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.

In order to rule England, these women had to act with firmness, decision and, if necessary, brutality: they had, in short, to act like men. Yet by doing so they risked being stigmatised ‘as a perversion of “good” womanhood’. Thus Margaret of Anjou was vilified by Shakespeare as the ‘she-wolf of France’. The qualities these women needed to succeed were the very qualities that could destroy them. Having captured her cousin King Stephen and adopted the title Lady of England as a presage to her own coronation, Matilda tried to act with the angry authority of her father, Henry I. As a result she was attacked for ‘haughtiness and insolence’ and for abandoning the ‘modest gait and bearing proper to the gentle sex’, as the leading chronicle of the period, the Gesta Stephani, put it. Similarly, when Eleanor of Aquitaine rebelled against her husband by supporting her sons’ uprising, her actions those of a man, even disguising herself in male dress, she ended up not ruling England but in prison there. Isabella of France’s deposition of her husband led to her holding power for three years alongside Roger Mortimer, but then to total political eclipse. Margaret of Anjou didn’t succeed in her demand for ‘the whole rule of this land’ after Henry VI lost such wits as he had, and her fiery and ruthless partisanship, every bit equal to that of her male rivals, was a major reason she never established her authority as regent either for her husband or her son.

On its own terms, Castor’s book is in many ways a great success. One strength is its chronological scope, ranging over three medieval centuries and on into the 16th. The artificiality of the division between medieval and early modern is made clear, for the forces permitting or preventing female rule were not so very different in the 12th century and the 16th. The greatest force for female succession was the hereditary right vested in the heir of the previous monarch, a right which, in the absence of a son, might pass to a daughter. That right gained Mary Tudor the throne, as the eldest surviving child of Henry VIII, but failed to secure it for Matilda, as the only legitimate child of Henry I, in large part, Castor argues, because Mary had no male rival. The alternative was another woman, Lady Jane Grey, whereas Matilda had to oust a plausible and pugnacious male in the form of Stephen, whose mother was Henry I’s sister. One could go further in seeing the essential difference between Matilda and Mary as one of circumstance. Castor says that Henry I ‘had done all he could’ to ensure Matilda’s succession, but is that true? Henry hadn’t granted Matilda any land or castles in England. He had refused to have her crowned, ignoring the French practice according to which the heir to the throne was always crowned during the father’s lifetime. Henry, still vigorous in his sixties, didn’t want to yield any authority, but this meant that Matilda had neither the power nor the status to make an immediate bid for the throne after his death, which allowed Stephen to get in first. Had her father acted differently, Matilda might well have been England’s first queen-regnant.

Castor’s book seems almost to be more about the women who didn’t rule England than the women who did. There was another, very different path to female power, though it’s one she doesn’t really consider. The queens who followed this path acted with and through their husbands, in both peace and war. Such queens might be regents in the king’s absence overseas, might raise armies to rescue him from captivity, and might have a major influence on matters of patronage and policy, exploiting the rituals of the court and the intimacies of the bedchamber, as well as taking their own decisions. Indeed, increasing their own power was one of their major aims. These queens were sometimes criticised, but didn’t meet the opposition, or suffer the fate, of the she-wolves.

The she-wolves themselves sometimes acted like the queens of this sort. Eleanor of Aquitaine did so in the early years of Henry II’s reign (although Castor does not discuss this part of her career) and then when she ruled England briefly for Richard I as queen mother. This type of queenship can also be glimpsed in Castor’s references to Stephen’s consort, another Matilda, who raised an army to support him after his capture, and was praised by the Gesta Stephani for forgetting a woman’s weakness and bearing herself with the ‘valour of a man’. Castor points out the paradox: one Matilda ‘was dubbed an unnatural virago’; the other ‘a paragon of Amazonian virtue’. The explanation is partly that Stephen’s queen was acting for her man while the other Matilda was trying to replace him, but this does not alter the fact that the former was exercising real power. Co-operative queenship, which was far more common and more effective than the she-wolf variety, was also displayed by Matilda of Flanders, queen of William the Conqueror; Edith Matilda, queen of Henry I; Eleanor of Provence, queen of Henry III; and Eleanor of Castile, queen of Edward I. This type of queenship was memorialised in the graceful and imposing statues of Queen Eleanor which Edward had erected in 1291-94 to mark the journey of her body back from Lincolnshire to burial at Westminster.

These queens would be the subject of a different book, but Castor could have found space for Henry III’s queen, Eleanor of Provence, who went some way towards bridging the gap between the two kinds of queenship, and was the subject of a fine biography by Margaret Howell in 1998. Eleanor sometimes quarrelled with her husband, and seems to have condoned the great revolution of 1258 which forced him to cede power to a baronial council. In 1263, rather than surrender to Simon de Montfort, she attempted to sail up the river from the Tower of London to join her son at Windsor, only for a hail of stones and rubbish to be thrown at her from London Bridge. She was driven back to the Tower, where her husband refused to admit her. Despite this, a year later, when Henry was captured at the Battle of Lewes, Eleanor gathered an army in Flanders with which she hoped (in vain, as it turned out) to invade England. The author of the Pershore Flores Historiarum celebrated the country’s escape from invasion, but added (echoing the earlier praise of Stephen’s queen): ‘It must always stand to the praise and magnificence of the noble lady of the English, Queen Eleanor, that, as a most powerful virago, she sweated so strenuously, fiercely and bravely to rescue her lord king.’ Despite their differences, Henry had a deep respect for his formidable wife, and celebrated their partnership by commissioning great sculpted heads of a king and queen for the royal pew in Westminster Abbey (now the Muniment Room). Working mostly through Henry, rather than against him, Eleanor was able to amass considerable wealth and build up her own family party in England, as well as acting as regent in 1253-54. It could be argued that she played a larger part in ruling England than all of the she-wolves put together.

