Monday, January 12, 2015

Definitely Not Damsels

When I was nine, the only princesses I could name were the Disney girls. I thought princesses, like unicorns and fairies, belonged in fantasy. Then I started studying history. Where did the idea that princesses are pretty little wimps come from? Certainly not from these ladies.

1&2. Mary and Elizabeth, The Tudor Sisters
You may think you hate your sister just because she fights you for bathroom time. Imagine if you had a throne between you. When Mary was eighteen, Henry VIII divorced her mother to marry Anne Boleyn, his pregnant mistress. Elizabeth was born a few months later. She was given Mary's title, "Princess of Wales". At least until their brother Edward came along. But Edward only ruled for a few years after their father's death. Then Mary took the throne. She was the first queen of England to rule in her own right. A devout Catholic, she opposed the Protestant Reformation and every "heretic" in the land. Over 300 Protestants were executed at her command.
Even her sister wasn't exempt. She had Elizabeth jailed. Mary was so determined to produce an heir and prevent Elizabeth from gaining the throne that she married Phillip II of Spain. He was eleven years younger than her and couldn't even read English.
But Mary was thirty seven at this point, too old for childbirth. When she died after five years on the throne there was no choice but to hand it over to her sister.
Elizabeth took a cue from her messed-up family and never married. The Elizabethan Era, which gave us Shakespeare and advances in modern plumbing, is named after her. When she died, the throne passed to her distant cousin James. He built one tomb for both sisters. They share an epitaph.
"Partners both in throne and grave, here rest we two sisters, Elizabeth and Mary, in the hope of one resurrection."

3 &4. Olga and Tatiana Romanov, "The Big Pair"
Olga (left) and Tatiana (right) treating a patient in 1915.
You've probably heard of their little sister, Anastasia, who along with their sister Maria formed the "Little Pair". Olga and Tatiana were the oldest Romanov sisters. When World War I broke out, the Romanov's palace was transformed into a hospital. The Big Pair ditched their gowns and pearls to become nurses. Yes, full out nurses who operated on the wounded. Tatiana was especially popular with the soldiers because of her looks.
Tatiana not in nurse gear
Unlike the Tudors, the Romanov sisters were extremely close and loving. Olga turned down a marriage offer from the crown prince of Romania because she wanted to stay with her family. When the family was placed under house arrest after the Russian Revolution, Olga fell into depression. Tatiana developed a mother hen instinct that kept the family together. In 1918, the Big Pair were executed along with the rest of their family. They died in each others arms.

5. Kaiulani, "The Island Rose"

Kaiulani grew up surfing and riding her pony along the beaches of Hawaii. As a young girl, she met Treasure Island author Robert Louis Stevenson. He wrote her a poem as she left for a long stay in Britain.
Forth from her land to mine she goes,
The island maid, the island rose,
Light of heart and bright of face:
The daughter of a double race.

Her islands here, in Southern sun,
Shall mourn their Kaiulani gone,
And I, in her dear banyan shade,
Look vainly for my little maid.

But our Scots islands far away
Shall glitter with unwonted day,
And cast for once their tempests by
To smile in Kaiulani's eye.

Kaiulani should have been succeeded her aunt as queen, making her the second female monarch in Hawaii's history. But she never got the chance. While she was away at a British boarding school, Hawaii was annexed by the U.S. Kaiulani spent the rest of her life fighting for native Hawaiian's rights. She met with multiple American presidents. While standing on U.S. soil, she gave passionate speeches with not one of her people beside her. She died in 1899 at age twenty three, sixty years before Hawaii ever became a state.

6. Maria Theresa

 Maria Theresa was the first and only empress of the Hapsburg line. In this picture, painted when she was twelve, Maria Theresa holds flowers in the folds of her dress to symbolize the expectation that she would bear many children in the future. Well, it worked. Maria Theresa had a grand total of sixteen children, thirteen of them surviving infancy. The youngest of her brood was Maria Antonia, who would later become Marie Antoinette of France.
But Maria Theresa didn't just sit around having babies. She had a talent for multitasking. Once, she called in her dentist and asked him to pull out a tooth that was troubling her-while she was in labor. This was long before the invention of anesthesia, so she figured she might as well get all the pain over at once. Another time she addressed her troops while holding her infant son, Joseph, in her arms. When they saw this, her soldiers ripped the swords from their scabbards and cried in Latin, "Let us die for our king, Maria Theresa!"

Several historical princesses were kidnapped to be used as political pawns or imprisoned for other reasons. The Tudor and Romanov sisters each spent some time locked up, but that's not the reason we remember them today. With the exception of Gwenllian of Wales, an obscure thirteenth century princess who spent her entire life in confinement after England conquered her country, most princesses left some other legacy.
Contemporary culture would have us believe that a woman can't be strong unless she mans up. I disagree. Yes, they were married off to strangers. Yes, bearing an heir was part of the job description. And yes, sometimes they sat around in towers. But that didn't stop them from inspiring soldiers, poets, and historians. History is full of powerful queens, empresses, and princesses who were strong in addition to being women, not in spite of it.

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