BBC History Revealed
9 queens you might not have heard of
We take a look at some of the less-familiar female rulers and monarchs from the medieval period...
From Wu Zetian of China to Urraca of Castile-León, we explore some lesser-known rulers of the Middle Ages
1 TAMAR OF GEORGIA c1160–1209/13
Tamar (known as ‘the Great’) was the first woman to rule the Kingdom of Georgia in her own right. The daughter of George III of Georgia, Tamar began coruling with her father when she turned 18 – an act intended to legitimise her claim to the throne after his death.
George died in
1184, the country’s noblemen (deeply opposed to the idea of a woman ruling on her own), forced Tamar to marry the Rus’ prince Yuri. He proved to be a troublesome spouse, and after managing to increase the number of loyal supporters in her court, Tamar eventually secured a divorce.
Yuri went on to launch two failed coups against his ex-wife, but both attempts were crushed with the help of David Sosland, a prince of Ossetia whom Tamar married on her own terms.
Under Tamar’s rule – known as the ‘Golden Age’ – the kingdom of Georgia peaked in size and power, coming to dominate the Caucasus. The empire of Trebizond (located in modern Turkey) was also founded under Tamar’s orders.
2 ARWA OF YEMEN c1048–1137
Orphaned as a child, Arwa al-Sulayhi was adopted by her uncle and aunt, the co-rulers of Yemen. When she was 17, Arwa married her cousin and heir to the throne, Ahmad al-Mukarram bin Ali bin Muhammad As
Sulaihi. After her husband was paralysed and unable to rule, Arwa became the de facto ruler.
Despite re-marrying after the death of her first husband,
Arwa continued to rule alone.
During the course of her long reign, Arwa built mosques, roads and education centres, and focused her efforts on the welfare of her people. She was the first woman to be accorded the title of hujja in the
Isma'ili branch of Shi'a
Islam. The term, meaning ‘proof of
God’, signified her as the closest living image of God’s will.
Arwa and her mother-in-law, Asma bint Shihab, are rare examples of queens in the Muslim Arab world to have their names mentioned in the khutbah (a traditional religious sermon), formally acknowledging their sovereignty.
4 MELISENDE OF JERUSALEM 1105–61
The eldest daughter of King Baldwin II of Jerusalem and Morphia of Melitene, Melisende grew up in the Holy Land during a time of near-constant war. As she had no brothers, Melisende was named heir-presumptive when her father came to the throne of Jerusalem in 1118, and she went on to play an active role in the kingdom’s administration for the duration of her father’s reign.
In 1129, Melisende married the Frankish commander Fulk V, Count of Anjou and Maine, and they became joint rulers of Jerusalem two years later following Baldwin’s death. Fulk attempted to seize power from his wife and they went to war in 1134, but Melisende’s diplomatic skills, loyal subjects and talented commanders ensured that the coup was crushed and the couple eventually reconciled.
When Fulk died in 1143, Melisende became regent for her teenage son, Baldwin III. Despite Baldwin demanding sole power when he turned 23, the realm was divided by the Haute Cour (High Court), with Melisende ruling the south and Baldwin the northern portion. Unhappy with the arrangement, Baldwin III launched an attack on his mother. Peace was eventually reached and Melisende retired from her duties, although in 1157 she presided over a council of regency when Baldwin went on campaign.
Queen Melisende was a great patron of the arts, and commissioned the famous ‘Melisende Psalter’ – an elaborately decorated copy of the Book of Psalms from the Bible’s Old Testament.
3 WU ZETIAN 624–705
The only woman to rule China in her own right, Wu Zetian was not a woman to be crossed.
Raised in a wealthy family, Wu entered the household of Emperor Taizong as a concubine when she was about 14. Following Taizong’s death in 649, Wu was sent to a Buddhist convent as tradition dictated, but promptly returned to the royal palace to serve as a concubine to the new emperor, Gaozong.
If some stories are to be believed, Wu Zetian could be very ruthless. When her baby daughter died in 654 (with evidence to suggest she had been strangled), Wu accused Gaozong’s wife – Wang – of murder. Wang was deposed, and Wu became empress consort in her place. Despite this, it is alleged that Wu actually killed the child herself in order to gain power.
In 690, seven years after Gaozong’s death, Wu made herself empress regnant – usurping her son, Ruizong – and went on to found the Zhou dynasty, named after an earlier civilisation from which Wu believed she was descended.
Although Wu is thought to have murdered many opponents during her 15-year reign (including her own siblings), she was a popular ruler and raised living standards for many.
“It is alleged that Wu Zetian killed her own child in order to gain power ”
5 RAZIA SULTAN ?–1240
The eldest daughter of Iltutmish, Sultan of Delhi, Razia defied convention to become the first female Muslim ruler on the whole of the Indian subcontinent. Under her father’s guidance, Razia became well-educated in politics, as well as martial arts and archery.
When Iltutmish died in 1236, the Muslim nobility initially refused to accept Razia’s sovereignty, so her half-brother – Ruknuddin Firuz – was placed on the throne instead. However, he was killed six months later, and in November 1236, Razia was finally given her right to rule.
Calling herself the ‘Queen of the Times’, Razia wore men’s clothes, issued her own coins, established schools, and attempted to expand her territory. But her reign was cut short in 1240 when she was usurped by another halfbrother – Muizuddin Bahram – and placed under arrest.
In a strange turn of events, the Governor of Bhatinda (who had played a major role in the coup) fell in love with Razia and ended up marrying her the same year. Determined to take back the throne, the couple planned a siege of Delhi, but their forces were defeated and they were both killed.
6 SHAJAR AL DURR OF EGYPT d1257
Little is known about the early life of Shajar al-Durr except that she was a child slave, bought for the harem of As-Salih Ayyub – the future Sultan of Egypt. As-Salih Ayyub – the last major sultan of the Ayyubid dynasty – eventually married Shajar and she acted as regent while he fought in Damascus.
In 1249, Shajar’s husband died, but as Louis IX of France was attacking Egypt as part of the Seventh Crusade, Shajar kept his death a secret with the help of commanders from the military. Together with her stepson, Turanshah, she defended Cairo against the crusaders and captured the French king, holding him ransom and forcing him to surrender the city of Damietta.
In 1250, Turanshah was assassinated and Shajar briefly succeeded him as sultan of Egypt. However, the Caliph did not recognise Shajar as being a legitimate sovereign and she was forced to abdicate in favour of her second husband, Izz al-din Aybak. Despite this setback, Shajar still wielded great power, and had Aybak killed when he attempted to take another wife. Shajar, too, was murdered in 1257, on the orders of Aybak’s son.
7 IRENE OF BYZANTIUM c752–803
Born in Athens to the noble Sarantapechos family, Irene was first married to the Byzantine emperor, Leo IV. When he died in 780, she became co-emperor with her 10-year-old son, Constantine VI.
However, mere weeks after her husband’s death, Irene faced an unsuccessful plot to install Leo’s half-brother, Nikephoros, on the throne. Then, in 790, the young Constantine led his own coup in order to gain sole power, which resulted in Irene’s banishment from court.
Irene was eventually restored as co-ruler in 792, and in 797 – in league with members of the court and clergy – Irene organised a conspiracy against Constantine. Captured by his own men, his eyes were gouged out and he died several days later.
For the next five years, Irene ruled Byzantium alone, forging good relations with the Western emperor, Charlemagne. She also restored previously banned religious icons to the Orthodox church.
In 802, Irene was deposed by her finance minister and exiled to the island of Lesbos, where she died a year later.