The 10 most powerful queens in history, from Catherine the Great to Queen Victoria

By | May 30, 2020

The hit Hulu miniseries, “The Great” is being binge-watched all over the country — showing (loosely) how Catherine the Great, a German princess came to rule Russia.

But while Catherine was indeed great — she was not the only powerful woman to lead a nation much better than the men before or after her.

Here are the top 10 women to rule.

Catherine the Great (ruled Russia from 1762 -1796)

Portrait of Empress Catherine II (1729-1796), 1780s

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Portrait of Catherine II the Legislatress in the Temple Devoted to the Godess of Justice by Dmitry Levitzky

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This formerly penniless Prussian princess used her wits and cunning to usurp the throne from her hapless husband Tsar Peter. During her reign, she expanded Russia’s borders, and, according to Smithsonian Magazine: “spearheaded judicial and administrative reforms, dabbled in vaccination, curated a vast art collection that formed the foundation of one of the world’s greatest museums, penned operas and children’s fairy tales, founded the country’s first state-funded school for women, drafted her own legal code, and promoted a national system of education.”

Hatshepsut (ruled Egypt 1478 B.C. – 1459 B.C.)

Head Of The Ancient Egyptian Queen Makare Hatshepsut (C Early 20th Century)

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Seated Statue of Queen Hatshepsut

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The fifth pharaoh of the 18th dynasty, Hatshepsut was Egypt’s second female pharaoh. The eldest daughter of Thutmose I, Hatshepsut married her half-brother Thutmose II when she was just 12 but when he dies in 1479 B.C., Hatshepsut took over as “regent” for her stepson, the infant Thutmose III, before becoming co-ruler. As pharaoh, Hatshepsut “extended Egyptian trade and oversaw ambitious building projects, most notably the Temple of Deir el-Bahri, located in western Thebes, where she would be buried,” according to History.com. After her death, her stepson tried to erase all memory of Hatshepsut — tearing down monuments to her and defacing statues and almost succeeded in erasing her from history until the 19th century when archeologists first found mention of the queen.

Empress Dowager Cixi, (effectively ruled China from 1861 – 1908)

Chinese Empress Dowager Cixi, *1835-1908+, portrait c1900

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Portrait of the Empress Dowager Tzu hsi, painted by a naive Chinese artist from a photograph taken in 1903

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Cixi started off as a lower-rung concubine to the Xianfeng emperor, but had the good luck to bear his only son. After Xianfeng’s death, when her son was just 6, Cixi orchestrated a coup grabbing power from a council of elders. During her reign, Cixi, quelled several rebellions and, according to Britannica.com, “Schools were created for the study of foreign languages, a modern customs service was instituted, Western-style arsenals were constructed, and the first Chinese foreign service office was installed. Internally, an effort was made to end governmental corruption and to recruit men of talent.”

Elizabeth I (ruled England from 1558-1603)

Queen Elisabeth I.

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ELIZABETH I, 1533-1603. Queen of England From the painting by Zucchero at Hatfield House.

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The daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, the “Virgin Queen” vowed early on in her teens to never marry. Coming to power after her half-sister Mary, Elizabeth I “established Protestantism in England; defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588; maintained peace inside her previously divided country; and created an environment where the arts flourished,” according to Biography.com.

Cleopatra (ruled Egypt from 51 B.C. to 30 B.C.)

Ancient History Illustration. pic: 31 BC. Roman Civil War. This illustration is entitled Cleopatra, During The Battle Of Actium. The battle was fought between naval fleets of Marc Antony (supported by Cleopatra) and Octavian. The battle proved indecisive

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Cleopatra

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Most known for her love life and bedding both Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony, Cleopatra was a formidable ruler in her own right, raising several armies to defeat her brother and other people vying for power, she was technically co-regent with several of her family members — first with her father, then with her two younger brothers and finally with her son — but was the dominant force behind all. According to History.com, Cleopatra was “well-educated and clever, (and) could speak various languages.”

Empress Theodora (co-ruled the Eastern Roman Empire from 527-548)

The Empress Theodora - Sixth Century

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Half-figure bust

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The most unlikely of rulers, Theodora started off life as an actress and prostitute before beguiling the soon-to-be Emperor Justinian. During their co-reign, according to the Guardian, “Theodora worked for women’s marriage and dowry rights, anti-rape legislation, and was supportive of the many young girls who were sold into sexual slavery for the price of a pair of sandals. Her laws banished brothel-keepers from Constantinople and from all the major cities of the empire.”

Empress Suiko, Japan (ruled Japan from 592-628)

Empress Suiko

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Empress Suiko 2

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The first Empress of Japan, during her rule Suiko established Buddhism as the country’s official religion and introduced the Chinese calendar. Suiko also, according to according to History of Royal Women, “adopted the Chinese bureaucratic system, where she installed the twelve grades of cap ranks” and introduced Japan’s first constitution which “ focused on the morals and virtues of government officials.”

Amalasuntha (ruler of the Ostrogoths from 526 – 535)

Amalasuntha
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Ruling first as a regent for her son in the Ostrogoth empire of Northern Italy, Amalasuntha was a revered patron of the arts, literature and education. Sadly, her son died in 534 and she shared the throne with her cousin Theodahad, who within a year, according to Britannica.com, banished her “to an island in the Tuscan lake of Bolsena, where she was strangled in her bath.”

Maria Theresa of Austria (the Holy Roman Empress of the Habsburg Dynasty, 1740 – 1780)

Maria Theresa

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Empress Maria Theresia

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One of Europe’s longest reigning monarchs, Maria Theresa was also one of its most fruitful — she and her husband Francis produced 16 children, including Marie Antoinette. During her reign, Marie Therese faced an uphill battle to get her lands under control and have the men in them accept a woman as a leader. Eventually she did and during her reign bolstered domestic and foreign policy — centralizing and strengthening the empire’s power. She also built up its military might and instituted a fair and reasonable tax schedule for estates, according to Biography.com.

Queen Victoria (ruled England from 1837-1901)

Queen Victoria

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Queen Victoria of England

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Victoria came to power during the height of the British Empire, which at the time spanned six continents. While she was known for being extremely conservative, according to ListVerse, she “contributed to massive political and social reforms in the United Kingdom as well as in the British Empire” by abolishing slavery throughout her empire, supporting the Factory Act  “which reduced the working day in textile mills to ten hours” as well as helped with the “Third Reform Act of 1884, which granted the right to vote to all male householders and effectively extended the vote to most British men.”

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