This is a guest post by Laura Purcell. Purcell is a former Waterstones bookseller who lives in Colchester. She is a member of the Society for Court Studies and Historic Royal Palaces and featured on a recent PBS documentary, talking about Queen Caroline’s life at Hampton Court. She maintains a history blog at laurapurcell.com.
The princess is typically seen as a passive figure: beautiful, innocent, and in dire need of rescue. But history has shown that this is rarely the case. There have been many dynamic, strong royal women who make great role models even in the modern day. These women continue to attract our interest through biography and fiction alike. Here are 10 of my favorite real-life heroines across the ages that have been resurrected through historical fiction.
Lady of the English by Elizabeth Chadwick
As the only surviving child of Henry I, Matilda had a blood-right to the throne. But in a man’s world, she was pushed aside for her cousin Stephen. This was a grave mistake — Matilda was not one to back down without a fight. Sure of her destiny, she launched a campaign to take back what was hers, sacrificing love and family into the bargain.
Had Matilda lived to be queen, she would undoubtedly have been the most kickass in English history. In Lady of the English, Elizabeth Chadwick does a stunning job of recreating the power struggles and family conflicts that shaped Matilda’s life.
The Forbidden Queen by Anne O’Brien
“Mother of Tudors,” Catherine of Valois certainly managed to get a finger in every major historical pie. Her tumultuous life included a destitute childhood, marriage to Henry “Agincourt” the Fifth and an early widowhood. Her first son was to become Henry VI, the “sleeping king” whose reign kicked off the War of the Roses. The sons of her second marriage, Edmund and Jasper, were of even greater importance. Edmund fathered Henry Tudor, who later defeated Richard III and took the throne.
In The Forbidden Queen, you can follow Catherine’s journey all the way from her betrothal to her death and see her blossom from a shy girl to a woman in command of her own destiny. Although Anne O’Brien’s approach to Catherine’s life is overly romantic for my taste, it is certainly thorough.
The Boleyn Inheritance by Philippa Gregory
You have to admire Anne of Cleves. Disparaging comments about her appearance aside, she was the only wife of Henry VIII to get a good deal out of her marriage. She endured the king for only six months before escaping to a life of freedom and riches, where she remained a valued member of the court. Well played, Anne.
In The Boleyn Inheritance, Philippa Gregory is at her best, bringing to life lesser known historical figures and giving them a voice. Juxtaposed to Anne’s story are the tales of Katherine Howard, who was decidedly less lucky, and Jane Boleyn, whose desire for power warped her. Each woman is wonderfully drawn and thrilling to read about.
Queen’s Gambit by Elizabeth Fremantle
Another Tudor — this time, the queen who lived. Much-married Katherine Parr continues to be an inspiration as the first woman to publish under her own name in the English language. Nobly sacrificing the love of her life, she united a discordant family, served as Regent and managed to wiggle her way off of Henry VIII’s scaffold.
However, Katherine’s life was far from rosy, as Elizabeth Fremantle shows. Queen’s Gambit is an excellent portrayal of a flawed but heroic woman, who never quite reaches the happiness she deserves.
Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir
Lady Jane Grey was only queen for nine days. It’s difficult to become a heroine with so short a reign, yet somehow she managed it. Despite being manoeuvred into marriage and treated as a pawn in her father’s political games, Jane was a strong-willed girl who knew her own mind. Her studies and dedication to the reform of religion showed her first-rate intellect. Although politically she may have been weak, she had the courage to endure a martyr’s death, rather than deny what she believed.
We all know how this book is going to end, but Alison Weir manages to make Jane’s story both exciting and poignant. Innocent Traitor is a tear-jerker and a powerful read.
The Queen’s Secret by Victoria Lamb
It was inevitable that Elizabeth I would crop up on the list. Ruling alone, presiding over a golden age, rising up from the rank of orphan bastard to become the most successful Tudor monarch — she has it all. Of course, Elizabeth was vain and quick with an acid put-down. You wouldn’t really want her as your friend. But as a queen, she was pretty awesome.
In the piles of stories about the Virgin Queen, Victoria Lamb’s book stands out as one with a different approach. The Queen’s Secret chronicles Elizabeth’s summer stay at Kenilworth Castle as the Earl of Leicester makes one last attempt to win her for his bride. Told from multiple viewpoints, with a story of spies and espionage mixed in, the book really captures Elizabeth’s character and the contradictions that defined her.
The Queen’s Dwarf by Ella March Chase
I’m not saying Henrietta Maria was wise in her choices. It’s generally accepted that her stubborn streak contributed toward the downfall of her husband Charles I. Yet there is something you can’t help but admire in this lively, willful queen who knew her rights and was determined to have them. Resolutely Catholic in a Protestant country, ostentatious in the face of growing Puritanism, she was a glamorous rebel.
While the protagonist of The Queen’s Dwarf is performer Jeffrey Hudson, his mistress is always in the foreground. Ella March Chase breathes life into the doomed Stuart queen, capturing her spirit and vivacity.
The Royal Physician’s Visit by Per Olov Enquist
A posthumous child of a forgotten prince, nicknamed the “Queen of Tears,” Queen Caroline Matilde was never set to live happily ever after. However, she certainly made a huge impact. Married to a man with severe mental illness, she shocked Denmark with her indiscreet affair. In a bizarre menage a trois, Caroline Matilde and her lover influenced the king with their progressive thinking and shook the country. She kept her head — but not everyone was so lucky…
You may have seen this tale played out in the recent film A Royal Affair. Per Olov Enquist’s novel offers a deeper insight into the politics of the era and is a triumph in poignant literature.
The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak
Ruthless and powerful, there are few women with a reputation equal to Catherine the Great. The longest-ruling female of Russia, she presided over a golden age and is generally credited with revitalizing the country. However, the story of how she came to power in the first place is even more exciting.
Although told from the viewpoint of a fictional character, The Winter Palace leaves the reader fascinated with Catherine and her transformation from poor Princess Sophie into an indomitable empress.
The Second Empress by Michelle Moran
What do you do when you are forced to marry the enemy — a bad-tempered man over 20 years your senior, still in love with his former wife? It is a situation few could endure, yet somehow Maria Lucia of Austria not only went through with her marriage to Napoleon, but made it a success. Providing the much-desired heir for the empire, she managed to secure her husband’s love and peace for her birth country. This was no easy job at the French court, with Napoleon’s outrageous sisters poised to pull her down.
A thrilling, page-turning glimpse into Maria Lucia’s difficult marriage, The Second Empress is a delight. Petty squabbles, delicious scandal — it is all there. Michelle Moran draws two very different, determined royal women in a court where only one can survive.
What other heroines would you add to the list? Tell us in the comments!