The She-Wolves of Navarre

In the Middle Ages, with the re-emergence of Salic Law, it became impossible for women to succeed to the throne in most European kingdoms. Yet between 1274 and 1512 five queens ruled the Pyrenean kingdom of Navarre, as Elena Woodacre tells their stories.

Leonor, left, and Blanca II, right, in contemporary paintings. Female succession, or the right of women to occupy the throne and rule in their own right, is an issue that is still contested today. Previously, women could only inherit if there was a lack of male heirs. In some countries, such as pre-Republican France, they could not inherit at all. In Japan they still can’t. Recently laws have been changed in the UK to reflect constitutional changes in other European countries, such as Sweden, Belgium, Norway and Denmark, which have implemented equal or absolute primogeniture ensuring that the eldest child inherits the throne whether they are male or female.

Though not impossible, it was much more difficult for a woman in the Middle Ages to inherit the throne. Yet in a period when female succession was relatively rare the Pyrenean kingdom of Navarre, now a semi-autonomous region of Spain, had an impressive number of female sovereigns. Five women ruled the realm in their own right between 1274 and the annexation of the kingdom by Castile in 1512. How were so many women able to succeed to the throne?

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