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Interview: Helen Castor

The first title to receive our recommendation is She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth by Helen Castor, Fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. Castor first came to public attention with Blood and Roses (Faber & Faber, 2004), an elegant biography of the Pastons, the upwardly mobile 15th-century Norfolk family whose collected letters offer one of the greatest insights into English medieval life at the time of the Wars of the Roses. She-Wolves confirms its promise: an ambitious, thrilling and incisive account of the lives of five extraordinary women who encountered first-hand the perils of medieval queenship.

Castor visited the History Today offices in between filming a television series for the BBC based on She-Wolves, due to be broadcast in 2012. She discusses the book with Paul Lay.

What was the main motivation for writing She-Wolves?

I have always been hugely interested in power and how power worked in a period where there was no army, there was no police force, there was no bureaucracy, there were no modern communications. A moment that had haunted me for a long time was the one in July 1553 when Edward VI, the boy-king that Henry VIII had moved heaven and earth to conceive, lay dying at the age of just 15. All Henry’s plans for the future of his regime were crumbling. It is a moment I had been familiar with for a long time; the Tudors had been my first love historically. It suddenly hit me that at that moment there was absolutely no one to be king of England. There were only women left on the Tudor family tree. I think we take that for granted because we know that Elizabeth is coming. But that moment must have been terrifying for the men standing around Edward’s death-bed. Everything they knew, culturally and politically, told them that women were not equipped to rule. That moment stimulated fresh ideas about Tudor England and what I knew about medieval England; that there were moments during the Middle Ages when women in England came close to or actually acquired power for themselves. I thought that would be a fascinating tale to tell and She-Wolves was the result.

The book is complex chronologically. It begins with the dying Edward VI and Mary’s succession, then examines the dramatic lives of the Empress Matilda (1102-67) and Eleanor of Aquitaine (c. 1122-1204), before moving on to the relatively neglected figures of Isabella of France (c. 1295-1358) and Margaret of Anjou (1430-82), women married to inadequate rulers – Edward II and Henry VI, respectively. The book’s structure must have presented a real challenge?

I started with the Tudors and then went back to Matilda, partly because that was the way the story unfolded in my head. I was reminded that 400 years earlier Matilda had been fighting for the throne. But also because I wanted to unpick the historical periods in which we think. The great divide between Tudor and medieval history that is 1485 is one that is inevitable in some ways, but it is quite pernicious in others. Too often Tudor historians don’t talk to medievalists and vice versa. I wanted to join up the dots and see the Tudors from a medieval perspective rather than backwards from Elizabeth I. The power of hindsight and of the narratives with which we are familiar is much stronger than we often realise.

Clarity in such a complex story was very important to me. I wasn’t helped by the fact that so many people in each of these stories have similar names. For example, the wife of Stephen, Matilda’s rival for the English throne, is also called Matilda. They should have had more thought for future historians! One of my favourite historical facts is that Edward II was actually the youngest son of Edward I and the heir to the throne for a long time was Edward II’s older brother Alfonso. I think it might have done English history an awful lot of good to have had a King Alfonso.

Was it the civil war between the followers of Stephen and Matilda that damaged the idea of queenship among the English?

It was a very problematic precedent which worked two ways. Matilda, as a woman trying to take power, endured 19 years of civil war, when famously, ‘Christ and His Saints Slept’. It was a terrible time for England. Yet one could never write her out of the story entirely because it was her son, Henry II, who brought the civil war to an end and it was from him that all future kings descended. The Treaty of Winchester in 1153 mended things retrospectively in a classic English way, recognising that Matilda’s son would succeed her great rival Stephen and that was the way that peace would be achieved. Stephen even agreed to adopt Henry as his son. So Matilda’s cause reached its triumph in seeing her son crowned. Matilda’s right was acknowledged, but in a way that eased her out of the picture. It was a precedent not to be examined, much as, by the 16th century, Bosworth was not to be examined because Henry VII had pulled off this marvellous sleight of hand by declaring that his reign started the day before Bosworth and so everyone who fought against him that day were therefore traitors. English history is full of these moments.

Of the medieval queens you write about Eleanor of Aquitaine is most familiar to the wider public. But she is dealt with in a very concise section of the book; just 90 pages. That must have been difficult?

She was the most remarkable figure: married to the king of France and then the king of England and a ruler in her own right through her lands in the great duchy of Aquitaine, which she brought to the English crown. She even led her sons in rebellion against her husband. Henry II forgave their sons, understanding their youthful male rebellion against him; but the revolt of a wife against her husband was held to be a crime against God. That in itself is a hugely important indication that things were very different for women. But hers is a great life and it was difficult not to let her take over the book.

The other two medieval queens are much less well known, the consorts of weak, unstable, threatened kings. Does their stature rise as their husbands become weaker?

Neither Isabella nor Margaret would have ended up in this book without their husband’s inadequacies. It was because of a vacuum of leadership – though of a very different kind in these two cases – that they stepped forward as queens consort. It is interesting that I ended up using this term ‘She-Wolf’ as the title of the book; not because I think it is an appropriate term for these queens but because it is a term that has been used of them and speaks of the unease and the fear and the fascinated revulsion that greeted powerful women. Interestingly, it is Isabella and Margaret who are the She–Wolves in the sense that it was Margaret of Anjou who was dubbed the She-Wolf of France by Shakespeare in Henry VI. Isabella too was also called a She-Wolf by Thomas Gray in the 18th century. In Isabella’s case, she was hailed as the saviour of England, despite rebelling against her husband with her lover, Roger Mortimer, by her side. It was only three years later that she was toppled by her own son. So there are circumstances depending on what the male holder of royal authority has been up to when a woman can step forward and harness that legitimacy. In her case, it was because Edward II was such a profoundly disastrous king that something had to be done in the name, of course, of her son, the heir to the throne. Margaret is a slightly different case because she was desperately trying to prop up Henry VI who was failing through inertia rather than active destructiveness. But again she was a queen trying to animate the cause of a husband in the name of her son and for a long time doing it rather well. A lot of her energy was devoted to nurturing the son who she hoped would take over from her husband as the rightful heir and bring an acceptable male authority to the throne. It was her tragedy that Edward was just 17 when he was killed at Tewkesbury in 1471, his first battle. I hope that with She-Wolves I have managed to shed a different kind of light on the Tudor queens whose stories are very familiar to us. I am not suggesting that either Mary or Elizabeth explicitly looked back at these medieval queens – in fact part of the point is that they explicitly distanced themselves from the compromised female experiences of the past. The examples they looked to were kings, specifically their father but also the great line of English monarchs before them. That, ultimately, was the line of authority that they were seeking to harness.