There are different kinds of Queen. This entry describes the Royal Family of the United Kingdom - other countries and dynasties may have different versions.
Queen Regnant is a Queen in her own right, by virtue of birth, such as Queen Victoria, Elizabeth I and Queen Elizabeth II. Elizabeth II became queen regnant because she was heir apparent to the throne when her father King George VI died. Had King George VI and his wife Queen Elizabeth had a son instead of Princess Margaret (or as well as), he would have been the king's heir, no matter his age in relation to his sisters. That rule was changed in 2011 - the Perth Agreement replaced male-preference primogeniture. That means that when Prince William is king, his son Prince George will be heir apparent, with George's sister Princess Charlotte being next in line, ahead of her younger brother Prince Louis.
The very first regnant queen was Mary Tudor, also known as Mary I and 'Bloody Mary'. Queen Mary was the daughter of Henry VIII and his first wife Catherine of Aragon. She acceded the throne following the death of her half-brother Edward VI, even though it had been his wish for Lady Jane Grey to succeed him1. As a devout Catholic, Queen Mary set about restoring the Roman Catholic faith. There's an old saying: 'the apple doesn't fall far from the tree' - and Mary was certainly her father's daughter. She earned the nickname of 'Bloody Mary' as some opponents of her reforms were beheaded. Others were burned at the stake, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. His dissolution of the marriage of Mary's parents Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon caused the final break with Rome and precipitated the birth of the Church of England. Cranmer recanted in an attempt to save his skin but Queen Mary would not forgive him and refused to grant him a reprieve from the flames. He reverted to his Protestant faith on the day of his execution. Queen Mary died aged 42 without an heir, so her half-sister Elizabeth inherited the throne, founding the Elizabethan era.
Queen Consort is the legal wife of the king. This is the title the Queen Mother had when she was married to King George VI, until his death in 1952. When Queen Elizabeth II died on 8 September, 2022, Camilla became queen consort; eventually, Catherine, Duchess of Cornwall and Cambridge will be.
All of the six wives of Henry VIII were styled queen consort while they were married to him.
Anne Boleyn has been called 'the most influential and important queen consort England has ever had' by historians. Although she was only queen consort from 1533 until 1536, it was the circumstances surrounding her tenure as queen that forced the break-up with Rome and, eventually, the formation of the Church of England. At her coronation by the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer on 29 May, 1533, St Edward's Crown, which is usually reserved for reigning monarchs, was used for the enthronement. Queen Anne was the mother of Elizabeth I of England, but that didn't save her neck. The second wife of Henry VIII, who had been Catherine of Aragon's lady-in-waiting when she was queen, suffered a miscarriage on the day of Catherine's funeral. That could have been due to the stress of discovering that her husband had his eyes on her own lady-in-waiting, Jane Seymour, but then again, it was a somewhat spooky coincidence. The loss of a reportedly male child precipitated the end of Anne's tenure as queen consort. Within a couple of months Anne had been arrested on trumped-up charges of treason, adultery, incest, and, just to be absolutely sure of a guilty verdict, witchcraft. She was beheaded on 19 May, 1536, at the Tower of London, two days after her marriage to Henry VIII was declared void by the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer. In one fell swoop, Henry was free to marry the next queen consort Jane Seymour - the wedding ceremony took place just 11 days after Anne's execution.
Jane Seymour (1508-37) was as different from Anne Boleyn as chalk is from cheese. Once she was queen consort, Jane set about reforming the queen's household, ridding it of the extravagance enjoyed by Anne Boleyn. Queen Jane only tried to influence her husband once, to ask for pardons on behalf of the supporters of the Pilgrimage of Grace, but her entreaty fell on deaf ears. Henry warned her not to 'meddle in his affairs' else she 'meet the same fate as her predecessor'. Their marriage was otherwise harmonious and Henry was very fond of her. Jane brought about a reconciliation between Henry and his daughter Lady Mary. There were jubilant celebrations throughout the nation when Jane gave birth to Henry's much longed-for son and heir Edward, Prince of Wales, Duke of Cornwall and Earl of Chester (the future Edward VI) on 12 October, 1537. Unfortunately the queen didn't recover from the confinement and she died when her son was just 12 days old. Henry was grief-stricken at the loss of the woman who had just granted him his dearest wish. She was the only one of Henry's six queens to receive a queen's funeral, being interred in St George's Chapel at Windsor Castle in a vault built for two, reflecting Henry's intention, in due course, to spend eternity with his 'entirely beloved' Queen Jane.
