BBC 4′ s fine documentary study of the female struggle for power in a male dominated society, She-Wolves—England’s Early Queens, is now available on DVD from Athena. Based on historian Helen Castor’s 2011 book She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth, and written and presented by the author, the adaptation runs over three episodes at approximately one hour each.
Beginning with the thesis that a woman might be a queen, but in early England and clearly throughout the world at large the queen never quite had the same power of the king, any woman seeking such power either directly in her own right or even as a surrogate for a son or a weak, ineffectual husband was branded as an unwomanly creature, or in a term borrowed from a Shakespearian reference to Margaret of Anjou in Henry Vl, Part lll as the “She-wolf of France.” And Shakespeare doesn’t stop there, it is, he says “ill-beseeming” for someone of her sex “to triumph, like an Amazonian trull,/Upon their woes whom fortune captivates!” Even when a woman gets some power, it is, it seems only a matter of luck.
The series’ first episode deals with Matilda, the daughter of Henry I and granddaughter of William the Conqueror whose assent to the throne after Henry’s death was thwarted by her cousin Stephen and Eleanor of Aquitaine, her daughter-in-law, perhaps best known today through the Katherine Hepburn portrayal in The Lion in Winter.
The second episode deals with Isabella who was married to the notorious Edward ll, only to find him more interested in the handsome Piers Gaveston and Shakespeare’s “Amazonian trull,” Margaret of Anjou, married at 15 to Henry Vl who was later to succumb to mental problems and fall into a kind of catatonic state. Margaret was forced to take the lead in defending the crown in the Wars of the Roses, the lengthy civil wars she and her supporters were eventually to lose.
The third episode deals with the Tudor queens: Lady Jane Grey, the Nine Days Queen, Mary l and Elizabeth l. The latter two despite controversies over religion were the first women to wield actual power in their own right in England.
Perhaps the best thing about the series is Helen Castor. Not only does she know what she’s talking about, but she has the kind of natural screen presence that makes for effective communication with the audience. She skillfully weaves her way through the tangled historical webs of five centuries with impressive clarity. This is important because hers is the only on screen voice in the series. There is no elaborate collection of talking heads on board to support her analysis. She is the authority, and she doesn’t need their support.
Of course, the one thing other faces could have provided was variety. If there is a problem with the series, it is probably the paucity of visual material. Images of the early queens and the figures surrounding them are limited, so all too often we are stuck with the same visuals. Castor is shuttled around to an assortment of ruins, cathedrals and castles and that helps. There is nothing like a gorgeous cathedral to provide a fascinating visual. On the other hand shots of her walking through modern cities and riding through the countryside are rarely interesting. There is some film footage of battles and the like culled presumably from other productions and while that does spice the stew a bit, there is no question that it is up to Castor to carry the series on her shoulders, a task she manages quite effectively.
The DVD includes a short biographical sketch of Dr. Castor and a booklet discussing the early queens and other powerful women in history, as well as a short discussion of matriarchy. Although there are supposed to be discussion questions available at athenalearning.com, I was unable to find them.