England’s Early Queens


SHE-WOLVES: England’s Early Queens

Hosted and Written by Helen Castor

Based on her book “She-Wolves”

Photography by Will Edwards

Edited by Jane Harris

Music by Philip Guyler

Sound by Chris Gibbions

Produced & Directed by Lucy Swingler

First Aired: BBC Four, March 2012


The Queens:


  Eleanor of Aquitane

  Isabella of France

  Margaret Anjou

  Lady Jane Grey

  Mary I

  Elizabeth I


Production Studio:

Television: Matchlight for BBC Four

Video: Athena



Aspect ratio: 1.85:1

Resolution: 480p

Codec: MPEG-2

Disc Size: DVD-9

Bit Rate: Moderate (ca. 4.5~6.0 Mbps)

Runtime: 185 minutes

Region: 1



English Dolby Digital 2.0


Subtitles: Optional English


Bonus Features

• 16-page booklet & guide

• Biography of Dr. Helen Castor



DVD Clamshell Case: DVD

Street Date: February 5, 2013


Program Overview [Athena]:

The medieval and Tudor world was built for and ruled by men. Women who sought to rule were vilified as “she-wolves.” Yet starting 800 years ago, a handful of extraordinary women decided they would wear England’s crown. In this captivating BBC series based on her book, historian Helen Castor explores the lives of seven English queens who challenged male power—and whether much has changed.


Episode 1: Matilda and Eleanor (61:45)

The first woman to attempt to claim the English throne, Matilda—daughter of Henry I, granddaughter of William the Conqueror—was hours from her coronation in 1141 when an angry mob chased her away. Her daughter-in-law, Eleanor of Aquitaine, led a rebellion against her own husband. Neither won the crown, but both ensured that the dynasty would continue.



Episode 2: Isabella and Margaret (61:45)

Isabella and Margaret were both young French girls and political pawns when they were married to English kings: Isabella to Edward II in the 14th century, Margaret to Henry VI 100 years later. Isabella was accused of murder and Margaret of plunging England into the Wars of the Roses. Shakespeare later dubbed Margaret “She-wolf of France.”


Episode 3: Jane, Mary and Elizabeth (61:20)

In 1553, the death of a 15-year-old boy caused an unprecedented political crisis. Edward VI was Henry VIII’s only male heir. For the first time in English history, all of the contenders for his crown were female: Lady Jane Grey, the staunchly Catholic Mary Tudor, and Elizabeth I, who showed how capably and gloriously a woman could rule.



LensViews: 8

My Anglophila has certainly been given a wonderful massage in recent years, what with the HBO series The Tudors (2007-10) and the first two Booker prize winning historical novels by Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall, 2009, Bring Up the Bodies, 2012). And now, a documentary about the early English queens based on the book by Helen Castor.  It is Dr. Castor herself who is our host and guide in a style that is very familiar to those of us who enjoyed BBC series such as Michael Wood’s The Story of India and any number of natural history lessons about our planet by David Attenborough.


It’s not like we have footage or photographs from those bygone centuries to rely on for visual aids, and there are just so many paintings, statues, tapestries and relics, so what’s a girl to do?  As to that, I would have preferred if the wonderfully preserved and photographed art work was displayed in its entirety before making use of the much-used “Ken Burns effect” of panning and zooming.  Dr. Castor is seen walking about much of the same terrain as the history she describes - but of course it isn’t - I mean, much the same.  Some of the castles and interiors are intact, but a great many changes have taken place since the days of the Tudors and before.  The filmmakers simply go with the obvious and cut to dollops of current architecture, traffic, people going about their business, with the hope that the contrast will break the monotony of the classroom and with luck, be illuminating in the bargain.


Helen Castor is an English historian of the Mediaeval period, a lecturer in History at Cambridge University, and a BBC radio and television broadcaster.  Her book: She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth was a huge critical and popular success in 2010 before it was visualized for television just last year.  I might note that Ms. Mantel gives her book a well-placed plug on the front cover of both the UK and US editions.

The content of this series is relentlessly riveting, especially regards her first subject, Matilda, a person about whom I knew nothing about previously.  I kept thinking: what  a great idea for a movie - it has everything: jealousy, political intrigue, war, heroism, double crosses, sex, great locations, a sensational escape, and an unexpected and untimely pregnancy - all this about someone hardly anyone knows anything about.  And, without her, the story of the English royal succession would have turned out quite different - for kings AND queens.


About the rest of the protagonists, most of us know something, but no matter how much we think we know, Ms. Castor’s telling of their story puts things in a fresh perspective, the principle one being how the idea of a “female king” came to viewed, rejected, reconsidered and eventually, in part quite by happenstance, accepted.

As a presenter, my only complaint about the good doctor, and a small one it is, is that I would have liked to see her in a different change of clothes or colors from time to time: she does enjoy her off-whites and grays, and, to my taste, strikes just the right balance of professionalism, comfort and attractiveness.  Lest you think such an observation sexist, and you are entitled, I do make similar judgments about the likes of Misters Wood and Attenborough - who I see as considerably more, how shall I put it: hysterical - quite the in contrast to Helen Castor’s comparatively dispassionate, cold-blooded delivery. The gentlemen’s choice of costume is just the icing on the cake.



Image: 9

Nothing wrong with the transfer here.  Unless I am mistaken it appears that this DVD is not only progressive instead of the usual 480i, and the more stable for that reason  (especially if watched on ones computer), but also presented at the correct speed, without the PAL-originated speed-up that mars Athena’s Story of Math Collection. Picture quality is filmlike, without any transfer anomalies I could see and edge enhancement either - a real plus for a DVD release.  Colors are natural and contrast is held in check nicely with a solid range of blacks and whites where appropriate.



Audio & Music: 8/7

Not hampered by PAL speed-up, both Helen Castor and Philip Guyler’s apt music are presented clearly and tonally correct, allowing for easy intelligibility and enjoyment.


Extras: 5

A documentary doesn’t exactly cry out for bonus features about the making of the film, but historical supplements could come in handy. For these, Athena provides additional information at their website and, accompanying the disc, a 16-page viewer’s guide with articles about the first she-wolf, the men who were the monarchs, women in common life, powerful women in history, and matriarchal societies. A biography of Dr. Helen Castor is included on the disc.



Recommendation: 9

She-Wolves: England’s Early Queens was produced for North American DVD by Athena Learning and distributed by Acorn, a pairing that has given us quite a number of superb documentaries from the UK.  This is one of their best.  Highly and warmly recommended.



Leonard Norwitz

© LensViews

February 5, 2013

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