On this day in 1977, the undisputed king of rock ‘n’ roll was found to have abdicated while yet on the throne. Sad times. But, in the one respect in which monarchy passes the Turing test, it is self-replicating. So here are some recommendable authors who specialize in kings, queens, and the odd regent. And the really odd Lord Privy Seal.
1. Alison Weir
I didn’t have much in the way of a penchant for royalty until I made a run at Shakespeare’s historical plays one summer. The Bard presents excitement and challenges aplenty without the added hurdle of my not knowing whit one about his cast of characters. Alison Weir to the rescue. For just about every one of the history plays, Weir has one or more fascinating books that lay out the facts of the era, the leading figures, and more than a few clues as to the long-term impact of their decisions.
My favorite, purely for reasons of sorting out who’s who, is The Six Wives of Henry VIII. Weir takes you beyond the porky religious scofflaw with the turkey leg and gives you the skinny on a man so famously brilliant, athletic, charming, and pious that the whole world was starting to believe maybe there was something in that whole “divine right” business.
2. Margaret George
Margaret George does a truly fine job of fictionalizing a historical figure with such slavish conformity to primary sources that there seems to be no fiction at all. Her portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots, is an exhaustive spelunk into one of the “lesser” royals of a contentious age.
Though typically hefty, George’s books read like novels. If you’re truly ignorant of history: Bonus! You’ll never see the end coming. Mary certainly didn’t.
3. Philippa Gregory
Philippa Gregory takes rather a few more liberties in her tale-telling, but doesn’t seem to stray to the irresponsible. She tells this tale, for example, from the point of view of Mary Boleyn, and one cannot reasonably expect to extrapolate whether she felt envy over the cut of another woman’s dress. However, Henry does not become a penitent who is eventually raised to the altar, so all the coloring seems to be safely between the lines.
Her specialty is the women of the period who tend to be the more interesting sex (in the days of primogeniture, there was less suspense over how the menfolk would fare). Her writing is truly melodic—perfect for a month of chapters before bed.
4. Christopher Hibbert
Hibbert does a nice treatment of Victoria (would that Shakespeare had been around to manage that one!) here and elsewhere and also, should you care to venture beyond the sceptered isle, such other “luminaries” as Mussolini, the Medicis, and the Borgias.
He also does a line of city biographies, about which we simply must post some other time.
Queen Victoria is all history, but beautifully told, not overly long, and sprinkled with some lovely photos. You’ll leave with a sense of the lasting impact made by this woman (and not merely because she was wider than tall upon her death, poor bereaved dear).
5. Hilary Mantel
True confession: I didn’t fall in love with Mantel’s works because of the reviews, the Booker, or even the writing. As an Irishwoman with a grudge, I was captivated by the opening scene in which a Cromwell has the living tar beat out of him. I accept that this is not OK and firmly resolve to avoid near occasions of political cruelty (no small resolution in these days, Dear Reader).
Wolf Hall brilliantly explains how the best minds of the day could come to all the wrong conclusions. Bring Up the Bodies (which I have not yet finished) is, thus far, equally promising. I took in Wolf on audio and can recommend that as well.
Surely there is room by your throne for a royal bio or two? Perhaps one or more of these might find their way to your porcelain shelf next time you wonder “What should I read next?”