Boudicca SHE-WOLVES: THE WOMEN WHO RULED
ENGLAND BEFORE ELIZABETH
By Helen Castor (Faber & Faber 474pp £20)
IF THIS BOOK were a Hollywood movie, we should have to call it a prequel. Or perhaps, as with Star Wars, a whole sequence of prequels. In addition to the obvious (Mary Tudor, of course), there were, Helen Castor reckons, four women who ‘ruled England before Elizabeth’. These were Henry I’s daughter, the Empress Matilda; Henry II’s consort, Eleanor of Aquitaine; and the wives of two of England’s most spectacularly useless kings: Isabella of France (Edward II) and Margaret of Anjou (Henry VI). The advents of those iconic Tudor queens are the points of embarkation and arrival in this book; the central narrative chapters are framed, fore and aft, with vignettes of the last Tudor king, the boy-wonder Edward VI, sweating and coughing on his deathbed, the prelude to a halfcentury of uninterrupted female rule. Perhaps Castor (or her publishers) calculated that the potential readership for the book would have heard of Good Queen Bess and Bloody Mary, but not of the assorted medieval queens. ‘Eleanor of Aquitaine’, I seem to recall, was the subject of the first jackpot-winning question on ITV’s Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?, and thus evidently the epitome of arcane knowledge. With their predecessors now all but eliminated from A-level syllabuses, it may be that the Tudors have begun to claim for themselves the function of gatekeepers to an increasingly unfamiliar premodern past.
Elizabeth I is presented as the consummate female ruler, ‘both a king and a queen’, skilfully avoiding most of the missteps of her precursors – a piece of Gloriana worship at odds with the best recent scholarship on the later Tudor period, which stresses the frequently dysfunctional nature of Elizabeth I’s governance and the deeply crisisridden character of almost her entire reign.
Yet if we ignore the beginning and ending, there is a great deal to enjoy and admire. Castor writes witty, elegant and engaging prose, and she understands fully the requirements of scope and pacing in the production of compelling narrative history. The chapters (her medieval heroines get four each) all feel exactly the right length; there is enough discussion of sources – and their limitations – to remind us that Castor is an accomplished, professionally trained historian, but not so much that the general reader will be put off; the temptation to fill gaps in the documentary record by imaginative reconstruction of what her subjects must have been thinking and feeling is, for the most part, bravely resisted. In any case, these are lives that hardly require ornamentation or embellishment to demand the attention of the reader. The facts, as we historians are almost contractually forbidden to say, speak for themselves.
Margaret of Anjou and Henry VI
In the twelfth century, Matilda, child-bride and then widow of the German Emperor, Henry V, waged a two-decade civil war against her usurping cousin Stephen to attain her f ather’s throne, first for herself, and latterly for her son. The war was punctuated by dramatic tr iumphs and reversals, astonishing swings of allegiance, and daring escapes across wintry landscapes. A generation later, Eleanor, heiress to the r ich wine-producing duchy of Aquitaine, married and then divorced Louis VII of France, before wedding his rival, Henry II (Matilda’s son). In the interim, she
For my money, however, Castor would have done better to have left the sixteenth century out of it, and let the medieval stories speak for themselves. Her account of the accession and reign of Mary I (subject of a welter of recent popular biographies) feels conventional and compressed. In a slightly perfunctory and unconvincing final chapter that fulfils the teleological promise of the subtitle,
is thought to have had a passionate and incestuous relationship with her uncle, Raymond of Poitiers, ruler of Antioch, while the Second Crusade was unravelling around them. She subsequently spent years as Henry II’s prisoner after orchestrating the revolt of their sons against him, finally emerging as influential Queen Mother to those contrasting sibling kings, Richard and John. A century later, Isabella, the beautiful daughter of Philip the Fair of France, found herself married to Eleanor’s great-greatgrandson, Edward II, a king so obsessed with male favourites (first Piers Gaveston, then Hugh Despenser) that he made the kingdom ungovernable. Her ultimate
LITERARY REVIEW October 2010
response was to lead a rebellion against him, taking as a lover her chief co-conspirator, Roger Mortimer, an over-mighty subject who was himself later put to death in a coup sanctioned by Isabella’s son, Edward III. The pattern of triumph and nemesis was replicated in the trials of another French-born queen consort, Margaret of Anjou, destined to become f igurehead of the Lancastrian party through the bloody and confusing events of the Wars of the Roses owing to the patent inadequacies of Henry VI. Hers was perhaps the saddest fate of all, ultimately dying in lonely exile after being robbed of political significance by the brutal slayings of her husband and son.
Between them, these narratives cover a broad chronological canvas, though even with some attempts to paint in the gaps, they do not provide a continuous picture of medieval English politics: the entire thirteenth century, and the second half of the fourteenth, drop out of view. But neither is it a succession of wholly detached portraits. Castor is interested in the contrasts and connections between her subjects, women who (with the partial exception of Matilda) ruled but didn’t reign. A general cultural hostility to the exercise of power by women, particularly on the part of those finding themselves on its receiving end, is a constant given (the ‘She-wolf of France’
was Shakespeare’s unaffectionate sobriquet for Margaret of Anjou). But what comes across still more strongly is the powerful strain of brute pragmatism defining English politics across several centuries. If women were not constitutionally barred from the succession (though the issue was not properly tested until there was an absence of plausible male candidates in the mid-sixteenth century), this was only because the rules of succession were themselves malleable and in the final analysis predicated on an ability to rule and command obedience. These talented and ambitious women were propelled to positions of authority by the failure of men to successfully wield their power.
To be caught up in Helen Castor’s absorbing narratives of female empowerment is to be reminded of how often England was thrown into crisis by the personal and political failings of its male rulers: the unduly lenient Stephen, the absentee Richard, the devious and untrustworthy John, the vindictive and obsessive Edward II, the hopelessly ineffectual Henry VI (not to mention the manifest shortcomings of Henry III and Richard II, outside of Castor’s remit). The she-wolves were generally the counterparts of lame ducks. Anyone inclined to be cynical about democracy should contemplate the prospect of government by genetic lottery. To order this book for £16, see LR bookshop on page 12
LITERARY REVIEW October 2010