Belle from Beauty and the Beast is probably the first person who comes to mind when you hear “literature-loving princess.” But the fictional Disney heroine who adores books has many real-life counterparts. Women of royal status historically had all the advantages of advanced education and access to high culture, allowing them the option of not only becoming patrons of the arts, but talented creators themselves. Here are 10 royal women in history who took their talent a step further and incorporated a literary career into their already busy schedules as rulers, consorts, and daughters of kings.
What could possibly be more impressive than being not only the first named female writer in history, but the first named writer, period?
The very practice of authorship began with this Sumerian princess, the daughter of King Sargon of Akkad and his wife, Queen Tashlultum. Enheduanna was educated to fill the role of High Priestess of the ancient city-state of Ur, a position that came with political as well as religious responsibilities. Her devotion to the gods she served and worshipped were best expressed in the form of her hymns.
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In her lifetime she composed what is estimated to be around 42-53 hymns, composed on clay tablets before papyrus paper scrolls were commonplace. Her crowning achievement was the hymn presenting the triumphant tale of Inanna, the Mesopotamian warrior goddess who battled a mountain. A strong woman always recognizes another, and through this work Enheduanna is also considered the very first feminist in history. That is quite a lot of firsts for one person, but someone had to do it!
Cleopatra VII of Egypt
Prepare yourself for yet another reason to be angry about the burning of the Library of Alexandria. Cleopatra’s scrolls—yes, ones that she wrote—were in it.
Cleopatra VII Philopator is best known today as the last ruling monarch of the Ptolemaic dynasty, the lover of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, and the owner—and victim—of a deadly asp. All this drama makes top-notch material for plays, films, and books, so it’s unsurprising that the Egyptian queen’s accomplishments as an intellectual have been neglected as part of her public image.
She particularly had a keen interest in herbal remedies and cosmetology.
She reportedly felt completely at home within the walls of a laboratory, the Marie Curie of Ancient Egypt. Her scientific findings and recordings, however, went the way of the rest of the priceless knowledge that the Roman invaders set ablaze in 391 C.E.
The Greek physician Galen managed to rescue some of Cleopatra’s recipes for medicinal and beauty treatments before the most infuriating event in history happened, but the rest is gone forever, along with hundreds of thousands of other texts from Greek and Egyptian scholars.
Mu of Xu
China has produced some of the finest poets in the world, and this was the first known one who was a woman. Princess Xu Mu was the daughter of the Duke of Wei Xuan, the ruler of Wei, one of the seven major states of Ancient China. Although her education was directed towards preparing her for a dynastic arranged marriage to the Duke of Xu, ruler of another state, Xu Mu created her own legacy as a writer and voice of her age.
Princess Xu Mu did not like her family’s choice of bridegroom for her, nor did she ever feel at home in her adopted land. She expressed her sorrows and homesickness through melancholic poetry, some of which had political themes. One of her poems, “Speeding Chariot,” has the distinction of being a historic text as well, as the Chinese princess was recording her fears that her native state was about to be invaded. She was a true princess in that she was artistically gifted as well as a loyal patriot to her kingdom.
This daughter of Emperor I of Kommenos once attempted claim her father’s throne for herself and usurp her younger brother (you know, royal sibling stuff). This venture ultimately failed, but what Anna did succeed at was authoring what is inarguably the most important account of Byzantine life in the 11th and 12th centuries: the Alexiad (pictured above). This princess is unique on this list for being the only royal woman-writer who was actively a historian.
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Anna Kommene started work on the Alexiad at age 55 after she was forced to retreat from public life. Rather than take up golf or pottery as retirees do nowadays, Anna Kommene set to work and produced 15 detailed volumes of her family history. In her writings, one of her main focuses was the ongoing conflicts between the West and the East, and the various attempts of the West to conquer the East through unsuccessful Crusades. The irony was surely not lost on so intelligent and insightful a princess.
Ippolita Maria Sforza
Viewers of Netflix’s Medici may recognize this woman for her appearance in season three as a love interest of Lorenzo de’ Medici, played by French actress Gaia Weiss. Though this saucy TV flirtation was fictionalized, this real-life, highly educated Italian daughter of the ruling family of Milan was the embodiment of a true Renaissance princess. Her intelligence caused friction in her marriage to the heir of the throne of Naples, Prince Alfonso. As is the case with any insecure partner, he was intimidated by her learning, which far surpassed his own. Alfonso preferred his mistress, and Ippolita, in despair, turned to books.
Ippolita’s life is a testament to the now-lost art of letter-writing. Her collection of correspondence is a key text in deciphering the social, political, and cultural climates of the Italian city-states in the 1400s. Ippolita used her diplomatic way with words as a rope to tie Naples and Milan in a strong alliance in the endless warfare that was un-united, pre-Victor Emmanuel II Italy. They have been published in a volume titled The Letters of Ippolita Maria Sforza.
