She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth by Helen Castor. ★★★★★
She-Wolves is a very engaging piece of nonfiction which chronicles the lives of four English queens: Empress Matilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of France, and Margaret of Anjou.
The book was framed around the year 1553 when King Edward VI died and all potential heirs was female. It introduces the idea that England would for the first time have a queen, but then gave the event context by going back to the biographies of the four previous female rulers. The end of the book contains a brief section on the three queens after 1553 (Jane Grey, Mary, and Elizabeth) and examining how they presented themselves as queen and utilized power.
Matilda’s father made his lords swear that she was his heir and would rule after him. However, the throne was seized by an usurper, King Stephan, who got to the treasury before anyone else. What followed was civil war with Matilda fighting for the right to the throne. However, she eventually gave up her own claim in favor of that of her son.
Eleanor of Aquitaine was married first to the King of France but arranged an annulment to marry the King of England. She had a very long and eventful life, and her’s was probably my favorite section of the book.
Isabella of France was married to King Edward II, who ignored his duties and the war with Scotland in his obsession with his lover, a man named Piers Gaveston. This led to lasting problems with his lords and to Isabella eventually seizing the throne in name of her young son.
Margaret of Anjou was a French woman married to King Henry VI during the War of the Roses. Her husband was not a capable ruler, and Margaret believed that she should be the one filling the void.
These women were all trapped by a catch-22 that limited female rulership: women were too weak to be rulers, but if a woman was strong enough to rule then she was monstrous and unnatural. To try and avoid this, these four woman found power in their roles as wives and mothers.
I found She-Wolves fascinating and a hard book to put down. It wasn’t too academic and could be easily understood by someone without background in medieval history. The writing was likewise elegant and never became obtuse or unwieldy.
I thought the political intrigue, conspiracies, and battles for power were very interesting. I would recommend this book to history buffs, people interested in historical women, or people who enjoy books such as Game of Thrones.