Helen Castor has an exhilarating narrative gift… I think readers will love this book
– Hilary Mantel
Helen Castor has long been fascinated by the exercise of power: how rulers rule and why people obey them. And in the Middle Ages – the period in which Dr Castor specializes – power was inherently and inescapably male. That, at least, was the theory. In practice, however, the political waters were muddied twice over: first, by the principle of heredity, which risked bestowing the right to rule on daughters as well as on sons; and, second, by the sheer calibre of some of the women sidelined by these formal structures of power. For behind the masculine façade of government, mothers and wives could exert an irresistible influence on the policies of kings and nobles. And an exceptional woman in exceptional circumstances might do much more than that. It’s a scenario that resonates deeply, even now, at a distance of more than half a millennium. In formal terms, our aspirations are very different: that ability, not inheritance or gender, should determine participation in public life. But the experience of a woman confronted by barriers, spoken or unspoken, that her male counterpart doesn’t face is as immediately recognizable in twenty-first-century boardrooms and council chambers as it is in twelfth-century courts and castles.
The seven extraordinary women who ruled England during the five hundred years between the Conquest and the end of the sixteenth century were: Matilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of France, Margaret of Anjou, Jane Grey, and the Tudor queens Mary and Elizabeth. Dr Castor’s intention in telling their compelling story is not, however, to pursue such contemporary parallels in explicit terms. Rather, the aim is evoke the vanished worlds of these seven charismatic women in a compelling combination of the personal and the political, of private and public lives. And to explore these lives is to realize just how far we’ve come, and yet how little has changed.
Helen Castor is a Fellow in History at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, who also writes reviews and features for the Sunday Times, the Sunday Telegraph and the Guardian. She spent ten years working on the Paston letters, the subject of her first book, BLOOD AND ROSES, which won the Beatrice White Prize in 2006 for outstanding scholarly work in the field of English Literature. More recently, she published SHE WOLVES, a popular history book on the women who ruled England before Elizabeth I, which has received widespread critical acclaim.
She also recently wrote and presented several episodes for BBC Radio 4’s Making History series. She lives in London with her husband and son.