January 17, 2012 by Reader's Connection
1. They´re fascinating. They´re entertaining. I have enjoyed every minute that I´ve spent with them. Helen Castor´s book She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England before Elizabeth is about four queens who filled that office as more than child-bearing sidepersons to their kings.
2. The 2012 presidential campaign is already driving me crazy, but She-Wolves reminds me that there are worse ways for leaders to gain office. Imagine that during the presidency of the senior George Bush, his sons George W. and Jeb and Neil and Marvin had jumped on horses and galloped around North America, trying to steal the U.S. from their dad; and that Barbara Bush joined the conspiracy, and as a result was placed in captivity for fifteen years. Sounds like fun, but I wouldn’t want to live there.
3. If my memories of the movie Becket are accurate, Eleanor of Aquitaine, the wife of King Henry II (Peter O’Toole), is a boring castle frump, and his mother, Matilda, is an annoyance to him. These two women are the first to be discussed in Castor’s book, and they’re both more interesting than any woman in that movie was allowed to be. Henry relied on Matilda’s counsel until she died.
4. I think the next book I’d want to read about her is Ralph V. Turner’s 2009 title Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of France, Queen of England.
From Choice: In this engaging biography, eminent medieval historian Turner takes on a larger-than-life subject and breathes new life into her, even though Eleanor has never lacked for treatment, and is as popular as ever with the advent of feminist scholarship. In many ways, this is a conventional work, spinning a narrative of events that provides wonderful context and compelling claims for refocusing on neglected aspects of her life. Some examples include making Aquitaine the priority in her various political machinations (including meddling in her children’s lives), which came out of her rather proud and largely secular heritage; her initial partnership in rule with second husband King Henry II of England; and the fact that she was active politically until near the end of her life, even during her years of imprisonment, or “house arrest,” as Turner calls it. The author also convincingly argues against Eleanor’s undeserved reputation as bad wife and mother, adulterer, jealous plotter, and patron of the courtly love tradition, even if, contrary to his claims, many of these legends have already been challenged and even dispelled. Overall, a beautifully written, well-researched book that will attract a wide spectrum of readers interested in medieval history.
5. Back to Castor’s She-Wolves book. The story of the succession crisis that ended with the crowning of Elizabeth I is used as a frame story, and the stories of four earlier queens (Matilda, Eleanor, Isabella of France and Margaret of Anjou) are fit within that frame. I’m partway into the Isabella story, a little over halfway through the book, and I’m afraid it’s time to drop this one and start reading something for the next blogpost.
Will the she-wolves let me go? After having been neglected by her wildly irresponsible husband, Edward II, Isabella has just given birth.
“She had maintained a cool dignity throughout the months and years of following Edward . . . But, in her silence, she had learned a great deal: that her husband had much passion and little judgement; that his understanding of politics was sometimes willfully obtuse, sometimes hopelessly naïve; and that his nobles were men to be reckoned with. Isabella was still young, but she had a shrewd intellect and a forceful will of her own. And now, with her son in her arms, she held the key that would transform her power as queen.”