My Favourite History Books
As I Like It
So many monarchs, so many books. So. Much. History. As an exercise, I've picked eight of my favourite tomes on Royal History. I shall be listing them chronologically, according to the period they cover.
I shall also be adding links for further reading and documentaries for your edutainment.
The first volume on this list is a true gem for anyone researching the 'King in the Car Park', as he's affectionately known, or 'The one who put the KING in parKING'. Of course, it's Richard III aka Richard, Duke of Gloucester, aka the real life King in the North.
The narrative device of this book ('the shipwreck'/'the Young Rose' - borrowing the flashback terminology from 'Titanic' (1997)) sets it apart from other Richard's biographies. The 'shipwreck' side of the story is lovingly told by Philippa Langley, the woman behind the dig. Her aspirations, her motivation and above all, her determination to find not just the remains, but the real Richard, the man is at the heart of her story.
Digging up a king of England and reinterring him with dignity is not an simple objective to fulfil, and that's exactly what this remarkable woman set out to do and that's what she did. This account goes hand in hand with the tie-in documentary. The links to her 'Looking for Richard' website page and her next project - 'The Missing Princes' are here.
N.B. As Philippa said in the beginning of her account of the search - there has never been a film or a TV series about Richard, the real Richard. (Also see it here). As we know, Shakespeare adaptations and derivations wouldn't count, as he took historical fiction way too far, and the screen representations of the War of the Roses are sidelining Richard. So far, 'The White Queen' (2013) has come the closest to the real man, in my humble opinion. But there's yet to be a film or a show dedicated to him entirely. Furthermore, most screen stories about Richard focus on his life after the death of Edward IV, but that is only the third act of his life: the climax and the wrap-up. (Frankly, it's not dissimilar to most Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots and Henry VIII's screen representations - 'He was getting tired of his first wife... And what was he doing for 40 years before that, pray tell?)...I digress..
So, we need a film or a TV series (limited series would probably be best, we've all seen a film not being long enough to tell Robert the Bruce's story) - that would represent Richard's beliefs and track his life from the beginning, sidelining Edward IV. And that story in book form is told by Michael Jones in the 'Young Rose' part of the narrative. How he grew up, the friends he had, the death of his father and how it affected him, also his responsibilities, his first battle, his marriage with Anne Neville, his life in Yorkshire, the birth of his son, the re-burial of his father (like father, like son, I guess), Richard dispensing justice... Richard's undignified death needs to be presented as a tragedy, not as a preface of Tudor rule. Of course, 'The Princes in the Tower' chapter of his life cannot be forgotten, but neither can it be the defining one.
N.B.II - Given the gruesome aspect of Richard's life, his brutal death and now his 'afterlife' - I started using a hashtag #RatedRiii when posting about him on Twitter and Instagram.
This volume I've read so many times I've lost count. Let me start with the cover - it's so beautiful and pleasing to the eye, it should be its own poster, it should be available on tote bags and be seen on billboards. It is definitely the most gorgeous cover on this list. Of course, I'm not judging the book by its cover but merely the cover itself. (note - cover design may differ in different editions, mine was blue)
The book itself is a breakdown of fifty locations in England that are connected to the Tudors. But it's not a book only about palaces, castles and fortresses - it's also very much about the Tudors themselves. And through this architectural mosaic the reader gets to meet all the important players of the era, including even Richard III, whose story ends just as Henry VII's begins, the Bard himself, Dr. John Dee, Elizabeth's astrologer and Mary, Queen of Scots, who was, of course, Tudor through her grandmother and thus had a claim to the throne. In between the Tudor narrative the author kindly included little insights into life during this era, i.e. pastimes, sport, portraiture etc. She also included important information on visiting all the locations: their opening hours, how to get there and so on.
...Also a book I've read at least twice now. As the name suggests, it covers the life-altering and history-altering events that all happened in the year 1536. And let's remember, it's not all about Anne Boleyn's death.
To get to the real Henry, beyond the 'wife-killer/ despot/ monster/ over-eater' image that the general public is familiar with, one needs to see him clearly in two ways: as a sovereign who needs to have male heirs as a state emergency, and as a healthy male who suffers a life-changing accident. In 1536 these two collide: he falls during a joust, badly hurting himself, Anne miscarries a boy. You cannot think of a more crucial turning point in the life of Henry VIII.
That year also saw the death of Katherine of Aragon, Henry's wedding to Jane Seymour (how many wives can a guys have in the same year?), Pilgrimage of Grace, The final act of Reformation...1536 has been called by some historians as 'annus horribilis' for Henry - and it truly was. Its events saw through Henry's metamorphosis from a young, kind, attractive king to a fat, immobile, obese despot. Usually when Henry is mentioned, his image is of the latter, but one must remember that he was already forty-four when the year started. And he only spent ten and a half years representing the 'fat' image. Anyway...