Caroline of Brunswick
Princess Caroline was the wife of George, the Prince of Wales and future George IV. It was an arranged marriage; they didn't get on and parted as soon as their union had secured an heir, Princess Charlotte. Caroline remained abroad until 1820 when King George III died and her husband inherited the throne. As his legal wife, she automatically became Queen Consort of the United Kingdom and she undertook the journey back to London. George IV had no wish to be reunited with his wife, never mind have her by his side as his queen. He hoped that the introduction of the Bill of Pains and Penalties of 1820 would give the government the power to remove the Queen's rights and titles and allow the 25-year marriage to be terminated, but his hopes were dashed when the Bill was defeated. Caroline retained her titles and set up her own Court at Brandenburg House, Hammersmith. The furious king vowed she would never sit by his side and he banned her from his coronation on 19 July, 1821, but she turned up at Westminster Abbey nevertheless. However, the king had ordered that guards be posted at the Abbey's entrances to thwart her ambition, and Queen Caroline was turned away at bayonet point. Less than three weeks later, she died, having claimed that she had been poisoned.
A Queen Dowager is the widow of a king. When Queen Elizabeth became a widow in 1952 at the age of 51, there was already a queen dowager, the late king's mother, Dowager Queen Mary, so she became Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and the name stuck.
By all accounts, Queen Catherine was a good stepmother to Henry's three children, Lady Mary, Lady Elizabeth and his heir Prince Edward, and they returned her affection. Catherine convinced Henry to restore Lady Mary and Lady Elizabeth to the line of succession. When Henry knew his time was up, he commanded that his last wife Catherine should continue to be treated as a queen, as if he were still alive. After Henry's death in 1547, she was allowed to wear the queen's jewels2 and attire, even though she was the Dowager Queen. At the age of 34, Catherine had outlived three husbands. Catherine retired from Royal Court following the coronation of her stepson Edward VI. She went on to marry again, to Thomas Seymour (a brother of Jane Seymour), four months after the death of Henry VIII. This union resulted in her first pregnancy but although a healthy daughter, Mary Seymour, was born, Catherine herself did not survive the confinement. The queen's jewels had already been commandeered by her sister-in-law, Anne Seymour, Duchess of Somerset. She was the wife of Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset, who was the Lord Protector - ruling on behalf of his nine-year-old nephew Edward VI - from 1547-49. Prior to her death, Catherine willed everything to her husband, but he was dead himself within six months due to losing his head after being tried and convicted of treason. All his property was confiscated, which left their baby daughter Mary Seymour destitute. Catherine's personal jewellery and other belongings were restored to Mary's guardian on the child's behalf, but she reportedly died around the age of two years. Thanks to her four marriages, Catherine Parr holds the title of most-married British queen.
A Queen Regent is someone who rules on behalf of a king, eg when he is absent, incapacitated or just too young to perform the monarch's duties themselves. It would ordinarily be a queen consort or dowager queen, but the relationship would have to be one of trust. Being in a position of power can go to someone's head, and the thought of having to relinquish that power may not go down very well.
Isabella of France
Edward II, Plantagenet King of England, married Isabella of France in 1308 when she was just 12 years old. They had four children including the crown prince Edward (later Edward III). Queen Isabella began an affair with Baron Mortimer, whom she had bonded with thanks, in part, to their shared interest in Arthurian legend. Together they plotted to overthrow her weak husband Edward II and she would rule England as regent on behalf of her eldest son. Once this was successful, it is thought that she arranged for her husband to be bumped off, to prevent him reclaiming the throne. She wasn't nicknamed the She-Wolf of France for nothing. Isabella ruled as queen regent for four years with Baron Mortimer by her side, until her son Edward III turned 17 years of age - he had to overthrow his own mother and her lover in order to assert control. Mortimer was arrested and summarily executed, but Edward III spared his mother, even allowing her to return to court.
