If this book were a Hollywood movie, we should have to call it a prequel. Or perhaps, as with Star Wars, a whole sequence of prequels. In addition to the obvious (Mary Tudor, of course), there were, Helen Castor reckons, four women who ‘ruled England before Elizabeth’. These were Henry I’s daughter, the Empress Matilda; Henry II’s consort, Eleanor of Aquitaine; and the wives of two of England’s most spectacularly useless kings: Isabella of France (Edward II) and Margaret of Anjou (Henry VI). The advents of those iconic Tudor queens are the points of embarkation and arrival in this book; the central narrative chapters are framed, fore and aft, with vignettes of the last Tudor king, the boy-wonder Edward VI, sweating and coughing on his deathbed, the prelude to a half-century of uninterrupted female rule. Perhaps Castor (or her publishers) calculated that the potential readership for the book would have heard of Good Queen Bess and Bloody Mary, but not of the assorted medieval queens. ‘Eleanor of Aquitaine’, I seem to recall, was the first jackpot-winning answer on ITV’s Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?, and thus evidently the epitome of arcane knowledge. With their predecessors now all but eliminated from A-level syllabuses, it may be that the Tudors have begun to claim for themselves the function of gatekeepers to an increasingly unfamiliar pre-modern past.
For my money, however, Castor would have done better to have left the sixteenth century out of it, and let the medieval stories speak for themselves. Her account of the accession and reign of Mary I (subject of a welter of recent popular biographies) feels conventional and compressed.