As Queen Elizabeth II marks an incredible 70 years on the throne this year, we take a look at the women who preceded her in the English and Scottish territories. Queen Elizabeth II is a so-called Queen regnant, a Queen in her own right. To learn more about the types of Queens there are, click here.
Although Matilda’s reign is disputed, the daughter of King Henry I of England and Matilda of Scotland was declared her father’s heir after the death of her only legitimate brother in the White Ship disaster. She is known as Empress due to her first marriage to Henry V, Holy Roman Emperor. Her second marriage to Geoffrey V, Count of Anjou produced three sons, the eldest of which would eventually succeed in becoming King. Matilda’s own rights were usurped by her cousin King Stephen and she can only brief claim to have ruled England during his captivity. During this time, she was known as Lady of the English. Stephen eventually regained the upper hand, but the succession was settled on Matilda’s son, who became King Henry II of England upon Stephen’s death in 1154.
Margaret was born in 1283 to King Eric II of Norway and Margaret of Scotland. Her mother was the daughter of Alexander III, King of Scots and Margaret of England, and she tragically died giving birth to her daughter. Alexander’s only surviving son died the following year, leaving young Margaret as his heir. By 5 February 1384, Margaret was declared to be ‘domina and right heir’ of Scotland, although Alexander did remarry in an attempt to father an heir. He died in 1286 without having had another child, and Margaret became Queen of Scots under the regency of the Guardians of Scotland. Margaret left Norway in 1290 but died shortly after being brought ashore on the Orkney Islands. Her remains were returned to Norway to be interred with her mother. Her premature death raises the question of her status as Queen regnant. However, she was referred to as a Queen, and she was en route to being crowned.
Mary was born in 1542 as the only surviving child of James V, King of Scots and Mary of Guise. With her father’s death just six days later, Mary became Queen under a regency. However, fearing for her safety, five-year-old Mary was sent to France, where she was betrothed to the future King Francis II of France. He died in 1560, and Mary returned to Scotland the following year. She married Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley in 1565 and had one son with him before his death under suspicious circumstances in 1567. Shortly afterwards, she married James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, who was accused of murdering Henry. As a result, Mary was imprisoned and forced to abdicate, while James was exiled. Mary eventually managed to flee to England, where Queen Elizabeth I subsequently imprisoned her. She remained a prisoner for the rest of her life before she was ultimately caught in treasonous activities. She was executed on 8 February 1587 at Fotheringhay Castle.
When King Edward VI died in 1553, all of his potential heirs were female. He had intended to leave the throne to the sons of his first cousin once removed, Lady Jane Grey, but she had only been married for two months at that point and had not produced any sons. Thus, he was forced to change his device for the succession to include Lady Jane herself. He also left out his two half-sisters, Mary (the future Queen Mary I) and Elizabeth (the future Queen Elizabeth I). Queen Jane reigned for just a few days before Mary gained the upper hand. Jane was deposed and imprisoned in the Tower. Queen Mary initially intended to spare Jane’s life, but a further rebellion by Jane’s father sealed Jane’s fate. She was executed on 12 February 1554 – still in her teens.
The daughter of King Henry VIII of England by his first wife Catherine of Aragon now became England’s first undisputed Queen regnant. She had been her parents’ only surviving child and not the hoped-for male heir. King Henry proceeded to form the Church of England so he could annul his marriage to Catherine and marry Anne Boleyn. Subsequently, Mary was bastardised and became known as Lady Mary until she became Queen. Catherine fought the annulment until her death, even at the expense of never seeing her daughter again. Upon the death of her half-brother King Edward VI, Mary took a chance, managed to dethrone Lady Jane Grey and took up her rightful place as Queen of England. However, her marriage to King Philip II of Spain remained childless despite Mary believing herself to be pregnant. She died on 17 November 1558 and was succeeded by her half-sister Queen Elizabeth I.
Elizabeth was born in 1533 as the daughter of King Henry VIII of England and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. Her mother also failed to produce the much-longed-for male heir, and she was subsequently executed on trumped-up charges in 1536. Elizabeth, too, was bastardised but was eventually reunited with her family. As a protestant, she was in danger several times during her Catholic half-sister’s reign and was even briefly imprisoned in the Tower of London. She became Queen in 1558 and reigned until her death in 1603. She never married, and her heir by primogeniture was King James VI of Scotland, who was a great-grandson of Elizabeth’s aunt Margaret.
The next Queen regnant became Queen 131 years after Queen Elizabeth I. Mary was the eldest surviving daughter of the Catholic King James VII/II. Mary herself was raised a protestant alongside her sister Anne on the orders of their uncle, King Charles II. After her mother’s death, her father remarried the Catholic Mary of Modena and eventually, they had a surviving son, which raised the fears of a Catholic succession. Mary and her husband William (himself a son of Charles’s sister Mary) were invited to invade and rule as joint monarchs. James fled the country and lived out his life in exile. Mary died just five years later of smallpox. She had suffered at least one miscarriage and had not left any surviving children. William continued his personal reign after her death until his own death in 1702. He was then succeeded by his sister-in-law Anne.
Anne was the second surviving daughter of King James VII/II and his first wife, Anne Hyde. She married Prince George of Denmark in 1683 and subsequently suffered through many years of childbearing with around 17 pregnancies. At least one daughter died of smallpox; others barely lived long enough to be baptised. Her only child to survive infancy was Prince William, and he died at the age of 11. Anne succeeded as Queen in 1702 and reigned until her own death in 1714. During her reign, the kingdoms of England and Scotland were united as a single sovereign state. As she had no heirs, the Act of Settlement 1701 settled the succession on Sophia of Hanover. As Sophia died just a few weeks before Anne, she was succeeded by Sophia’s eldest son, who became King George I.
The most recent Queen regnant before Queen Elizabeth is her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria. Victoria was born in 1819 as the daughter of Prince Edward, Duke of Kent and Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. King George IV’s only child Charlotte died in childbirth in 1817, leading to a race between several of his brothers to marry legally and produce a legitimate heir. Prince Edward won the race but died in 1820. King George IV was subsequently succeeded by his younger brother King William IV, who had no surviving legitimate children with his wife, Queen Adelaide. He was succeeded by his 18-year-old niece Victoria in 1837. Victoria married her first cousin Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, and they had nine children before his untimely death in 1861. Victoria remained in mourning for the rest of her life. She became the longest-reigning British monarch in 1896 and remained so until she was surpassed by her great-great-granddaughter in 2015. Queen Victoria died on 22 January 1901 at the age of 81, and at that time, she had reigned for 63 years and 216 days.