Cambridge research fellow Castor follows up her history of the 15th-century Paston family (Blood and Roses: One Family’s Struggle and Triumph During the Tumultuous Wars of the Roses, 2006) with a fascinating biography of four powerful English queens who attempted without success to rule England before the coronation of Elizabeth I.
Taking as a point of departure the unexpected death of young king Edward VI, in 1553, and the accession to the throne of Elizabeth I five years later, the author examines a 400-hundred year sweep of history when females were barred from ruling in their own name. During this period, England was in constant turmoil, and the monarchy had limited power over the feudal lords, who frequently contested his rule with military force. While Henry VIII could successfully determine his successors, Henry I failed in his effort to place his daughter Matilda on the throne after his death. Outraged at the notion of a woman as “king,” the nobility rebelled. A woman might take over the reigns of government temporarily in the name of her husband or as regent for an underage son, but she could not assume power in her own name. In the following centuries, similar circumstances confronted Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen Isabella and Margaret of Anjou, whom Shakespeare described as the “She-wolf of France.” Quoting Shakespeare, Castor writes, “[t]he visceral force of this image drew on a characterisation of female power as grotesque and immoral.” Nevertheless, as the author ably demonstrates, these women managed to succeed in wielding significant power and, in doing so, laid the groundwork for Elizabeth's successful rule as a monarch who, in her own words, had “the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too.”
An insightful look at issues still relevant today, related by an accomplished historian and storyteller.