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

Elizabeth I is one of England’s best known reigning queens. Though she was not the first, she set the standard and is widely regarded as a successful ruling monarch. But there were women who ruled, or attempted to rule, England before Elizabeth. There was Matilda, daughter of Henry I, whose cousin got to the throne first; there was Eleanor of Aquitaine, who had plenty of power in her own domains but in many respects is best known for her husbands and sons; there was Isabella, wife of Edward II, who seized a throne for herself in the name of her son; there was Margaret of Anjou, who fought ferociously to maintain her son’s right to the throne; and there were Jane and Mary, Elizabeth’s immediate predecessors. Castor looks at these women and how they ruled and examines the pattern of English thought and how it changed over more than 400 years of history.

I loved this book. I didn’t expect anything less; I gushed about Helen Castor’s Blood and Roses a couple of years ago, so it’s no surprise that I couldn’t wait a second to get my hands on this one. None of these women were new to me as a person obsessed with medieval history, but Castor puts their stories together in a way that makes perfect sense. She looks not only at what happened to each woman and how successful she was at ruling, but what people thought about it and how England became a country that could accept a female monarch.

It’s no surprise that they have almost universally been vilified at one point or another. The medieval interpretation of what it meant to be female and the medieval interpretation of what it meant to be king were completely incompatible. As Castor says in the first section, focusing on Matilda, she just could not win. If she exercised the right of a king, the power necessary to be successful, she was an unnatural woman, but if she didn’t, there was simply no way for her to rule. She could not be a success in her contemporaries’ eyes, no matter what she did – at least, not until she started to fight on behalf of her son, Henry.

And the story is the same for many of the women, with incremental changes. Attitudes do take hundreds of years to change, and while the kingdom was changing, the status of women didn’t go very far towards changing with it. All of the royal power women were actually able to hold in England had to be in the name of a man, even if that man was actually a baby. It’s a fascinating exploration of the very different challenges each women faced while at the same time putting together the universality of their condition.

And it’s perfectly appropriate that they lead up to Elizabeth, because she was the game changer, who ruled in her own name, with her own wisdom, and did a fantastic job. There’s no question that women continued to struggle for rights, and they suffered considerably for centuries, in some respects still doing so. But a number of factors contributed towards her doing so, and she must have felt a kinship towards the women who came before and the strides they made to earn power for women in the English kingdom.

Castor treats all of the women with an even hand, taking a steady look at what was expected of them as women rulers, why they got treated the way they did, and even whether or not they deserved it. Isabella, for example, can easily be dismissed as a poor ruler, but we can also understand why she acted the way she did (at least as far as overthrowing her husband) and the results of those actions in a wider context. While there is still a lot about the men in these women’s lives, they were the actual monarchs and thus had a very large role to play in defining the positions of their mothers, daughters, and wives, so it doesn’t feel as though the women have vanished inside the shadows of the better-recorded lives of the men.

In short, She-Wolves is exceptional, inspirational, and endlessly fascinating. If you’re interested in history, especially that of women, this book is unquestionably for you.

I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free for review (and then bought a copy so I could have it in hardcover!).

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