This book goes to the heart of the metamorphosis, and explores it from all sides: his relationships with his wives, his masculinity (and its importance in Henry's time), his ecclesiastic inclinations, the establishment of the new Church and its similarities/differences with the old religion. The book goes into every aspect of Henry's life, and does so in detail, and upon reading it, one really 'gets' Henry the Eighth, the man and the king.
N.B. - Here's an article Professor Lipscomb has just published about Anne Boleyn, entitled 'Anne Boleyn: Whore, Witch or Cinderella?'
N.B. 2 - Unfortunately, the documentary 'Inside the Body of Henry VIII' is currently not available to watch, based on the grounds of copyright.
Next we have 'Children of England: The Heirs of King Henry VIII' by Alison Weir, the volume dedicated to the years after Henry's death and the chaos that ensued. In this story, Henry's demise is only the inciting incident that kicks off the narrative and Elizabeth's accession is the 'Happy Ending' of it. Henry VIII and his second daughter, Elizabeth I are the most famous Tudor monarchs, yet eleven years between their reigns have played a vital part of English history, and they represent the sequence of events that, if one looks at it from a certain view, made England - England.
N.B. The Introduction of the book is called 'The Lion's Cubs', which is brilliant and in my opinion really covers the theme of the book - the protector and the sovereign is dead. His cubs are not yet beasts themselves, they have not come into their own yet. Predators are lurking about. What do you do? Go...
Usually the stories that are always told in popular culture - are that of Henry, the despot and the story of his daughter, the Virgin Queen. Jane Grey is usually left behind, apart from one film, 'Lady Jane' (1986) and Mary I features as a supporting villain in the majority of these stories, the exception being 'The Tudors' (2007-2011) but yet again, she was sidelined. (With 'Starz' making 'The Spanish Princess', which focuses on Catherine of Aragon's early years in England, we may see a show telling Mary's story from her point of view someday.)
This book tells you about the interim years, and just how much real life drama was a-happening. The sexual assault on the teenage Elizabeth, the kidnapping of Edward VI (by the same person, curiously enough), the religious persecution of Mary (yes, it worked both ways), her attempt at fleeing England, Edward's prolonged suffering and eventual death, Jane Grey's rise in station, her imprisonment, Mary taking the crown... After Henry's Church, that kept things a bit too Catholic for some Protestants (read more on this in 1536 book, listed above) - Edward's rule started (what I call) a Tudor pendulum - he turned the country much more Protestant than it was under his father. His sister Mary turned everything around - into the Catholic direction. Their sister saw the improbability of choosing one of the two different religions, so she opted for the middle way.
Actually, if you look at it, the pendulum started much earlier and it wasn't just about religion - Henry VII was frugal and secretive, his son was spendthrift and lavish. Henry VIII was much-married - his three royal children could only boast one failed marriage among the three of them. His illegitimate son did get to be married, but the marriage was unconsummated.
N.B. It would be great to see a book and/or a film about Henry's relationship with his illegitimate son - Henry FitzRoy.
Kate Williams' 'The Betrayal of Mary, Queen of Scots' is the latest addition to my favourite books list. I proudly pre-ordered it, then went to the launch of the book at the Historical Royal Palaces event and, like a fangirl, got Kate's autograph. Such a good evening. Also the cover design is absolutely outstanding, in my opinion. Just look at the rose and thistle intertwined. Anyway...
The volume tells the story of Mary Stuart and Elizabeth I, with a fresh take on it. It's a story of two royal women, both with very unusual destinies. The book feels very much like a quick-paced detective story. N.B. - HBO, Netflix and Prime - I'm looking at you! Please make this into a limited series. Please.
Back to the book - Even though we know the ending, we really want to know how the story unfolds. The story is peppered with twists and turns, as well as lots of characters called James and Mary (the author does her absolute best making sure we don't get confused). The scary part is that this is all a real story. [Insert a scary emoji.]
The Mary of this book is not a hero or a martyr, as she's sometimes portrayed, nor is she a victim of her circumstances. The author doesn't shy away from pointing out Mary's mistakes, and identifies a specific set of choices that led Mary to her eventual death. At the same time, the 'betrayal' of the title is actually to do with several betrayals that befall Mary, as early as her infancy.
Also please read more here, it's the article by the author on the subject, published in BBC History Magazine.
