Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Redrawing the Lines of Power--Women's Family Trees

 Redrawing the Lines of Power--Women's Family Trees

I have just finished hanging a framed poster that was a recent gift from my son: "Matrilineal Dynasties of Europe." It was a perfect present. As it is described at the UseFul Charts website, "This unique chart views European history in a totally new way by focusing on the female-only lines within royal genealogy. Over 100 queens and empresses shown!"

My really crappy photo of
Useful Charts's beautiful
"Matrilineal Dynasties of Europe"
(published with permission)
It was exactly the kind of family tree I wish I'd had many years ago, when I was researching and writing a book that would eventually be published as The Monstrous Regiment of Women: Female Rulers in Early Modern Europe (2002)

In the introduction, titled "Redrawing the Lines of Power," I wrote about my frustration with finding so few women on royal family trees. As I now look happily on the new poster hanging on my wall, I thought I might post an early version of my introduction--it was necessarily edited for the book, but I can print here what I originally wrote years ago . . .* 

And so, an earlier version of "Redrawing the Lines of Power," written in 1998, is published for the first time:

Let us now sing the praises of famous men, the heroes of our nation's history, through whom the Lord established his renown, and revealed his majesty in each succeeding age. Some held sway over kingdoms and made themselves a name by their exploits. . . . Some led the people by their counsels and by their knowledge of the nation's laws. . . . Some there are who have left a name behind them to be commemorated in story. There are others who are unremembered; they are dead, and it is as though they had never existed, as though they had never been born or left children to succeed them.
                                                            --Ecclesiasticus 44:1-3, 4, 8-9

Abraham, the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob. Moses and his brother Aaron. David, the father of Solomon, and Solomon of Rehoboam. Like the "praises" of these "famous men" sung by the author of Ecclesiasticus, the historical narrative of western Europe has focused on generations of men. Political histories, biographies, and genealogies trace lines of power from fathers to sons and grandsons, brothers and nephews. 

During the period of English history with which I am most familiar, for example, Edward III is followed on the throne by his grandson Richard II; Henry IV is followed by his son Henry V, who is followed, in turn, by his son Henry VI; Edward IV was to have been followed by his son, who would have been the fifth English Edward, but instead is succeeded by his brother, Richard III; Henry VII is followed by his son Henry VIII, who is followed by his son Edward VI. Then something strange disrupts this narrative. At his death in 1553, Edward VI is succeeded by his sister, Mary I.

The succession of a woman to the throne of England horrified many, including the Protestant reformer John Knox, who concluded that any woman who presumed to "sit in the seat of God, that is, to teach, to judge, or to reign above a man" was "a monster in nature." Women were incapable of effective rule, for "nature . . . doth paint them forth to be weak, frail, impatient, feeble, and foolish, and experience hath declared them to be unconstant, variable, cruel, and lacking the spirit of counsel and regiment."

Knox published this blistering assessment of female rule, The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, in 1558; his bitter indictment of "gynecocracy" was quickly followed in print by a series of pamphlets that echoed and expanded his argument that female rule was unnatural, unlawful, and contrary to scripture. From Knox's point of view, the political situation could hardly seem worse. Not only had Mary Tudor succeeded to the throne of England, but Mary Stuart, wife of the dauphin of France, had become queen of Scotland, while her mother, Mary of Guise, was acting as regent in Scotland on Mary's behalf.

Unfortunately for Knox, though, the political situation could get worse, and did, almost immediately. When Mary Tudor died only a few months after the Blast appeared, her half-sister Elizabeth succeeded her as queen of England. In France, following the death of her husband Henry II, Catherine de' Medici attempted to become regent of France for her son, Francis II. Outmaneuvered in 1559, she succeeded a year later when Francis died and the dowager queen assumed the regency for her second son, Charles IX. Thus, by 1560, England, Scotland, and France were under the direct "regiment" of women.

I began thinking about this exceptional historical moment after I had the experience of reading, one after another, the arguments against female rule penned by Knox, Anthony Gilby, Christopher Goodman, Jean Bodin, Robert Filmer, and Bishop Jacques Bossuet, among many others, and then, in turn, the defenses of female rule published to counter their extreme, sometimes violent, positions. Much has been written about the political, religious, and cultural factors that shaped this debate, but I was interested in analyzing these texts in a different context. In order to relate theory and practice, I planned to write a series of biographical portraits of the remarkable women whose "regiment" had inspired the debate, exploring the way each of these women achieved, maintained, and manipulated her position even as her right and her ability to do so were contested.

