Next year the Church of England will appoint its first female bishop and Hilary Clinton will decide whether to try for the US presidency. We might think that such manifestations of female power were novel. Feminist campaigners and male chauvinists alike could be surprised to learn that 500 years ago women held most of the top jobs in Europe.
We know, of course, that Henry VIII’s two daughters consecutively ruled England throughout the second half of the 16th century. But, over the border, Scottish affairs were in the hands of female regents from 1513 to 1560. James IV died in 1513 and was succeeded by the infant James V. Until 1541 state affairs were, (though not uncontested) in the hands of his widow, Margaret Tudor. In 1542 history repeated itself when James V died, leaving only a baby daughter as his heir. His widow, Mary of Guise, held the regency until 1560. Only months before France had been plunged into mourning by the death of Henry II in a tiltyard accident. Once again it was the widow, Catherine de Medici, who took up the reins of government on behalf of her underage son, Francis II. She had the misfortune to see, not only Francis, but his two brothers die without heirs. Until 1588 Catherine exercised political power, which was particularly ironical, as the Salic Law, operative in France, specifically rejected female inheritance.
However, more central to the affairs of Europe was the fate of the Hispano-Habsburgs. Isabella of Castile (1451-1504), by her marriage to Ferdinand II of Aragon made Spain a major force in Europe and, by colonial expansion, the leading world power. Once again, fate refused the couple a surviving male heir and it was through the marriage of their daughter, Joanna the Mad, with the Habsburg prince who became Philip I of Spain, that considerable territories in the Netherlands and Burgundy were added to the empire ruled by Isabella’s grandson, the Emperor Charles V. It was one thing to rule such extensive possessions but quite another to govern them. There were simply not enough Habsburg men to do the work. Effective control of the troublesome Netherlands was left to a remarkable series of female regents or governors: Margaret of Austria, Charles’ aunt (1507-1530), Mary of Austria, Charles’ sister (1531-1558), Margaret of Parma, Charles’ half-sister (1559-1567).
How different was the rule of all these women from that of their male relatives? Well, they could not strike a macho stance by leading their armies in battle (though Isabella and Elizabeth I both paraded in part armour before their troops). They preferred conciliation and diplomacy to force. Elizabeth, for example, long resisted the pressure to become champion of Protestant Europe. However, on matters of conviction they could be absolutely rigid. Isabella set up the Spanish Inquisition. Mary Tudor’s name is associated with a fiery purge of Protestants. Catherine was complicit in the notorious St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, when thousands of Huguenots were killed.
It is not possible, briefly,to offer a sensible analysis. What is clear is that, for purely pragmatic reasons, several capable women held sway in Europe at this time, against all the odds and, certainly, against the prevailing politico-religious conviction which agreed with John Knox that the ‘regiment’ (rule) of women was ‘monstrous’.