Wednesday, 8 January 2014

The queens of centuries past

The year 2014 sees Great Britain with a queen regnant, rather than a queen consort.  And three hundred years ago, the newly formed country of Great Britain found itself in the same situation.  Back in 1714, there was no queen consort lined up and waiting in the wings and three centuries on, the situation is fairly similar. In 1714, Queen Anne held the throne and her heiress was Sophia, Electress of Hanover.  Sophia's heir, George, had already separated from his wife and locked her in a tower.  When the Hanoverian accession happened, it would not start with a queen consort. In 2014, Elizabeth II wears the crown but her heir, Prince Charles, has already said his wife will not be queen when he is king and will instead use the title of Princess Consort.  For these two moments in British history, queen consorts are thin on the ground.

She married a king but would never be queen - the missing consort of England, Sophia Dorothea, wife of George I

It stands in contrast with the state of the monarchy 900 years ago.  The new kingdom of Norman England was just shy of 50 years old in 1114 but was already on its third monarch.  Henry I, the youngest son of William the Conqueror, had somehow ended up in charge of his father's kingdom and while he was steadily shoring up his power and the administrative control of the entire land that had marked his father's reign with such success, his wife was setting the pattern for queen consorts in this new realm.  Henry's wife was Edith Dunkeld, daughter of a Scottish king and a saint.  She had married Henry just months after his accession in a marriage that followed, in many ways, the example set by the wedding of William the Conqueror and Matilda of Flanders.  Henry's mother had brought with her established royal blood that added a regal touch to the lineage of William whose father was a duke descended from Vikings and whose mother was a Norman girl who his daddy hadn't married.  Henry may have been the son of a king but he was a conquering king and the Norman dynasty still needed to establish its royal pedigree.  Marriage with a Scottish princess didn't bring Henry wealth but it did add a touch more blue blood to his family and linked him to a tradition of rule within the islands his father had barged in on so definitely in 1066 that went back centuries.  Edith, who was known as Matilda as queen, was a consort who made her husband much more of a king than he would have been without her.

Edith Dunkeld ruled England as Queen Matilda, consort of Henry I from 1100 until her death in 1118

Edith became hugely popular with her new subjects and was known for her piety, her devotion to helping the poor and her love of the arts - all areas that became associated with good conduct by good queen consorts in the centuries that followed.  She gave Henry a daughter, Matilda, and a son, William, and her death was widely mourned.  She was around 38 when she died in 1118 but the loss of a popular queen consort became a tragedy just two years later when her only son, William, was killed in the White Ship disaster leaving Henry without a legitimate heir.  In many ways, Edith had an easy run at establishing herself as queen consort.  She was a homegrown royal a time when many still resented the iron rule of the Normans who had conquered and consumed in less than fifty years.  She had had royal training thanks to her early childhood years at the Scottish court.  And she had no rivals.  Her husband's predecessor as king, William Rufus, had never married and her mother-in-law, Matilda of Flanders, had been dead for twenty years by the time Edith became consort.  There was no queen dowager lurking in the wings, or the dower house, to make Edith's life difficult.  The second queen consort of modern England could shape her role as she saw fit.  And arguably, she created a pattern that lasts to a certain extent until today.

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