Studying Queenship and the Roles of Queens Consort

Studying queenship and the roles of queens consort is a tradition that has been formed especially in later years. In international historiography, queens consort have primarily been seen as wives and mothers to the king. Furthermore, during the 1970’s and 1980’s social history made royal history unpopular, because historians focused on large numbers of people instead of the elite, and therefore the queens and their royal families were not properly studied.

One exception remains; British historian David Cannadine has analysed the constitutional monarchy and its meaning in the context of social history. He significantly contributed to the research field concerning the monarchy’s societal meaning and relevance. In 1983, he contributed to the anthology The Invention of Tradition. Cannadine argues that the British monarchy is an invented tradition, which had been invented during the reign of Queen Victoria in order to secure the continuation of the British monarchy.[1] He argues that royal ceremonies ”have been adapted and new rituals invented, the combined effect of which has been, paradoxically, to give an impression of stability in periods of domestic change, and of continuity and comfort in times of international tension and decline.”[2] Cannadine’s theoretical contribution laid the foundation for international research on monarchies, queenship and the roles of queens consort. Cannadine’s perception of members of the royal family as active agents in the creation of monarchy gives them the ability to create their own roles in the staging of the royal house. Thus, the international research following Cannadine is characterised by a more agent-based understanding of the members of the royal house and their part in the creation of the monarchy as a ”modern tradition”.

In later years queenship and queens consort have been rediscovered as part of new cultural history in the 1990’s.[3] The queens consort are seen as part of the constitutional monarchy’s political and cultural history. In their own right, the queens consort have mostly been addressed in fictional and non-fictional biographies meant to entertain the wider population.

In the international research field of queenship and queens consort, the British tradition is most prominent. Especially, there is a long tradition based on studying the roles of Queen Victoria (queen regnant of Britain 1837-1901) and her roles in forming the British monarchy in the 19th and 20th centuries. She is an important historical figure, and as queen regnant, she had political influence as opposed to queens consort in Denmark and other places in Europe.

American historian L. P. Curtis Jr. was one of the first to discuss the roles of Queen Victoria describing her roles as two bonnets, she could wear with two different meanings:

”The role of monarch was conferred on her by the Act of Succession and invested with all the pomp, authority, and mystique of which the English coronation ceremony is capable. The second role derived from the structure of her personality which was formed well before she ascended the throne.”[4]

According to Curtis Jr., the two roles overlapped each other more extensively as Queen Victoria grew older.[5] This line of argumentation was prominent in the research field until the beginning of the 21st century.[6] However, Curtis Jr.’s argumentation is problematic because the separation between the times when the queen was in her public role, and when she was in her private role is analytically constructed. It is not possible for the queen – or for anyone in fact – to deliberately change between roles as if they were two bonnets you wore on your head. Therefore Curtis Jr. does not give Queen Victoria the opportunity to be in both roles at the same time, and she is thus not shown as an individual, and accordingly, it decreases her opportunities to act as one.

Historians’ interest in queenship and queens consort was developed during the first decade of the 21st century. The queens’ dual role unfolds in the anthology The Body of the Queen (2006), where German historian Regina Schulte and her co-writers equip the queens with to bodies. In this important contribution to the research field, they give the queen two bodies: ”a natural one and a political one, with her body politic incorporated into her body natural.”[7] Schulte and her co-writers expand the research field to include European queens, and therefore the research field is expanded from primarily focusing on Queen Victoria to analysing different queens and their roles in the gendered rule in the courtly world.

Two of the newest and most significant contributions to the research of queenship and the roles of queens consort are the anthologies Queenship in Britain 1660-1837 (2002) and Queenship in Europe 1660-1815 (2004), edited by the British historian Clarissa Campbell Orr. Orr and her co-writers argue that queens were subjects to societal structures, but, at the same time, they were able to use the informal power given to them by their position, and they could use this informal power to affect the society and the societal development.[9]

Prior to these contributions to the research field, queens have been studied as being in a dual role, which, as I have argued, is an analytical construct, removing the queens as agents with power and possibly to influence the society around them. Orr argues that queens took part in greater social structures and that their opportunities to act was determined by various variables:

”… the queen’s own personality or ambition, her dynastic capital, her social skills, her piety, her cultural abilities, and the happenstance of whether an arranged marriage grew into a personal bond or not.”[10]

According to Orr, queens were only able to use their informal power given by the variables, if the rest of the court and the society around them allowed them to do so.[11] Other important variables were the queen’s economic means, her personal abilities and personal interests. These variables decided the queen’s abilities to use her informal power, she had available. Orr and her co-writers use the term queenship to describe these variables and their usage.[12] This conceptualizes the roles of queens whether they are queens regnant or queens consort. Thus, historians are able to analyse how queens in Europe handled their roles as agents and according to their individual capabilities.

Through the conceptualisation created by Orr and her co-writers, we are able to understand the roles of queens and their societal influence. Thereby, it is possible to see the queens as an active part of society, but at the same time that they were influenced by political and social power structures. The conceptualisation makes the historical exploration of queens consort and their roles analytical and comparative and gives the queens power to be more than just wives and mothers.[13]

[1] Cannadine, “The Context, Performance and Meaning of Ritual.” 102.

[2] Ibid. 160.

[3] For the Danish case, see Bregnsbo, ”Danish Absolutism and Queenship.” in Orr (ed.), Queenship in Europe. 346.

[4] Ibid. 261.

[5] Curtis Jr., “The Queen’s Two Bonnets.” 261.

[6] See for example Burdiel, “The Queen, the Woman and the Middle Class.”; Bell, “The Idea of a Patriot Queen?”; Hackett, “Dreams or Designs?”; Ward, “The Womanly Garb of Queen Victoria’s Early Motherhood.”

[7] Schulte (ed.), “Introduction” in The Body of the Queen. 2.

[8] Kantorowicz, The King’s two Bodies. 7.

[9] Orr, “Introduction” in Orr (ed.), Queenship in Europe. 9f.

[10] Ibid. 9f.

[11] Ibid. 10.

[12] Orr, ”Introduction.” in Orr (ed.), Queenship in Britain. 1.

[13] For further reading on this subject see: Kristensen, Michelle Jørsing. Skørtepolitik. Gemalindedronningers roller i Danmark i perioden 1863 til 1947. Master thesis, The University of Copenhagen, 2017; Cannadine, David. ”The Context, Performance and Meaning of Ritual: The British Monarchy and the ’Invention of Tradition’, c. 1820-1977” in Hobsbawm, Eric & Ranger, Terrence (ed). The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge University Press, 1983. Curtis Jr., L. P.. ”The Queens Two Bonnets” in Victorian Studies, 9 No. 3, 1966. Kantorowicz, Ernst H.. The King’s two Bodies. A Study in medieval political Theology, Princeton University Press,1957. Orr, Clarissa Campbell (ed.). Queenship in Britain 1600-1837. Royal Patronage, Court Culture and dynastic Politics, Manchester University Press, 2002; Orr, Clarissa Campbell (ed.). Queenship in Europe 1660-1815, the Role of the Consort, Cambridge University Press, 2004. Schulte, Regina (ed.). The Body of the Queen. Gender and Rule in the Courtly World 1500-2000, Berghahn Books 2006.

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