A Brief History
On April 2, 1930, Empress Zewditu of Ethiopia died, making her the last (most recent) Empress regnant in world history. Will there be another empress someday? In the past, we have discussed women leaders and even some “badass women” and today we take a look at this last female head of an empire. When will another woman become empress of an empire? If you know of any candidates, share that information with us!
Zewditu, named Askala Maryam at birth in 1876, was the daughter of King Menelik of Shewa, the man who would become Emperor Menelik II. Using the name Zewditu, which apparently means “crown” in Amharic, the future empress was raised by her father and his consort, as her mother had left early in the girl’s life. Zewditu was the eldest child of Menelik, a son having died in infancy and another daughter younger than Zewditu. Menelik’s later marriage produced no children. In the convoluted manner of monarchies, Menelik’s original heir was his grandson, the son of his other daughter, Woizero Shewaregga Menelik. This lad, known as Lij Iyasu (which means “Child Joshua”) was named Kifle Yaqob at birth. While he was the designated emperor from 1913 to 1916, he was never crowned.
Zewditu had been married off at the age of 10 to Ras Araya Selassie Yohannes, the son of another monarch, Emperor Yohannes IV of Ethiopia (reign 1872-1889). (Note: Royal families in this account were Christians of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, an Eastern Orthodox religion.) The union of Zewditu and Ras Araya Selassie Yohannes was a political maneuver as part of the submission of Menelik to Yohannes IV’s authority. The rival would be emperors eventually returned to competition for the throne, and Zewditu, without children from her marriage (she was only 12 when widowed), went back to her father’s house when her husband died in 1888. Zweditu married again, and then yet again, though both marriages were extremely brief (we are not sure why). She married once more in 1900, to a nephew of her step-mother, Gugsa Welle.
Yohannis IV was killed in battle against the Sudan in 1889 and Menelik assumed the throne of Ethiopia as Emperor. When Menelik II died in 1913, his grandson Kifle Yaqob (mentioned above) assumed the throne, and this “Child Joshua” saw fit to exile Zewditu to a remote area to prevent her from challenging him for the throne. For a variety of reasons, the coronation of Kifle Yaqob was delayed until the lad had attained a more mature age, and as it turned out, he never got to see his own coronation. Alleged to have Muslim sympathies, Kifle Yaqob never really had the enthusiastic support of the rest of the nobility of Ethiopia. Coupled with behavior seen as erratic, the nobility deposed Kifle Yaqob and installed Zewditu as Empress in 1916, declaring her “Queen of Kings” (Negiste Negest in the local language) rather than the customary “King of Kings.” While other women have served as “Empress Consort” since 1916, only Empress Zewditu was an empress regnant (meaning “reigning” as the ruler and not just the spouse of the ruler). Zewditu is notable among the nobility as being the last lineal descendant of the Solomonic Dynasty of Ethiopia, supposedly descended from the Solomon of the Bible. Designated as her heir by a consensus of the Ethiopian nobility was Ras Tafari Makonnen, who would reign as Emperor Haile Selassie from 1930 to 1974 when he ceded his throne at the age of 82 due to widespread unrest during economic hard times and pressure from the military. Selassie was imprisoned and died in 1975 after a prostate exam and operation allegedly did not go well. As with his predecessor, speculation that he had actually been killed was rampant.
During the reign of Zewditu, Ras Tafari served as regent, and when she died in 1930, speculation that he had something to do with her death was rampant. In fact, the Empress suffered from diabetes and also was found to be suffering from Typhoid. Legend has it that her death came from shock and grief at the news of her husband’s death in battle, while others claim she did not even know of his death before she also died only 2 days later.
Zewditu had her hands full early in her reign, with the deposed Kifle Yaqob having escaped his captors and trying to reclaim his throne. Later, differences with Ras Tafari marred the rest of her reign. (Note: If you have not already picked up on the birth name of Haile Selassie, Tafari, and his title, Ras, combining to form the religious sect of the Rastafari movement, currently claiming about 700,000 to 1 million followers. Rastafarians believe Haile Selassie to be the messiah of the Bible.) Zewditu was conservative and oriented toward obedience to the Church, while Selassie was more of a reformer and modernist. Gradually his influence grew and hers waned. Zewditu is much less well known than her successor, Haile Selassie, who became world famous when he pleaded with the world at the League of Nations for help against the Italian aggressors of his country in 1936. Italians at the League jeered the emperor and Italy had effectively conquered Ethiopia. Selassie was forced into exile until the fortunes of World War II changed enough for him to return home in 1941. In 1942, Selassie took steps to eliminate slavery from his realm. (About time!)
(Note: At the time of Selassie’s appeal to the League of Nations, Ethiopia had a population of 12 million. Today, Ethiopia has a population of 109+ million people!)
Zewditu did not have a massive influence on history by conquering lands or enacting significant reforms, but she is significant in her role as the last of the reigning empresses, at least so far. While Zewditu did not suffer any notable scandals or fiascoes, her husband did make a serious effort to depose Ras Tafari from his post as Regent, to the point of fighting a war with supporters of Ras Tafari, despite the desire of Zewditu that Ras Tafari be left alone to his own devices. Will the world see another reigning empress? If so, when and where?
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For more information, please see…
Gebre-Igziabiher, Elyas and Reidulf K. Molvaer. Prowess, Piety, and Politics: The Chronicle of Abeto Iyasu and Empress Zewditu of Ethiopia, 1909-1930. Rüdiger Köppe, 1994.
Rubinkowska, Hanna. Ethiopia on the Verge of Modernity: the Transfer of Power During Zewditu’s Reign 1916-1930. Agade Publishing, 2010.
The featured image in this article, a photograph of Zauditu of Ethiopia, is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1925, and if not then due to lack of notice or renewal. See this page for further explanation.