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