She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth

She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth

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by Helen Castor

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“Helen Castor has an exhilarating narrative gift. . . . Readers will love this book, finding it wholly absorbing and rewarding.” —Hilary Mantel, Booker Prize-winning author of Wolf Hall 

In the tradition of Antonia Fraser, David Starkey, and Alison Weir, prize-winning historian Helen Castor delivers a compelling

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“Helen Castor has an exhilarating narrative gift. . . . Readers will love this book, finding it wholly absorbing and rewarding.” —Hilary Mantel, Booker Prize-winning author of Wolf Hall 

In the tradition of Antonia Fraser, David Starkey, and Alison Weir, prize-winning historian Helen Castor delivers a compelling, eye-opening examination of women and power in England, witnessed through the lives of six women who exercised power against all odds—and one who never got the chance. Exploring the narratives of the Empress Matilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of France, Margaret of Anjou, and other “she-wolves,” as well as that of the Nine Days' Queen, Lady Jane Grey, Castor invokes a magisterial discussion of how much—and how little—has changed through the centuries. 

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Without these ancestral "she-wolves" (as Shakespeare dubbed Margaret of Anjou), says Castor, England's legendary Queen Elizabeth I may have been cast off, overlooked in the search for a male monarch. Spanning nearly 400 years, four notable foreign-born queens demonstrated strength and political savvy as they sought to establish their claims to English rule while their kings (whether husband or son) were absent, weak, or deceased. Castor (Blood and Roses), a fellow at Cambridge University, ably explains the dilemma of appearing unnaturally masculine while maintaining an aura of leadership. Castor's clear dissection of medieval expectations and restrictions make these queens' painfully won advances even more impressive. Early rulers Matilda and Eleanor of Aquitaine indirectly prevented a French-style Salic Law from hindering female-claim succession, paving the way for the reigns of Mary Tudor and of Elizabeth I, whose question of succession bookends the stories of the earlier queens. Castor's deep research will please European, military, and women's historians, while the detailed maps, lucid family charts, and tight storytelling make this unusually fine royal history enjoyable reading for casual readers. 8 pages of color photos; 5 maps. (Mar.)
Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Helen Castor’s very readable She-Wolves is . . . full of beautiful, imperiled ladies; fearless knights; and remarkable, often unbelievable turns of fortune. . . . Castor is a fine scholar and an equally fine storyteller.”
“Exceptional, even inspirational reading.”
Evening Standard
“Beautifully narrated . . . learned and exciting. This is medieval history at its best.”
Miranda Seymour
“[Helen Castor is] an accomplished and elegant historian.”
Simon Sebag Montefiore
“A gripping book . . . 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, symptahy for the plight of women and elegant writing.”
Jenny Uglow
“Castor skillfully combines this analysis with driving narratives, using vivd details from contemporary chronicles to bring those distant days alive. She-Wolves makes one gasp at the brutality of medieval power struggles—and at the strength and vitality of the women who sought to wield royal power.”
Library Journal
Castor (fellow in history, Univ. of Cambridge; Blood and Roses: One Family's Struggle and Triumph During the Tumultuous Wars of the Roses) readably recounts the lives of six women who exercised—or tried to exercise—political power in England prior to Elizabeth I: Matilda, granddaughter of William the Conqueror; Eleanor of Aquitaine; Isabella of France; Margaret of Anjou; Jane Grey; and Mary Tudor. The story of Elizabeth I's ultimate accession can be fully appreciated only when viewed in the context of these women's earlier struggles to hold power in a society where female rule was seen as grotesque and an immoral aberration. In light of source limitations and the bias of contemporary chroniclers, Castor has done a masterful job of outlining the burdens these women faced—public scrutiny and ridicule, imprisonment, incorrigible husbands, political manipulation—as they attempted to secure the political prizes that should have fallen to them had not their gender been an impediment to rulership. VERDICT Genealogical charts and maps will help general readers follow a narrative lacking scholarly apparatus or historiographical debates, which will be thus of less interest to specialists. Readers of popular history of British royals will enjoy their immensely human stories and applaud the indomitable will of these strong protofeminists.—Marie Marmo Mullaney, Caldwell Coll., NJ
Kirkus Reviews

Cambridge research fellow Castor follows up her history of the 15th-century Paston family (Blood and Roses: One Family's Struggle and Triumph During the Tumultuous Wars of the Roses, 2006) with a fascinating biography of four powerful English queens who attempted without success to rule England before the coronation of Elizabeth I.

Taking as a point of departure the unexpected death of young king Edward VI, in 1553, and the accession to the throne of Elizabeth I five years later, the author examines a 400-hundred year sweep of history when females were barred from ruling in their own name. During this period, England was in constant turmoil, and the monarchy had limited power over the feudal lords, who frequently contested his rule with military force. While Henry VIII could successfully determine his successors, Henry I failed in his effort to place his daughter Matilda on the throne after his death. Outraged at the notion of a woman as "king," the nobility rebelled. A woman might take over the reigns of government temporarily in the name of her husband or as regent for an underage son, but she could not assume power in her own name. In the following centuries, similar circumstances confronted Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen Isabella and Margaret of Anjou, whom Shakespeare described as the "She-wolf of France." Quoting Shakespeare, Castor writes, "[t]he visceral force of this image drew on a characterisation of female power as grotesque and immoral." Nevertheless, as the author ably demonstrates, these women managed to succeed in wielding significant power and, in doing so, laid the groundwork for Elizabeth's successful rule as a monarch who, in her own words, had "the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too."

An insightful look at issues still relevant today, related by an accomplished historian and storyteller.

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Meet the Author

Helen Castor is a historian of medieval England and a Bye-Fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. Her first book, Blood and Roses, was long-listed for the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2005 and won the English Association's Beatrice White Prize in 2006. Her second book, She-Wolves, was selected as one of the books of the year for 2010 by the Guardian, the Sunday Times, the Independent, Financial Times, and BBC History Magazine. She lives in London.

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