Author: Helen Castor
Synopsis (Courtesy of Powell’s Books): “When Edward VI died in 1553, the extraordinary fact was that there was no one left to claim the title of king of England. For the first time, England would have a reigning queen—but the question was which one: Katherine of Aragon’s daughter, Mary; Anne Boleyn’s daughter, Elizabeth; or one of their cousins, Lady Jane Grey or Mary, Queen of Scots.
But female rule in England also had a past. Four hundred years before Edward’s death, Matilda, daughter of Henry I and granddaughter of William the Conqueror, came tantalizingly close to securing the crown for herself. And between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries three more exceptional women—Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of France, and Margaret of Anjou—discovered how much was possible if presumptions of male rule were not confronted so explicitly—and just how quickly they might be vilified as “she-wolves” for their pains.
The stories of these women, told here in all their vivid detail, expose the paradox that female heirs to the Tudor throne had no choice but to negotiate. Man was the head of woman, and the king was the head of all. How, then, could royal power lie in female hands?”
Thoughts: She-Wolves is for all of those who ever wondered why Edward’s death threw the country into such turmoil. It showcases the world in which Mary I and Elizabeth I were raised and which prejudices they had to overcome to keep the country stable. In so doing, Ms. Castor is able to showcase four strong, amazing women who also overcame prejudices and gained power in their own ways.
Split into sections devoted to each of the women, Ms. Castor takes the reader through the rise and fall of each woman. It allows the reader to put other, more well-known British kings into context, connecting the Tudor dynasty with that of the Plantagenet and the Lancaster dynasties. Unfortunately, some of the women portrayed are more compelling than the others, making those chapters much more enjoyable. The inconsistency between the chapters makes the reading jagged and uneven at times. Given how interesting they are and how engaging the strong chapters are, it is easier for the reader to notice the weaker ones, for which a reader cannot help but be disappointed.
The histories of each woman are well-researched. Ms. Castor presents each woman’s history along with background information on the social and political contexts each woman had to face. Well-written and carefully plotted, the weaknesses in certain chapters are more an issue of the subject matter and not any fault of the author. She executes all chapters in a straightforward, unbiased manner that definitely helps offset any shortcomings as much as possible.
She-Wolves is a well-executed, thorough collection. The women all deserve their own chance to shine, and Ms. Castor gives them that opportunity. History buffs will appreciate this introduction to four extremely interesting precursors to Mary I and Elizabeth I, and Tudor fans will enjoy the chance to expand their knowledge on this infamous family.
Thank you to Mark Ferguson from Harper Perennial for my review copy!