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

Publisher: Harper Perennial 2012
Genre: Non-fiction, English Queens, British Monarchy, England, France
Format: Paperback
Pages: 496
Rating: 5 Stars
Source: Self-purchase

In the preface, Helen Castor explains: "This is an attempt to write the kind of book I loved to read before history became my profession as well as my pleasure. It is about people, and about power. It is a work of storytelling, of biographical narrative rather than theory or cross-cultural comparison. I have sought to root it in the perspectives of the people whose lives and words are recounted here, rather than in historiographical debate, and to form my own sense, so far as the evidence allows, of their individual experiences. In the process, I hope their lives will also serve to illuminate a bigger story about the questions over which they fought and the dilemmas they faced-one that crosses the historical divide between 'medieval' and 'early modern,' an artificial boundary that none of them would have recognized or understood."
The "she-wolves" that are the subjects of the book are: Matilda, daughter of of Henry I, who was the son of William I the Conqueror; Eleanor of Aquitaine, the wife of Henry II, and the mother of Richard I Lionheart and John (both became kings); Isabella, the wife of Edward II, mother of Edward III; Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI, and mother of Edward, prince of Wales; Mary Tudor, Elizabeth I, both daughters of Henry VIII.
She-Wolves, both begins and ends with Edward VI's death, the messy decision of heir, and the three queens who would subsequently rule (one of them, Lady Jane Grey, was queen nine days).

My Thoughts:
I thought it odd to begin the book with Edward VI's death, instead of beginning with Matilda; on the other hand, it is a representation of the monarchy being a male arena, and females were not looked upon as being fit or adequate to rule. When Edward died without a male heir, and because of the situation his father had created, and also because Edward was Protestant and his sister Mary was Catholic, the decision of who would be next in line to the throne was a predicament. Edward wanted Jane Grey, because of her religious beliefs were as his own, but the people of England knew Mary and had favored her mother Catherine of Aragon. In the end it was Elizabeth which ruled England as a Protestant queen for 45 years.
My favorite subject from the list of "she-wolves" is Isabella. I felt she was in an impossible situation with her husband, Edward II, who preferred his favorites (men) over her. She seemed to be a docile reserved woman, but she had been waiting for an opportune time to emerge as a strong woman. I will admit, she allowed her emotional interests to lead her astray; however, she had lived so many years without the love of a partner, which includes affection, that I have empathy for her.
I love Helen Castor's ability to write a non-fiction book but gives it a novel like feel. The historical characters and events are not matte and gray, but are vivid and exciting.

Paperback price $12.77

Kindle price $10.67

Helen Castor webpage

She-Wolves on YouTube:
Part One:

Part Two:

Part Three:


  1. I got this book for my brother for Xmas and have been meaning to borrow it back to read--I've heard good things about it, including your review.

    Thanks for the reminder and also for the YouTube links--I plan to watch those later today!


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