Catherine of Aragon
Catherine was the daughter of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile, who had sponsored Christopher Columbus' first voyage in 1492, which led to the discovery of the Americas. Catherine became Princess of Wales in 1501 when she married Prince Arthur, heir apparent to the English throne, when they were both 15 years of age. Being widowed at the age of 16, Catherine undertook the job of ambassador, being the first female in Europe's history to hold such a role. In 1509 she married her brother-in-law, Henry VIII, and became queen consort. She was granted the power of regent in his place when he set off on a sojourn to France in 1513. Catherine wasn't just a pretty face, content to sit and sew her husband's shirts. Although she was six months pregnant at the time, Catherine donned full armour and rose on horseback to give a rousing speech to the troops about to face the Scottish army at the Battle of Flodden. Not only did the English win the battle, their opponent the Scottish king James IV was killed, and Catherine sent Henry what was left of King James' blood-soaked surcoat3 to display as a banner. It's said that the queen wanted to send her husband King James' decomposing body as a trophy, which would have been considered a great romantic gesture in those days, but the assigned escort didn't have the stomach for such a task. After Henry VIII had replaced her with Anne Boleyn, Catherine was demoted from queen consort to Dowager Princess of Wales, tellingly that she was the widow of Arthur, her first husband (Henry's older brother). She was banned from court and forbidden to see their daughter Lady Mary (the future Queen Mary I). Just before Catherine died aged 50, she wrote to Henry, forgiving him for all the wrongs he had done her, and signed the letter 'Catherine the Queen'. On hearing the news of Catherine's death, Henry reportedly wept, although he did not attend the funeral service on 29 January, 1536.
Eleanor of Aquitaine
Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204) had eight children with King Henry II, five sons4 and three daughters. Henry II was not a faithful husband and he fathered other children outside wedlock, one of whom, Geoffrey of York, was brought up with his legitimate children, by Queen Eleanor. Henry had a favourite mistress, Rosamund Clifford (c1150-76), whom he would happily have divorced the queen to marry, but she died while still only in her twenties. Queen Eleanor was imprisoned in 1173 for teaching her sons to be rebellious against their father, although she was allowed some freedom from confinement. She was closely chaperoned until Henry II died in 1189. The Dowager Queen Eleanor then unofficially ruled England for about a decade while her son King Richard I was off crusading, and then when he got himself captured she was instrumental in raising the ransom money. Intertwined in this historic tale the legend of Robin Hood emerged, and then Disney turned him into a fox. Hopefully education will win out. It certainly paid off for Judith Keppel5, whose knowledge of Eleanor of Aquitaine (that she was the wife of Henry II) won her a whopping million pounds on the television quiz show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, the very first UK contestant to win the top prize.
Maria Fitzherbert (1756–1837) married George, Prince of Wales, in 1785. She was a twice-widowed Catholic who lived in a town house in Park Street, Mayfair, which she had inherited from her second husband. Being a Catholic was a problem for the Royal Family - if the marriage had been approved by King George III, which was required for it to be legal - Prince George would have had to capitulate his position as heir apparent. The wedding, held in secret, took place at Maria's house in Mayfair with her uncle and brother as witnesses. It was officiated by the Reverend Burt, who had just been released from debtor's prison thanks to his financial obligations being settled by the prince. Prince George wrote to Maria in June 1794, reluctantly ending their relationship. His father King George III had offered to pay off the prince's debts if he agreed to marry Caroline of Brunswick. Although the prince agreed to give up 'the wife of my heart and soul', as he described her, and he had numerous other mistresses, he never forgot his first love Maria. One of George IV's deathbed requests was to be interred with Maria's eye miniature (a portrait of her hazel eyes on a brooch) on his chest. The king had kept all of Maria's letters but they were destroyed following his death in 1830.
Wife of an ex-King but Never a Queen
A twice-divorced American, Wallis Simpson, came close to becoming queen consort. Edward VIII inherited the throne when his father George V died in 1936, but he was never crowned because he abdicated when Parliament refused to accept his choice of bride. Post-abdication he was created Duke of Windsor6 by his younger brother King George VI, and the Duke and his fiancée Wallis moved to Paris, France. Stashed in their luggage was the coronet used at the Duke's investiture as Prince of Wales in 1911. At this point it's worth noting that the sovereign and members of the Royal Family do not own the Crown Jewels, which belong to the nation. Of course they have their own personal jewellery, which are not part of the Crown Jewels. The removal of any of the Crown Jewels from the UK is forbidden by law, and had never happened before, so this act was unprecedented. To have had the brother of the king arrested and hauled back to England to face a charge of theft would have caused another scandal the Royal Family could well do without, so nothing was done. (A new coronet was created for Prince Charles when he had his investiture as Prince of Wales in 1969.) Wallis became Her Grace the Duchess of Windsor when they married in June 1937, but she was never allowed to use the style 'HRH' (Her Royal Highness). The Duchess returned the Prince of Wales' coronet when she attended the Duke's funeral in England in 1972, and it joined the Honours of the Principality of Wales in the Jewel House at the Tower of London. The Duchess was buried next to the Duke at the Royal Mausoleum in Windsor Home Park following her funeral in 1986.