Castor recently resigned her Cambridge fellowship in order, as her college website puts it, ‘to concentrate on writing history for a wider readership’. Thus the ‘refuge’ for the writing of She-Wolves was, as Castor tells us, Hornsey Library and its café. The contrast between Castor in her two incarnations, and indeed between academic and popular history in general, can be seen in the very different openings to her first book, The King, the Crown and the Duchy of Lancaster: Public Authority and Private Power 1399-1461, and She-Wolves. Here is the earlier book:

In the fourth year of the reign of Elizabeth I, the question of the relationship between the king, the crown and the Duchy of Lancaster was addressed by crown lawyers. The fact that the Lancastrian kings had chosen to maintain the duchy as a private possession, entirely separate from their tenure of the throne, meant that the question of the legal status of the Lancastrian estates had become a cause célèbre, which was being tried – not for the first time – in 1561 in relation to duchy lands which had been leased out by Edward VI.

And here is She-Wolves:

The boy in the bed [Edward VI] was just 15 years old. He had been handsome, perhaps even recently; but now his face was swollen and disfigured by disease, and by the treatments his doctors had prescribed in the attempt to ward off its ravages. Their failure could no longer be mistaken. The hollow grey eyes were ringed with red, and the livid skin, once fashionably translucent, was blotched with sores. The harrowing, bloody cough, which for months had been exhaustingly relentless, suddenly seemed more frightening still by its absence.

Throughout She-Wolves Castor proves a fine storyteller, with a sure eye for gripping events and detail of a kind many academic historians would hesitate to include. The book contains a feast of processions and pageants, services and ceremonies, escapes and executions, bloodbaths and battles, to slip into the alliteration Castor herself is fond of using. Here is her description of the Battle of Towton, which was fought in a snowstorm, while Margaret of Anjou waited anxiously on its conclusion a few miles away in York:

When some [of Margaret’s army] at last turned to run in exhaustion and fear, it was to find their path blocked by the River Wharfe and their final rest in its freezing waters. And all the while, new rivulets of melting snow stained red with blood were snaking through the frozen furrows of the road that led towards York and Margaret.

The concentration on evocative and dramatic events makes She-Wolves arresting, but it comes at a cost. While Castor is good at describing events, she provides very little analysis of the forces behind them. As a result her book can seem rather superficial. Take, for example, the problems that faced Matilda when she was bidding for the throne. She-Wolves doesn’t really explain how these were related to rival claims to land and office under her father, Henry I. Matilda had to make a series of difficult choices between rival claimants, especially in London, where she could satisfy the ambition of Geoffrey de Mandeville to recover the sheriffdom which Henry I had taken from his grandfather only by alienating the citizens to whom it had been given. In the end she gave too little too late, with the result that Geoffrey joined Stephen’s queen and played a major part in Matilda’s downfall. Geoffrey de Mandeville and the kind of problem he represented do not feature in Castor’s account.

Castor ignores altogether the large body of academic writing about the theory and practice of medieval queenship. Her book is free from professional jargon, and there are no attempts to find examples of such things as female networking. The word ‘gender’ does not appear. This may be no bad thing, but Castor’s readers would have had a better idea of the ‘individual experiences’ of the women she writes about if she had included a fuller discussion of the nature of medieval queenship. Central to that was the queen’s coronation, but the only coronation Castor describes, in a short paragraph, is the German one of Matilda when she married her first husband, Henry V, of the Holy Roman Empire. It would surely have been helpful to describe the significance for queenship of an English coronation: the crowning meant the queen held a formal office and was not just the king’s wife; the anointing poured into her all the blessings of the Holy Spirit and made her queen by the grace of God, just as her husband was king; and the prayers invoked the fruitfulness of the biblical Sarah and Rebecca, and the role played by Queen Esther in interceding for the Jews whose killing had been sanctioned by her husband, King Ahasuerus. Intercession implies being in a subordinate position but with access to power, and most queens argued their case more out of a sense of politics than a simple sense of pity.

The imagery of queenship, as depicted in glass, paintings and sculpture, and the parallels with the Virgin Mary, who was often portrayed wearing a crown and interceding before Christ, lent status to queens, and helped them to wield power. In material terms, their power derived from their own households and entourages, and from their resources in land and money which enabled the distribution of secular and religious patronage. On these subjects too, Castor is largely silent. In terms of style and storytelling, She-Wolves is undoubtedly a tour de force, but in terms of offering a real understanding of the position and predicament of women rulers, this book is something of a disappointment.