She Wolves by Helen Castor – Book Review

She Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth by Helen Castor
Published by Harper Books, an imprint of Harper Collins

When people think about English queens, the two Queen Elizabeths come to mind, perhaps Mary Tudor and Victoria. The one thing all of these women had in common is that they reigned in their own right, not as mere extensions of their husbands’ power. As the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I is perhaps the epitome of the reigning queen of England, and certainly the first woman to rule so successfully under her own power, without the insinuation that she was being ruled by a husband, as was true of her older half sister, Mary Tudor. Although the Tudors women – Jane Grey, Mary Tudor, and Elizabeth Tudor – were the first to rule officially, they were not the first women to¬† exercise great power over England.

Helen Castor’s She Wolves explores indepth the lives and rules of four women whose stories could and may have provided the framework – cautionary and otherwise – that allowed Elizabeth’s great success as a woman and a ruler.

This Virgin Queen could do much. She was seductive Venus as well as chaste Diana. She was both a king and a queen, a man’s heart in a woman’s breast. What Knox had denounced as her “monstrous regiment” had given England the golden age of Gloriana. – p. 460

Jane Grey and Mary Tudor’s reigns were also mentioned more briefly, but it was the women who rules without the formal investiture of power that form the basis of this work.

Castor focuses primarily on Matilda, Lady of England, her daughter-in-law Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of France, and Margaret of Anjou. Eleanor is probably the most famous of these women, being ruler of the duchy of Aquitaine in her own right, and essentially ruling for her son Richard I during his crusade and later his captivity on the Continent. She is perhaps the most interesting case study as well, as her life is a fabulous example of the different responses to strong women depending on their role in life. Demonized when fomenting rebellion among her sons against her controlling husband, she was later celebrated when acting on her absent son’s behalf. At the same time Eleanor’s chapter was perhaps the weakest; her husband and sons were such oversized characters that their actions overshadowed her for much of the section devoted to her.

Castor’s writing was clear, her style extremely engaging. I would have liked more comprehensive notes on sources. Many are mentioned, but in the end notes, and without reference to which sections of the chapters they informed. I would have particularly liked to have seen the notes for the section on Margaret of Anjou, because it seems that Castor was blaming much of the War of the Roses on Margaret’s foreign political upbringing and the decisions she made because of it, and I am completely unsure whether or not that is a valid reading of the historical sources – although it is an interesting one. Overall, though, I appreciated going deeper into the lives of these women who were so foundational to the ability of later women to rule England. Highly recommended.

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