Now we're getting fast-forwarded into the Victorian era, with 'Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert and the Death that Changed the Monarchy' by Helen Rappaport. The great love story behind Victoria & Albert is the stuff of fairytales - what dreams are made on, if you will. But this book isn't about that. Its focus is what happened after the fairytale. The narrative is sympathetic to Albert, and looks at the relationship between the royal couple without any rose-colour glasses.
Albert's role as the Queen's consort was a unique one, and a first one. Many forget, there weren't too many examples of English or British Queens Regnant before Victoria, and even fewer of those were happily married with children. (Our current HM, the Queen is following in Victoria's footsteps in that regard, except she has already celebrated her 70th wedding anniversary).
Victoria and Albert's romance, love and marriage have been immortalised by myth, pop culture and everything in between, not least by Victoria herself who elevated her spouse's image into an almost saint-like figure after his death, erecting monuments and shrine in his honour all over her palaces, all over the country and all over the empire. Curious fact - if you're in the Kensington borough in London, you shall find a lot of streets named after him - 'Exhibition Road', 'Princes Gardens', 'Princes Gate', 'Prince Consort Road'. They all are close to Royal Albert Hall, which was first proposed after the Great Exhibition in 1851, as a 'series of of facilities for the enlightenment of the public in the area' and was opened in 1871, a decade after Albert's death in 1861. This area became known as Albertopolis. The Great Hall stands opposite the Albert Memorial, which was opened one year later, in 1872.
All these 'suits of woe' keep Albert's memory alive, making their love story take on legendary proportions. But every marriage has its ups and downs. Theirs was no different. This book explores the darker side of their love - the unease of living with the 'volatile' Victoria, Albert's chronic health issues, along with his relationship with Britain and its people, and their viewpoints on Prince Consort - alive and dead, and how the country changed because of his death in the fifty years following his untimely demise until Victoria's own death.
N.B. here's a great article by the author Helen Rappaport, for the BBC History Magazine.
Now we're fast-forwarded to the second Georgian era, when David Windsor, the former The Prince of Wales and the ex-King Edward VIII has married an American divorcée. Similar to the previous entry on this list, this book explores the darker side of a famous love story, sometimes called 'The Greatest Fairytale of the 20th Century: The King who gave up the throne for the woman he loved'.
... They say there are two sides to every story. This one has more than two. There is the Crown's viewpoint (which is strongly enacted in ...ahem...Netflix's The Crown and 'The King's Speech'). This angle explores the narrative of 'You walked away from the greatest job in the world, it's your doing, please stay away'. There is the government's point of view (great documentary in the link), which was 'You were about to destroy the country with your political views, we're glad you left before we had to kick you out'. There is the abdicated monarch's outlook: 'I need to be with the woman I love. Why can't they understand that?'. This interpretation has been the subject of several feature and television films (including one directed by Madonna). And then there's Wallis's point of view, and shocking of all, it's not the same as her new husband's. According to this newly discovered angle, Wallis's story is basically saying 'I can't believe I let this go on for so long. Now I have to endure this relationship until death indeed does us part #nobacksies '.
'That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor' by Abbe Sebba (and the documentary that goes with it) explores Wallis Simpson's life, her mindset and her motivation to be (or, in fact, not to be) with David, the newly created Duke of Windsor.
The thing I love most about this volume is that it looks at a familiar narrative in a whole new light, one which actually makes it seem a whole lot more real and plausible, and one which gets very far from the fairytale tag usually associated with this couple. Here are a few article links from the BBC Magazine.
And finally, we're in the new Elizabethan era, with our current HM, the Queen, but we're still in the past. This book, 'The Crown: The Inside History' by Robert Lacey explores the first season of the hit Netflix show with the parallel frame: this is what happened in the show, and this is what actually happened. It is also littered with trivia from the monarchy's private and public lives. It goes into fascinating detail, e.g. how is HM styled in Scotland, since Elizabeth I of England was never queen there? My favourite is the connection between Henry VIII's religious titles and the current monarchy. Fidei Defensor a.k.a. 'Defender of the Faith' is the title that Henry VIII got from the Pope for defending Roman Catholic Church (oh yes...) against Luther's manifesto & 'Head of the Church of England' is something that he named himself a few years later. These titles have a lot to do with the letters FID DEF on the rim of some of our coins, and why the current monarch is always also the Head of the Church of England. Lacey also goes into the monarch's connection to the Church of Scotland.
I so love this book, because reading it is like having a historian next to you as you're watching one of the biggest shows of all time, which tells you the story of the most famous monarchy of all time with all the details and secrets you could ask for. #curiouserandcuriouser
Needless to say, I also loved the Second Volume of 'The Inside History'. All I have to say is...Season 4. Can. Not. Wait.