For Margaret, these already prohibitive circumstances were compounded in 1453 by the fact that the nature of her husband’s illness made it difficult for her to obtain any significant hold on the exercise of legitimate royal authority in his stead. In an earlier century, Eleanor of Aquitaine had enjoyed wide-ranging informal powers during her son Richard’s absence from England when he was detained elsewhere by the demands of crusade and the bars of a German jail. Isabella of France, meanwhile, had demonstrated a queen’s capacity to embody the legitimating power of royal justice and the common good against a king fatally compromised by his own tyranny.
But Henry was not physically absent, nor was he a tyrant. He had never overstepped his powers; instead, he had never properly inhabited them. Margaret’s inability to take decisive action was therefore compromised by the fact that her husband was both present and blameless: he had not done anything wrong, even if it was by dint of having not done anything at all.
Helen Castor’s 2011 work, She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth is similar to the last book I reviewed, Queens Consort. The difference is Castor doesn’t make any attempt to look at all of the queens between the Conquest in 1066 and the rise of the Tudors – and Castor definitely includes Mary I, albeit briefly.
Castor looks at the Empress Matilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of France, and Marguerite D’Anjou in some detail, and spares a few chapters at the end for the aftermath of the death of the teenage king Edward VI, through the two weeks’ reign of Jane Grey and the five years of Mary I. In general, the book looks at those women who stepped outside the usual bounds of the role of a queen consort to wield extra power.
Marguerite D’Anjou is the one usually known by the epithet “She-Wolf of France” for her attempt to hold regency power while her ineffective husband was in what is today a still-unexplained state of catatonia and her attempts to defend her husband’s and son’s rights to the crown against the Yorkist claimants, and in battle, if need be. The dubiously complimentary name has also been given to her predecessor Isabella of France, a woman I think deserves it more. She was also married to an ineffective husband, though Edward II and Henry VI were ineffective in very different ways. While Henry was docile, innocent, and went placidly wherever he was led, Edward was greedy, vain, and completely led by his own desires. Isabella ditched her husband to live in France, and live openly in an adulterous affair. She then invaded her husband’s nation with an army, deposed him in favor of her son, almost certainly had her husband killed, and continued to live openly with her lover while they used her son as a puppet king. Not a particularly appealing character.
I would have appreciated a little less time given to a play-by-play of Wars of the Roses battles and a little more time spent on the first two English queens regnant, Jane and Mary. Mary, especially. She’s an odd figure of tragedy and cruelty – the former because of the years of humiliation, abandonment, and intense pressure resulting from her father’s obsessive search for a male heir and the consequent split with Rome, her less-than-successful political marriage and hysterical pregnancies, and the latter because of the restoration of Catholicism and its heresy laws that led to her historical legacy as “Bloody Mary.” It’s hard to feel sorry for her, but it’s also hard NOT to feel sorry for her.
Castor’s analysis of the queens from the middle ages is not so different from those in Queens Consort. Mostly it’s just longer and more detailed. Matilda is still described by her contemporaries as arrogant and overmasculine, and the fairness of such a description is still up for debate. Eleanor is still powerful, opinionated, and outspoken. Isabella of France is still of questionable morality and steel backbone. Marguerite D’Anjou comes across a little more sympathetically as you go further into the marital situation with Henry VI, and the political turmoil that results.
I know a good bit about the Tudors, and I know something about the final generations of the Anglo-Saxon ruling house of Wessex, but I have a gap in the timeline where the Plantagenets are, which is why I’m doing a little reading up.
Next book is Dan Jones’ The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors, which is a recent publication. I read his earlier work on the Plantagenets – while I can’t say I was overwhelmingly impressed with that effort, he does a decent survey. I’m hoping for that or better this time around.