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SOVEREIGN LADIES by Maureen Waller

SOVEREIGN LADIES

The Six Reigning Queens of England

By Maureen Waller

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 2007
ISBN: 978-0-312-33801-5
Publisher: St. Martin's

Glossy, deeply detailed, occasionally repetitious comparative examination of the six queens who have ruled England in their own right.

No law barred women from the medieval nation’s throne, writes British historian Waller (London 1945, 2005, etc.), “but in practice the idea of female sovereignty was anathema.” Although Henry I left the crown to his daughter Matilda, she was never actually anointed queen, and a male cousin snatched the throne in 1135. After that, most women with royal claims ceded or were forced to cede their rights to husbands or male relatives. Henry VIII’s daughters were the first two queens to actually rule. Catholic Mary I (1553–58), daughter of Henry’s banished Queen Katherine, succeeded her Protestant brother, Edward VI, in a coup d’état; her dubious legacy included an unpopular marriage to Philip II of Spain and the burning of heretics. Elizabeth I (1558–1603) restored Protestantism and enjoyed a magnificent reign, trumping male discomfort “by claiming to have ‘the body but of a weak and feeble woman’ but ‘the heart and stomach of a king.’ ” Mary II (1689–94), reluctant to assume power when Parliament excluded her Catholic father, James II, generally deferred to husband and joint sovereign William III. Her frugal younger sister Anne (1702–14) ascended after William’s death and proved the last of the Stuarts. The mighty Victoria (1837–1901), who assumed the throne at age 18, favored a domestic role and actually expressed hostility to women’s entry into professional life. Queen Elizabeth II (1952–) remains elusive, yet dauntless in will and absolutely loyal to her people.

The groaning shelves of books about English royalty hardly require another volume, but at least Waller's take is refreshingly feminist.