How to be a queen

David Carpenter

  • She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England before Elizabeth by Helen Castor
    Faber, 474 pp, £9.99, July 2011, ISBN 978 0 571 23706 7

Helen Castor describes She-Wolves as ‘an attempt to write the kind of book I loved to read before history became my profession as well as my pleasure. It is about people, and about power. It is a work of storytelling, of biographical narrative rather than theory or cross-cultural comparison.’ At the heart of the book are accounts of the careers of four women who ‘ruled England before Elizabeth’. The first of them, Matilda, the daughter of King Henry I, fought for the throne against King Stephen, aspiring to make herself queen-regnant. The other three were all queen-consorts: Eleanor of Aquitaine, who rebelled against her husband, Henry II; Isabella of France, who, with her lover, Roger Mortimer, deposed and murdered her husband, Edward II; and Margaret of Anjou, who, given that her husband, Henry VI, was incapable, demanded to rule as regent and then fought tenaciously for the succession of her son. Conventionally, these women would all be classified as ‘medieval’: Matilda and Eleanor from the 12th century, Isabella from the 14th and Margaret from the 15th. But Castor’s book also crosses what she calls ‘the artificial boundary’ between medieval and early modern: it opens and closes with the death in 1553 of Edward VI, the attempted coup of Lady Jane Grey and the accession of Mary Tudor, whose brief reign prepared the way for Elizabeth.

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