She Wolves and Witches: What Happens to Women Who Try to Rule (Medieval Edition)

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Effigy of Eleanor of Aquitaine.

ElanorGamgee, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Most of us know about Queen Elizabeth I, and many of us know that her sister, Mary, ruled before she did, and maybe a good number of you know that Lady Jane Grey also briefly took the throne of England just before Mary did. At the same time, Mary, Queen of Scots ruled Scotland and also had a claim on the throne of England. I never thought about it before reading She Wolves, but all of the contenders for the throne at the death of King Edward VI, son of Henry VIII, were female.

A unique situation.

What you may not know is that while Queens Mary and Elizabeth were the first women to be able to keep the crowns of England, they were not the first to claim a significant role in her government. There were several other women who helped pave the way for these women as the meaning of being “king”, or rather, “monarch” evolved through the centuries as the role become less adversarial (who could win in battle), then more governmental, and then, perhaps, more ornamental? But that came later.

She-Wolves is a work of scholarly history that only pays slight homage to its title, which is (taken from Shakespeare in reference to once of the queens profiled).  If, like me, you feel slightly tricked by the title (a fate that I have saved you from anyway), you won’t mind because the book is so engaging. 

It’s rare that you find a work of nonfiction told as a frame story, but here you have it in She-Wolves.  The book starts with the backdrop to the story of the secession following the death of King Edward VI in 1553, who was, as you recall, only 15 at his death and the son of Henry VIII.   

I’ll admit, I was a little bored at the beginning of the book as I read the story of Lady Jane AGAIN, but I was glad I stuck with it because just as Jane ascends the throne, we jump back 300 years in time. 

But what it is not, is the first time women ruled, or came close to ruling England.  Women were femme sole rulers of other countries and duchies, and several of them came close to taking England.  What this book is really a study of is the evolution of the monarchy in England and how changes over time, as the nature of states and the monarchy changed, it became more and more possible for a woman to rule…and it became more desirable. 

Before the medieval period, kings were by definition warriors.  If they could not go to battle to defend their possessions, they could not hold it.  Kings also changed more frequently as one nobleman would fight another for the privilege.  As you can imagine, that system is not that great for everyone else…frequent changes are unstable for everyone.  Also over time, the monarch in England came to hold less and less absolute power, which also meant that it was probably better to have stability through heredity that to have a ruler who necessarily knew a lot about ruling.


This system allowed children to hold the throne.  While women were never not, by definition, unable to go to war, obviously almost no women were trained for it.  Perhaps it would have been physically more difficult for women to handle the heavy implements of war, but I’m guessing there would be other compensations that a smaller woman would have that would make her her just as formidable on the battlefield…if she has the training.

Français : Siège de Bristol in 1326 by Queen Isabella where Edward II, his counselors and favorites (the Despensers) have taken up refuge. (Panel 4 of BnF MS fr 2663 f.6r) (1326). Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

 The four women profiled include Empress Matilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of France, and Margaret of Anjou. All four women ruled England as regents for the sons or in the absence of their husbands. While none of them were able to keep the crown of England in their own rights, they paved the way for the women to come.



I’m guessing that most people know that women have often been accused of being witches to shut them up or shut them down, but what I hadn’t really considered before is the extent of the issue.  I thought it tended to happen to women who were outsiders anyway; women who had “ticked off” the establishment by being single and self-sufficient.


Apparently, however, at one time, almost any women could be at risk.  Enter the book Royal Witches: Witchcraft and Nobility in Fifteenth-Century EnglandRoyal Witches is a group biography of several women in key roles in medieval England, which is also the time of the War of the Roses, if you recall your history. 

I hope I’m not ruining the book for you if I tell you that none of the women profiled in this book were ever actually witches, and no one ever thought that they were.  What really happened to all of them is that at some point, they got “too big for their britches”, or too expensive to maintain, or on the wrong side of the current power…or any combination of the above. 


So I could step back here and say that this is what happens when women get to be too powerful.  They can’t be taken down fairly, say for example in open combat, so they have to be taken down subversively.  But that would be boring.

Unlike She-Wolves, Royal Witches focuses on women who were powerful, but not actually ruling or attempting to rule England.

Eleanor Woodville pulled of quite a marriage coup when she convinced Edward IV to marry her rather than take her for a mistress.

The marriage of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. Illuminated miniature from Vol 6 of the Anciennes chroniques d’Angleterre by Jean de Wavrin. Unknown scribe, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

What is interesting about this book is that it sheds some light on what life might have been like for powerful women in the medieval period.  It’s not like we know that terribly much about anyone’s lives during that time, and certainly less about the lives of women.  Knowing something about the lives of women who were at least holding some of the “chips” can give us an idea about what life might have been like for everyone else.


How could one negotiate?  What power the women had usually came from their ability to seal alliances, be romantically and sexually desirable, and bear children, especially boys, to continue the line.  But once those dice had been cast, which usually happened early in life, then what?  What happened if one’s connections fell out of favor?


That is the story of the four women profiled in this book: Joan of Navarre, Eleanor Cobham, Jacquetta of Luxembourg, and Elizabeth Woodville.

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