She Wolves: England’s early queens

I caught this programme on BBC4 and thought it might appeal to other 17%ers.

Image of Empress Mathilda

Empress Matilda from Wikimedia Commons

In She Wolves, historian Dr Helen Castor explores the lives of seven English queens who challenged male power, and the fierce reactions they provoked and whether the term ‘she-wolves’ was deserved.

The first programme covered Empress Matilda, who in 1141 should have become the first Queen of England to rule alone. Matilda was the daughter of Henry I, and as his only surviving heir, should have been crowned ruler on his death. However, she was in France at the time and unable to get back to England, so her cousin was crowned in her place.

Although she made an agreement with her cousin that she was the rightful heir and was all ready to take up the throne, chronicles of the time tell of a change in her manner that alienated the whole country ‘every trace of a woman’s gentleness (was) removed from her face’. She was driven from London by an angry populous, and 20 years of civil war ensued.

She campaigned ceaselessly for her son, Henry II, to become monarch and in 1154 he did, calling himself Henry Fitz-Empress, in recognition of how important she was in his becoming king.

The programme also told the story of Matilda’s daughter-in-law, Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Eleanor married Henry II and at first their marriage was successful, they had several children, and she ruled in his stead for several years in the duchy of Aquitaine, in her ‘court of love’, a place (real or fictional) with the reputation for being dedicated to the ideal of chivalry and courtly love.

Later on, her three oldest sons decided to challenge Henry’s rule. Along with them, she defected to France.  This led to general censure – it was ok for sons to rebel against fathers it seemed, but not wives to rebel against husbands.

‘Man is the head of woman… unless you return to your husband you will be the cause of a general ruin.’

Eleanor was kept a prisoner in England for 15 years, until Henry died and her son Richard the Lionheart was crowned. He let his mother out, and she ruled on his behalf when he was away on the Crusades. She lived to be 80.

This first programme introduced two incredible women. And also showed how although times have changed, in reality, views about women in power haven’t changed all that much.

You can view it here until 28 March.

About 17Percent

A campaign to get more plays by women playwrights onto UK stages.
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