Publisher: HarperCollins (Harper)
Pub date: 1 March 2011
Source: From Publisher
Even before I started seeing all the glowing reviews for She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth, I knew it was a book I definitely wanted to read. Elizabeth I is a well-known queen who has inspired countless works of fiction, but there had to be many other queens who were strong in their own right and had contributed to their kingdoms. Helen Castor’s She-Wolves shines a light on many of these queens.
A look at the lives and political ambitions of 4 queens of England: Matilda, Eleanor, Isabella and Margaret at a time when the concept of a woman ruler was unthinkable.
Like many other people (I suspect) I take a lot longer to get through a book of non fiction than fiction. But She-Wolves was a relatively fast read at around 500 pages. If history textbooks had been written in such an engaging style, I might have pursued the subject professionally. But it is only after I stopped formally studying history that I started to enjoy it.
Castor takes a look at the lives of these four queens and chronicles their struggles to hold on to some semblance of power – for themselves or in place of their husbands or sons.
Matilda – called arrogant for being commanding and behaving like a king
Eleanor of Aquitaine – a powerful woman in her own right, but always a ruler under her husband or son
Isabella – who had to put up with her husband’s very public infatuations that affected his ability to rule.
Margaret of Anjou – who fought long and hard for the throne, since her ineffectual husband, Henry VII, was not capable of ruling
Castor’s engaging story-telling brings these women closer to us and lets us see them as human. The lack of written evidence must be frustrating for a historian, but Castor has done a brilliant job of interpreting words and silences of the chroniclers. That history is written by victors is well known, but history is also coloured by the writer’s prejudices and loyalties. When women were considered subordinate to man and that women ruling an abomination by cultural and religious mores, any woman who showed leadership was criticized. The Queen-consort’s main duty was to cement the line of kings and provide heirs. In these difficult situations, each of these queens shows great tactical ability and wisdom, not to mention deft diplomatic maneuvering. None of them were acknowledged as supreme rulers, but perhaps they paved the way for public expectations to slowly change over the years.
When finally we come to Elizabeth I, we see how attitudes and prejudices have slowly changed over hundreds of years until finally a woman does become a powerful ruler in her own right.
Not being intimately acquainted with history, in some parts I did find it difficult to follow the different families, their relationships and claims to the throne. But the brilliant writing and the even-handed treatment in the book made this immensely readable and enjoyable.
Highly recommended. Brilliantly written peep into the history of some amazing women. Anyone with an interest in history, women’s history or English history should not miss She-Wolves.
*See my Rating policy
Many thanks to Harper for sending me the review copy!
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