It is nearly 10 years since I first stepped into a Cambridge lecture theatre to hear Helen Castor speak on medieval kingship. Engaging, thought-provoking and above all supremely clear - these were the hallmarks of a Castor lecture. It is no surprise then that these qualities radiate from her latest book, She-Wolves.
The book opens with Henry VIII's son and successor, Edward VI, lying on his deathbed and facing the conundrum of who should be his heir. Several factors raised doubts about the suitability of his sisters Mary and Elizabeth. For one, Henry VIII had changed his mind on a number of occasions about whether his daughters had legitimate claims to the throne.
Secondly, Edward feared for the future of the recently established Church of England if either sister took the throne: Mary was a staunch Catholic who would be intent on reversing the break with Rome, and Elizabeth's adherence to the new Church, Edward felt, was more politically expedient than heartfelt. The last and perhaps most significant stumbling block was their gender. Never before had there been a queen of England who had ruled in her own right.
Stepping back into the centuries preceding Edward VI's succession crisis, Castor tells the stories of four women who, with varying degrees of success, took over the reigns of medieval kingship despite preconceived notions about the limitations of their sex.
In 1139, Matilda, granddaughter of William the Conqueror and rightful heir to her father Henry I, challenged King Stephen, who had capitalised on his sex to usurp her queenship. At a time when kingship was so intimately bound up with the ability to lead armies into turf wars, England, it seems, was reluctant to accept a female monarch who would be notably deficient in this regard.
She-Wolves shows that women close to the crown could invoke monarchical powers in other, more subtle ways than on the battlefield. Although Matilda did not succeed in asserting her own claim to the English crown, for example, she played a critical role in ousting Stephen and replacing him with her son, King Henry II, whose governance she strongly influenced.
Matilda's daughter-in-law, Eleanor of Aquitaine, who married Henry II in 1152, also had a finely attuned understanding of her position as queen, both its limitations and its opportunities. After all, she had been married to the King of France, Louis VII, prior to accepting Henry II's hand in marriage. Not only was she instrumental in securing the matches of her eldest two sons to the two daughters of the French king by his new marriage, Eleanor also drew on her experience in dynastic power struggles in an unprecedented manoeuvre - taking up arms against her husband when he decided to give away some of her eldest son's castles in Anjou.
Isabella of France, wife of the suggestible English monarch Edward II, also comes under Castor's spotlight. While Edward gave a peerless demonstration of what not to do as a medieval king, offering blind loyalty and enrichment to a favoured few while simultaneously neglecting the common weal, Isabella was initially marginalised, with limited ability to reduce the damage caused by her husband's behaviour. Producing a male heir to the throne, however, turned the tide of Isabella's fortunes.
While she and her son Edward were paying homage to her brother, the new French king Charles IV, in Edward II's stead in 1325, Isabella sent her husband an ultimatum: he must get rid of his favourite, Hugh Despenser, or she would not return.
In the shelter of her brother's court, she also declared her marriage to Edward as void on the grounds of consanguinity. Although many royal couples in Europe shared bloodlines, consanguinity was a relatively common and convenient way to dissolve a marriage. Without any formal acceptance of these charges, Isabella then began an affair with English nobleman Roger Mortimer.
Drawing on support from the French, as well as the many English noblemen unhappy with Edward II's rule, she set sail for England to depose the king and install her son in his stead - a mission in which she succeeded. The notion that a medieval queen could decide that her marriage was not valid, take up with another man and then steal the crown from her husband, rather challenges the notion that female royalty in this period were simply passive pawns in the foreign policy of European monarchs.
Under Henry VI's rule too, we learn, queenship was a crucial force in maintaining the crown's authority. Henry VI, it appears, like Edward II, lacked the essential attributes to be a successful medieval monarch. Unlike Edward II, however, whose Achilles heel had been his favouritism, Henry VI seemed to have few powers of discernment, agreeing with the policies of whoever had last spoken to him. He was also no warrior, and it was during his reign that England lost all of its lands in France.
It was in this context that his wife Margaret of Anjou doggedly tried to bolster the king's authority. As Castor astutely points out, however, "the more she asserted herself in Henry's stead, the more he appeared an emasculated puppet, his authority ebbing away". Like Queen Isabella, Margaret of Anjou sought to place the English crown on her son's head while her ineffectual king of a husband was still alive.
Unlike Isabella, however, she failed, and the son of the powerful magnate the Duke of York finally deposed her husband. Here the limitations of her sex, and her inability to rally her supporters behind her on the battlefield, were an important factor in Henry Beaufort's seizure of the crown at Bosworth in 1485.
In a vivid and compelling narrative, Castor reveals much about the nature of medieval kingship: the advantages of having a strong warrior as a king; the centrality of foreign policy to a monarch's decisions; and the importance of producing a male heir to continue royal blood lines. She-Wolves demonstrates the opportunities afforded to women by the absence of such characteristics in a king. The extraordinary tales of women at the helm of medieval England makes one wonder why queens such as Eleanor and Isabella have not permeated popular consciousness in the same way as, for example, Henry VIII's wives and daughters.
Yet She-Wolves is much more than a narrative of events. Castor's ability to piece together fragmentary evidence is impressive, breathing life into the words of medieval chroniclers and proffering thoughtful, plausible versions of events where sources fall silent. Given the paucity of primary material from this period by comparison with later periods of history, it is impressive how much we can learn about the personalities and motivations of this book's cast of characters. We must attribute this to Castor's considered deployment of the evidence, which is sensitive to the nuances in the accounts.
The book closes by recounting how Edward VI's death was followed by what the Scottish Presbyterian John Knox referred to as a "monstrous regimen of women": the rule of Edward's sisters, Mary and then Elizabeth. She-Wolves inks in the precedents of female rule prior to the coronation of England's first reigning queen, and helps us to understand the accepted models of queenship that Mary and Elizabeth had to negotiate.
She-Wolves is a beautifully written piece of historical scholarship that engagingly analyses medieval monarchy through the prism of gender.
Helen Castor is a historian of medieval England and a Fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge.
She directed studies in history at the college for eight years before deciding to concentrate on writing history for a wider readership. She has said that she "has long been fascinated by the exercise of power: how rulers rule and why people obey them".
Her previous book, Blood and Roses (2004), was a biography of the 15th-century Paston family, whose letters are the earliest great collection of private correspondence surviving in the English language. It was longlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction in 2005, and was awarded the Beatrice White Prize (for outstanding scholarly work in the field of English literature before 1590) by the English Association in 2006.
Castor's earliest ambition was to be a historian. Had an academic career not panned out, her back-up choices were "pop star or cricket commentator". She considers herself "extremely lucky not to have had to attempt to fall back on the other two".
She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England before Elizabeth
By Helen Castor
Faber & Faber, 400pp, £20.00
Published 7 October 2010