Medieval Queens, Empresses, and Women Rulers

Women of Power in the Middle Ages

Sarcophagus of Theodora in Arta
Sarcophagus of Theodora in Arta. Vanni Archive / Getty Images


In the Middle Ages, men ruled -- except when women did. Here are a few of the medieval women who ruled -- in their own right in a few cases, as regents for male relatives in other cases, and sometimes by wielding power and influence through their husbands, sons, brothers, and grandsons.

This list includes women born before 1600, and are shown in order of their known or estimated birth date.


Sarcophagus of Theodora in Arta
Sarcophagus of Theodora in Arta. Vanni Archive / Getty Images

(about 497-510 - June 28, 548; Byzantium)

Theodora was probably the most influential woman in Byzantine history.


Amalasuntha (Amalasonte)
Amalasuntha (Amalasonte). Hulton Archive / Getty Images

(498-535; Ostrogoths)

Regent Queen of the Ostrogoths, her murder became the rationale for Justinian's invasion of Italy and defeat of the Goths. Unfortunately, we have only a few very biased sources for her life, but this profile attempts to read between the lines and come as close as we can to an objective telling of her story.


Brunhilde (Brunehaut), engraving by Gaitte
Brunhilde (Brunehaut), engraving by Gaitte. Culture Club / Getty Images

(about 545 - 613; Austrasia - France, Germany)

A Visigoth princess, she married a Frankish king, then revenged her murdered sister by starting a 40-year war with a rival kingdom. She fought for her son, grandsons and great-grandson, but was finally defeated and the kingdom lost to the rival family.


(about 550 - 597; Neustria - France)

She worked her way up from servant to mistress to queen consort, and then ruled as her son's regent. She talked her husband into murdering his second wife, but that wife's sister, Brunhilde, wanted revenge. Fredegund is chiefly remembered for her assassinations and other cruelties.

Empress Suiko

(554 - 628)

Although the legendary rulers of Japan, before written history, were said to be empresses, Suiko is the first empress in recorded history to rule Japan. During her reign, Buddhism was promoted officially, Chinese and Korean influence increased, and, according to tradition, a 17-article constitution was adopted.

Irene of Athens

(752 - 803; Byzantium)
Empress consort to Leo IV, regent and co-ruler with their son, Constantine VI. After he came of age, she deposed him, ordered him to be blinded and ruled as Empress herself.  Because of a woman's ruling the eastern empire, the Pope recognized Charlemagne as Roman Emperor. Irene was also a figure in the controversy over veneration of images and took a position against the iconoclasts.


(872-879? - 918; Mercia, England)

Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, daughter of Alfred the Great, won battles with the Danes and even invaded Wales.

Olga of Russia

Monument to Olha (Olga) in front of monastery, Ukraine
Monument to Princess Olha (Olga) at Mykhaylivska Square in front of St. Michael's Monastery, Kiev, Ukraine, Europe. Gavin Hellier / Robert Harding World Imagery / Getty Images

(about 890 (?) - July 11, 969 (?); Kiev, Russia)

A cruel and revengeful ruler as regent for her son, Olga was the first Russian saint in the Orthodox Church, for her efforts in converting the nation to Christianity.

Edith (Eadgyth) of England

(about 910 - 946; England)

Daughter of King Edward the Elder of England, she was married off to the Emperor Otto I as his first wife.

Saint Adelaide

(931-999; Saxony, Italy)

Second wife of Emperor Otto I, who rescued her from captivity, she ruled as a regent for her grandson Otto III with her daughter-in-law Theophano.


(943? - after 969; Byzantium)

Wife of two Byzantine emperors, she served as regent for her sons and married her daughters to important 10th century rulers - the Western emperor Otto II and Vladimir I of Russia.


(945 - 1000)

Aelfthryth was married to King Edgar the Peaceable and mother of Edward the Martyr and King Aethelred (Ethelred) II the Unready.


