Kingship was essentially a male activity in Ancient Egypt but Queens always had an important role to play.  Royal women grew very powerful in the New Kingdom and clearly had an influence on the country.  One women, Hatshepsut, even became Pharaoh and ruled in her own name for a number of years. 



Throughout the Old and Middle Kingdoms the duties of the Queen might be summed up as follows:

  1. Provide many children. Succession was much smoother if there was a clearly recognized son whose legitimacy as the new ruler was unquestioned.  In an age with such a short life expectancy, it paid to have as many sons as possible to serve as spares.
  2. Ensure the smooth running of the palace.
  3. If necessary, act as regent if her husband, the king, died before his son was old enough to rule on his own.
  4. Give silent support to her husband.
  5. Be a passive, but visible, complement to the king.



In the New Kingdom the Queen became much more prominent and powerful.  She acquired in her own right secular and religious titles that carried with them genuine jobs to do and estates with land, servants and administrators to provide an independent income.  The title God's Wife of Amun provided the Queen with her own source of money and gave her a considerable degree of independence.



Ankhesenamun (wife of Tutankhamun) is shown wearing the kind of crown used by New Kingdom queens to demonstrate their increased prestige. 



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The Egyptians never told us why this change took place, but we can guess.  Emerging out of a period of profound civil unrest, the New Kingdom saw a deliberate attempt to enhance the power and prestige of the monarchy.  Perhaps a prominent queen was a part of the technique used by the kings to make themselves more visible from one end of the land to the other.  

Following the horrors of World War II the United States ended its self imposed isolation and decided to play a major role in world affairs.  Egypt seems to have done the same thing at the beginning of the New Kingdom.  For the first time it established a full time army for service in peace time and in war and for the first time it sought to establish control over lands that contained people who were not Egyptian.  A simple way to demonstrate friendship between two countries was to arrange a marriage between the king of one country and the king's daughter of another.   Royal polygamy made this feasible but increased the need to distinguish between the "real" wife and the ceremonial wives.

Egyptian kings had always had secondary wives, probably to increase the odds of having the all important son to inherit the throne, but the royal harem was small and discrete and kept very much in the background.  The number of secondary wives increased in the New Kingdom and for the first time we see the use of the expression "King's Great Wife" to differentiate between the primary wife and the lesser wives.

Egyptians used the terms "King's Great Wife", "King's Wife" and "King's Mother" where we would use the term Queen.  Their phrasing was much more explicit than ours and clearly identified the queen's place in the scheme of things.



The rules of succession provided that the next pharaoh would be the eldest son by the King's Great Wife.  Failing that, it would be a son by a lesser wife.  Unfortunately we do not have enough evidence to determine exactly how that rule functioned in practice. Did a Pharaoh have a say in which of his lesser wives would have her son become Pharaoh?  We do know that on occasion a Pharaoh would appoint his heir-apparent as co-regent and this would certainly help eliminate any controversy over the succession.  If there was no son by a lesser wife then the throne went to some other male relative. Always, however, the throne went to a man.

At one time it was believed that the succession was matrilineal. The throne went to the man who married the Heiress Princess.  The Heiress Princess would be the eldest daughter of the Heiress Queen, so in most cases kings would end up marrying their sisters.  The theory was developed to explain the large number of brother-sister marriages in the royal family.  Although largely discredited some scholars still cling tenaciously to the theory.

If the heir was a child at the time he became Pharaoh then his mother (presumably the Great Wife of the previous monarch) could become regent.  This did happen on several occasions and in each case the mother performed all of the ceremonial and political requirements of the job.  When Thuthmosis III ascended the throne as a young child in the New Kingdom his mother, Hatshepsut, as expected, became regent and carried out all the duties of king on behalf of her son.   After a few years, however, she simply abandoned the whole idea of a regency and began to call herself the Female Horus, the legitimate Pharaoh, and ruled as full king until her death.

The last time in the New Kingdom that the heir was a child was in the reign of Tutankhamun, who ascended the throne at the age of eight or nine.  Presumably there was someone in the background telling the young king what to do (the most likely candidate for this job was Aye, the chief advisor in the reign of Akhenaten), but there was no formally proclaimed regent.  This meant, of course, that Tutankhamun had to marry Ankhesenamun right away, although Egypt had no history of child marriage.  Although there are several possibilities, we do not really know who Tutankhamun's mother was, and it is quite possible that she had died before he became king and was not available to be regent.



Brother-sister marriages among Royalty


God's Wife of Amun

Harem---the women's residence

Hatshepsut---the female Horus

Nefertari---Great Wife and favorite of Rameses II

Nefertiti---partner in Akhenaten's religious revolution

Tiy---Great Wife of Amunhotep III

Women Who Reigned As Pharaohs