She-Wolves and Ruling the World

Who knew that reading about Medieval queens could be so interesting!  I just finished Helen Castor's She-Wolves:  The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth and I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Castor, a historian from the UK, writes this history book with a real narrative flair that draws the reader in and presents true accounts without being boring or humdrum as so many historical books are.  The readability makes this nearly 500 page book a rather quick read and keeps you interested the entire time.

As the title suggests, Castor focuses the book on four prominent ruling queens prior to that of Queen Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.  She starts the book with Mathilda, only surviving child of Henry I and eventual Empress of England, and chronicles her struggle to maintain order in the kingdom that she ruled for a few short months after her father's death.  She then jumps forward and examines Eleanor of Aquitaine, who lived to a ripe age of 81 or 82...nearly unheard of during the Middle Ages.  Eleanor was originally married to the Louis VII, King of France, but left him and married Henry II of England just six weeks later.  The couple went on to have five children.  Eleanor would eventually fight for her one surviving son, John, to rule.  Castor then moves on to Isabella of France, the one who coined the term she-wolf, who was married to Edward II and considered a great beauty.  Isabella's place as Queen was constantly under scrutiny due to Edward's rumored homosexuality and his relationship with Piers Gaveston.  Though the couple did produce two children, their relationship was rocky from the beginning.  This eventually led to Isabella having a supposed affair with Roger Mortimer and the two managed to overthrow Edward.  Isabella then ruled, badly, on behalf of her son until he came of age.  Next to be discussed was Margaret of Anjou who was married to Henry VI.  Margaret's life as a ruling figure was constantly filled with battles.  She continually defended the crown in the name of her husband, who suffered from bouts of insanity and, in order to ensure that her son inherited the crown, Margaret fought constant wars waged by her opponents throughout the kingdom (Wars of the Roses).  Her son, on the brink of ruling, would die in a battle against the very person who wanted to take his throne.  This lead to Margaret's imprisonment and eventual ransoming to France and her cousin, Louis XI.  She lived out her days as a poor relation to the king and died at the age of 52.

Castor bookends all of this turmoil with the events that led to Queen Elizabeth's journey toward ruling England.  She chronicles the death of Elizabeth's half-brother, Edward VI, his bequeathing the throne to his cousin, Lady Jane Grey, instead of his sisters, and the war that this brings about.  Eventually, Elizabeth's older half-sister, Mary, daughter of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon, would come to rule with an iron fist until her death in 1558.  After Mary's death, Elizabeth came to rule and restored the country to its Protestant heritage and provided the people with faith in its ruler.

The novel is an interesting study in the human condition, politics, religion, and feminism.  A very engaging combination that investigates how women struggled to prove that they were worthy of the crown in a time where men were the end-all, be-all of nearly every aspect of life.  Well worth the read.

And how's that for a quick history lesson?


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