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Book Review: She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth by Helen Castor

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Pretty well everyone has a personal vision of the Britain’s first Queen Elizabeth – the imperious woman in fine clothes bravely standing up to the Spanish Armada. A smaller percentage with a larger smattering of historical knowledge will know of her older sister, Queen (Bloody) Mary, her Catholic predecessor who’s reign included many miseries, from persecution of Protestants to the loss of Calais.

Helen Castor’s She-Wolves starts with them, and the messy family of their father Henry, but her real interest in earlier, in four women of whom most readers will have only scanty knowledge – yet who are fascinating political figures who in various ways presented models and cautionary tales for the two Tudor monarchs.

The first, the Empress Matilda, will perhaps win a small flicker of modern recognition from her sideways appearance in the Cadfael novels, and Eleanor of Aquitane, queen successively of France and England, is such a towering figure she’ll have registered on most history buff’s radars to some degree, but for most the two other subjects of She-Wolves Isabella, the unfortunate Queen of the inadequate Edward II, and Margaret of Anjou, Queen to the even more hopeless Henry VI, will be terra incognita.

Castor can’t really allow us to know these women as individuals, as living breathing creatures, her sources – scant sometimes even on the basic details of their location for years at a time – don’t allow that. But she does wring from the often frustrating fragments as much detail as seems feasible, and is also clear-eyed and analytical on the basic problem that they faced: there was no model of a female reign on which they could draw. As a consort a queen had a clear and defined role, established scenes to play, from begging for mercy that allowed her king to gracefully pardon errant subjects and regions, to piously providing a model life that might well allow him to play the rake with gay abandon. But to rule, that was unknown, and unthinkable – and yet these women were forced, or felt forced, to find a path through this impossible thicket.

She’s also good at providing the information that helps us keep the often complicated royal and princely families of Europe straight – and the constantly shifting boundaries over which they squabble. (This is meant to be helped by family trees at the start of each woman’s story, although I found something about the ways these were drawn made them almost incomprehensible.) There’s an extensive “further reading” section, which since I chose this book for interest, not research, is all I needed, but I do wonder at the lack of footnoting – extremely frustrating should you want to follow up any of the detail. Clearly this text is being targetted at a general rather than academic audience, but I really don’t think catering to the later with footnotes would put off the former nearly so much as publishers seem to believe.

Castor is explictly focusing on telling stories (she tells us in the preface), but as a champion of four often maligned queens she’s inevitably revising the traditional historical approach. So when she considers defining moment of Matilda’s near-reign, with King Stephen in prison and her preparing for her coronation, when her “arrogance”, commonplace historiography tells us, cost her the throne. Castor’s explanation by contrast is that:

“Matilda faced two pressing and intractable problems: her relationship with Hishop Henry, without whom she would have not have been recognised as ‘lady of England,’ but who expected as the price of his backing a degree of control over royal policy that no monarch could tolerate; and the attitude of Londoners, whose overwhelming economic interest in the trade route through Boulogne predisposed them to support Stephen’s claim to the throne…but the moment Matilda tried to tackle those problems with what her father would have recognised as kingly authority, she was accused of acting with a headstrong arrogance unbecoming to her sex….”

She’s critical of Margaret too, but also sympathetic to the impossible position of a queen having to try to guide an imbecilic king in the interests of an infant son:

“Loyal wives did not customarily supplant their husbands at the head of government. The implication was that unnatural impulses were at work, both inside and outside the royal bedchamber. Margaret might seek to associate herself with the virtuous queen of heaven in her attempt to rule through a royal trinity of king, queen and prince, but the evident fact that she was the prime mover of the three threatened to wreck the whole enterprise on the rocks of her aberrant behaviour as a wife and a woman.”

So this is clearly a feminist history, not championing, unquestioning feminist history, but critical, considered feminist history – and recovers for us four women whose struggles deserve to be remembered, for all that they were extraordinarily unusual in being offered chances of power in a profoundly powerless age for women.

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.