Colm Lock looks at how many of Britannia’s greatest rulers were, and continue to be, women
On this island, as in most of the world, our politics and ruling elite have been dominated by men. The less enlightened will quickly knee jerk to blame our Judeo-Christian heritage for this. That would would not only be wrong, but the kind of person who believes such a thing probably also believes that air conditioning is sexist and vows to smash the patriarchy every day before breakfast. Instead, blame the Romans; their society has shaped ours in many ways that we don’t know. But, compared to our continental friends, Britain is much more matriarchal than you might think. It must be remembered that our island is personified in the female form of Britannia. And before anyone says that it was the English who burned Joan of Arc, that was excusable because, above all, she was French.
The Roman province of Britain was troublesome for the empire; we required more than the average number of legions to keep us from rising up and kicking out our continental masters. Rebellions were tried and rebellions failed. But a great annoyance for Romans and the most well-known rebel leader of this time was Boudica, the woman who led the Iceni in rebellion against the empire and gave them hell until her eventual suicide as the prospect of capture became a reality. Her statue, complete with chariot, currently stands proudly on Westminster Bridge outside parliament, emanating a strength and defiance that has so often been the characteristic of our national spirit.
It must also not be forgotten that our three most successful and pivotal rulers have all been in the possession of two X chromosomes. Both of the Elizabeths and Victoria are, I would argue, the greatest monarchs this country has ever enjoyed. George III, while he did reign for a long time, lost Britain’s colonies in America and was a famous loony who would burry joints of beef in the palace gardens, believing that they would eventually sprout into ‘beef trees’. George V’s reign was also famously stuck in the mud. His drudging rule left us sluggish and unprepared for the latter half of the 20th century, and it was under his watch that the empire weakly gave up its control of Ireland.
Elizabeth I, however, is a very different kettle of fish. She came to the throne after succeeding her sister, whose rule was admittedly a complete disaster. Elizabeth’s rule is the time that I view as the foundation of the British Empire. It was her provocation of the Spanish and the complete defeat and humiliation of the Armada that left a gap in the market for Britain to stake its claim on the new world. After all, the state of Virginia is named after her. We stole the gold of the Spanish empire, at the time the global superpower, and ceased to be just a provincial backwater on the edge of Europe. She also firmly safeguarded the place of Protestantism in Britain and finished her father’s work in freeing us from the tyranny and zealotry of Rome, eradicating the possibility of an inquisition on this island.
Then we come to Victoria, a woman whose reign saw the empire rise to meteoric heights, a queen in an age that immensely shaped modern Britain. Were it not for her and her husband Albert’s patronage of causes that advanced the cause of modernism and struck the careful balance between sovereign and parliament, we would not be where we are today. Instead, we would probably have faced a much stronger republican menace than we have faced. While this opinion is currently shared between pitiful and unpatriotic weirdoes, back then it was a serious issue. Because of the misrule by monarchs of the 19th century, within the first 22 some years of the 20th century, the Emperors of Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire had all fallen. But it was Queen Victoria’s pragmatic rule and embrace of technology and science that not only allowed us to become a super power, but also saved us from the barbarity of republicanism and communist revolution. She is our second longest reigning monarch who, amongst other things, made the modern Christmas tree fashionable in Britain.
Finally, we come to our current monarch, Elizabeth II. Many do not think she is great; when I mention this to people, they usually laugh at the notion of her greatness as our queen. But, we must remember that she has been queen through possibly the most tumultuous period across the globe since the Napoleonic wars. In the wake of the Second World War, our empire, like many others, was in the process of collapse. Some countries dealt with this well. France certainly did not. Like Ziggy from Lazytown, they continued the mantra of pointing at their colonies and saying “this is mine”. As the queen of what was still the biggest empire in the world, she was pivotal in our decolonisation. She could have become involved by arguing for British resistance and entrenchment, which proved so disastrous for Portugal and France, but instead she saw the signs. She has led us out of empire and into the age of the commonwealth, and for that we should be grateful.
So next time you give a thought to Britain’s rulers, remember that our Queens have proved able captains of the ship of state that our kings rarely were.