Last year, a friend and I started reading a series of historical fiction books called The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett. These dense, complicated and altogether amazing books became an obsession. We would meet up for lunch and discuss the intense, upsetting things that were happening. We became ladies who lunched and talked about books. It was amazing. I felt so sophisticated and like maybe I should show up to these meetings wearing a fascinator for extra fanciness.
This experience taught me that I quite liked historical fiction. In time, this became a more general appreciation of history itself. My path to becoming a history nerd now lay in front of me.
In preparation for a trip to Europe this summer I knew what I should do to mentally prepare myself: it was history time. I filled my Kindle up with historical fiction and biographies and I filled my Netflix queue with historical films and TV shows. Mostly though, I just ogled Henry Cavill on The Tudors. (Seriously Henry Cavil, your attractiveness is out of control. Stop it.) And what I learned from this experience is twofold: history can be crazier than an episode of the Real Housewives (even New Jersey!) and of all the historical things I love, kickass historical women are by far my favorites.
Sure, the guys were interesting too. I mean Henry VIII makes modern tabloid celebrities seem like models of matrimonial bliss. But it was the ladies that really held my interest. How did these women break the stereotypes of their time to acquire and hold power when their entire gender was undervalued?
So the following, in no apparent order, are my four favorite awesome historical ladies:
“I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England, too.”
I feel like saying you like Elizabeth I is like saying you like The Beatles. I mean, of course you do. But still, there’s a reason why the virgin queen is so universally loved by history buffs: she was awesome. Her life was crazy from pretty much the start. Not the wished-for boy her father wanted, her mother eventually beheaded, illegitimatized and then returned to the succession, probably borderline molested by the 40-year-old husband of her step-mother Catherine Parr when she was like 14, put into the Tower by her sister Mary on suspicion of treason. And all this happened before she even ascended the throne. Her life was a Lifetime movie already and it had barely begun.
Taking the throne at age 25 amid the popular conception that female rulers were terrible, Elizabeth decided she would marry her country instead of a man. Back then, to be married as a woman was to be secondary to your husband. To be married and a sovereign ruler made things incredibly complicated, as she saw in the short time her sister “Bloody” Mary reigned. So Elizabeth kept open marriage negotiations for most of her life to the confusion of her ministers, foreign allies and enemies. She used the perception of women as weak and indecisive to prevaricate back and forth so often that she confused the bejesus out of every foreign power trying to pin her down. Her rule was referred to as England’s “Golden Age”.
She was also wily, intelligent and witty. Without any real family left, she surrounded herself with loyal favorites that became her substitute family. Cecil, Walshingham and the love of her life Robert Dudley were always close at hand for her entire life. If you were looking for a historical lady bestie who would always stick by you, Elizabeth would be your girl.
“The more I try to please God, the more he tries me.”
I was turned onto Borgia history by the Showtime series The Borgias, which is a mix of pretty people, inappropriate sibling relationships and beautiful scenery. I’m not going to lie though, I mostly came for the pretty people. Also probably to hear Jeremy Irons say things. That man’s cadence should be a national treasure. I’m getting off topic now.
Throughout history, Lucrezia has gotten something of a bum rap. The image of her has mostly been of a murderess, seductress and poisoner. In fact, some hollow rings are even called by her name after the rumor that was how she carried poison.
In reality, Lucrezia was mostly a pawn in her powerful family. She was married three times before she was even 21, and one of her husbands didn’t escape with his life. There’s also the little matter of the rumor she was a little too close to her family, especially her father the pope and brother, Cesare. In reality of course there is nothing to substantiate such claims, which were most likely spread by an ex-husband after her father had the marriage annulled on the humiliating grounds of non-consummation. Despite being a pawn in her family’s grab for power, Lucrezia was also lively and incredibly intelligent. When her father Pope Alexander VI went touring around Italy, he left a 19-year-old Lucrezia in charge of the Vatican and his affairs in Rome.
It’s said that Godfather author Mario Puzo based his famous story on the Borgias, which would make Lucrezia the original mafia princess. So move over Meadow Soprano.
“I heard say that the executioner was very good, he’d have to be, for I have a little neck!”
So, I might have a thing for controversial historical ladies and Anne Boleyn certainly fits that bill. Anne might be one of the most infamous queens in history. Accused of adultery, incest, treason and witchcraft, her tumultuous life ended with the sword.
Henry VIII was so taken with her that he broke with the Catholic faith in order to annul his first marriage on very shaky grounds and marry Anne. He initially wanted to make her his mistress but she refused. After years of fighting over his annulment, she in fact yelled at him that she was wasting time that could have been better spent finding herself an advantageous marriage. It was her (and her family’s) ambition to be queen that would eventually land her on the chopping block.
The reason I might like Anne so much, besides empathy over the cruel and unjustified end she received, is because she appeals to a lot of my lady power sensibilities. Unlike other women of her time, Anne spoke her mind. She was well known for being intelligent, witty and having a particularly sharp tongue. At a time when women were supposed to be meek and subservient to their husbands’ wills, Anne was tough. I feel like Anne would be the kind of friend that would always speak her mind. She was also something of a fashion trendsetter, so she would have been a great shopping buddy.
Mary, Queen of Scots:
“No more tears; I will think upon revenge.”
I’m not going to lie, Mary is my home girl. If I could get a drink with one of my historical ladies, I think it would be Mary. She would probably throw a really bitchin’ party. Mary had a real flare for the dramatic, so if she were alive today, I’m sure she would have a really awesome reality show on Bravo.
She was sent from Scotland to France at a young age and grew up there in one of the most splendid, debauched courts in all Europe. There she spent most of her time being professionally awesome and being complimented by everyone. When her husband, the king of France, died and then her mother, Mary returned to Scotland to rule. Only Scotland wasn’t France and now she had to deal with a country filled with squabbling nobility, religious discord and a dude named John Knox who wrote a pamphlet about the evils of women rulers. That guy was the worst.
Mary was headstrong and nowhere near the political genius her cousin Elizabeth was. She had been bred from a young age to believe she had a more legitimate claim to the English throne than Elizabeth and it was this ambition that would eventually cost my home slice her head. But before that, she got married to a douchebag and may or may not have conspired to blow him up. Later, she married the man who was most likely responsible (who may or may not have raped her), was forced to abdicate her throne in favor of her son and spent the rest of her life under house arrest in England. Mary was always happiest when she was involved in some adventure, so years of house arrest meant she ended up involved in any plot against her cousin Elizabeth that came her way. In fact, she used to embroider bitchy metaphors against Elizabeth on pillows, like a ye olde burn book.
Eventually she got caught in a plot and tried for treason. Mary decided she would rather die a martyr for the Catholic faith than a traitor and denied to the end that she was guilty, even though had she admitted and apologized, she might have lived. In the end, she was beheaded, wearing a red dress for optimal drama and saying, “In my end is my beginning.” Mary will always be my favorite drama queen.
Morgan Glennon is a working journalist and freelance writer who tries to live every week like it’s shark week. She lives in New Jersey but has never once fist pumped or flipped a table. Only part of that last sentence is true. You can catch up with her writing on her Tumblr or just catch her on twitter @mojotastic.