Queen as a Title

History of Titles for Female Rulers

In English, the word for a female ruler is "queen."  But that's also the word for the spouse of a male ruler.  Where did the title come from, and what are some variations on the title in common usage?

01
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Derivation of the Word Queen

Queen Victoria on throne in her coronation robes, wearing British crown, holding the sceptre
Queen Victoria on throne in her coronation robes, wearing British crown, holding the sceptre. Hulton Archive / Ann Ronan Pictures / Print Collector / Getty Images

In English, the word “queen” apparently developed simply as a designation of the king's wife, from the word for wife, cwen. It is a cognate with the Greek root gyne (as in gynecology, misogyny) meaning woman or wife, and with the Sanskrit janis meaning woman.

Among the Anglo-Saxon rulers of pre-Norman England, the historical record does not always even record the name of the king’s wife, as her position was not considered one requiring a title.  (And some of those kings had multiple wives, perhaps at the same time; monogamy was not universal at the time.)  The position gradually evolves towards the current sense, with the word “queen.”

The first time a woman in England was crowned—with a coronation ceremony—as queen was in the 10th century CE: the queen Aelfthryth or Elfrida, wife of King Edgar "the Peaceable," stepmother of Edward "the Martyr" and mother of King Ethelred (Aethelred) II "the Unready" or "Poorly Counseled."

02
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A Separate Word for Female Rulers?

Chessboard and chess pieces
Johner / Getty Images

English is unusual in having a word for female rulers that is rooted in a woman-oriented word. In many languages, the word for a woman ruler is derived from a word for male rulers:

  • Roman Augusta (for women related to the emperor); emperors were titled Augustus.
  • Spanish reina; king is rey
  • French reine; king is roi
  • German for king and queen: König und Königin
  • German for emperor and empress: Kaiser und Kaiserin
  • Polish is król i królowa
  • Croatian is kralj i kraljica
  • Finnish is kuningas ja kuningatar
  • Scandinavian languages use a different word for king and queen, but the word for queen is derived from a word meaning “master”: Swedish kung och drottning, Danish or Norwegian konge og dronning, Icelandic konungur og drottning
  • Hindi uses rājā and rānī; rānī derives from Sanskrit rājñī which is in turn derived from rājan for king, as is rājā

03
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What Is a Queen Consort?

'The Coronation of Marie de' Medici', 1622. Artist: Peter Paul Rubens
'The Coronation of Marie de' Medici', 1622. Artist: Peter Paul Rubens. Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

A queen consort is the wife of a reigning king. The tradition of a separate coronation—crowning—of a queen consort developed slowly and was unevenly applied.

Marie de Medici, for instance, was queen consort of King Henry IV of France. There were only queens consort, no reigning queens, of France, as French law assumed Salic Law for the sake of the royal title.

The first queen consort in England that we can find to have been crowned in a formal ceremony, coronation, Aelfthryth, lived in the 10th century CE.

Henry VIII infamously had six wives.  Only the first two had formal coronations as queen, but the others were known as queens during the time their marriages endured.

Ancient Egypt didn't use a variation on the male rulership term, pharaoh, for queens consort.  They were called the Great Wife, or God's Wife (in Egyptian theology, Pharaohs were considered incarnations of the gods).

04
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Regent Queens (or Queens Regent)

Louise of Savoy
Louise of Savoy with her firm hand on the tiller of the kingdom of France. Getty Images / Hulton Archive

A regent is someone who governs when the sovereign or monarch is unable to do so, due to being a minor, being absent from the country, or a disability.

Some queen consorts were briefly rulers in the stead of their husbands, sons or even grandsons, as regents for their male relative.  But the power was supposed to return to the males when the minor child reached his majority or when the absent male returned. 

The king's wife was often a choice for a regent, as she could be trusted to have the interests of her husband or son as a priority, and be less likely than one of many nobles to turn on the absent or minor or disabled king.

Isabella of France, English queen consort of Edward II and mother of Edward III, is infamous in history for having deposed her husband, later having him murdered, and then trying to hold on to the regency for her son even after he reached his majority.

The Wars of the Roses arguably began with disputes around the regency for Henry IV, whose mental condition kept him from ruling for some time. Margaret of Anjou, his queen consort, played a very active, and controversial, role, during Henry's periods described as insanity.

Although France did not recognize the right of a woman to inherit a royal title as queen, many French queens served as regents, including Louise of Savoy.

05
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Queens Regnant or Reigning Queens

Queen Elizabeth I with crown, sceptre
Queen Elizabeth I in the dress, crown, sceptre worn when she thanked her Navy for the defeat of the Spanish Armada. Hulton Archive / Getty Image

A queen regnant is a woman who rules in her own right, rather than exercising power as a wife of a king or even a regent.  Through most of history, succession was agnatic – through male heirs – with primogeniture being a common practice, where the eldest was first in succession.  (Occasional systems where younger sons were preferred have also existed.)