As I considered my project, I was at first uncertain about how to proceed. Aside from Mary and Elizabeth Tudor, Mary Stuart and her mother, and Catherine de' Medici, I knew of only two other women to include in my project: Margaret of Austria, regent of the Netherlands, and Jeanne d'Albret, the Protestant queen of Navarre, whose son had become Henry IV, hing of France. Would it be possible, I wondered, to find enough female rulers to make a "series" of such profiles possible?

But the more I thought about my project, the more I came to see what had been there all along. These women weren't the first powerful women in early modern Europe. Any analysis of female rulers in the early modern period should really begin by focusing on the lives of four formidable women who died early in the sixteenth century: Isabella of Spain (d. 1504), who inherited the throne of Castile; Lady Margaret Beaufort (d. 1509), who chose not to press her own claims to the English throne in order to promote the cause of her son, Henry Tudor; Caterina Sforza (d. 1509), who seized power in Imola and Forlì to preserve it for her son, Ottaviano; and Anne of France (d. 1522), who acted as a shrewd and politically adept regent for her brother, Charles VIII. The careers of these powerful and successful women seemed to me to provide models for the women who were to follow in the next generation. 

Still, as notable as they were, these weren't the only women to whom Mary Tudor or Catherine de' Medici could look for example. As I searched the indexes of political histories and biographies, I began to find the names of female rulers about whom I knew little or nothing. Despite arguments like Knox's against female rule, and despite the ordinary descent of political power from one man to another, it became clear to me that a whole range of "dynastic accidents" in early modern Europe had resulted in a surprising number of women ruling as queens or functioning as regents. It became equally clear that the lives and political careers of these sixteenth-century queens were hardly without precedent

Yet I could find little more than the names of these women at first. How many Blancas of Navarre were there? How many Isabellas of Aragon? Of Castile? Of Portugal? Were Charlotte of Savoy and Bona of Savoy related? If so, how? How did Louise of Savoy fit in? Were Anne of France and Anne of Beaujeu the same woman? What about Mary of Guise and Mary of Lorraine? And why was all this so difficult for me to sort out? I knew that the relationships and connections linking these women couldn't be more complicated than those of the eight Henrys, six Edwards and three Richards I knew so well; the English line of succession from the twelfth through the sixteenth centuries has always been easier for me to recite than the names and dates of American presidents. 

But it was hard to find out much about these Isabellas, Annes, and Marys in traditional political history. Like the "unremembered" others in Ecclesiasticus, it was almost as if they "had never existed, as though they had never been born or left children to succeed them." But clearly they had been born, and equally clearly they had left children to succeed them. And despite the familiar narrative of conventional history, they had also had some degree of real "sway" over various kingdoms and principalities. And so, trying to figure out who these women were and whether and how they were related, I began to focus on the family trees in the books I had in front of me. And that's when I began to notice what (or who) was missing.

Like the generations of "famous men" in Ecclesiasticus-- Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and David, Solomon, Rehoboam--one Henry or Charles followed another in succession, father and son, springing forth as if by spontaneous generation. I searched, sometimes in vain, for women; wives and mothers were simply absent from many of the genealogies appended to the histories and biographies I was reading. I think my favorite is a Valois "family tree" that charts four branches of the family over the course of nearly four hundred years. It looks as if the line of Valois kings (from 1328 through 1547, anyway)--Philip VI, John II, Charles V, Charles VI, Charles VII, Louis XI, Charles VIII, Louis XII, Francis I--managed to do without any wives or mothers at all. Then again, maybe I like best the Habsburg genealogy that begins in the tenth century and continues through the seventeenth century. There are a few wives among nine generations of Habsburg descendants, but, at least according to this family tree, there were no Habsburg daughters born between 950 and the mid-sixteenth century, when Eleanor and Mary show up on one branch.

Meanwhile, in England, the five daughters of Edward III (r. 1327-77) are all too often lumped together at the end of the genealogical line as "daughters," but that at least is an improvement over the tables that chart the descendants of his sons without noting that he had any "daughters" at all. I imagine that "issue," as it often appears on such family trees, could include insignificant males as well as females, but I am suspicious that "other issue" refers exclusively to daughters. I am almost afraid to think of what the disclaimer on one "short genealogical tree" might mean: "The irrelevant branches have been pruned."

