So I commissioned a new bookcase! (We live nowhere near an IKEA) When it came, after many false starts and alarums, books were collected up from every corner, shelf and box in my study (each book I am writing or planning has its own box, but that's another story) and installed in the new bookcase.
Then, and only then, could I buy She-Wolves but it was nearly my birthday and a daughter wanted to give it to me so I had to wait. And then like all writers, researchers and reviewers, I had to add it to the tottering heaps of the tbr.
Finally, I was able to open Helen Castor's book and from then on resented every moment I had to close it again. It is one of the most readable history books I have ever read.
It begins, unexpectedly, with the death of fifteen-year-old Edward the Sixth. But you soon see the relevance. All his possible heirs were female and England had never had a female monarch before. But from here we go back to Matilda, the daughter of Henry the First and granddaughter of William the Conqueror and see how close we came to it nearly four hundred years earlier.
It might seem extraordinary to us new Elizabethans, who are still fascinated by the first ruler of that name and live with the knowledge of the sixty-year+ reign of Victoria, but in 1135, it was by no means certain that the oldest son would inherit the crown, let alone a daughter. The conqueror was succeeded by his second son, William Rufus, even though his oldest, Robert "Cuthose" still lived. Robert was given the duchy of Normandy instead and for the next several hundred years the history of England and France are entwined.
Henry, the third son, when William Rufus was killed by a stray arrow while out hunting in the New Forest, nipped in quickly and got himself crowned king of England. But Robert and his son continued to contest his claim.
Oh, I must stop! It's all so fascinating. Matilda was gazumped by her cousin Stephen, who wasn't even the oldest son of the Conqueror's youngest son, but it was her own child who became Henry the Second when Stephen died.
And so on through the other medieval queens: Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of France and Margaret (Marguerite) of Anjou, who exercised what power they had through their husbands (respectively Henry the Second, Edward the Second and Henry the Sixth) and their sons.
The strangest is Isabella, who married at twelve a man twice her age and at their wedding banquet had to witness him giving away their rich wedding presents to the man sitting next to him, his favourite Piers Gaveston. When Gaveston came to the inevitable sticky end, he was replaced in the king's affections by Hugh le Despenser but Isabella was older then and had produced a son, the jack in the pack that gave all these women a trump card to play with.
(Matilda's epitaph had been the "daughter, wife and mother" of kings).
|From BBC website|
The TV series didn't use the framing device but Helen Castor brings us back very elegantly to Edward the Sixth's deathbed, after the story of the saddest queen, Margaret (Shakespeare's "she-wolf") who loses everything: husband, son and any hope of her descendants ruling England.
Edward's next heir should have been Mary Tudor but she had been declared illegitimate when Henry the Eighth divorced Catherine of Aragion and married Anne Boleyn.
Even more importantly, she remained attached to the Old Religion (since the New had robbed her and her mother of their rights) so Edward and his councilllors had come up with the bizarre Device that made poor Lady Jane Grey queen for just over a week and later led to the execution of this blameless political pawn.
Jane Grey was the granddaughter of Henry the Eighth's youngest sister Mary and her mother was still alive, but she was a Protestant and that made her the most acceptable of the possible female heirs.
But Mary was having none of it and it was she who became the first female monarch of England crowned in her own right. Because of the shortness of her reign, the lack of an heir in spite of two phantom pregnancies and most of all because of the bloodiness with which she pursued the short-lived restoration of her religious denomination, this important fact about her has sunk into neglect.
It doesn't help of course that she was succeeded by her brilliant, charismatic half-sister Elizabeth!
But I am grateful to Helen Castor for reminding me of this among many other important points about the history of women and the English throne.