Regency and Royal Medieval Widowhood

Jenna Ford

Queenship historians have long since debated the nature of a dowager queen and what her role was in court, without the king by her side.

As a consort, a queen's power often stemmed from what her husband was willing to bestow upon her, which put dowager queens into a vulnerable position when it came to retaining or increasing their power. As a widow, a queen was subjected to a status which saw her liberties restricted by the legal, social, and moral obligations that were expected of a woman, as well as being at the whim of the new ruler. This change in social standing often came with unexpected challenges on how to remain an important figure. However, a combination of female longevity and the deaths of kings has made the dowager queen a familiar figure, and this is certainly the case for many dowager queens throughout the medieval period. What was expected of a queen in their widowhood differed from each kingdom, dynasty, or empire. However, many dowager queens went on to become regents for their young heirs, consolidating their position in society this way. By exploring this with two dowager queens from the medieval period, Empress Theophanu (c.955-991), and Empress Liu (c.969-1033), we can see what powers a royal woman had access to during widowhood and how the position of regency helped them to hold onto them. One of the greatest powers a dowager queen could utilise was her self-representation. In marriage they were wife to the king and queen to their country, but how they defined themselves in widowhood could impact how the people saw them for the rest of their lives and, in some cases, beyond. Becoming a regent for a young heir upon the death of the king could be beneficial, although some believe that the political authority of female regents was vastly different from that of female monarchs. Yet despite this, regency opened doors for dowager queens to remain at court and exert similar powers as to when they were consort, such is the case with Empress Theophanu and Empress Liu, who both held the regency in their empires until their deaths.
Regency and Royal Medieval Widowhood
Otton II and Théophano

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Regency and Royal Medieval Widowhood
Empress of Zhenzong of Song

Theophanu served as regent for her son Otto III from 985 – 991, styling herself as the ‘Emperor by divine grace’

In the 10th century, civil powers, like those used by a female regent, were often male coded, due to women being seen as the weaker sex. But throughout the years of her regency, Theophanu came to be seen as a very capable ruler, despite her sex, and an emperor in every way except militarily. In his chronicle, Thietmar of Merseburg says that: ‘Though she was of the weaker sex […] she protected with male vigilance the royal power […] friendly against all those who were honest, but terrifying superiority against rebels.’ This choice of display not only helped to earn her the support of many in the empire and consolidate her power as regent, but it also kept conspirators and would-be usurpers away from the throne which was meant for her son. Where Empress Theophanu took on a masculine role, Empress Liu played into the ideology attached to motherhood to consolidate her position as regent. The role of a mother, both in the Song dynasty and in queenship across the globe, played a key role into a royal woman’s power and position. One of the main virtues of a queen or empress in the medieval period has often been linked to maternal sensibilities and the idea of the ‘perfect mother’. Although Empress Liu was not the biological mother of the heir, Renzong, she had brought him up as her own. Alongside this, having served as an unofficial regent throughout her husband’s illness, she was able to consolidate her position as regent following his death, under this guise of motherhood. Liu was able to display herself as a mother who was wise and giving, which served to retain her position of power whilst ruling in a male-dominated dynasty. The paths to power for dowager queens often differed depending on the political and social climate of their country. There were expectations that a dowager could play into, if she were savvy enough, to prove to her male counterparts that she was formidable enough to be trusted with the power bestowed upon her. However, due to the ways in which women were viewed within the patriarchal societies of the medieval period, they often found themselves with little power. But dowager queens had the wealth of knowledge. By serving as a regent, they could secure powerful positions, allowing them more opportunities to increase or retain their standing.
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Regency and Royal Medieval Widowhood

Jenna Ford

MA History graduate with a passion for all things historical, particularly medieval history, royal history and, queenship.
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