I am somehow captivated by those women which history presents us as great queens (either sovereign ruler or consort). Reading their biographies and catching a glimpse of their lifes through movies (for even in those highly dramatized movies there must be a bit of accuracy, that’s why I said ‘a glimpse’) has arisen in me a strange respect and pity for them. Respect, as their inherent dignity commands respect. Pity, as a crown is a heavy burden as Maria Theresa said. And strange, as being an Asian and commoner I know nothing about them or their culture.
On her accession to the throne, Princess Alexandrina Victoria of Kent was only 18. She became Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (and Empress of India later on) and she reigned for 63 years, the longest monarch in UK until this date. She reigned from the early 19th century until the beginning of the 20th century (she died in January 1901). When she became queen, UK was already a constitutional monarchy where a monarch is no longer an absolute ruler but only a head of state with rights to advise and to warn. Practically a monarch was only a symbol. But this lady, thanks to her great consort Prince Albert, managed to stamp her presence in the world history far stronger than a mere symbol. Together with Albert, they supported the development in science, technology and art. The Great Exhibition in 1851 was one of the strongest manifestation of their support. Although in her later days as a widow she seemed to dislike progress (she reportedly hated the telephone, a great invention at that era) and shunned herself from her people, in her last years she again managed to win the support and loyalty of her subjects. In present day Singapore, her statue is still standing in the Botanic Garden. Below the statues an inscription can be read: “…to Her Majesty … to show gratitude …from Her Majesty’s Chinese subjects”.
In Victorian era the Queen no longer wielded executive power, but there were older times when a monarch literally ruled the country. In 16th century England, there was a queen who wielded such power and showed that she deserved her title and crown. Born as a daughter of King Henry VIII (yes, the one with 6 wives) and Anne Boleyn, Princess Elizabeth experienced much in her childhood and youth. After a brief childhood in the palace, she was deemed illegitimate and her mother beheaded. When her stepsister became queen, she came under suspicion of treason. Finally, at the age of 25 she became Elizabeth I, the Queen of England and Ireland. Despite the turbulent youth, throughout her reign (1558 – 1603) Elizabeth I proved to be an able sovereign. While Victoria struggled against her domineering mother, annoyed by the prime minister’s selection of her ladies-in-waiting; Elizabeth I faced far more dangerous troubles: Catholic – Protestants turmoil, threat from Spain, treason lurking in her inner circles. While Victoria found an able and faithful guidance from her beloved husband, Elizabeth I did not find a suitable match and sheltered herself in the image of the Virgin Queen. Despite all her troubles, her 44 years on the throne provided valuable stability for the kingdom. England was saved from foreign threats; the Church of England was established (an establishment which may not be the best or truest, but at least brought stability for the people). Some even regarded her era as the Golden Age of England.
In 18th century, the Holy Roman Empire was one of the most respectable powers in Europe (and hence in the world, as at that time this continent seemed to be the centre of the world). This empire regarded itself as no less than the successor to the mighty Roman Empire. And a woman was once the ruler of this empire. Maria Theresa of Austria, styled as Her Imperial Majesty the Holy Roman Empress, was the Queen of Austria, Hungary, Bohemia, Croatia, and so many other realms! On her accession to the throne, the army was weak and she was not prepared by her father to become a ruler. Nevertheless, she achieved much during her reign: she strengthened the army (increasing their size by 200%), created a supreme court to uphold justice, strengthened the economy of her territories, created a decree regarding hospital management which results in one of the most complete autopsy records in the world, introduced a mandatory education, and introduced a decency police to arrest prostitutes. The Empress, however, seemed less successful as a mother. From her many children, the most famous (notorious?) is Marie Antoinette who was executed under the guillotine as the hated Queen of France. Her eldest son and successor Emperor Joseph II was not in her calibre in terms of statesmanship. Another son, later Emperor Leopold II, shown indifference when his sister Antoinette perished under the guillotine. Her other daughters whom she sent to various kingdom and duchys to become ruling queens and duchesses did her little honour.
And what about our present day? In these days when a hereditary monarch sounds so archaic and the idea of the Divine Rights of kings sounds ridiculous (even for those who still believe in God), I still think that one grand dame deserves our respect. Elizabeth II, the present queen of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth has shown the world that she was no less dignified, no less able than another queen who bore similar name. As her great-great-grandmother Victoria, she became a queen in a very young age yet managed to become a national symbol in a modernised country. She appears to be symbolizing some kind of stability for England. And just as Maria Theresa, it seems that she is less successful as a mother than as a queen regnant. So typical for great sovereign, she does have a deep sense of religious and civic duty, and takes her coronation oath seriously. How can we not respect a young princess who said in a broadcast to the British Commonwealth, “…my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.”
I heard many times that every little girl dreams to be a princess. I tried to recall my childhood dreams, but I’m not sure whether I ever dreamed to be a princess. Nowadays, I often thought what a privilege it is to become a ruling, sovereign queen. Not a pretty, protected, little princess; but a tough, able, majestic queen. Sounds more appealing to me.