Top 10 European Royals (Part II) | Sarah Stook


Royalty never disappoints us with its characters. We have heroic warriors and intelligent schemers. Here is part one of the most interesting royals from Continental Europe history. Here is Part 2:

Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor (r. 1516-1556)

With his incredible royal pedigree, it’s almost no wonder that Charles became the Emperor he was. Charles would ultimately hold the Holy Roman Empire, Kingdom of Spain and parts of Italy. He was the eldest son of Philip of Castile and Joanna, second daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella. Philip died in 1506 and Joanna descended into mental illness; she was confined for the rest of her life. Charles inherited his father’s lands and was raised by Philip’s sister, the very capable Margaret of Austria.

He was a slow developer. Charles became Duke of Burgundy upon his fifteenth birthday and a year later managed to become King of Spain. His grandfather Ferdinand had died and had no living sons, so Charles gained as the eldest son of the eldest daughter. Charles was technically co-monarch with his mother, but Joanna was in no shape to be an active ruler. At only sixteen, Charles was King of Spain and Duke of Burgundy.  Charles did not speak Spanish and his ascension to the role of King of Germany meant that he did not spend much time in Spain. The country was also under foreign influence and this made Charles very unpopular. In 1521, Charles was officially elected Holy Roman Empire.

He’d initially been scheduled to marry Mary Tudor but she was very young and he couldn’t afford to wait until she was of marriageable age. This prevented an alliance with England. An engagement with his cousin, the eldest daughter of the King of Portugal, was encouraged. Charles married Isabella of Portugal. The pair enjoyed a very happy, faithful marriage despite his frequent absences. They had seven children. The eldest, Philip II, would later marry Mary Tudor.

Charles shored up large swathes of Europe and bested the French in battle, capturing Francis I of France. He also sacked Rome and held the Pope hostage after they got into a disagreement. This created waves, as said Pope was being pushed by Henry VIII to allow him to divorce Catherine of Aragon. Charles, Catherine’s nephew, was incensed at the insult of his aunt and the treatment of Catholics. His pressure on the Pope prevented papal dispensation for the divorce.

There was conflict with the Ottoman Empire and Charles would never see victory against them. Charles’ interests ventured further than continental Europe. His grandfather Ferdinand had wanted to conquer Europe and Charles wanted to cement this legacy. He managed to take parts of Tunisia but mainly failed. Charles’ legacy in Central and South America was more pronounced and the conquistadors were more successful during his reign.

Charles was interested in reform within the Catholic Church. Though he believed Martin Luther to be a heretic, he allowed him to leave the city of Worms freely. He was tolerant of Protestants, uncurling the rebellious Lutherans.

Ultimately abdicating and living out his remaining years in a monastery, Charles V was a titan of his era. He not only controlled large swathes of Europe, but initiated much of the discovery of the New World. Nobody expected much of this slow child, but Charles V showed himself to be a shrewd, pragmatic and devout man. Many call him a true man of God.

Hurrem Sultan (r. 1533-1558)

Likely born with the name Alexandra Lisowski and often known as Roxelana, Hurrem Sultan had a very unusual start in life for a woman of her stature. Born into an Orthodox family in what is now Ukraine, Hurrem was kidnapped by slave traders when she was twelve. In Istanbul, she was chosen by the mother of Suleiman the Magnificent to be a concubine. She would spend several years learning how to be a concubine through education and culture. After her training, she was given the name Hurrem, meaning happy.

A beautiful woman with flaming red hair, Hurrem met Suleiman in about 1520, the year he ascended to the throne. Despite being one of many, many women in his harem, Hurrem was able to distinguish herself and became a favourite. There are several versions of how they met so the truth is unknown. She was an extremely intelligent and shrewd woman who knew how to move through court. This earned Hurrem the jealousy of her fellow concubines as well as the mother of his only son, Mahidevran.

After only a year, Hurrem gave birth to a son. This infuriated Mahidevran, who attacked Hurrem and left scratch marks on her face. When Hurrem refused to receive Suleiman that evening, he went to her chambers and she explained what had happened. This infuriated him and he essentially cast Mahidevran aside.