In the 12th century, Norman king Henry I, son of William the Conqueror, faced an unexpected dilemma near the end of his life: his only surviving legitimate son died when his ship capsized en route from the continent to the island.  William had his nobles swear support for his daughter’s right to rule in her own right - the Empress Matilda, already widowed from her first marriage to the Holy Roman Emperor.  But when Henry I died, many of the nobles supported her cousin Stephen instead, and a civil war ensued, with Matilda never being formally crowned as queen regnant.

In the 16th century, consider the effect of such rules on on  Henry VIII and his multiple marriages, probably largely inspired by trying to get a male heir when he and his first wife Catherine of Aragon had only a living daughter, no sons.  On the death of Henry VIII’s son, King Edward VI, Protestant supporters tried to install the 16-year-old . Lady Jane Grey as queen. Edward had been persuaded by his advisors to name her his successor, contrary to his father’s preference that if Edward died without issue, Henry’s two daughters would be given preference in succession, even though both of the marriages to their mothers had been annulled and the daughters declared, at various times, to be illegitimate.  But that effort was abortive, and after just nine days, Henry’s elder daughter, Mary, was declared queen as Mary I, England’s first queen regnant. Other women, through Queen Elizabeth II, have been queens regnant in England and Great Britain.

Some European legal traditions prohibited women from inheriting lands, titles and offices.  This tradition, known as Salic Law, was followed in France, and there were no queens regnant in France’s history. Spain followed Salic Law at times, leading to a 19th century conflict over whether Isabella II could reign. But in the early 12th century, Urraca of Leon and Castile ruled in her own right.  Later, Queen Isabella ruled Leon and Castile in her own right, and ruled Aragon as co-ruler with Ferdinand as, technically, queen consort. Isabella’s daughter, Juana, was the only remaining heir at Isabella’s death, and she became queen of Leon and Castile, while Ferdinand, still living, continued to rule Aragon until his death.

In the 19th century, Queen Victoria's firstborn was a daughter. Victoria did later have a son who then moved ahead of his sister in the royal queue.

In the 20th and 21st century, several royal houses of Europe have removed the male-preference rule from their succession rules.

06
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Dowager Queens (and Other Dowagers)

Princess Marie Sophie Frederikke Dagmar, Dowager Empress of Russia
Princess Marie Sophie Frederikke Dagmar, Dowager Empress of Russia (1847-1928). The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

A dowager is a widow holding a title or property that was her late husband's. The root word is also found in the word "endow."

A living female who is an ancestor of the current holder of a title is also termed a dowager.

An example: the Dowager Empress Cixi, a widow of an emperor, ruled China in the place of first her son and then her nephew, both titled Emperor.

Among the British peerage, a dowager continues to use the female form of her late husband's title so long as the present male title-holder does not have a wife. When the present male title-holder marries, his wife assumes the female form of his title and the title used by the dowager is the female title prepended with Dowager ("Dowager Countess of ...") or by using her first name before the title ("Jane, Countess of ...").

The title "Dowager Princess of Wales" or "Princess Dowager of Wales" was given to Catherine of Aragon when Henry VIII arranged to annul their marriage. This title refers to Catherine's previous marriage to Henry's older brother, Arthur, who was still Prince of Wales at his death, widowing Catherine.

At the time of the marriage of Catherine and Henry, it was alleged that Arthur and Catherine had not consummated their marriage due to their youth, freeing Henry and Catherine to avoid the church prohibition on a marriage to one's brother's widow. At the time Henry wanted to obtain an annulment of the marriage, he alleged that Arthur and Catherine's marriage had been valid, providing grounds for the annulment.

07
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Queen Mother

Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, accompanied by Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth ll, Diana, Princess of Wales and Prince Harry
London, 1992: Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, accompanied by Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth ll, Diana, Princess of Wales and Prince Harry. Anwar Hussein/Getty Images

A dowager queen whose son or daughter is currently ruling is called a Queen Mother.

Several recent British queens have been called Queen Mother.  Queen Mary of Teck, mother of Edward VIII and George VI, was popular and known for her intelligence. Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, who did not know when she married that her brother-in-law would be pressured to abdicate and that she would become queen, was widowed when George VI died in 1952. She was known as Queen Mum, as mother of the reigning Queen Elizabeth II, until her death 50 years later in 2002.

When the first Tudor king, Henry VII, was crowned, his mother, Margaret Beaufort, acted much as if she were the Queen Mother, though because she had never been a queen herself, the title Queen Mother was not official.

Some queen mothers were also regents for their sons, if the son was not yet of age to take on the monarchy, or when their sons were out of the country and unable to rule directly.