10 of the Most Notable Royal Consorts in History | History Hit

10 of the Most Notable Royal Consorts in History

Lily Johnson

08 Sep 2021
Image Credit: Public domain

For as long as monarchy has existed, the role of royal consort – the person married to the monarch – has too occupied a place in history. Often in the shadow of their more powerful and renowned spouse however, royal consorts have long been sidelined as mere accessories to rule, particularly as they were (almost!) always roles filled by women.

In reality, a host of strong-willed consorts were able to exert substantial influence over their spouse, government, and their people, whether through remarkable charisma, a cunning head for strategy, or a clear capability to rule.

From the thrones of ancient Egypt to the Palace of Versailles, here are 8 women and 2 men whose roles as consort continue to inspire and intrigue us today:

1. Nefertiti (c.1370-c.1330 BC)

One of the most famous queens of the ancient world, Nefertiti ruled over one of Ancient Egypt’s wealthiest periods as consort to Pharaoh Akhenaten.

Nefertiti bust in Neuen Museum, Berlin

Image Credit: Public domain

Her striking image appears painted on the walls of more tombs and temples than any other Egyptian queen, and in many she is displayed as a strong and powerful figure – leading the worship of Aten, driving chariots, or defeating her enemies.

At some point in her reign the historical record goes cold, however experts believe she may have begun a co-rule with her husband, under the name Neferneferuaten. If this is the case, she continued to exert her power long after the death of her husband, reversing his religious policies and paving the way for her stepson King Tutankhamun‘s rule.

2. Empress Theodora (c.500-548)

Another remarkable woman of the ancient world, Empress Theodora was the consort of Emperor Justinian, ruling over the Byzantine Empire for 21 years. Though never made co-regent, many believed her to be the true ruler of Byzantium, with her name appearing in almost all the legislation passed during the period.

Mosaic of Theodora in the Basilica of San Vitale, Italy, built in 547 AD.

Image Credit: Petar Milošević / CC

She was in particular a champion of women’s rights, fighting for anti-rape legislation, marriage and dowry rights, and guardianship rights for women over their children. Theodora also oversaw the magnificent rebuilding of Constantinople and instigated the adoption of an early form of Christianity, Monophysitism, in Nubia in the 6th century.

3. Wu Zetian (624-705)

Equally brilliant as she was ruthless, Wu Zetian rose from her position in the laundry room of the imperial court to become the first Empress of China.

Wu Zetian from an 18th century album of portraits of 86 emperors of China, with Chinese historical notes.

Image Credit: Public domain

Through her wit and charm, she initially rose to become a concubine of Emperor Taizong, and when he died was customarily sent to a convent to live the rest of her life in solemn chastity. With some clever pre-planning however, Wu had previously begun an affair with Taizong’s son, the future Emperor Gaizong – when he came to power, he demanded Wu be returned to court where she was installed as his chief concubine.

She was rumoured to have killed her own infant daughter to frame the Emperor’s wife and have her removed from power: true or not, she later became his new empress consort. This ambition was furthered even more after the death of her husband, when Wu deposed her own unruly sons to declare herself Empress Regnant for the first time in China’s history.

4. Olga of Kiev (c.890-925)

Perhaps the most ruthlessly loyal of this group, Olga of Kiev is the definition of a ‘ride or die’. Married to Igor of Kiev, Olga’s story as a fierce consort is actually most notable after the brutal death of her husband at the hands of the Drevlians, a powerful tribe in the area.

St Olga by Mikhail Nesterov, 1892

Image Credit: Public domain

Upon Ivor’s death, Olga became her son’s Queen Regent of Kievan Rus, an area encompassing modern-day Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus, and all but wiped out the Drevlians in bloodthirsty revenge after they proposed she marry her husband’s killer, Prince Mal.

Some of her tactics included burying or burning alive groups of Drevlian ambassadors, getting members of the tribe horribly drunk before massacring them, and in one particularly cunning ploy during the siege of Iskorosten, she burnt the entire city to the ground and killed or enslaved its inhabitants. Ironically she was later made a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

5. Eleanor of Aquitaine (c.1122-1204)

A pivotal figure on the stage of medieval Europe, Eleanor of Aquitaine was the illustrious Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right before ever marrying a king.

