Helen Castor begins this book with the death of King Edward VI, and how for the first time in England's history, all the possible heirs to the throne were female; his sisters Mary and Elizabeth Tudor, as well as his personal pick, Jane Grey. However, this was the not the first time in history that a woman ruled England, as Castor demonstrates by providing a narrative account of four former queens of England. The lives of Empress Matilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of France, and Margaret of Anjou are chronicled in this work, all of whom were able to rule in place of their sons who were either too young, off fighting a crusade, or in the place of physically or mentally absent husbands.
This rating is really a 4.5, only because Castor tends to discuss the men around the women at times more than the actual women she is chronicling. However, I know that this is due to the unfortunate fact that the surviving sources are about the the men around the women, rather than the women themselves. For example, there is no surviving account which discusses what Empress Matilda's personality was like, even though she was once the Empress of the Holy Roman Empire and later the Queen of England, so Castor had no choice but to extrapolate what she could from the information available. Despite this, I found that Castor did an excellent job of crafting each of these women as the three dimensional people they were rather than rehash the one-note ideas found in the sources. I also enjoyed how she was able to connect each of these women to one other (including Mary, Elizabeth, and Jane Grey) by more than their bloodlines. You might not see the parallels while studying each woman individually, but by placing their histories next to each other you can, and Castor will show you them. I appreciated that Castor looked at each woman objectively, rather than vilify them for their actions (such as Eleanor abandoning her children from her first marriage or Isabella taking on a lover) as some authors are prone to. This was especially evident considering her book opens and closes with Elizabeth I becoming the Queen of England. Nearly every account I've read about Elizabeth writes her elder sister Mary as a bitter, vengeful crusader. Yet Castor illustrates that Mary is just as human as everyone else, which was so much more refreshing than another Bloody Mary rehash.
While She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth by Helen Castor may not be as expansive about each woman as one hopes, this book does present a clear, concise, and human chronicle about these Queens of England, and you will be presented with a more in depth history than our remaining historical sources can give us.