Medieval history is a fashionable but challenging period: the sources are often flimsy and obscure, yet modern readers have a craving for detail that is often absent from the prissy monkish chronicles of the time. The great challenge is to present the period’s subtle complexities without sacrificing historical authenticity.
She-Wolves is a history of a selection of England’s queens and queens consort over four centuries, which demands that its author, Helen Castor, has mastery of a range of dynasties from the Normans to the Tudors. Her aim is to analyse the feminine role in politics: could a queen ever exert political independence without being accused of being a sort of vampiress – or, as it was often termed at the time, a “she-wolf”?
Castor doubles the challenge by imposing a complicated structure on her book. It opens with the death of Henry VIII’s son Edward VI and then travels back to the Anglo-Norman queen consort Matilda before moving back again via Henry II, Edward II and Henry VI to the Tudors. This is an act of literary contortionism, but Castor pulls it off in this gripping book.
Her first subject, Matilda, is in some ways the hardest to write about since there is so little known about her personality, though it is clear that she was a formidable political force.
She was the granddaughter of William the Conqueror and daughter of Henry I, and she married the Holy Roman Emperor. She was the rightful heir on her father’s death in 1135 but, partly because she was a woman, her cousin Stephen of Blois seized the throne. The result was almost 20 years of civil war that ended with King Stephen’s agreement to leave the throne to Matilda’s son, Henry II.
Castor then turns to Eleanor of Aquitaine, who is better known than Matilda and was a political animal of much skill. She was the powerful heiress of Aquitaine in her own right, queen consort of first France and then England, and at various times during the late 12th century she challenged male dominance.
She helped her sons to rebel against her husband Henry II, paying for it with a decade of house arrest – and later she effectively ruled England on behalf of her son Richard the Lionheart who was on crusade during the early 1190s.
Then we jump to the marriage of Edward II to Isabella, a French princess who embarked on an adulterous relationship with her fellow rebel leader, Roger Mortimer, and then led a successful invasion that overthrew her husband.
Castor shrewdly weighs up the legend versus the evidence. It is said that Edward was murdered with a poker up the fundament, but Castor sensibly concludes that this story originated at a much later date. She is convinced that he was murdered, and firmly discounts the myth that he became a wandering hermit.
Isabella’s career is not dissimilar to that of Margaret, another French princess, who found herself married to the simpleton Henry VI. The kingdom could not cope without a king, but Margaret was a ruthless operator who did her best to hold together her husband’s Lancastrian faction.
Partly because she was a woman, and partly because of the complicated political situation – the presence of a competent and attractive alternative as legitimate king in Edward IV, and his backing by Warwick the kingmaker – Margaret lost the fight. Henry VI was murdered.
Castor then takes us back to the start – the death of the young Edward VI, the nine-day reign of poor Lady Jane Grey and the accession of Mary. For the first time, a woman was regarded as a legitimate heir to the throne in her own right – though partly because her rival (Lady Jane) was also a woman. The book ends with the accession of Elizabeth.
She-Wolves is a superb history of the powerful women who have surrounded England’s throne, combining blood-drenched drama, politics, sex and swordplay with scholarly analysis, sympathy for the plight of women and elegant writing.