In contravention of custom, Hurrem gave birth to four more sons. Usually, a concubine could only have one son to protect from issues surrounding succession. She would also have a daughter with him. After the death of his mother, something extraordinary happened. Suleiman released Hurrem from her concubinage and married her. The formerly Christian daughter of a Ukrainian family who had become a slave was now consort.

Hurrem enjoyed the full confidence of her husband. She would join him in campaigns and if she stayed at home then she was entrusted with the leadership. Almost unheard of at the time, Suleiman did not sleep with other concubines and was entirely devoted to Hurrem. After Mahidevran left with her son, Hurrem was indisputably in charge. Love letters between the consorts remain to this day.

Hurrem had a reputation as a ruthless and underhanded woman who ensured her husband didn’t have eyes for any other woman. In a time where brother murdered brother in order to get the throne, Hurrem had to be. She was otherwise a happy and cheerful woman who gifted slaves with freedom. Hurrem oversaw the building of mosques, hospitals, soup kitchens and other public buildings. She is said to have been kind and caring to the poor. Hurrem died in 1558. Suleiman would have no more children and died nearly a decade later. They are buried together.

Taken as a slave aged 12, Hurrem saw herself become the consort of a faithful Ottoman sultan. She was allowed to stay with him after their sons came of age and was allowed to have more than one boy. Extremely intelligent and shrewd in a dangerous world, Hurrem managed to not only survive but thrive. Her acts of charity helped many and she was the biggest counsel of her husband. Few Ottoman women would ever have such power.

Hedwig Eleonora of Holstein-Gottorp (r. 1654-1672, 1697)

One of sixteen children, it’s understandable that people might not have expected Hedwig-Eleanora of Holstein-Gottorp to amount to much. At age seventeen, her prior engagement was broken off so she could marry the new Charles X Gustav of Sweden.

Hedwig split her time between Sweden and foreign lands, as her husband was away for a lot of their marriage. She was trusted to be regent in his absence and endeared herself by insisting on joining him on certain campaigns. Though she was only young, Hedwig proved herself to be a dynamic young Queen. She was strong-willed and had a fierce temper throughout her reign.

Charles and Hedwig had one child, a son also named Charles, a year into their marriage. Their marriage lasted only five years, as Charles X died of sepsis in early 1660. Hedwig was made the official regent and head of the king’s council. She was completely uninterested in politics but proved to be a capable ruler and defender of her son. Hedwig was a dominant woman who enjoyed her role as head of the government. Her son Charles would defer to her even after reaching his majority.

Hedwig remained a dominant figure in court even after her son came of age. She was a beloved figure throughout Sweden and was popular in court due to her parties and good humour. When her son’s first fiancée gave birth to an illegitimate child, Hedwig simply sent the woman away. When the fiancée did it again, Hedwig had her married off to the baby’s father. She continued to manage her dower lands.

When her son Charles died in 1697, his son Charles XII took over. Hedwig became regent for a few months, as the court brought down the age of majority for Charles. This annoyed Hedwig but she let it go. Charles was very close to his grandmother and she was treated with the utmost deference. Hedwig enjoyed lovers in her widowhood but never considered marrying again. One of her ladies-in-waiting took bribes from those wishing to meet the Dowager. Hedwig defended the woman.

At the grand age of 79, Hedwig died. She was a hugely popular figure throughout her time as Queen, Dowager and Regent. Hedwig was a family woman who cared deeply for her son and grandchildren. Despite not being interested in politics, Hedwig was certainly good at running a country.

Elizabeth of Russia (r.1741-1762)

Overshadowed by her near successor Catherine the Great, Elizabeth Petrovna was a formidable woman in her own right. Born out of wedlock to Peter the Great and Catherine I, Elizabeth would later be legitimised. She received a good education despite nobody believing she would need one. Her father already had a legitimate son and grandson. The circumstances of Elizabeth’s birth meant that she could not find a husband in Europe. She also couldn’t attract a Russian husband.

After the death of her father, she saw her half-nephew come to power. After his death, her cousin Anna became Empress. Anna was a deeply unpopular woman who was terrible at governing. She disliked Elizabeth and threatened to have her locked in a convent. Anna also exiled Elizabeth’s lover. Angered, Elizabeth used her great popularity and status as daughter of Peter the Great to get the army on side. Upon her death, the childless Anna had her great-nephew Ivan installed as her successor.

