“Off with her head!” – yelled furious King Henry VIII of England, the husband of Queen Anne Boleyn. “Off with her head…” – whispered Elizabeth I of England, reluctant and ashamed, as she was sending her cousin, once removed, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, to the gallows. “Off with her head!” – chanted the bloodthirsty mob in the streets of Paris as they watched Marie Antoinette, once their queen and now a prisoner, walk to her death at the guillotine.
And off their heads have rolled, once held so proudly, adorned with constellations of the most exquisite jewels, now hideously maimed and lifeless. Each of these queens had lost her head for living as a woman of power and will, a woman envied, feared, hated, and adored. The images and legends of these regal divas have shaped our own understanding of royal chic and splendor, the high life at its highest and the opulent jet setting that cannot be restored. Their fashions were their status symbols, flamboyant works of mastery and whim, which strongly resonate today in couture art, stage, literature, and film.
Queen Anne Boleyn became the femme fatale of England, for no woman that had preceded her had ever brought about change so drastic, scandalous, and vast. While she might not have been the sole reason for King Henry’s break with Catholic Rome, she did become its face and symbol for centuries to come. Anne Boleyn brought extravagance and culture to once so gloomy and austere English court. The continental fashions, particularly French, have infiltrated Henry’s palaces with Anne. The sumptuous fabrics and exquisite jewels established Henry and Anne’s court as rivaling the courts of France, Austria, and Spain.
Eventually, Queen Anne Boleyn fell prey to an expertly orchestrated court intrigue, which saw her charged with treason, arrested, stripped of her wealth and glory, and ultimately beheaded. The proud Anne maintained her innocence until the very end, and preached love for her husband Henry VIII and his realm. Queen Anne Boleyn might have been vain and ostentatious, but in the end she did fall prey to one man’s rage about his own insecurities and failures, and certainly his inability to have a male heir – just yet another woman slayed by the world of men!
Oh Mary, poor Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. Her tale is perhaps the saddest among the stories of our slaughtered queens. Misfortune and betrayal were solidly encrusted in her crown. In 1558, just barely sixteen, she married Francois, Dauphine of France, then only fourteen, crowned King Francois II of France the following year. Yet, the young king passed away just eighteen months later, leaving his teenage wife a bereft widow no longer welcomed at the French court.
Mary sought refuge from her misery in ardent passion for lavish jewelry and dresses. An enviable collection of precious ornaments accompanied her on the journey back to Scotland. Rubies, emeralds, sapphires, diamonds, and pearls – she loved them all, and loved to give them to her loved ones. Her dresses were adorned with precious stones, for Mary understood that being born a Queen was not enough; her subjects had to see the Queen in her, the Queen which glowed in her precious treasures.
At home, Queen Mary found herself trapped in vicious spider web of court intrigue, which cost her Scottish crown and the throne. She sought the refuge in London with her cousin, once removed, Queen Elizabeth the First of England. The filial love was not the virtue most cherished within the Tudor and the Stuart clans. The regal cousins so closely related, Queen Mary could in fact be seen – by some – as claimant to the title of the English Queen. Elizabeth, upset, annoyed and weary of her competing cousin, did not take action, not just yet. Elizabeth maintained her cousin’s safety, but kept her captive at prison palaces of high security around her realm. For 19 years Queen Mary would remain her prisoner, and then a yet another intrigue – and truly global this time – would force Elizabeth to send her cousin to the gallows.
The scene of Mary’s execution was as gruesome as it was sublime. She wore the velvet garments of deep red hues to signify her martyrdom. The blood poured copiously on the gallows as the executioner’s first strike failed to severe the Queen’s head; the second strike proceeded with the separation, and yet a few more moves were needed to complete this vicious rite. The royal blood continued to flow and sank the dead queen’s precious garments as final scarlet curtain fell on the stage of Mary’s tragic play.
Marie Antoinette, Archduchess of Austria and Queen of France, needs little introduction. Borm a princess, she was destined for a blithe life of luxury, refinement and endless celebration. And so it was for young Marie, a princess of the mighty Habsburg house, whose residence was in resplendent Vienna with much of Europe connected by their rule. At age 14, Marie was sent to marry Louis, future king of France. Louis, a shy and introspective boy, did not care much for Marie’s favorite pastimes: nightlife and dancing, gambling, exquisite confectionary, and fashions truly royal in their exuberance and excess. In no time, the rumors of the Queen’s extravagance in spending had spread around the court, the army, and the struggling French common folk. The hatred of young Queen was born, for she was envied, feared, and despised, while blamed for France’s financial troubles, famine, epidemics and devastating wars.
Nineteen years later after her marriage, the Revolution came, and Queen she was no more. She saw her husband, King Louis XVI, tried for treason and beheaded. Marie Antoinette, a woman of not yet forty, her hair grey, disheveled, dirty, her skin now dull, her eyes fading away, witnessed her husband brutally murdered, her children vanish, her whole world ruined and washed with blood of the riotous flood. Her turn came shortly thereafter, in October of 1793, when she was charged with treason, fraud, and even sexual abuse of her own children. What we would call today a “show trial” took barely one day and the following day saw her head roll down from the gallows — the end so ghastly of a life which was so glamorous and bright!
Allegedly, Mary Antoinette once said: “Let them eat cake!” and we could never satiate ourselves enough with her ever since.
Queen Anne Boleyn, Queen Mary Stuart, and Queen Marie Antoinette had lost their heads, but what they found was eternal fame. Both victims and trespassers, each one of them – in their due time – had the whole world around them attending to their whims. Strong and unyielding women, they held their royal heads up high, and none of them confessed to any heinous crimes alleged against them. Through their blissful and tragic lives, they showed us what woman’s fate so often is: to bring about colossal change, and then be callously blamed for it. Their legacy of power and spirit, whether in politics or fashion, carries on, encouraging our own aspirations, yet warning us of perils that fame and independence encounter along their way.
Ivan Savvine for DEPESHA