She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth

I’m giving away several books throughout March in honor of Women’s History Month. Win a copy of this book, courtesy of Harper Books! Read on for more information.

Book cover: She-Wolves by Helen CastorI always knew England had a rich, fascinating royal history, but I don’t think I quite realized just how positively riveting it could be until I read Helen Castor’s She Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth. Many people are acquainted with Elizabeth, The Virgin Queen; there have been several major films and television series about her in recent years, and is the icon most people have in mind when thinking of famous royal figureheads in history. What most people don’t realize is that in the four centuries prior to Elizabeth’s reign, there were four other women–Matilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of France, and Margaret of Anjou–who held power in England, as well as the two women–Mary of Scots and Jane Grey–who briefly held the title of Queen in the five years before Elizabeth’s forty-five year rule began. Whether they craved control of their lands, had to step in for their incapacitated or politically clueless husbands, took the reigns to secure their child’s birthright as ruler of England, or fight for their own birthright as queen, all of the women displayed admirable levels of determination and intelligence, and at times even rivaled the ruthlessness of their male counterparts.

I enjoyed this book and learned a lot from it. Castor breaks up into six parts, using the controversy surrounding Mary of Scots, Jane Grey, and Elizabeth I to “bookend” the stories of the other four women. Each part has four chapters, with the first devoted to explaining the political climate that ultimately leads to each women taking power. Although I appreciated the context that these chapters provide, it can also be a bit confusing at times. Rather than fluidly moving on to the next woman’s story, there are stretches of time that are unaccounted for that can be jarring and confusing as the reader tries to catch up. That said, once Castor begins developing each woman’s narrative, it is easy to get sucked into the book.

Though the events in the book span four centuries, society’s expectations of the women remained the same: “women” could be married off to a king at the age of twelve and were expected to provide a male heir early in marriage. Queens were expected to lend support to their husbands and serve as an intermediary when necessary, but were expected to defer to the king at all times. In the event that a king died and his infant son became heir, the queen and the king’s advisors were to make decisions on behalf of the young monarch with the understanding that he would take full control when he was old enough. Any woman who transgressed these gender roles was vilified. Castor writes:

The risk these queens ran was that their power would be perceived as a perversion of “good” womanhood, a distillation of all that was most to be feared in the unstable depths of female nature. The unease, if not outright denunciation, with which their rule was met has coalesced in the image of the she-wolf, a feral creature driven by instinct rather than reason, a sexual predator whose savagery matched that of her mate–or exceeded it, even in the ferocity with which she defended her young…[A]ny exercise of power by a woman was a manifestation of the female propensity for sin; and the Old Testament offered a ready identification of female rule as a sexualized tyranny in the figure of Jezebel.

It was Shakespeare, in fact, who labeled Margaret of Anjou a “she-wolf,” writing, “She-wolf of France, but worse than wolves of France…How ill-beseeming is it in thy sex / To triumph like an Amazonian trull / Upon their woes whom Fortune captivates!”

Indeed, women were subjected to harsh double standards. When Matilda seized power and attempted to pattern her behavior after that of her father, King Henry, in order to be taken more seriously, she was met with derision and resentment: “the minute Matilda tried to tackle…problems with what her father would have recognized as kingly authority, she was accused of acting with a headstrong arrogance unbecoming to her sex.” Likewise, though everyone knew that Margaret of Anjou’s husband was often incapacitated by mental illness, she had to fight to secure her son’s future as king, since the Duke of York was fighting to usurp power from her husband. Since taking control meant transgressing gender roles, each woman featured in this book had to display fierce intelligence and fight to be taken seriously.

As I read about the lives of each of these remarkable women, I kept thinking, “Where’s the high-budget epic motion picture about her?!” A couple of them have made appearances as characters in other movies–most notably, Isabella of France in Braveheart–but that role is pure fiction, and the real story is so much better (ditto on Eleanor of Aquitaine). There were a few faults I found with the book–the ending feels rushed, and I wish Castor had explained the significance of the Wars of the Roses in more detail–but overall, the book is an engaging and enlightening read. I learned a lot.

She Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth was released in hardcover on February 22, 2011 by Harper Books, an imprint of HarperCollins.

Want a chance to read this book? The lovely folks over at Harper Books are providing a finished copy for a Women’s History Month giveaway! To enter, fill out this form by Saturday, March 12, 2011. Contest is open to U.S. residents only. This contest is now closed.

IndieBound | Powell’s | Amazon
I read it as a(n): paperback
Source: Advance review copy from publisher
Pages: 496

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6 comments

  1. Jeanne

    I requested this one from Harper’s list and read it through the Matilda part, but I found it a snooze. I thought it would be more about the women, and less rehashing of the details of the period. The title idea is a good one, but I didn’t think the execution of it lived up to its promise.

  2. Melissa

    @pickygirl: thanks! 🙂

    @jeanne: i’ve seen a few reviews of it, and reactions do seem to be pretty divided. there were some parts i thought castor could’ve cut out (or explained in more detail), but a lot of the time i was freakishly into it!

    @bookspersonally: if you pick it up, i hope you enjoy it!

  3. Beth

    I am a history nut. Female history and I’m hooked! I added this to my tbr list as soon as you i saw you had added it to your account on goodreads. Great review! I’m looking forward to picking it up!

  4. Eva

    This sounds like fun: I’ve put myself on hold at the library! I think my mom would enjoy it too…which is good, since I used her account because we’re number 30 something on the list. hehe

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