I've long considered myself well versed in the history of the English throne, having been fascinated with Elizabeth I since I was a child. A strong, independent, ginger queen who ruled without a man; what more could a girl want in an idol? That being said, I hadn't more than a passing knowledge of the women depicted in this narrative.  

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

Matilda, daughter of Henry I, wife of Henry V, mother of Henry II, sought to rule England 400 years before Elizabeth I. Upon the death of her brother, her father declared Matilda to be his heir and required a oath of support from his men. However, when he died he was succeeded by her cousin, Stephen of Blois. There was no precedent for allowing women to rule and the political climate of the time placed more value on military might than birthright. After years of civil war, she managed to capture her cousin and declared her intention for the throne. When confronted with the prospect of a female ruler, England recoiled and instead granted her the title of Lady of England. The subsequent loss of power and her retreat to Normandy ended Matilda's claim to the English crown. 

 The effigy of Eleanor of Aquitaine at Fontevraud Abbey

The effigy of Eleanor of Aquitaine at Fontevraud Abbey

Eleanor of Aquitaine entered the political arena with force during her second marriage. By this point she had borne eight children to her husband, Henry II. Her sons vied for power in their father's lands and ultimately rose up in revolt against him. Eleanor publicly backed the claims of her sons against her husband. She was imprisoned for over 15 years as punishment for her actions. When her son Richard took the crown, she experienced a renewed involvement in government. She ruled England while her son was on crusade and negotiated his ransom when he was captured by the Germans. I adore Eleanor because she started her life as a young, beautiful heiress, but ended it as a fiercely intelligent political force. 

Instead of casting these women as the misunderstood heroines of history, the author portrays them as deeply flawed and complex individuals. Isabella of France is an excellent example of what can come of good intentions turned to selfishness. She was married to Edward II, who spent far more attention on his presumed lover Piers Gaveston than on her or his throne. She watched as her husband tore his country apart, battling his nobles and executing those who opposed him or his favorites. In 1326 she lead a military force to depose her husband in favor of her son, Edward III. She acted as regent on his behalf, shoring up money and property in her name and that of her lover. The cycle of executions and cronyism began again, leading to her sons rise to power. He deposed his mother and executed her lover, taking on the authority of the crown himself.  

The Queen who ruled through the War of the Roses, Margaret of Anjou was caught in a very difficult position. She was married to Henry VI, who was simple at best and insane at worst. There was a rival to the throne who had both land and money. And she bore only one son to her husband, leaving his line vulnerable. She attempted to rule in her husband's stead, which led to open rebellion and war. She and her son were exiled to France, where they plotted their return to power. Thirty years of conflict and thousands dead, including her son and husband, lead to the end of the Lancastrian line and the rise of the house of York.

This book does a great job of exploring the lives of four extraordinary women and seeking to contextualize them within the social and political issues of their time. I loved every minute of it and so will you.

I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too.
— Elizabeth I of England
 Elizabeth I of England, age 66

Elizabeth I of England, age 66

[shee-woo lf] noun, plural she-wolves. 1. a female wolf. 2. a predatory woman.

The She-Wolf inhabits the violent, masculine traits of the wolf within the soft, feminine body of a woman. She is a contradiction in terms. She is an abomination. Her contemporaries revile her and cast her as the villain; and yet, history often remembers these women best. They are the leaders, the revolutionaries, the visionaries.

Look to the most iconic She-Wolf in history*: the wolf mother of Remus and Romulus, the founders of Rome. She is a fierce and dangerous beast, but raises these infant boys as tenderly as her own. I think this concept of the She-Wolf is a beautiful combination of the two definitions. It is no longer a contradiction in terms, it is a unified theory of womanhood. We should not resign ourselves to the acceptable and comfortable roles that society dictates. Instead, be the she-wolf. Be ferociously gentle, violently protective, aggressively loving. Be everything you can be. That is the legacy of the she-wolves of history. They fought for their passions so that we might also.

*History being a loose term in this case. The accuracy of this origin myth is largely dismissed, but it has been used extensively to shape the identity of Rome and the western world.