I'll admit it, all of what I knew about the powerful female monarchs covered in the DVD She Wolves: England's Early Queens came from their fictionalized depictions on film: Eleanor of Aquitaine (The Lion in Winter); Elizabeth I (The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex and Elizabeth); Lady Jane Grey (Lady Jane). The trio of informative hour-long programs on She-Wolves certainly helps fill in what those movies glossed over, with the capable guidance of British historian Dr. Helen Castor.
Each She Wolves episode opens with footage from Queen Elizabeth's coronation in 1953, while Dr. Castor's concerned-sounding narration muses that the current long-lasting reign of a beloved monarch contrasts sharply with some of the other women who preceded her in England's history. That's the springboard for going into the queens who didn't have it so good - the ones who dealt with treason, murder and all-out wars to obtain (and keep) their thrones. It's a big party, only instead of pin the tail on the donkey we have a beheading.
She Wolves: England's Early Queens is divided into three episodes which profile the following powerful, fascinating royals:
- Episode One: Matilda of Boulogne (reigned 1135-1152) and Eleanor of Aquitaine (1154-1189). Ushered onto the throne by a power-hungry cousin, the obscure Matilda holds the honor of being England's first queen. Matilda's daughter-in-law, Eleanor, was an intelligent, worldly woman who figured strongly in one of England's most turbulent power struggles.
- Episode Two: Isabella of France (1308-1327) and Margaret of Anjou (1445-1461; 1470-1471). French-born Isabella came into power by marrying the ineffectual Edward II and subsequently ruling over England dictator-style alongside her lover, Roger Mortimer. Margaret came into power under similar circumstances, reigning during a momentous time of civil strife.
- Episode Three: Lady Jane Grey (1553), Mary I (1553-1558) and Elizabeth I (1558-1603). All three women in this episodes were contemporaries who figured in England's great Protestant vs. Catholic conflict in the 16th century. The intense maneuvering leading to Lady Jane's ascendancy led to a reign of a mere nine days, while her successor Mary I preached a rigid, oppressively Catholic regime (prompting Shakespeare to dub her a "she-wolf"). The more sensible, diplomatic Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen, takes over for a momentous 44-year reign.
The pleasant, professionally produced She Wolves works well as a concise history lesson on medieval England, one made more accessible by its knowledgeable host. Dr. Helen Castor, who appears in just about every other frame here, presides over the material with a steely authority. Dr. Castor is shown either addressing the viewer in a straightforward manner, or in voice-over while being photographed walking through various locales associated with her subject. It's a format that shares quite a few similarities with Great Artists with Tim Marlow, actually. The abundance of odd camera angles and Castor's never-wavering seriousness might verge into parody at times (Dawn French could undoubtedly do a killer impersonation of this woman), but overall it's a very eye-opening, informative experience. If anything, the lush on-location photography would work as a handy primer for someone planning a trip exploring England's great medieval castles and churches (it looks excellent). The narrative is also illustrated with lots of paintings and artwork of the period, presented in vividly rendered colors.
If I had one reservation about She Wolves, it would be that Dr. Castor tends to present the subject through a post-Feminist lens that perhaps isn't needed. From a 21st century perspective, it might be easy to think that these women's actions were done as a grand statement - striking a blow against the tyranny of a patriarchal society - but the information we have available probably reveals a less glamorous truth. They were merely doing what they could to survive. She Wolves does excel in getting into the motives of the women profiled, however, and much of it isn't pretty.
Athena's DVD edition of She Wolves: England's Early Queens presents the series in a lush 16x9 format with opulent, nicely balanced digital photography and artwork that truly pops off the screen. Considering that they fit three hour-long episodes on a single disc, the mastering is nicely done with no noticeable instances of aliasing or bad compression.
The stereo soundtrack is a fine job with clear dialogue that only occasionally gets muddied by an over-eager music track. Optional English subtitles are also provided on all three episodes.
The DVD comes with a helpful 16-page booklet (measuring about 4x5 inches) which supplements the material in the programs with information on women's lives in Medieval times and brief bios of other powerful women during that era. The only extra on the disc is a text-only Biography of Dr. Helen Castor. The packaging also notes the existence of discussion questions (for teachers) at AthenaLearning.com.
Think it was easy being the queen of Medieval England? Think again. The lushly photographed She Wolves: England's Early Queens delves into seven such women who battled political and religious oppression and family maneuvering to stay on top. The show depends heavily on host/historian Dr. Helen Castor (so if you don't like host-centric shows, don't bother), who serves as a solid and knowledgeable guide to this often overlooked era in history. Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and dilettante-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's seen are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.