Historian Helen Castor’s book She-Wolves, The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth, has recently been issued in a new edition by The Folio Society. After its original publication, the story of the powerful female rulers who influenced history during the Middle Ages proved so popular it was turned into a television documentary of the same name.
More recently, Helen has written Joan of Arc: A History. Earlier this year she was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
We caught up with her to ask about the new edition of the book, and how she came to write it.
What were the main motivating factors in writing She-Wolves?
I’ve always been fascinated by how power works – but writing about power in the middle ages is to tell an overwhelmingly male story. So when I came to write She-Wolves I wanted to tell the hidden story of female power in a world that assumed women couldn’t and shouldn’t rule.
Why do you think it’s important to study history and relate it to a wide audience?
Because we need to understand the past to understand ourselves and the challenges we face. And because it’s fascinating.
Did you find any one of the four women the most interesting to research?
I loved them all, but it’s hard to look past Eleanor of Aquitaine. What a life!
Did any research for the book surprise you?
Again, however well you know her story, it’s difficult not to be surprised constantly by Eleanor. To marry the king of France, divorce him and marry the king of England – no one else has ever done that, for a start…
Were there any other female rules of the same period you considered including?
No, my She-Wolves more or less picked themselves. Having started from the moment of Edward VI’s death in 1553 – the moment when, for the first time, all the heirs to the English throne were female – I knew I wanted to go back to Matilda, 400 years earlier, who had so very nearly become England’s first reigning queen. Then I looked in the centuries between for queens consort who could be said to have ruled the country themselves, however briefly, and even if in the names of their husbands or sons – and Eleanor, Isabella and Margaret were the obvious candidates.
Would you consider a sequel focussing on women rulers between Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II?
Not in book form. I’m a specialist in the 12th-16th centuries, and wouldn’t want to skate across the thin ice of the modern world without doing the research properly. Plus, power changed hands in these later centuries: Elizabeth II reigns, but doesn’t rule. If I were to look at women rulers in the more recent past, it wouldn’t be queens
I’d be studying.
Is there a female historical figure that you consider most misrepresented or overlooked?
I can’t pick just one. Let’s just say women have been misrepresented and overlooked throughout history, so we can cast our net wide.
What new opportunities did the television series give to telling the story of She-Wolves?
The opportunity to bring these women’s stories to a wider audience. The opportunity to walk in their footsteps in some extraordinary places. The opportunity to learn about storytelling in a different medium. The opportunity to work with some wonderful and wonderfully gifted people. I feel very lucky.
What do you think of the new edition of the book by The Folio Society?
It’s glorious. I love all my books, but this one is an outstandingly beautiful object.