As we celebrate Women’s History Month this March, I invite you to dive back in time with me to one of my all-time favorite eras: the Renaissance. Bursting with renewed artistic expression, intellectual innovation, religious devotion, and political intrigue, this era continues to fascinate many. Women also played significant roles during this time period.
Most of us are familiar with the famous queens of the sixteenth century, including Mary I and Elizabeth I in England, Mary, Queen of Scots, in Scotland, and Christina in Sweden. Less-known and acknowledged are the women who played a significant role in unexpected and often subtle ways. There are countless lesser-known women who wielded power from behind the scenes. During my studies in history, I became fascinated by the role of the female regent. Often, when a ruler died, his widow was left in charge until their son and heir was old enough to assume the throne. These regents became renowned for their leadership skills and often cultivated public personas as “Queen Mothers.” Here are four Renaissance women who ruled as regents while their royal sons were in their age of minority, and all led fascinating lives that deserve to be known.
Caterina Sforza (1463–1509)
Caterina Sforza was born in 1463 the daughter of the future Duke of Milan and his mistress. She was raised in the court of Milan and received a classical education. In 1477, she married the pope’s nephew Girolamo Riario and moved to Rome. While they were living in Forlì in 1488, a territory recently granted to Riario by the pope, Catarina’s husband was murdered by a rival family, the Orsi. Along with her six children, Caterina was taken prisoner by the rebels. She managed to escape to the city’s fortress, which had refused to submit to the Orsi, and from there waited until her uncle’s forces from Milan arrived and helped her liberate Forlì.
Back in control, Caterina took on the official role of regent of Forlì and Imola, another of their territories, for her son Ottaviano. Even after he came of age, she continued to rule for him. Catarina built up a public persona as a faithful widow and mother. But she was also known for her bravery and strength—qualities traditionally attributed to men. In fact, Niccolò Machiavelli deemed her an “undoubtedly princely figure.” She became renowned as a warrior woman and often appeared in armor in defense of her territories, holding onto her land for her son against various conquests over the next decade.
Isabella d’Este (1474–1539)
Isabella d’Este was the eldest daughter of the Duke of Ferrara, an important Italian city state during the Renaissance. She received a high-quality humanist education and was brought up with a keen appreciation of the arts. In 1490, she married Francesco Gonzaga, the future ruler of the nearby city state of Mantua. She is most remembered in history as an important patroness of the arts—she supported the likes of Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo da Vinci—but equally interesting and less known is the role she played in governance.
She often ruled as a regent for her husband while he was away on diplomatic or military expeditions, as well as for a period during which he was held captive. She was very popular among the people and beloved for her beauty, her artistic connoisseurship, and her fashion sense. Isabella played a part in diplomatic negotiations, protected the rights of Mantua’s subjects, and defended women’s safety and property. Isabella’s husband died in 1519, and she ruled Mantua for her young son Federico as regent until he reached the age of majority. She utilized all the skills she had developed while serving as regent for her husband and continued to inspire the love of the people.
Louise of Savoy (1476–1531)
Louise of Savoy was a French noblewoman born in 1476. Her mother died when she was seven years old, and she was sent away to be educated by Anne of France, the powerful sister of King Charles VIII, who effectively ruled the country in her younger brother’s name. When she turned twelve, Louise married Charles de Valois, a nobleman and relation of the royal family. They had two children: Marguerite and Francis. Her husband died when Louise was just nineteen years old, and for the rest of her life she devoted herself to her son, who became the heir to the throne when the reigning monarchs failed to produce an heir.
In 1515, her son became King Francis I. Throughout his reign, she remained an important adviser and she helped him usher in the Renaissance in France as a patroness of the arts. When the young king turned his attention to a military expedition in Italy, he named his mother regent of France. A decade later, when he returned to war in Italy, Louise was named regent again. During these two stints in direct power, she assumed all governmental control, signed treaties, defended France from foreign invasions, and even negotiated her son’s release when he was taken captive.
Catherine de Medici (1519–1589)
Catherine de Medici was born in 1519 in Florence, where she received an excellent education from nuns. When she was fourteen years old, her uncle, the pope, arranged for her to marry the King of France’s second son, Henri. When Henri’s elder brother died, he became heir to the throne. In 1547 he was crowned King Henry II, making Catherine the Queen of France.
The beginning of her adult life saw hardship after hardship—she was continually subjected to her husband’s blatant affair with his mistress Diane de Poitiers, and for the first ten years of marriage, she struggled to produce an heir. Eventually, she had 10 children, including three sons. In 1559, her husband died from a jousting injury, and Catherine was propelled into a position of power and cultivated a persona as “queen mother.” First, her eldest son was crowned Francis II, alongside his beautiful young wife, the famous Mary, Queen of Scots. Tragically, Francis died a year later, and in 1560, Catherine became regent for her 10-year-old second son, crowned Charles IX. She was the virtual ruler throughout Charles’ reign and took an important role in politics. At first, she tried to make peace between the French Protestant Huguenots and the Catholics, but soon the nation erupted into a bloody civil war. In 1574, Charles died, and Catherine’s third and favorite son was crowned Henri III. Until her death in 1589, she played a major role in Henri’s government and continued to work towards bringing an end to the civil war.
Since the Renaissance itself, commentators and historians have debated the extent of women’s active role in society, politics, and culture. In fact, they have debated whether women even participated in the Renaissance at all, or whether the patriarchal systems in place relegated them to the sidelines completely. But as the examples of these four fascinating female historical figures show us, women were involved in state affairs from behind the scenes, acting on behalf of their husbands or sons and participating in unexpected and creative ways. These women stand as testaments to the bravery and creativity of women who fight for their place in male-dominated structures and offer plenty of inspiration to us today.