. Beer, an independent researcher working in Oakland, California. 

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