(956? - June 15, 991; Byzantium)
Daughter of Theophano, Byzantine Empress, she married the western Emperor Otto II and served, with her mother-in-law Adelaide, as regent for her son, Otto III.


(March 13, 963 - 1011; Kiev, Russia)

Daughter of Theophano and the Byzantine Emperor Romanus II, and thus sister of the Theophano who married western Emperor Otto II, Anna was married to Vladimir I of Kiev -- and her marriage was the occasion of his conversion, beginning the official conversion of Russia to Christianity.


(about 985 - 1002; England)

The first wife of Ethelred the Unready, she was the mother of Edmund II Ironside who briefly ruled England in a transitional time.

Saint Margaret of Scotland

Saint Margaret of Scotland
Saint Margaret of Scotland, reading the Bible to her husband, King Malcolm III of Scotland. Getty Images / Hulton Archive

(about 1045 - 1093)

Queen Consort of Scotland, married to Malcolm III, she was patroness of Scotland and worked to reform the Church of Scotland.

Anna Comnena

(1083 - 1148; Byzantium)

Anna Comnena, a daughter of a Byzantine emperor, was the first woman to write a history. She was also involved in history, attempting to substitute her husband for her brother in the succession.

Empress Matilda (Matilda or Maud, Lady of the English)

Empress Matilda, Countess of Anjou, Lady of the English
Empress Matilda, Countess of Anjou, Lady of the English. Hulton Archive / Culture Club / Getty Images

(August 5, 1102 - September 10, 1167)
Called Empress because she was married to the Holy Roman Emperor in her first marriage while her brother was still alive, she was widowed and remarried when her father, Henry I, died.  Henry had named Matilda his successor, but her cousin Stephen seized the crown before Matilda could claim it successfully leading to a long war of succession.

Eleanor of Aquitaine

Effigy of Eleanor of Aquitaine, tomb at Fontevraud
Effigy of Eleanor of Aquitaine, tomb at Fontevraud. Touriste at, released into the public domain

(1122 - 1204; France, England) Eleanor of Aquitaine, queen of France and England through her two marriages and ruler of her own territories by right of birth, was one of the most powerful women of the world in the twelfth century.

Eleanor, Queen of Castile

(1162 - 1214) Daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine, and mother of Enrique I of Castile as well as daughters Berenguela who served as a regent for her brother Enrique, Blanche who became Queen of France, Urraca who became Queen of Portugal, and Eleanor who became (for a few years) Queen of Aragon.  Eleanor Plantagenet ruled alongside her husband, Alfonso VIII of Castile.

Berengaria of Navarre

Berengaria of Navarre, Queen Consort of Richard I Lionheart of England
Berengaria of Navarre, Queen Consort of Richard I Lionheart of England. © 2011

(1163?/1165? - 1230; Queen of England)

Daughter of King Sancho VI of Navarre and Blanche of Castile, Berengaria was queen consort of Richard I of England -- Richard the Lionhearted -- Berengaria is the only Queen of England never to set foot on the soil of England. She died childless.

Joan of England, Queen of Sicily

(October 1165 - September 4, 1199)
Daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Joan of England was married to the king of Sicily. Her brother, Richard I, rescued her first from imprisonment by her husband's sucessor, and then from a shipwreck.

Berenguela of Castile

(1180 - 1246) Married briefly to the King of Leon before their marriage was annulled to please the church, Berenguela served as regent for her brother, Enrique (Henry) I of Castile until his death. She gave up her right to succeed her brother in favor of her son, Ferdinand, who eventually also succeeded his father to the crown of Leon, bringing the two lands together under one rule. Berenguela was a daughter of King Alfonso VIII of Castile and Eleanor Plantagenet, Queen of Castile.

Blanche of Castile

(1188-1252; France)

Blanche of Castile was ruler of France twice as regent for her son, Saint Louis.

Isabella of France

Isabella of France
Print Collector / Getty Images

(1292 - August 23, 1358; France, England)
She was married to Edward II of England. She eventually collaborated in Edward's removal as king and then, most likely, in his murder.  She ruled as regent with her lover until her son took power and banished his mother to a convent.

