Musings of a Magpie Mind: More royal women who made their mark

I’ll start with a firm favourite from my school days, the ancient Brit, Boadicea.

I related in my last column how two young wives of British royals captivated the world, outshone their husbands and enjoyed global popularity. One of them, Prince William’s wife Kate, still does. Knowing that they’re not the only royal brides to have achieved fame, I figured that this month you might be interested in meeting a few more. They’re all in the history books. Here goes.

I’ll start with a firm favourite from my school days, the ancient Brit, Boadicea. Modern historians have corrected her name; to them she is Boudicca, but I still prefer the old spelling of a warrior queen who took up arms against the Roman legions that occupied her country. Her husband, king of the Iceni tribe, had come to terms in a treaty with the new imperial authorities and ruled a large swath of land in the south of England.

When he died around 61 A.D. he left half of his estate to the Emperor Nero in Rome and the other half to his family. The Romans however chose to renege on the treaty and greedy centurions sent in their troops to take over the Iceni lands. They publicly flogged Boadicea and the soldiers raped her two daughters.

Enraged by this mistreatment, and bent on vengeance, the queen rallied her tribe and launched a ferocious military campaign. They attacked the Roman colonies centred around what are now the cities of Colchester, St. Albans and London, slaughtered 70,000 inhabitants and laid waste to the surrounding countryside. The first group of legions sent against the Iceni was annihilated, but a larger army, hastily assembled from northern garrisons, was marched down to meet the insurrection, and in a bloody, day-long battle, Boadicea’s warriors were eventually overwhelmed. Preferring suicide to what was likely to be a cruel fate worse than death, she drank poison, and so did her family.

Legend claims that her body is buried under platform eight of King’s Cross Station in London. I have stood on that spot a number of times in my train travels, and have also visited the corner of Westminster Bridge on the Embankment where a huge statue stands. It depicts Boadicea, holding the reins of high-stepping war horses, driving her chariot. The wheels are equipped with long spinning knives, which no doubt reduced her enemies not only in numbers, but also in height.

Prior to Victoria, few English queens have counted for much and fewer still have been regnant. Some of them were certainly repugnant and most of them became pregnant. Some were both, but none of them is really worth a mention here. Instead, let me shift the scene to Italy, where one of the most notorious women earned her place in history, although her evil deeds were probably much exaggerated in her lifetime, and her reputation has suffered ever since.

Lucrezia Borgia (1480-1519) belonged to a family renowned for its merciless political scheming. It was headed by her unscrupulous father, whose ruthless plotting elevated him from cardinal to the papacy, where he assumed the title of Pope Alexander VI.

She was the daughter of one of his mistresses and she had three volatile, villainous brothers. Alexander actually threatened to excommunicate one of his other mistresses, if she went back to her husband.

Papal prerogative naturally prevailed. After all, he ran the Vatican.

By the time Lucrezia reached her early 20s, the lady had been married three times and involved in many scandalous affairs. It was whispered, mainly by opposing envious families, that she was a witch and was not averse to dispatching her victims using specially made rings containing poisonous capsules, which she secretly slipped into their wine goblets.

Each of her aristocratic marriages was arranged by her father to enhance his power and prestige. Her brother Cesare actually murdered her second husband because he had become redundant to the family’s ambitions, and this cleared the way for Lucrezia to wed the Duke of Ferrara, a much more useful and wealthy catch.

Neither was faithful to the other, but she settled down to a life of luxury, and established her court as a place where poets, writers, musicians and painters were always welcome.

She produced eight children and was eventually regarded by the populace, if not by competing aristocracy, as a respectable and accomplished Renaissance duchess.

But her many pregnancies and miscarriages eventually took a heavy toll on her health and after giving birth to her final child, she fell ill and died within the week at the age      of 39.

By then her odious father had been long dead, a victim of malaria in 1503, followed four years later by the death of her infamous brother Casare, bludgeoned in a street skirmish. The family’s dominance survived for a while and even produced a saint, (Francis Borgia), before the end of that century. But saddled with its reputation for corruption and wracked by internal feuding, it eventually slid into oblivion.

Today the dynasty is mainly remembered in books, movies and lurid TV productions that chronicle the supposed excesses of the notorious and perhaps much-maligned daughter. When, many years after her death that dissolute dandy Lord Byron read some of Lucrezia’s love letters, which were on display in the Milan Library, he went into rhapsodies, and promptly absconded with a lock of her hair. It was one of their prize exhibits.

I have room for one more royal. This time she’s Chinese, and her name was Tz’u-hsi. At the age of 16 in 1831, she was taken into the Forbidden City of the Emperor Hsien-feng, (the largest palace in the world with 8,000 rooms), to become one of his wives. She soon became the Emperor’s closest friend and often advised him on State affairs.

When he died in 1861, Tz’u-hse claimed the throne for her son and despite a law which forbade women to reign, she took total political control. Her son’s death prompted her to appoint a nephew as Emperor, but she continued to govern in his name.

Tz’u-hse fought hard to stem the flow of modern western ideas being introduced into China, preferring to cling to ancient traditions, although she did outlaw the cruel practice of foot binding. Until then Chinese girls of noble birth and those who served them, were forced to have their feet tightly bound to keep them small, a feature considered attractive. Many women were crippled for life by this procedure.

This formidable woman ruled China for over 50 years and even organized the murder of her nephew, the day before she died in 1908! Tz’u-hse left her stamp on that vast country; a remarkable woman indeed.

But there are so many others to choose from when we search the lives of those who ruled in partnership with emperors, kings and nobility. They seized the chance to show their true mettle when left alone to face the future, and they richly deserve their place in the past.

» Bill Greenwell prospered in advertising for 40 years in the U.K. and Canada. He retains a passion for medieval history, marine paintings and piscatorial pursuits. His wife Patricia indulges him in these interests, but being a seasoned writer from a similar background, she has always deplored his weakness for alliteration. This has sadly had no effect on his writing style, whatsoever.