Centuries before feminism, two women ruled Europe

One was known as the “Virgin Queen” of England. The other exercised power as the mother of three kings of France.

Estelle Paranque, Assistant Professor of Modern History at NCH at Northeastern in London. Courtesy picture

The saga of their groundbreaking rivalry five centuries ago is told by Estelle Paranque, Assistant Professor of Modern History at NCH at Northeastern London, in her new book: “Blood, Fire and Gold: The story of Elizabeth I and Catherine de Medici.”

Elizabeth I, who presided over the Shakespearian era, was the celibate queen of England and Ireland from 1558 until her death in 1603. For 30 years, she enjoyed a conflicted and constructive relationship with Catherine de Medici, queen of France from 1547 to 1559, whose authority was established when her sons ascended the throne.

“I’ve always been interested in strong, powerful women,” says Paranque, whose book was published last week in Britain and will be available in the United States in December. “The story of their relationship is that one (Catherine) was an orphan, the other was a bastard. They were never meant to be queens and yet they ruled the second half of the 16th century together. century.

Paranque came across letters from the two queens while researching an academic project. She recognized the stuff of a mainstream book she wrote as a novel, with dialogue recreated from their old letters.

“I found their story extremely moving,” says Paranque. “There is no villain. There is no hero. There are just two women with different dreams and a love of power who have had to face each other.

Paranque spoke with News @ Northeastern about how each became an early role model for feminism, the compelling differences between them, and Catherine’s failed attempts to offer her sons in marriage to Elizabeth. His comments have been edited for brevity and clarity.

What attracted you to the story of these two women?

They had to meet challenges and overcome obstacles. It’s mostly men telling them they shouldn’t do things. And both won.

As a single woman in power in the 16th century for 44 years, Elizabeth I has no real equal. When she was young – in her thirties – and in front of her parliament, under the pressure of all these men to make the decision to marry someone, she told them: “It is monstrous that the feet rule the head.

At the time, it was believed that the men were the head and the women the feet. And for her to say, “Actually, because I’m queen, you’re the feet and I’m the head,” that was a massive insult.

To what extent can they be called feminists?

There is no feminism in the sixteenth century. There is no idea of ​​helping each other as women. There is not this type of brotherhood that we have today.

But as she says herself, Elizabeth is an extraordinary woman. By setting an example of a woman who stands up for herself, she created generations and generations who even today talk about how she empowers them to be the strong woman they want to be. That’s what I like about her.

How were they different?

Catherine de Medici was married. When he married Henry II, he had a mistress whom he loved very much, and it was a third wheel. She remained silent. She was extremely humble. But then she got her power through motherhood. She married her daughters and she had sons who became kings. And that’s how this little orphan from Florence who had lost everything became the queen mother of France, and more or less at the head of the country.

And so you see two types of women. Elizabeth is the woman who decides to pursue a career. Catherine de Medici is the mother who decides to have a say and also to have power.

What was the status of their relationship?

It didn’t start well. When Elizabeth became queen in 1558, her sister, Mary I, had just lost Calais to the French. And it was thanks to Catherine de’ Medici, who convinced the men of Paris to give her husband money that helped him keep Calais.

For some years now, the two women have been evaluating each other. There is a religious civil war in France which started in 1562, and Elizabeth tries to support the Protestants. But Catherine will play it. The Protestants will turn their backs on Elisabeth, there will be massive losses of English, Elisabeth will have nothing to negotiate to recover Calais and Catherine will be victorious.

Elizabeth learned her lessons very, very quickly. You couldn’t cheat on her twice.

Much of their duel involved Catherine’s attempts to marry each of her three sons to Elizabeth. What was the result?

Catherine, a little too confident, goes to pursue Elizabeth. She’s going to offer all her sons, and now Elizabeth becomes the one playing Catherine – saying yes but no; say yes, but maybe one day.

So you have this 12-year period where Elizabeth and Catherine are playing cat and mouse, right? Catherine thought she was the cat, and she will realize after all these years that she was the mouse. It becomes apparent that Elizabeth will never marry one of her sons, Catherine becomes genuinely annoyed with Elizabeth, and tensions rise between them to the point that they will never get over it. It becomes a rivalry where their courts play against each other like a game of chess.

Elizabeth underestimated Catherine early on with Calais, but she never did again.

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