Catherine of Valois

Marriage Of Henry V (1470, image c1850)
Marriage Of Henry V and Catherine of Valois (1470, image c1850). The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

(October 27, 1401 - January 3, 1437; France, England)

Catherine of Valois was the daughter, wife, mother, and grandmother of kings. Her relationship with Owen Tudor was a scandal; one of their descendents was the first Tudor king.

Cecily Neville

Shakespeare Scene: Richard III confronted by Elizabeth Woodville and Cecily Neville
Shakespeare Scene: Richard III confronted by Elizabeth Woodville and Cecily Neville. Ann Ronan Pictures / Print Collector / Getty Images

(May 3, 1415 - May 31, 1495; England)
Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, was mother to two kings of England, and wife to a would-be king. She plays a part in the politics of the War of the Roses.

Margaret of Anjou

Margaret of Anjou
Illustration depicting Margaret of Anjou, queen of Henry VI of England. Archive Photos / Getty Images

(March 23, 1429 - August 25, 1482; England)

Margaret of Anjou, Queen of England, took an active part in her husband's administration and led the Lancastrians in the early years of the War of the Roses.

Elizabeth Woodville

Caxton Stained-Glass Window with Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville
Caxton Window with Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. Getty Images / Hulton Archive

(about 1437 - June 7 or 8, 1492; England)

Elizabeth Woodville, Queen of England, wielded considerable influence and power. But some of the stories told about her may be pure propaganda.

Queen Isabella I of Spain

Queen Isabella the Catholic
Isabella the Catholic - Queen Isabella I of Spain. (c) 2001 Used by permission.

(April 22, 1451 - November 26, 1504; Spain)

Queen of Castile and Aragon, she ruled equally with her husband, Ferdinand. She's known in history for sponsoring Christopher Columbus' expedition that discovered the New World; read about other reasons she's remembered.

Mary of Burgundy

(February 13, 1457 - March 27, 1482; France, Austria)

Mary of Burgundy's marriage brought the Netherlands to the Habsburg dynasty and her son brought Spain into the Habsburg sphere.

Elizabeth of York

Elizabeth of York
Elizabeth of York portrait. Public domain image

(February 11, 1466 - February 11, 1503; England)

Elizabeth of York was the only woman to have been a daughter, sister, niece, wife, and mother to English kings. Her marriage to Henry VII signaled the end of the wars of the roses and the beginning of the Tudor dynasty.

Margaret Tudor

Margaret Tudor - after a painting by Holbein
Margaret Tudor - after a painting by Holbein. ©, modifications © Jone Johnson Lewis

(November 29, 1489 - October 18, 1541; England, Scotland)

Margaret Tudor was sister of England's Henry VIII, queen consort of James IV of Scotland, grandmother of Mary, Queen of Scots, and also grandmother of Mary's husband, Lord Darnley.

Mary Tudor

(March 1496 - June 25, 1533)
Mary Tudor, the younger sister of Henry VIII, was only 18 when she was married in a political alliance to Louis XII, King of France. He was 52, and did not live long after the marriage. Before she returned to England, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, Henry VIII's friend, married Mary Tudor, to Henry's ire. Mary Tudor was the grandmother of Lady Jane Grey.

Catherine Parr

Catherine Parr, after a Holbein painting
Catherine Parr, after a Holbein painting. ©

(1512? - September 5 or 7, 1548; England)

Sixth wife of Henry VIII, Catherine Parr was initially reluctant to marry Henry, and by all accounts was a patient, loving, and pious wife to him in his last years of illness, disillusion, and pain. She was an advocate of Protestant reforms.

Anne of Cleves

Anne of Cleves portrait, by Hans Holbein
Anne of Cleves. Print Collector / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

(September 22, 1515? - July 16, 1557; England)

Fourth wife of Henry VIII, she was not what he expected when he negotiated for her hand in marriage. Her willingness to agree to a divorce and separation led to her peaceful retirement in England.

