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Book Review: She-Wolves

She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth

by Helen Castor

Harpercollins, 2011

When the chronicler Geoffrey le Baker set down his vicious attack on the character and memory of Isabella of France, he didn’t mince words. Isabella and her lover Roger Mortimer had ruled England after first deposing and then imprisoning her husband King Edward II. As Helen Castor writes in her scintillating new book She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth, “the suggestion that natural causes had claimed his [Edward’s] life at forty-three in so abrupt a manner, and with such extraordinarily opportune timing, convinced no one.” Thirty years after the king’s murder, when writing about Isabella, Baker referred to her, among other things, as ferrea virago – a woman of iron. Margaret Thatcher might have smiled at this, but Baker meant it as the sharpest of insults.

To Baker and many of his contemporaries, a woman ruling over men was a grave inversion of the natural order – graver, indeed, than most of Castor’s readers might believe, conditioned as they are not only by the history of Queen Victoria’s incredibly long reign but also by the tenancy of the current queen, whose reign bids fair to be even longer. What such readers must keep in mind – and Castor does an excellent job throughout her book of reminding them – is that the four women profiled in this book were fighting not for a purely ceremonial office but for a focal-point of extremely practical power. In much earlier ages, when violence could make a crown and unmake it, settled niceties guaranteed very little.

The four women of iron in Castor’s book are the empress Matilda, daughter of Henry I and granddaughter of William the Conqueror, Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of Henry II, Isabella of France, wife of Henry II, and Margaret of Anjou, central player in the Wars of the Roses. Of these four, only Matilda attempted to rule entirely in her own right, without even the prop of a man; the others ruled only when their kings were away, or else when warlords and lovers convinced them to oppose their husbands out of patriotism and a resistance to misrule. Eleanor was often in control of England while her son Richard was off at war, for instance, and Isabella’s husband was “fatally compromised by his own tyranny.” Sometimes the balancing-act could be maddening, as Castor writes of the dilemma facing Margaret of Anjou:

But Henry was not physically absent, nor was he a tyrant. He had never overstepped his powers; instead, he had never properly inhabited them. Margaret’s ability to take decisive action was therefore compromised by the fact that her husband was both present and blameless; he had not done anything wrong, even if it was by dint of having not done anything at all. Henry was – technically, at least – and adult; and it was from his supreme authority as king that she derived her complementary capacity as queen. If she stepped forward into the breach left by his hapless inertia, the identification between her authority and his would serve only to emphasise the “unnaturalness” – and hence illegitimacy – of her self-assertion.

These were the kinds of tricky narrow passes that challenged all four of these women: strong-handed rule could often constitute its own weakness. “Better a foolish, wicked man than a woman” one commentator noted in the time of Isabella, but we can be certain similar things were muttered during the reigns of all four of these woman. Castor bookends her four accounts with the Tudor women – Mary I, Elizabeth I, poor little Jane Grey, and the narrative of Mary is especially taut and fast-paced. But the main focus of She-Wolves is on earlier and even wilder times, before frequent regencies of Henry VIII’s queen Catherine, and the fussy interferences of Queen Anne began to reconcile the English people to the idea that they could lord it over their wives at home while at the same time begging for the favor of women at court. As a result, the book can sometimes read like a slightly out-of-focus social history of England, but Castor concentrates, refreshingly, on the spirit, ingenuity, and egotism of the pioneers.

She does it with considerable wit and literary skill – quite apart from the controversies it tackles and the political labyrinths it threads, She-Wolves is a keenly enjoyable book to read. Castor’s asides are works of art in their own right; several dozen of them are underlined in my copy of her book, and they all show the kind of offhand command that only comes after long research (Castor’s densely detailed eight page “Note on Sources” is formidably interesting), as when our author considers the famous story that Eleanor of Aquitaine had her rival Rosamund Clifford poisoned:

The absence of a single shred of evidence to support this tale … need not prevent us from taking it seriously, in essence if not in detail: it is not the first or last event in Eleanor’s life of which this is true. But a lack of basic plausibility might. Whatever the reality of Eleanor’s relationship with her husband … there is a banality to the fact that kings had mistresses, and Eleanor was certainly worldly-wise enough to know it.

Her character descriptions are also first-rate, self-consciously dramatic without being pandering, as in her description of the magnificent young man who would become Edward IV:

At eighteen, Edward was everything her [Margaret of Anjou’s] ineffectual and distracted husband was not. Unusually tall, strongly built, and jaw-droppingly handsome, he had irresistible charisma, combining easy bonhomie with an imperious will, and a shrewd political brain that had been honed by early experience as his father’s trusted lieutenant.

“The imposing edifice of royal government,” Castor writes, “could prove utterly, shockingly insubstantial if the authority it embodied lost its claim to legitimacy.” More immediately than anybody, these four iron women understood this – they had to, since their whole worlds hinged on it. Other recent works have been written on this subject, but none so winningly as this; I eagerly recommend it.