From ferocious Boudica to ‘Good Queen Bess’ and Queen Elizabeth II, author Elizabeth Norton discusses the 10 greatest queens of England
Over the past 2,000 years, nearly 80 women have sat on the royal throne of England, either as consort or reigning queen. Some of the country’s most formidable rulers have been female, with our most recent and beloved queen, Elizabeth II, having celebrated her Platinum Jubilee this year, the only monarch in British history to reach this momentous milestone.
The 10 greatest queens of England
1. Boudica c.30-60/1 AD
We begin with one of the most famous and certainly one of the greatest queens of England. Boudica was the wife of Prasutagus, the King of the Iceni – a tribe based in East Anglia. When Prasutagus died, the Romans seized his kingdom and Boudica, who was a giant of a woman with flowing fair hair, responded to these outrages with violence. Riding up and down her lines in a chariot, Boudica spurred her troops on, but they were no match for the Romans’ ordered discipline. The result was a bloodbath, with the queen reputedly poisoning herself when she realised her defeat.
2. Bertha of Kent (c.565-602)
Perhaps a little less know, though certainly deservedly on the list as one of the greatest queens of England, Bertha, who was the daughter of the King of Paris, married the pagan King Ethelbert of Kent before 567. As a Christian, Bertha’s role in the conversion of England was widely known and in 602 she received a letter of thanks from the Pope.
3. Emma of Normandy (c.980-1052)
As a teenager, Emma wed the middle-aged Ethelred II. This famously ‘unready’ king was plagued by Viking attacks and, after his death in 1016, his throne was seized by the Danish Cnut the Great. To bolster his claim, Cnut married Emma, with the queen prominent during his reign.
4. Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204)
Eleanor of Aquitaine ruled one of the richest fiefdoms of medieval Europe. She was married at age 15 to King Louis VII of France and the couple had two daughters. After meeting the future King Henry II of England on Crusade, she asked Louis for a divorce, marrying her second husband in 1152. Henry and Eleanor had a turbulent relationship, with the queen later inciting her sons Richard and John to rebel against their father.
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5. Isabella of France (c.1295-1358)
Remembered as the ‘She-Wolf of France’, Isabella endured an unhappy marriage to the unpopular King Edward II. She built a party of English exiles around her, including her lover, Roger Mortimer, and her brother-in-law, Edmund, Earl of Kent. With support from her brother, the King of France, the queen declared that she and her eldest son (the future King Edward III) would not return to England when summoned. Isabella later landed at Harwich with an army in September 1326 and rapidly seized power, capturing Edward and his favourite aide, Hugh Despenser, as they fled towards Wales.
6. Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603)
Queen Elizabeth I was determined to rule alone, presiding over a period marked by exploration and advances in the arts and technology. With her Religious Settlement of 1559, Elizabeth also helped to create the modern Church of England. Her greatest moment came as she surveyed her troops at Tilbury during clashes with the Spanish Armada in 1588. With this crushing defeat of Spain, she ruled for nearly 15 more years as ‘Gloriana’.
7. Queen Anne (1665-1714)
Queen Anne modelled herself on Elizabeth I when she came to the throne in 1702. The last monarch of the House of Stuart was, by that stage, middle aged and disabled by 17 pregnancies – her only child to survive past the age of two, the Duke of Gloucester, died aged 11. Nonetheless, the first Queen of Great Britain ruled during a period of great expansion in British prestige, with the Duke of Marlborough’s victories in the War of the Spanish Succession particularly notable.
8. Caroline of Ansbach (1683-1737)
The fiercely intelligent Caroline of Ansbach was one of the most politically influential English consorts. After the accession of her husband, King George II, she persuaded him to keep Sir Robert Walpole as his prime minister. The queen formed a close partnership with Walpole and used her influence with the king to push her policies.
9. Queen Victoria (1819-1901)
Behind Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Victoria holds the record as England’s longest-reigning monarch, at 63 years. After enduring a strict childhood, she was determined to enjoy herself when she came to the throne at the age of 18, recalling in one letter that “I have been dancing till four o’clock this morning”. She soon married her cousin, Prince Albert, to whom she was devoted; she remained black-clad after his early death. She became Empress of India in 1876, and it was said that the sun never set on her empire.
10. Queen Elizabeth II (1926 – 2022)
Queen Elizabeth II is the only monarch in British history to mark a Platinum Jubilee; 2022 marked 70 years of her reign. She became heir to the throne unexpectedly in 1936, with the abdication of her uncle, King Edward VIII. Her Majesty was visiting Kenya when she heard the news that she was to become Queen in 1952, and her reign was romantically hailed as a ‘New Elizabethan Age’. Over the years she devoted herself to her duties as a constitutional monarch and has weathered many storms, most notably the marital difficulties of her children, the 1992 Windsor Castle fire and the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997. Queen Elizabeth II died peacefully at Balmoral Castle on 8 September 2022 at the age of 96. Having installed the new Prime Minister into government just a few days before she died, HM Queen Elizabeth always put duty and work first and she will be sorely missed.
Elizabeth Norton is the author of two books: ‘England’s Queens: From Boudica to Elizabeth of York’ and ‘England’s Queens: From Catherine of Aragon to Elizabeth II’, both available from Amberley (£9.99 each).