The feminist anglophile in me had to have this book as soon as I saw it on Amazon. Castor takes a close look at four women, devoting about a hundred pages to each, that have played influential roles in English history between 1066 and 1553 (Queen Mary is briefly addressed in the prologue and epilogue since the title is before Elizabeth but is not the main focus). Castor uses Edward VI's imminent death as a framing device, since Edward's only possible heirs are all women. However, as much as the English may have wanted to deny it, there was a small precedence of women in power.
Castor begins with Matilda, granddaughter of William the Conqueror. Her father's only son had died, and this left Matilda, who was married to the German Emperor Henry as his sole heir. After her husband's death, Matilda returned to England and the lords there swore to uphold her claim to the throne upon her father's death. Unfortunately for her, her cousin Stephen of Blois was in the right place when Henry died, ignored his vow and ran off to get himself crowned. Matilda, however, wasn't about to stand for this betrayal, leading to a period of civil war in England. Castor does a great job of analyzing the sources, and the inherent sexism that Matilda faced: some of her contemporaries found her haughty but it is debatable whether they would have really been using those types of words if a man would have displayed the same behavior. While Matilda herself was never able to completely regain the throne for herself, she did ensure that the throne would be there for her son, Henry II.
Henry II of course leads to the next woman, Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was the ruler of Aquitaine in her own right before she even married Henry II. At various times, she ruled the country in her husband and sons' absences, and at one point even rebelled against her husband, leading her to be put under house arrest for over a decade until his death. I've already read a biography on Eleanor as well as one or two historical fiction novels, so this section while well-written wasn't quite as interesting to me. It was definitely a good review, though, and would work well as an introduction for people unfamiliar with Eleanor.
I quite enjoyed the next queen Castor discussed, especially given my fondness for the film Braveheart which alluded to many of the people in this chapter in completely inaccurate ways. Queen Isabella of France's husband Edward II was an ineffectual ruler, whose favorites gained too much power. While this would have been bad on its own, Edward II made bad decisions as a ruler, partially due to his favorites, he held grudges, and he didn't even pretend to give the Queen any type of respect or power (he gave on of his favorites on of her estates etc). Given how unhappy the whole country was with this ruler, Isabella took matters into her own hands, and decided to save the throne for her son, Edward III. Unfortunately, she also began an affair and it turned out she had many of the same flaws as her spouse when it came to government and giving favorites too much power. She quickly went from being seen as a savior to being seen as yet another despotic ruler. However, for a period, she should herself to be decisive, capable and powerful.
The last true subject of the book (as I said, the Tudors are discussed but I don't see them as the subject as much as prologue and afterword) is Margaret of Anjou, the woman who married Henry VI. This chapter is basically a brief run down of the Wars of the Roses. The rules of succession weren't always as set in stone as they were today, and sometimes, might made right. That is how the children of a fourth son gained the throne over the children of a second son. Henry VI was king, but there was another family that had a stronger claim to the throne - the Yorks. The Yorks may have been happy to ignore their claim, but Henry VI was gullible and easily guided, and completely cut them off from power. Margaret of Anjou may or may not have been aware of all the intriciacies and slights involved, but she certainly felt her, her husband's and later her son's positions were under threat, and she lobbied hard to protect them. While I read a book after this one that put me firmly on the side of the Yorkist, Margaret is portrayed as a very sympathetic character. Like her husband, she may have been too easily influenced by a certain part of the court - as a foreign princess, she didn't know all the background or traditions, and I can definitely see why having a foreign princess would be a bad thing for these reasons. Of course, if she had been English, she would have been showing her own family too much favor so it all simply depends on the person.
I quite enjoyed this book and its topic - while Mary and Elizabeth may have been the first recognized monarchs (Lady Jane doesn't quite count), there had been women before them that played influential roles in the government and history of England. These women in particular weren't happy to stay in the sidelines or be the woman behind the man, and weren't afraid to take matters in their own hands for themselves or their families if they thought it necessary. I definitely recommend this, and not just to history buffs since it is written in a very approachable style. She also included a list of books for further reading in the back.