Queen Eleanor by Frederick Sandys, 1858

Image Credit: Public domain

Her first husband was King Louis VII of France, whom she accompanying on his Second Crusade as the feudal leader of the Aquitaine regiment. However, relations between the mismatched pair soon soured and the marriage was annulled. 2 months later Eleanor married Henry, Count of Anjou and Duke of Normandy in 1152.

Henry ascended the English throne 2 years later as King Henry II, making Eleanor a powerful queen consort once again. Their relationship also soon crumbled, and after supporting a revolt against him led by her son Henry she was imprisoned in 1173, only to be released during the reign of her son Richard the Lionheart. She acted as Richard’s regent while he was away on crusade, and lived well into the reign of her youngest son King John.

Sara Cockerill and Dan Snow discuss Eleanor of Aquitaine's long and remarkable life. Punctuated by periods of foreign adventure, imprisonment and the wielding of hard power.
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6. Anne Boleyn (1501-1536)

Long-maligned as the temptress who seduced Henry VIII into his Break with Rome, Anne Boleyn‘s story has long beguiled audiences  through her dizzying climb to power and tragic fall from grace.

anne boleyn henry viii wives

A 16th century portrait of Anne Boleyn, based on a more contemporary portrait which no longer exists.

Image Credit: Public Domain

Clever, fashionable, and charming, she challenged the male authority evident around her, standing her ground in an inescapably masculine environment, quietly championing the Protestant faith, and providing England with one of its most incredible future rulers: Elizabeth I.

Her fiery personality would be her undoing however, and on 19 May 1536 she was executed for treason through a likely conspiracy set up by Thomas Cromwell, with whom she shared a frosty relationship.

7. Marie Antoinette (1755-1793)

Perhaps the most famous of this list is Marie Antoinette, Queen of France and consort to Louis XVI. Born in Austria in 1755, Marie Antoinette joined the royal French court aged 14 following her lavish wedding at the Palace of Versailles.

Marie Antoinette in a simple muslin dress by Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun.

Image Credit: Public Domain

Though today a fashionable cultural icon, her rule was not a popular one while she lived. With her exorbitant spending in direct conflict to the starving people of France she was scapegoated for many of the country’s financial problems, and during the French Revolution, she and her husband were both executed by guillotine.

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8. Prince Albert (1819-1861)

Prince Albert married Queen Victoria in 1840, sparking one of the most famous love stories in history. Not only did Prince Albert fulfil the role of doting partner however, he also assisted Victoria in affairs of state.

Prince Albert by John Partridge

Image Credit: Royal Collection / Public Domain

The pair worked well alongside one another (literally moving their desks together so that they could sit and work side-by-side), and the prince’s education from the University of Bonn was a valuable tool in managing governmental business. He was also a staunch supporter of the abolition movement and scientific research, and installed the tradition of Christmas trees into Britain.

9. Gayatri Devi (1919-2009)

Gayatri Devi married Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II on May 9, 1940, becoming the Maharani of Jaipur. One of India’s most modern Maharanis, Gayatri Devi was heavily involved in the politics of the day, and was a successful politician in the Swatantra Party for 12 years.

Maharani Gayatri Devi, Rajmata of Jaipur, née Princess Ayesha of Cooch Behar, 1954

Image Credit: Public domain

She was also a champion of human rights, establishing one of India’s most prestigious girl’s schools, Maharani Gayatri Devi Girls’ Public School, and speaking for the rights of prisoners. She herself was arrested an imprisoned in Tihar Jail in 1975 during the Emergency, an era imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, whom Gayatri Devi often directly opposed.

10. Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (1921-2021)

Husband to Britain’s longest-reigning monarch, Prince Philip too acted as the longest-serving consort in British history whilst married to Elizabeth II. As consort, he completed over 22,000 solo royal engagements and countless more alongside the Queen, providing unshakeable support for nearly 80 years as an integral member of the British Royal Family.

Portrait of Prince Philip by Allan Warren, 1992

Image Credit: Allan Warren / CC

Heavily involved in a number of organisations, including founding the Duke of Edinburgh Award which focused on youth achievement, Philip was also an often controversial figure on the world stage for his bizarre quips and outspoken nature.

Viewed by many in the United Kingdom as a father-figure to the nation for his decades serving alongside the Queen, Prince Philip was also integral to advising on the personal matters of his family.

Lily Johnson