Ippolita died at age 43, and the Naples-Milan alliance reputedly died with her. They were soon in conflict once again. This might be an appropriate situation to apply the old idiom, “The pen is mightier than the sword.”
Margaret of Valois-Angouleme
This sister of King Francis I of France was perhaps one of the most accomplished women of the Renaissance era. Samuel Putnam called her “the first modern woman” for a reason.
Margaret’s magnum opus was The Heptameron (published in 1558), an impressive collection of 72 short stories, following a similar narrative as The Canterbury Tales in that the colorful tales are told by bored travelers passing the time. Margaret herself probably never had a spare moment to be bored. Besides her artistic ventures, she was the wife and consort of Henry II of Navarre and somehow managed to squeeze in being one of her brother’s most trusted advisors.
When Queen Elizabeth I of England was a child, part of her education was translating Margaret’s poetry into English from French. This is an indicator of the level of respect that enlightened people of this time period gave to this brilliant queen.
She is best known today as the sixth and final wife of the notorious King Henry VIII of England, but Queen Catherine Parr (sometimes spelled Katherine) also made history in the realm of literature as well. She was the first Queen of England to publish books under her own name.
She is also unique on this list as the only woman who was not born straight into a royal family. The Parrs were only minor nobility, and her mother once served as a lady-in-waiting to Henry VIII’s first wife, the unfortunate Catherine of Aragon. But this second Catherine rose to the rank of queen after impressing a recently widowed Henry VIII with her grace, self-taught learning, and piety. This royal attention, as any student of history will know, wasn’t exactly a blessing. “Recently widowed” directly translates to “He chopped the head off wife number five.”
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Nevertheless, Catherine was steadfast in her duties. Besides mentoring Henry’s children from three previous marriages and ruling England as regent when Henry was away at war, Catherine also made time for religious/philosophical debate and writing. Opinionated and highly critical of the traditions of the Catholic Church, Catherine produced firstly Prayers or Meditations (1545) and then The Lamentations of a Sinner (1547). Not exactly light reading, but impressive—not to mention courageous—output all the same.
Princess Zeb-un-Nissa was the daughter of Emperor Aurangzeb, ruler of the Mughal Empire, and a female writer with undoubtedly one of the classiest pen names in history: “Makhfi,” which directly translates to “Hidden, Disguised, Concealed One.” Sorry, George Eliot.
And Zeb-un-Nissa did have to disguise her writing. Her father the Emperor’s attitude towards his daughter’s love of poetry was the equivalent of a football-loving Dad not wanting their child to join the theatre club at school. He thought it was a waste of time, especially for a royal daughter. He wanted her to study more serious texts in preparation for helping him rule his vast domain as an advisor.
Unsurprisingly, his headstrong daughter rebelled, and wrote poetry all her life, never marrying despite her many suitors. At one point Zeb-un-Nissa attempted to write a feminist commentary on the Quran, but Dad put his foot down. So strong was this princess’s devotion to her craft that she even wrote poetry in her cell when she was a prisoner of war.
Alexandra of Bavaria
This German princess never married, and perhaps that was for the best. She suffered from a debilitating psychological condition known as “glass delusion.” Under this illness, the sufferer believes he or she is made of glass and/or has glass inside them, and that their body is delicate enough to break under pressure. In Alexandra’s case, this was most likely paired with O.C.D., as she reportedly had some unusual fixations, such as only wearing white clothes and harboring an outsized fear of germs in her living quarters.
Despite her mental and emotional fragility, Alexandra found some grounding in her writing. In her lifetime she wrote and published books of short stories, essays, and biographies, but her great triumph was her translational work. In love with French literature, she worked tirelessly to translate the works of Eugenie Foa, Arnaud Berquin, and Jean-Nicolas Bouilly into her native German.
It’s safe to say that Alexandra directed her energy far more productively than her father, King Ludwig I of Bavaria, who famously threw away everything (including and most especially his crown) for his manipulative mistress, Lola Montez.
Victoria of Great Britain
Queen, grandmother of Europe, and chronicler of her time, Queen Victoria had an awfully busy 81 years. Queen Victoria of Great Britain kept private journals since the age of 13, and by the end of her life had produced over one hundred and twenty volumes. These were later heavily edited by her daughter, Princess Beatrice, because these journals were apparently the place where the monarch who supposedly coined the phrase “We are not amused” let her vicious side run loose. But the journals are also a remarkably intimate historic text; they clearly were written by a queen who knew her reign was important.
Journalist Elizabeth Jane Timms sums it up accurately: “Queen Victoria’s instinctive need to write and record everything was symptomatic of the age – a century of ever-moving pens on paper.” This was the age of Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the Brontë sisters, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and Arthur Conan Doyle. Much of a university English major’s syllabus was produced during the Victorian Age. In this way, along with setting a social and moral example for her people, Victoria was a leader of her time.
This post first appeared on The Archive.