Mary of Guise (Mary of Lorraine)

Mary of Guise, artist Corneille de Lyon
Mary of Guise, artist Corneille de Lyon. Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

(November 22, 1515 - June 11, 1560; France, Scotland)
Mary of Guise was part of the powerful Guise family of France. She was the queen consort, then widow, of James V of Scotland. Their daughter was Mary, Queen of Scots.  Mary of Guise took leadership in suppressing Scotland's Protestants, triggering civil war.

Mary I

Mary Tudor, Princess - later Mary I, Queen - after a Holbein painting
Mary Tudor, Princess - later Mary I, Queen - after a Holbein painting. ©

(February 18, 1516 - November 17, 1558; England)
Mary was the daughter of England's Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, his first of six wives. Mary's reign in England attempted to bring back Roman Catholicism as the state religion. In that quest, she executed as heretics some Protestants -- the origin of being described as "Bloody Mary."

Catherine de Medici

Catherine de Medici
Stock Montage/Getty Images.

(April 13, 1519 - January 5, 1589)

Catherine de Medici, from a noted Italian Renaissance family and maternally descended from the Bourbons of France, was queen consort of Henry II of France. Bearing him ten children, she was shut out of political influence during Henry's lifetime. But she ruled as regent and then the power behind the throne for her three sons, Francis II, Charles IX, and Henry III, each king of France in turn. She played a key role in the wars of religion in France, as the Roman Catholics and Huguenots vied for power.

Amina, Queen of Zazzau

Emir's palace in the ancient city of Zaria
Emir's palace in the ancient city of Zaria. Kerstin Geier / Getty Images

(about 1533 - about 1600; now Zaria province in Nigeria)
Amina, Queen of Zazzau, extended the territory of her people while she was queen.

Elizabeth I of England

Elizabeth I - Painting by Nicholas Hilliard
Elizabeth I - Painting by Nicholas Hilliard. ©, modifications © Jone Johnson Lewis

(September 9, 1533 - March 24, 1603; England)
Elizabeth I is one of the best-known and most-remembered rulers, man or woman, in British history. Her reign saw key transitions in English history -- settling into the Church of England's establishment and the defeat of the Spanish Armada, for example.

Lady Jane Grey

Lady Jane Grey
Lady Jane Grey. ©

(October 1537 - February 12, 1554; England)

The reluctant eight-day queen of England, Lady Jane Grey was supported by the Protestant party to follow Edward VI and to try to prevent the Roman Catholic Mary from taking the throne.

Mary Queen of Scots

Mary, Queen of Scots
Mary, Queen of Scots. ©

(December 8, 1542 - February 8, 1587; France, Scotland)

A potential claimant to the British throne and briefly Queen of France, Mary became Queen of Scotland when her father died and she was only a week old. Her reign was brief and controversial.

Elizabeth Bathory

(1560 - 1614)
Countess of Hungary, she was tried in 1611 for torturing and killing between 30 and 40 young girls.

Marie de Medici

'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

(1573 - 1642)
Marie de Medici, widow of Henry IV of France, was regent for her son, Louis XII

Nur Jahan of India

Nur Jahan with Jahangir and Prince Khurram
Nur Jahan with Jahangir and Prince Khurram, About 1625. Hulton Archive / Find Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty Images

(1577 - 1645)
Bon Mehr un-Nissa, she was given the title Nur Jahan when she married the Mughal Emperor Jahangir. His opium and alcohol habits meant that she was de facto ruler. He even rescued her husband from rebels who captured and held him.

Anna Nzinga

(1581 - December 17, 1663; Angola)

Anna Nzinga was a warrior queen of the Ndongo and queen of Matamba. She led a resistance campaign against the Portuguese and against the trading of enslaved people.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Medieval Queens, Empresses, and Women Rulers." ThoughtCo, Jan. 26, 2021, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2021, January 26). Medieval Queens, Empresses, and Women Rulers. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Medieval Queens, Empresses, and Women Rulers." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).