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

By Catherine Capel

Helen Castor’s She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth (2010) is perhaps one of the most well recognised popular biographies on English queens for both academic and public history lovers. Adapted into a popular BBCFOUR miniseries in 2018, Castor’s exploration of some of the women who ruled as queen consort or regnant before Elizabeth I presents a mixture of perceptions of female rule from the medieval to the early modern period in England. England’s first crowned regnant queen was Mary I, who reigned from 1553-1558, but before her there were consort queens who wielded power, and some who became well-known for their involvement in major historical events. Castor’s exploration of a selection of these consorts, and a would-be queen regnant, outlines how their lives were deeply affected by their political and social context.

She-Wolves’ chapters focus on the lives of the Empress Matilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of France, and Margaret of Anjou. There is also discussion around the status of Tudor consort queen Katherine of Aragon, alongside the disputed reign of Lady Jane Grey and the short-lived, but nonetheless impactful, reign of Mary I. Castor’s reasoning for choosing these particular queens revolves around their presence in the historical timeline, how they dealt with the predicaments they faced during their reigns, such as succession crises and warfare, and their ability to consolidate the gap between medieval and early modern queenship. These women have been given the status of ‘infamous’ in historical writing, which makes them well known to both academic and public audiences. Castor recognised that the lives of these queens occurred within the changing landscape of politics, warfare, and rulership, but that they continued to fulfil the expectations surrounding their positions. The aim of this book, one which this reviewer argues Castor meets holistically, is to present a biographical retelling of these royal women’s lives and emphasise their personal experiences.

Castor’s detailing of the significant events in these queens’ lives includes basic biographical details such as parentage, marriage, children, and death, and the political incidents which shaped their reigns. This includes the civil war period fought by the Empress Matilda; Eleanor of Aquitaine’s activities on the Second Crusade, her duties as Duchess of Aquitaine, her role in the rebellion of her sons, and her role in governing England during the reigns of Richard I and John; Isabella of France’s coup against her husband Edward II and her role in England during the minority of her son; and Margaret of Anjou’s role in the Wars of the Roses. These aspects are now essential to the study of medieval and early modern England, but it is important to remember that these factors shaped the contemporary experiences of these consort queens. Castor underpins this argument with her use of chronicle sources which, whilst they are not critically analysed, add to the understanding of the lives of these women and how their roles were recognised by their contemporaries.

The lack of historiographical debate and theory means that nuances that feature in the study of these queens and queenship have not been included, which limits the wider understanding of the full impact of these queens. But Castor’s ability to produce detailed accounts of that cover all the important aspects of their royal lives and the wider discussion she has included create well-rounded biographies that are informative and helpful.                   

The discussion of the queens’ relationships both with their male relatives and between each other is one of the prominent themes at the forefront of Castor’s biographies. Castor recognises that the power of queen consorts was sourced through their relationship with their husbands and for heiresses from the recognition of their status as their father’s successor. Matilda, Eleanor, Isabella, and Margaret all had often turbulent relationships with the men in their lives – their fathers, husbands, and sons – which often led to very public and political disagreements between them, as outlined by Castor. The tempestuous nature of Tudor queenship, for both consorts and regnant queens, highlighted in She-Wolves, demonstrates how the changing nature and actions of ruling men could impact the lives of women. Castor uses the example of the English succession in 1553 to show the impact of the decisions of men on women’s lives. She outlines how the Act of Succession in 1544 by Henry placed Mary and Elizabeth back into contention for the English throne, behind Edward and any heirs he might have, but Edward’s ‘device for the succession’ in 1553 removed them once again in favour of his cousin Lady Jane Grey and her male heirs.

Although Castor’s aim was not to present theoretical frameworks nor historical arguments, there is still discussion of key themes seen within queenship studies. She highlights the centrality of the duties of queens to ensure the continuation of their husband’s lines by providing heirs, emphasises the political role they played as intercessors and diplomats, and explored the manner in which they held power and executed authority across their reigns.  

She-Wolves is a biographical work which tackles the interchangeable nature of events that were at the centre of these queens’ lives and came to frame attitudes towards female rulership before the ascension of Elizabeth I. Its engaging rhetoric provides insight for the reader into the lives of Castor’s chosen queens and contributes to the understanding of the role they played in the political landscape of rulership in medieval and early modern England.  

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