Of course not all the family trees I looked at omitted women. The "Kings and Queens of England" poster that is hanging right next to me as I type indicates the wives of Edwards I through III, Henry IV and V, Henry VII and Henry VIII (all six). But why isn't the wife of Henry VI included, especially since she was the strong and powerful Margaret of Anjou (Shakespeare's "tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide")? Edward IV and Richard III are also missing their wives, as are James V of Scotland and his grandson James VI, who becomes James I of England. Then again, to be absolutely fair, while Mary Tudor's husband (Philip II of Spain) is listed, Mary Stuart's husbands, all three of them (Francis, Darnley, Bothwell), are eliminated. Still, this version of the poster is a marked improvement over the previous edition, which left out the wives of Edwards I through III, Henry IV and V as well as Henry VI, and limited Henry VIII to only three of his six wives. If there are rules to determine when women are included and when they are omitted in such genealogies, I haven't been able to figure out what they are.

I must admit I took unexpected pleasure in some of the inconsistencies I found. The Oxford History of England's volume of The Earlier Tudors eliminates all of six of Henry VIII's wives, and while I am, in general, frustrated that so many women have disappeared from royal family trees, I was delighted to see that Henry's entire matrimonial career had been wiped out. Interestingly, his elder brother, Arthur, wasn't given his wife (Catherine of Aragon) either, but his sisters Margaret and Mary are accompanied by their husbands, or at least some of them, at any rate; Margaret has her first two, James IV of Scotland and Archibald, earl of Angus, while Mary has only her second, Charles, duke of Brandon--I don't know why she didn't get to keep her king, Louis XII of France. Henry, for whatever reason, hasn't been allowed to keep a single wife. He looks almost lonely.

Even the most complete family trees, one tracing the Medici family from Giovanni "di Bicci" (1360-1428) and his wife Piccarda Bueri through Giovanni Gastone (1671-1737) and his wife Anne of Saxe-Lauenburg, for example, work patrilineally, tracing descent through the male line. In so many family trees, men's names are set in capital letters or boldfaced or highlighted, their wives' names, when included, are smaller, underneath the names, dates, and titles of the men to whom they are connected, or off to the side, after "m" or "=" to indicate their status as wives. When women marry into a family, their names suddenly appear--but where did they come from? Who were their grandmothers, their mothers, their sisters? And when women marry out of the family, where do they go? Their names are left dangling on the trees of their families, dead ends on the lines of descent. Are they and their descendants the "irrelevant branches" that have to be pruned?

And so, out of frustration, trying to identify the "unremembered" others whose names I had stumbled across, and trying to sort out the connections between them, I set out to draw my own family trees, linking women, generations of mothers and daughters, aunts and nieces. I searched--not always successfully--for the dates of their birth, the dates of their death, the children who succeeded them. As I drew and then redrew my new genealogical tables, I came to see not a series of individual, isolated women who came from nowhere to be swallowed up in the Tudor, Valois, Habsburg, or Medici families, but networks of related women and patterns of connections between them.

Once I had started to redraw the lines, I began to see something else of significance. Mary Tudor can no longer be portrayed as a "monster in nature" who suddenly, and without precedent, dared to assume political power. Mary Tudor's mother, Catherine of Aragon, was not only Henry VIII's first wife, but a queen who had served as regent of England; Catherine, in her turn, was the daughter of Isabella, queen regnant of Castile, who herself was the niece of Maria of Castile, governor of Aragon, and granddaughter of Catherine of Lancaster, regent of Castile. Isabella's elder daughter, Juana (Catherine of Aragon's sister), inherited the crowns of both Castile and Aragon; Isabella's granddaughters included Isabel of Portugal, regent of Spain; Mary of Austria, regent of the Netherlands; and Catherine, regent of Portugal. Among Isabella's great-granddaughters were Margaret of Parma, regent of the Netherlands, and Joanna of Spain, regent of Spain.

I also began to see significant connections and relationships I couldn't always indicate on my redrawn family trees: there were "genealogical" links that went beyond blood ties. Margaret of Austria, who functioned as regent of the Netherlands from 1519 until her death in 1530, had been betrothed at age three to Charles, the dauphin of France; in 1483 she had been sent to the French court where, for ten years, her care and education were directed by the extraordinary Anne, who acted as regent of France for her brother. The betrothal didn't result in marriage; instead, in 1497, Margaret was sent to the court of Queen Isabella of Castile, marrying John, heir to his mother's Castile and his father Ferdinand's Aragon. What was the influence of two such politically adept women on Margaret, who would function so successfully as regent for so many years?

