She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth by Helen Castor

She-Wolves As the title suggests, this is a book about four medieval women who ruled – or attempted to rule – England in the centuries before Elizabeth I.

* Matilda, daughter and heir of King Henry I, was known as ‘Lady of the English’. She was never actually crowned Queen of England but fought her cousin, Stephen of Blois, for the throne in a period of civil war described as The Anarchy.

* Eleanor of Aquitaine was married to two kings – first Louis VII of France and then Matilda’s son, Henry II of England. Two of her sons – Richard I (the Lionheart) and John – also became King, and Eleanor effectively ruled England as regent while Richard was away fighting in the crusades.

* Isabella, the daughter of King Philip IV of France, came to England as Edward II’s young queen but found that her husband was so obsessed with his favourites (Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser) that he was prepared to put them before not only his wife but also his kingdom. Isabella eventually staged a rebellion with her lover Roger Mortimer and deposed Edward in order to put her young son, the future Edward III, on the throne.

* Margaret of Anjou was Henry VI’s queen consort and played a major part in the Wars of the Roses. With Henry unable to provide the strong leadership the country needed and possibly suffering from an unspecified mental illness, it fell to Margaret to rule in his place and to lead the Lancastrian faction against their Yorkist rivals.

In She-Wolves (the title refers to a term which has been used to describe both Isabella of France and Margaret of Anjou) Helen Castor looks at the lives of each of these queens in turn, before examining their role in history and how they possibly opened the way for Mary I and Elizabeth I to reign in their own right. Unlike Mary and Elizabeth, the four women covered in this book never ruled as sole monarchs but found themselves in a position of power as the daughters, wives or mothers of kings who, for one reason or another, were unable to rule themselves. Henry I died without a male heir and his nephew Stephen was never fully accepted by the English nobility; Richard I spent much of his reign abroad; Edward II lost the support of his barons due to his choice of favourites; and Henry VI was simply incapable of being an effective ruler. In each case, a woman stepped in to fill the gap.

She-Wolves takes us on a fascinating journey through medieval history, but I have to confess that I didn’t read this book in the way it was intended to be read. As I had just finished reading Isabella by Colin Falconer, the queen I was most interested in was Isabella of France, so I read her section of the book first before turning back to the beginning to read the rest. This wasn’t a problem for me as I’m familiar with all four periods of history, but I would still recommend reading the book in order (unless you’re desperate to read about one particular woman, as I was). The final section of the book, which describes the reigns of Mary and Elizabeth, ties everything together and looks at how times had changed enough by the Tudor period for a woman to finally rule alone.

I thought She-Wolves was slightly dry in places but I did find the book well written, interesting and easy to read. Each section starts with a map showing the relevant areas of Britain and Europe and a family tree to help clarify the complex relationships between characters. As this is a work of non-fiction, however, I was surprised by the lack of notes and references – although there is a list of suggestions for further reading at the back of the book and some sources are named directly in the text. These sources include anonymous chronicles such as Vita Edwardi Secundi (Life of Edward II) and the Gesta Stephani (Deeds of King Stephen) and as Helen Castor points out, medieval chroniclers struggled with the idea of women wielding power and tended to focus on the men, which is why we have so little information on the women’s own experiences and actions.

Approaching the end of the book, I was ready to praise Helen Castor for avoiding bias and speculation…until I came across the statement that the Princes in the Tower were ‘murdered by Edward’s youngest brother and most trusted lieutenant, Richard of Gloucester’, stated as fact. It could be true, of course, but I would have preferred an acknowledgment that it might not be and this made me wonder whether the earlier sections of the book had been as unbiased as I’d thought or whether I just didn’t notice as I have less knowledge of those other periods of history.

I don’t think I’m ever going to decide that I prefer non-fiction to fiction, but I did enjoy reading this book and have learned a lot about Matilda, Eleanor, Isabella and Margaret. Can anyone recommend any other good biographies of any or all of these women?

Isabella by Colin Falconer

Isabella Isabella is only twelve years old when she comes to England as the wife of King Edward II. As the daughter of Philip IV of France, Isabella is no stranger to life at court and with her father’s parting words still fresh in her mind (“You will love this man. Do you understand? You will love him, serve him, and obey him in all things. This is your duty to me and to France…”) she knows what is expected of her. Nothing could have prepared her, however, for marriage to a man who cares more for his beloved friend, Piers Gaveston, than he does for his young wife, his reputation and his country.

As Isabella grows older she begins to fall in love with Edward, but when Gaveston is executed in 1312 and another favourite, Hugh Despenser, takes his place in the king’s life, she is forced to accept that her love will never be returned. Despenser repeatedly comes between Isabella and her husband, and eventually she finds herself with a choice to make: should she remain loyal to Edward or should she join forces with one of his noblemen, Roger Mortimer, in an attempt to remove him from his throne?

This fictional account of Isabella’s life is the first book I’ve read by Colin Falconer. I was vaguely aware of his name but knew nothing about any of his books or what I could expect from them, so I was pleased to find Isabella available on NetGalley. I have read about Isabella before (in the Edward II section of The Plantagenets by Dan Jones and in fictional form in Maurice Druon’s Accursed Kings series) and she seemed a fascinating woman, so I was looking forward to reading more.

I have to admit, I wasn’t very impressed with this book at the beginning. The combination of third person present tense, simple sentence structure and very short chapters wasn’t very appealing at all. I kept reading, though, and after a while either the writing improved or I got used to the style – I’m not sure which – and the story did start to become more gripping.

With the novel being written from Isabella’s perspective, she is the character we naturally sympathise with. While we can see that Edward truly loves Piers Gaveston, we can also share Isabella’s humiliation at the lack of respect he shows his wife and her frustration at his inability to rule the country effectively while Piers is around. Things become worse for Isabella when Hugh Despenser takes Gaveston’s place and she eventually begins an affair with Roger Mortimer. I was not convinced by Falconer’s portrayal of Isabella and Mortimer’s relationship, however; there was no chemistry between the two characters and Mortimer himself never came to life on the page.

Isabella is a very quick read and a light one, although not quite as light as I thought it would be at first. It would probably be a good introduction to Isabella’s life if you’ve never read anything about her before, as it does seem to follow the historical facts very closely; it was only the style of the writing that I had a problem with. I was sorry, though, that the novel doesn’t span the whole of Isabella’s life – only her marriage to Edward and the Mortimer rebellion are covered, with nothing of her later years or the reign of her son, Edward III. I was left wanting to know more about some of the people and events mentioned in the novel and am now reading She-Wolves by Helen Castor, a non-fiction book which explores the lives of several medieval queens, including Isabella.

I received a copy of Isabella for review via NetGalley.