God Save The Queen! 6 Amazing Books on Famous First Female Monarchs of Various Countries

Misogyny made it rare for women to gain the throne in their own right. But these six Queens were able to rule, despite the pushback of their being women.

Non-Fiction Recommendations
A golden crown rests against a red silk sheet against a black backdrop. Book covers for "Matilda: Empress, Warrior, Queen", "Isabella: The Warrior Queen", and "Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman" are positioned to the left side.

Under the laws of primogeniture, the line of succession in monarchies typically passes from eldest son to eldest son. While several monarchies still maintain this order, there’s been a dramatic shift among many to pass the crown in order of birth rather than sex. However, this doesn’t mean women weren’t able to come into positions of power in centuries ago.

While these women were often elected due to succession crisis, they all fought tooth and nail to ensure they received their due rights. And so, here are six books that explore the lives, controversies, and legacies of some of the earliest Queen’s in history.

Matilda: Empress, Queen, Warrior by Catherine Hanley (England)

While Empress Matilda is mentioned in discussions of English history, she wasn’t officially the first Queen of the country. After her youngest brother died, her father, Henry I of England, was left with no legitimate male heir, causing him to name Matilda as his successor. But when Henry I died, Matilda and her husband faced opposition from the English barons, allowing her cousin, Stephen of Blois, claim to the throne. This dispute led to the first English Civil War, the Anarchy, which lasted for 15 years and resulted in the succession of Matilda’s son Stephen.

Book cover; a medieval tapestry shows Empress Matilda riding into battle with her troops against a red background.

Hanley’s biography of Empress Matilda explores her life in full context, focusing on her achievements as a political and military leader and providing fresh insight into her campaign to claim her title as queen. Hanley further argues that, while Matilda never saw the throne, it was a reward to see her son become king.

Wu Zhao: China’s Only Woman Emperor by N. Harry Rothschild (China)

Beginning her imperialness as a fifth-rank concubine, Empress Wu quickly killed her way up the ranks to become China’s first Empress. While her story and reign have likely been skewed by male Confucian scholars who were unimpressed with having a woman in charge, her reputation well proceeds her. She is alleged to have killed her infant daughter to frame the sitting Empress and banned and killed relatives and supporters of those who challenged her rule, including her children and grandchildren.

Book cover; Wu Zetian's portrait is positioned to the right side of a green and gold background. "Wu Zhao" is at the top left in white font.

Set against the background of Tang China, Rothschild takes reader through Wu Zhao’s life, from her humble beginnings to her rise from fifth-rank concubine to Empress. Rothschild also explains how Wu utilized Buddhist rhetoric, court rituals, and cruel officials to cow her rivals, leading to the inauguration of the first and only Chinese Empress.

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie (Russia)

Similar to Empress Matilda, Catherine II, or Catherine the Great, was also not the first Queen of Russia. But she is the most famous. While born into an impoverished German duchy, Catherine’s mother had royal ties that resulted in her engagement to the Russian heir, Peter. As he grew unpopular, preferring all things Prussian, Catherine’s loyalty to Russia gained her numerous supporters. So, when sitting Empress Elizabeth died, a swift coup easily dethroned Peter, allowing a German princess with no legal right to reign as Queen of Russia for the next 34 years — longer than any other female sovereign.

A depiction of Catherine the Greats face is in the top right corner wearing an earring against a red background.

Massie’s biography vividly brings the famous Empress to life, following her from an obscure German princess to the Empress of Russia. Massie further details her handling of domestic rebellions, foreign wars, the political changes and violence brought on by the French Revolution, and her friends, family, generals, and lovers.

The Woman Who Would Be King by Kara Cooney (Egypt)

Though historical records argue she was the second woman to rule Egypt, Hatshepsut is more well-known. A daughter of King Thutmose I, Hatshepsut became Queen when she married her half-brother Thutmose II. After her brother’s death, she acted as regent for her stepson, but ended up taking on the full powers of pharaoh and became co-rulers with him. Her reign saw an extension of trade and ambitious building projects. Often depicted in male garb, Hatshepsut was relatively unknown until the 19th century.

A model dressed as Hatshepsut stands in the background of the image against a black background and a ring of gold light surrounding them.

Constructing a rich history of the artifacts from her reign, noted Egyptologist Kara Cooney traces the life of an almost-forgotten pharaoh, offering an intriguing interpretation of how Hatshepsut rapidly and methodically rose to power — and how she fell just as quickly. Cooney also explores modern societies’ complicated reactions to women in power.

Isabella: The Warrior Queen by Kirstin Downey (Spain)

Claiming herself Queen of Castile to demonstrate her independent spirit and strength of character, Isabella of Castile’s history is conflicting. While she initiated a program of reform that reduced the powers of her nobles, streamlined government, encouraged scholarship, and sponsored Columbus’s voyages, she and her husband, Ferdinand II, also oversaw the Inquisition, which removed 170,000 Jews from Spain.

Isabella of Castile's portrait is on the left side of the image with a circle of golden swords positioned in the foreground.

Using new academic studies, Downey follows Isabella of Castile through history to tell the story of the brilliant, controversial, fervent and forgotten woman whose faith guided her through life, and the ancient conflicts and intrigues she brought under her command.

Maria Theresa: The Habsburg Empress in Her Time by Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger (Austria)

Not intended to be a ruler, Maria’s father, Charles VI issued the Pragmatic Sanction in 1713, to ensure that his daughters would succeed to the throne over his brother’s, making Maria Theresa the only woman to rule the Habsburg dynasty.

Empress Maria was also one of the most successful, doubling the number of army troops, reorganizing the tax structure to ensure an annual income to support the government, and centralizing the tax office. She was also depicted as courageous, generous, and kind, focusing on human concerns, especially serf reform, in the latter half of her reign. Yet some scholars doubt this saintly interpretation of her.

A portrait of Maria Theresa's coronation makes up the background, with Maria to the right of the image. The title and author info are in white text at the bottom of the image.

Using archival evidence, Stollberg-Rilinger provides a panoramic biography of Maria Theresa, examining all facets of eighteenth-century society and situating the Empress within it. Stollberg-Rilinger also dispels the myths surrounding her: challenging the idealized image of her as an enlightened reformer and revealing how she despised the ideas of the Enlightenment, treated her children with relentless austerity, and mercilessly persecuted Protestants and Jews. Maria Therea paints an unforgettable portrait of the uncompromising yet charismatic woman who left an enduring mark on an era.

Many of these women made names for themselves in their respective countries and eras, but most were tainted with rumors of cruelty, a likely result of the sexism that existed. It’s unfortunately that which keeps them in the collective memory, as many of the first women to rule were seemingly unremarkable and left little to write about their lives. Monarchies may be slowly progressing to allow women an equal chance of inheriting their countries’ thrones, but historians and scholars still have to work to uncover the stories of these forgotten queens.

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