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Book Review: When Women Ruled the World

Updated: Nov 16, 2021

Recorded history is often dominated by men. Particularly Western History. But there are times, often pivotal times in Western History where women, not men, are the primary movers and shakers of the age. This book takes a look at one such time – the 1500s and four rulers who were rulers in their own right: Mary Tudor, Elizabeth Tudor, Mary Stuart, and Catherine deMedici.

If you know me, you know that this is a time period that is near and dear to my heart. It was my focus in college and it’s something I’ve studied extensively afterwards. I absolutely adore these disparate queens but I’m not sure I fully adore this book.

First off, it’s definitely an interesting choice to only focus on four queens, three of whom rule countries on one small island. Especially since there were other queens ruling at this time including: Joan I (Juana la Loca who ruled Spain until 1555), Anna (Queen of Poland), or even Mary of Hungary (who is mentioned in this book but not as someone who ruled… more of as an extension of Philip II of Spain). And one of the queens focused on isn’t technically a queen regnant but instead a queen regent… the choice definitely had me tilting my head a bit.

As did the choice to focus so much time and page space to Philip II, who I will grant was super important and powerful… but by devoting so much time to him and by calling him the true ruler of the world the author not only leans very heavily into colonialism and Eurocentrism schools of thought but also negates her own thesis that the ruling women of this time were just as powerful and worthy of ruling as the men.

For instance in the sections on Mary Tudor, more time is spent on Mary’s relationship with Philip and Philip’s wooing of Elizabeth than on Mary’s accomplishments as queen. While there are a few tantalizing sections on how Mary influenced her sister, there isn’t nearly enough focus on the deeds and acts of Mary and how she ruled. Indeed, there’s more on confusion regarding a piece of jewelry - La Peregrina.

That isn’t to say that this book is bad, it isn’t. I found the writing readable and the topics well researched. I particularly liked the inclusion of relevant artwork to bolster the author’s claims. But that said, I also found the book meandering, repetitive, and occasionally contradictory.

For example, the author states that the pearl that Mary Tudor is well known for wearing in many of her portraits and even on the currency bearing her image is not “La Peregrina” which was found off the coast of Panama and is part of the Spanish crown jewels. That it was La Peregrina that ended up in the collection of Elizabeth Taylor’s jewels and not Mary Tudor’s pearl. And the author proceeds to show us this with some pretty compelling circumstantial evidence. But then the author ends this chapter by essentially contradicting the whole thrust of her argument that saying that Mary Tudor’s pearl would have been a good addition to Elizabeth Taylor’s collection.

On the good side, the author while light on Mary’s acts does take the more recently accepted viewpoint that Mary Tudor was a kinder and more popular monarch than most people would think. I would have liked more on this, but what is there is definitely more in line with modern historical thought.

For the most part, I enjoyed this book. It didn’t make me angry and it’s clear that the author cares about the subject. That said, I feel that this needed at least one more pass through with a red pen to weed out all of the repetitiveness, contradictions, and to add a little more rationale on why focus on ONLY these four queens when there were other strong female rulers that are also worthy of the spotlight.

I think I’m going to give this:

Three Stars

If this is your jam, you can get it here.

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I received an ARC of this book via NetGalley

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