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Helen Castor – She Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth review

Medieval history told through the lives of four extraordinary women.

She-Wolves

Before it was an acclaimed television series, Helen Castor’s account of the lives of four powerful women of medieval England was a best-selling book. She Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth is now being released as part of The Folio Society’s catalogue.

The women who form the subject of the book – related by marriage though not always living at the same time – are Matilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of France and Margaret of Anjou. All of them lived before Elizabeth the First – the long-serving monarch whose bitter feud over power with her half-sister Queen Mary (better-known as Bloody Mary) is the stuff of legend, and so not dwelt upon here for long. As the legitimate daughters of Henry VIII, whose only surviving son died young, one of them was to emerge triumphant, and rule without a king. Before then, every queen had ruled with a husband. This book is an acknowledgement of the contributions they made.

Three of the subjects remain household names, though Matilda is somewhat more obscure, and in telling her story, the book delves into a relatively neglected period of history. As the daughter of King Henry I and the mother of King Henry II she lived during a crucial and bloody period, thanks largely to her invasion of England after the death of her father, coming very close to taking the English crown.

She-Wolves

She-Wolves by Helen Castor, The Folio Society 2017. Available from http://www.foliosociety.com/book/SWV/she-wolves

Eleanor of Aquitaine – Henry II’s indomitable wife – is perhaps better-known, thanks in no small part to the play The Lion in Winter which was adapted for the big screen with Katherine Hepburn playing Eleanor. She was a woman of enormous courage and fighting spirit, outmatched perhaps only by her husband. Castor details the great falling-out between Henry and Eleanor after she supported their son Henry’s unsuccessful revolt against his father, leading to Eleanor’s imprisonment, which, Castor explains, we know very little about.

The third subject is Isabella of France (the She-Wolf of France, as she was colloquially known) who was the wife of Edward II. Perhaps the most interesting part of this installment is the king’s love life, which apparently didn’t venture much beyond his friend Piers Gaveston. Castor documents the unlikely marriage, and finally the break-up. What makes Isabella’s story so interesting is her return to England to depose her ex-husband and ensure their son Edward III’s succession. Castor notes in the preface the difficulty women always faced when they acted like men. There can be no doubt that Isabella’s actions in cutting short her husband’s disastrous reign were beneficial to the country, but it secured her reputation in literature as a great manipulator and plotter.

She-Wolves

She-Wolves by Helen Castor, The Folio Society 2017. Available from http://www.foliosociety.com/book/SWV/she-wolves

The final subject is Margaret of Anjou, the wife of Henry VI. This episode brings the history up to the Wars of the Roses, but the interesting part of Margaret’s story is that she ruled the court because her husband was incapable of doing so much of the time. Although he was a nominal head of state and things were done in his name, it was his wife who conducted all the affairs of state.

She Wolves is an immensely readable tome, succeeding in bringing history to life by making the ambitions and actions of those who lived almost a millennium ago relatable to our own times. Put simply, Castor brings out the personalities of her protagonists and tells the human stories, rather than relates dry facts. She shows that women could and did lead armies and start wars. If the book has a weakness, it’s that there are long periods that veer away from the premise of telling stories from medieval history from the point of view of key women players. Perhaps this is inevitable, given the overwhelmingly male-dominated society in those days, but we hear as much of the concerns and squabbles of kings and princes as we do of queens and princesses. This is perhaps no bad thing, as history requires the input of both sexes to make sense and give a complete picture. This book goes some way to redressing the balance.

This edition of the book by the Folio Society is lavishly produced and illustrated with full-colour gloss inserts. The book is bound in cloth blocked with a design based on the Matilda seal, drawn by Neil Gower.

She-Wolves by Helen Castor by The Folio Society is available from: http://www.foliosociety.com/book/SWV/she-wolves.

Publisher: The Folio Society Release Date: November 2017

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