In November 1741, Elizabeth managed to get the army to support her coup. Ivan was arrested along with his mother and regent Anna Leopoldovna. Anna had been asleep alongside her German lover when Elizabeth entered her chambers. Ivan and Anna were exiled with the condition that Ivan be killed if he attempted to escape in adulthood.

Elizabeth had a poor education for a monarch and had not been schooled in ruling, but she showed herself to be an excellent diplomat. Some saw her work as a continuation of her father’s, but she in fact undid many of his reforms. She was often more interested in parties so left a lot of ruling up to her government. This government was generally not very competent. Elizabeth encouraged education by building the first university in Russia and art by establishing an arts council. Her love of architecture is shown in her many construction projects.

Under Elizabeth, Russia became more of a prestigious and dominant power. She had strongly anti-Prussian policies and was aided by her formidable vice-Chancellor Aleksey Bestuzhev-Ryumin. The war with Sweden ended, countries like Turkey came within their sphere of influence and Prussia was very nearly defeated.

Elizabeth had her nephew Peter of Holstein-Gottorp named as heir, engineering his marriage and caring for his infant son. She died just before the Seven Years’ War ended. Elizabeth remains a revered empress due to her work in making Russia into a powerhouse. She never had anyone executed in her reign- a low bar, but this is Imperial Russia we’re talking about it. Elizabeth created a cultural renaissance, led Russia in two major wars and managed to gain the throne in a bloodless coup. Not bad.

Louise Elisabeth, Duchess-Consort of Parma and Princess of France (r. 1748-1759)

The eldest child of Louis XV of France and the Polish Marie Leszczyńska, Louise Elisabeth, commonly known as Elisabeth, lived a life of privilege. She had a twin sister named Henriette. It had been hoped that the eldest child would be a boy, but Louis was delighted to have children and excitedly talked about his twins. Unlike her twin, Elisabeth was not considered a great beauty, but it was expected that she would make a grand match as the eldest fille de France.

At the age of 11, Elisabeth was engaged to Infante Philip of Spain, third living son of Philip V. This was seen as an unequal match, as the eldest legitimate daughter of France should realistically marry a King or a Crown Prince. There was a history of France and Spain intermarrying and Elisabeth was not a beauty. The marriage nevertheless went ahead. Elisabeth was married by proxy aged 12.

Philip was a kind man but rather timid and Elisabeth was unhappy. She was popular at court but provoked the dislike of her mother-in-law by not being a pushover. Elisabeth was only 14 when she had her first child. It would be another ten years before her next children were born, as Philip was often away and they did not have marital relations often.

When an opening to lead the Duchy of Parma came up, Elisabeth rushed back to France to ensure her father’s support. Louis gave this support and seeking financial independence, Elisabeth stayed in France. She was reunited with her beloved sister Henriette but their relationship soured when Elisabeth sided with their father’s mistress Madame de Pompadour. Elisabeth spent a year in France before arriving in Parma, however reluctantly.

Despite his kindness, Philip was a pushover who was dominated by his younger wife. Elisabeth was his immediate counsel. She ensured France was the dominant influence at court in both language and culture. Elisabeth encouraged arts and literature in Parma and was known for her elaborate tastes. She and Philip would exchange letters when they were apart and she was active in foreign policy matters. Elisabeth was devastated when Henriette died in 1752 and spent a year in Versailles.

She ensured her children’s futures with strong matches. Her eldest daughter Isabella married the future Emperor of Austria Joseph, brother of Marie Antoinette, though she died before he took the throne. Her son Ferdinand married Maria Amalia, one of Joseph’s sisters. Her youngest daughter Maria had the most prestigious match, as she would marry the future Charles IV of Spain.

Louise soon fell ill with smallpox, the same disease that killed her sister. She was in France at the time and was nursed by her mother. Nothing could be done and she died at the young age of 32. Louise was buried with her sister. Philip never remarried, dying six years later.

An ambitious, strong-willed woman, Louise was only twelve when she married a younger son. She manoeuvred quickly to ensure her husband could lead a Duchy and helped him in his role. Louise never neglected her family and was happy to risk her marriage in order to see her closest relations. She was only twelve when she married yet was instantly popular.


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