For some reason when I think of the first Queen of England I always think of Elizabeth I, even though her sister Mary ruled for 5 years before her. Perhaps this is a testament to the impression that Elizabeth I had on British history. Perhaps it is just because she has become almost a myth. I don’t know. What I do know is that I hadn’t heard of any of the other women that make up Helen Castor’s book She-Wolves.
The book explores the curious position that England found itself in when in 1553 all nine candidates to succeed Edward VI were female. Through English history the laws of succession were blurry and bloodstained but there had always been men to fight for the throne. Now for the first time there was no option but for a women to rule. This was a society that saw women as inferior. How could a women rule over her people if she was inferior to half of them? Castor explores how this dilemma had been raging long before the start of the Tudor dynasty.
She-Wolves follows the stories of 4 women who paved the way for Lady Jane Grey, Bloody Mary and Elizabeth I. Matilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of France and Margaret of Anjou each had to battle against the disadvantage of their sex and fight for their position in the world. Most have suffered the prejudices of their time and were resigned to history as ‘she-wolves’ ungodly creatures that went against the natural order (thank you Shakespeare).
Castor does a great job of bringing such far off history to life. She acknowledges that the sources she is using are often biased, often exclude the women involved entirely and she has to piece together the story from where they are conspicuous in their absence. This book is a hideous reminder of the fact our society is built on over a thousand years of women not being recorded in their own stories. Castor doesn’t go into the sexism too deeply, frankly she doesn’t need to it speaks for itself. What she does do is paint an honest picture of the women warts and all. They aren’t portrayed as heavenly martyrs fighting against the injustice of their world. They make mistakes, are headstrong and as a result are easier to empathise with.On the surface I have nothing in common with a 12th century queen but Castor tells the story in such a way that I can understand the motivations behind these women’s actions.
I love the structure of this book plus the frequent family trees. By book ending the stories of the earlier queens with that of the Tudor succession it was easier to see the precedent that Mary and Elizabeth had to fight against. In relation to the 16th century queens, it made me realise the impact the Renaissance had in allowing a women to rule of her own accord. Henry VIII was paranoid that his lack of a male heir would result in civil war but I don’t think he counted on the change of attitude that came with humanist thinking. Through education Mary and Elizabeth were able to prove their worth, if they couldn’t be men, they could be the best of women. Through contrast with the events of the past Castor highlights what an incredible achievement it was that England ever had a Queen Regnant.
Would recommend to: anyone interest in feminist history.