Book Review:  She-Wolves

Helen Castor, She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth. Faber and Faber, London, 2010 (Hbk)

She-Wolves deals, as the subtitle tells us, with “The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth”, ie. Matilda the Empress, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of France, Margaret of Anjou and, less thoroughly, Queen Mary. It is an easy to read account of these ladies’ lives and “reigns”. For me the parts dealing with Matilda and Isabella were of particular interest, because my knowledge about these two had been rather limited. It certainly will make me investigate them further. If this was Helen Castor’s aim, she was successful. In this respect the book serves the same purpose as a well-written historical novel, which is actually what this book feels like.

However, She-Wolves is supposed to be a work of non-fiction, and here it shows some shortcomings. Though it does include a fairly extensive “Note on Sources and Further Reading” at the end, there are no foot or end notes. This I found especially disconcerting, given Castor’s assertive style. Two examples from the late medieval period.  First she states that Edward IV died of a stroke. He very well might have, but we have no evidence as to the actual cause of his death. She also uncritically repeats the old rumour as fact that Edward V was murdered by Richard of Gloucester.  Again this very well might have happened, but there simply is no proof when, where and by whom Edward and his brother were killed, or even whether they were killed at all. A more critical analysis of the sources would have been beneficial, and this makes the lack of notes is especially frustrating.

There are also some geographical errors. She writes that Matilda the Empress is travelling from Utrecht along the Rhine via Cologne, Speyer and Worms to Mainz and her coronation (p.53). This would be a rather circuitous route: Coming from the north (Cologne) along the Rhine you first reach Mainz, then on to Worms and eventually Speyer as the southernmost of these cities. So either Matilda did not travel as directly as Castor implies, or she visited Worms and Speyer after her coronation at Mainz. Another example, when Margaret of Anjou is sitting at her “chateau of Dampierre, overlooking the broad meanderings of the Seine” (italics mine) (p.401), she would actually have looked at the Loire. Surely the author or at least her proof readers could have consulted some maps to avoid slip-ups like these? They might be minor mistakes, but they cause the reader to mistrust her other statements too.

On the whole, I would say that She-Wolves is not a bad book as a first introduction to these fascinating ladies, but it could have been much more.

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