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She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth Hardcover – February 22, 2011

4.4 out of 5 stars 126 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

From England�s durably popular dynastic history emerges this quartet of finely characterized portraits of would-be or actual female monarchs prior to those of the House of Tudor. Displaying precise perceptions of political contexts, often expressing herself in archly sardonic turns of phrase, Castor presents Matilda, daughter of Henry I and mother of Henry II; the latter king�s celebrated consort, Eleanor of Aquitaine; Isabella, who overthrew her hapless husband, Edward II; and Margaret of Anjou, a redoubtable contender in the War of the Roses who was vilified by a Tudor propagandist named Shakespeare. Interpreting hostility in historical sources about these women, Castor shows how they confronted their central problem in playing the power game, asserting a notional right of female succession to the crown against an array of prejudices against so preposterous an idea. Banned from leading armies into battle, each of them exhibited political acuity in inspiring support for her bid from magnates who could fight for her cause. The subsequent turns of fortune will fasten royalty readers to Castor�s lively narrative. --Gilbert Taylor


“Helen Castor’s very readable She-Wolves is . . . full of beautiful, imperiled ladies; fearless knights; and remarkable, often unbelievable turns of fortune. . . . Castor is a fine scholar and an equally fine storyteller.” (Cleveland Plain Dealer)

“[Helen Castor is] an accomplished and elegant historian.” (Miranda Seymour, New York Times Book Review)

“A gripping book . . . She-Wolves is a superb history of the powerful women who have surrounded England’s throne, combining blood-drenched drama, politics, sex and swordplay with scholarly analysis, symptahy for the plight of women and elegant writing.” (Simon Sebag Montefiore, Daily Telegraph (London))

“A fascinating biography of four powerful English queens…An insightful look at issues still relevant today, related by an accomplished historian and storyteller.” (Kirkus Reviews)

“Castor’s deep research will please European, military, and women’s historians, while [her] tight storytelling makes this unusually fine royal history enjoyable reading for casual readers.” (Publishers Weekly (starred review))

“Beautifully narrated . . . learned and exciting. This is medieval history at its best.” (Evening Standard)

“Castor skillfully combines this analysis with driving narratives, using vivd details from contemporary chronicles to bring those distant days alive. She-Wolves makes one gasp at the brutality of medieval power struggles—and at the strength and vitality of the women who sought to wield royal power.” (Jenny Uglow, Financial Times)

“Exceptional, even inspirational reading.” (BookPage)

“Castor has done a masterful job of outlining the burdens these women faced. . . . Readers of popular history of British royals will enjoy their immensely human stories.” (Library Journal)

“A fascinating biography…An insightful look at issues still relevant today, related by an accomplished historian and storyteller.” (Kirkus Reviews)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; 1St Edition edition (February 22, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061430765
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061430763
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.5 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (126 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #512,414 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Kindle Edition

This book was clearly a labour of love - and intelligence - for its author. The subjects Castor deals with are treated with sympathy, but never prejudice or conceit.The colour of court, the religiousity of medieval life, the wars and whims of kings, are all here in this excellent book.

She-Wolves highlights how the political is indivisible from the personal in history, with verve and scholarship. And the past is not so distant where we cannot apply some of the lessons from history to today.

Although her Queens could not quite excel in the ages that they lived in, by writing with such authority and skill the author has excelled to such an extent that we now have a female monarch to rival the likes of such kings of the genre as David Starkey and John Guy.

Really loved this book. Highly recommended.

She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
As a fan of English history I thoroughly enjoyed this book, in particular the early chapters on Matilda and Eleanor. Had these women been born in a different time, or were a different gender, things would have gone much differently for them. The book is well researched and I think the author's conclusions are sound and rational.

My only complaint concerns the final two women - Jane Grey & Mary Tudor. The chapter feels rushed and almost an afterthought. However as there are many books on the Tudors and far fewer on the book's earlier subjects it's a minor complaint.

I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys the English monarchy or the Middle Ages.
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Format: Hardcover
This is a book that, unlike Elizabeth Norton's She Wolves: The Notorious Queens of Medieval England, is very much worth reading. It chronicles the lives of the Empress Matilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of France and Margaret of Anjou, all of whom ruled or tried to rule England either in their own right (Matilda) or in right of their sons. There are also short chapters on Lady Jane Grey and Mary Tudor in the last section.

There's nothing much to say about this magnificent book that other reviewers haven't already said, except for one minor gripe - it's not documented. There is a nine-page `Note on Sources and Further Reading', which lists the books used to write each subject's life. But if the reader wants to check the source of any statement of fact, that's impossible - there are no citations that can refer the reader to end notes and a source. But then, it is popular history of the sort that reads like a novel rather than analytical studies, so perhaps the author saw no need (she mentions in the Preface that she has `chosen not to punctuate the narrative with footnote references').

Highly recommended. Norton's She Wolves was the very worst sort of popular history; Castor's is the absolute best.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I had eagerly awaited the release of this book and waited until I could take my time and read it slowly- taking notes if I wished. I wasn't disappointed! The book begins with a genealogy of the Tudor Succession and as Edward VI is dying. The book is an utterly fascinating, eminently readable, treatise about the tradition of female rulers prior to the time of Elizabeth I.

Included are:

Matilda: Lady of England 1102-1167
Eleanor: An Incomparable Woman 1124-1204 (long lived indeed!)
Isabella: Iron Lady 1295-1358
Margaret: A Great and Strong Laboured Woman 1430-1482

and, as the books returns to the time of the Tudors and the death of Edward VI, in "New Beginnings"
Mary and her disastrous marriage with Philip of Spain. The book ends as Elizabeth I is handed the reins of of government and becomes both the King and Queen of her kingdom.

Each section is preceded by a both a genealogy as well as a map of the Kingdom as it existed at that point in history. Very helpful while you are reading about the constantly changing boundaries of the various countries. The genealogies really made me realize how small the pool of available spouses for royal marriages really was at the time. Papal dispensations for consanguinity matters must have been a steady source of revenue for the Church! Ms. Castor has an uncanny ability to write non-fiction that reads as enjoyably as fiction. I was sorry when the book ended - wanting more of this truly riveting history. The struggle of female rulers really was the the beginning of the fight for women's rights and the fact that these amazing, talented, strong women managed to rule as they did is a wonder.
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Format: Paperback
Castor examines the lives of 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 least effective kings: Isabella of France (Edward II) and Margaret of Anjou (Henry VI). Her core argument is that although not sole monarchs in the way that Mary and Elizabeth Tudor were, these four were able to use their positions as family members/consorts to significantly influence and to varying degrees, direct royal policy. To be honest none appear as especially attractive in a power political sense. All are ruthless in pursuing their aims and very capable of double-crossing and breaking promises. Tenacity seems to be another ability that they had by the bucket load - especially Matilda and Eleanor.

Each of the four are given a straight narrative which takes the reader from post conquest England to the advent of the Tudor new monarchs. This is well supported with clear (and easily understood) references to contemporary writers but does not attempt to provide a complete linear view of the period. However, the four periods examined do coincide with some of the most significant episodes of royal history during the period. And it is "royal history". The focus is on the power politics of those in control. Virtually no mention is made of anyone else or any other social group. This is not a fault of the author but a clear indication of the reality of medieval life. Where its male rulers had personal and political failings the country was generally thrown into crisis which meant baronial strife, conquest and counter conquest of castles and territory with the obvious destruction of crops, villages and property of those not considered by those leading armies to restore "order".
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