If all this seems confusing, you can see why I needed to redraw family trees. Instead of genealogies that focused on kings and their sons, making clear their relationships and connections, I wanted to draw links that moved backward and forward, tracing queens and their grandmothers, mothers, aunts, sisters, daughters, nieces, granddaughters, and grandnieces. I have to admit that I enjoyed the process of constructing these new family trees. I made the names of the four women I identified as models big--really big, with bold boxes around them. Isabella of Castile overpowers her husband, Ferdinand of Aragon. She also overshadows him--wherever I could, I put my women on top. I also eliminated every son I could, including Henry VIII's long-desired Edward, as "issue" with which I was not concerned, an "irrelevant branch" I could prune. I kept only those men through whom lines of power descended to a woman. The names of the men who remain on my redrawn genealogies are so tiny I can hardly read them without my glasses. It's somehow very satisfying to see Henry VIII looking so small. Instead of Francis I and Charles V looming so large on the scene, I could see women--generations and generations of women of power.

One of the family trees I drew for The Monstrous Regiment of Women

I could also see the shifting political alliances of early modern Europe from a very different (and revealing) perspective. As I drew my new family trees, I realized that the narrative of early modern European political history looked very different if I focused women instead of men. Men like John Knox might argue against women's right and fitness to rule, but women had and could and did rule--and rule well--even as they were were being told they could not and should not.

I began my research, as I said, afraid that I might not find enough female rulers to make the project worthwhile. Instead, as I worked, I found more and more women whose stories should be included in my project, too many women, in fact, to make the project, as originally conceived, practicable. But my redrawn family trees had also suggested a way of redefining the "biographical" essays I had originally planned. Instead of perpetuating the tendency to identify a single, extraordinary woman and to focus on her individual life and "unique" accomplishments, I decided to explore the relationships among women whose lives occupy a place in and perpetuate a continuing, though largely unrecognized, tradition of political rule. Their careers, like their lives, are intertwined.

The women who assumed political power in succeeding generations in England, Scotland, France, Spain, Portugal, the Holy Roman Empire, the Netherlands, and city-states of Italy were far more numerous--and more successful--than I had imagined, but even more surprising than their numbers and their successes is how completely their names and stories have disappeared from the history of early modern Europe. Aside from Queen Isabella, who funded the voyage of Columbus, "Bloody Mary" and good Queen Bess in England, and the romantic Mary, Queen of Scots, I had learned almost nothing about any of these "monstrous" women in a classroom, through a textbook, or from the pages of the histories and biographies I had read on my own throughout the years.

The "story" of early modern European political history has been defined by the lists of "famous men" we have constructed, lists that have "revealed . . . majesty in each succeeding age," lists that have told us who "held sway over kingdoms." There are, indeed, some "who have left a name behind them to be commemorated in story," just as there are "others"--primarily women--who have been forgotten. As far as "history" has been concerned, they are dead--it is "as though they had never existed, . . . never been born, or left children to succeed them."

I have tried here to read the past in a different way and to narrate the story from an alternative perspective. I hope, in fact, to have presented a counter-narrative here--by focusing on the lives and relationships of women, those "others" who did exist, those others who--like theirs fathers, husbands, and sons--did "hold sway" over kingdoms and make themselves names "by their exploits," who did leave children to succeed them, and who, though dead, should not be "unremembered."

My efforts here are not intended to be, and could never be claimed to be, definitive and comprehensive. I have crossed too many chronological, geographical, institutional, and theoretical boundaries to speak authoritatively. Instead, I hope they will be regarded as exploratory and suggestive-- summarizing, contextualizing, and drawing together what is known about female rule and rulers in early modern Europe, perhaps best read as an outline for or a rought draft of a counter-narrative that remains to be written.

By the way, after thinking about it for some time, I decided as I redrew my family trees to let Henry VIII keep two of his six wives--Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, strong and determined mothers whose daughters became queens.
. . . 

If you've read this far, I hope you can see that I've continued the work I began more than twenty-five years ago. In 1998, I wrote, ". . . as I worked, I found more and more women whose stories should be included in my project, too many women, in fact, to make the project, as originally conceived, practicable."

Now, at this site, also named The Monstrous Regiment of Women, I've been able to write about many of the women whose stories I couldn't tell then.

*For the sake of readability, I haven't linked all the names here to corresponding essays on this site--if you use the search function, you will be able to find posts for all of the women named here.