Top 10 books on royal families | history books


Jhe most compelling books about royal families, to me, are those that blend a compelling personal narrative with national or international history and help deepen our understanding of history. Appreciation of what is at stake for the protagonists and how they make their choices depends on how skillfully historical context is woven into the writing without overwhelming the prose. My favorite books are those that bring new perspectives on historical events while allowing the reader to inhabit the world of royal characters.

In my new book, Queen Victoria’s Matchmaking, I set out to explore how seven of her grandchildren rose to senior royal posts across Europe in the years leading up to the First World War. As I sat in the Royal Archives in Windsor’s Round Tower, reading the lengthy correspondence between the Queen and her grandchildren, it was clear the Queen had a passion for twinning. She effectively ran the most exclusive dating agency in the world, where a beautiful princess could find herself wanted by heirs to multiple thrones.. At a time when some kings and emperors still wielded power as autocrats or semi-autocrats, these marriages mattered – and it was in Queen Victoria’s unique power to shape the political landscape of Europe.

Gradually, the Queen’s pairing began to take shape as a very human story, which shone a light on her character as well as a crucial part of Europe’s history. Victoria could not have foreseen that the family dynamic also contained the seeds of her own catastrophic downfall in which cousin was opposed to cousin, husband to wife and even sister to sister.

The following, in no particular order, are my favorite books on royal families.

1. Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K Massie (1968)
The dramatic story of the last Tsar, Tsarina and their family told against the epic sweep of early 20th century Russian history. Massie had first-hand experience of hemophilia in her own family, allowing her to brilliantly shed light on how the Tsarina was tormented by her only son’s life-threatening illness and, in turn, how that contributed to the fall of the Romanovs. Although some scholarly details have evolved, the book remains a classic.

2. An Uncommon Woman: Hannah Pakula’s Empress Frederick (1996)
The story of Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter, “Vicky”, whose family life resembles a Shakespearean tragedy, shaped by her father’s “noble” ideals and destroyed by her own son. Sent at a young age to Prussia to fulfill Prince Albert’s vision of using royal marriage to facilitate European peace, Vicky aimed to transplant British liberal values ​​to German soil. But when she became the mother of Prince Wilhelm, the future German Emperor, an unexpected human element entered the grand scheme.

3. The Ruin of a Princess told by the Duchess of Angoulême, translated by Katherine Wormeley (1912)
This is one of the most shocking primary sources I have come across, chronicling the catastrophic downfall of the French royal family at the height of the Robespierre terror through the eyes of a key witness: the daughter of Marie -Antoinette, Marie Therese. The only member of her family to survive the French Revolution, she wrote an account of her experience in prison as her father, Louis XVI, then her mother and finally her brother were taken from her. His heartbreaking story shows how quickly the noble aims of the revolution were reversed by the Terror and stands as a symbol for all time of innocent children caught up in war and revolution.

4. Bertie, A Life of Edward VII by Jane Ridley (2013)
The playboy prince was linked to around 50 women while his beautiful Danish wife, Princess Alexandra, suffered in silence. His actions rippled through the royal family; his mother could not look at him “without shudder” and his sons were sent on long journeys around the world as if to avoid any moral contamination. Bertie’s rite of passage from wayward husband to “European uncle” raised after Queen Victoria’s death, standing at the zenith of royal power, is brilliantly described in Jane Ridley’s revisionist biography.

5. The Three Emperors by Miranda Carter (2009)
This fascinating story intertwines the lives of Kaiser Wilhelm II, George V and Tsar Nicholas II, who grew up in Europe’s finest palaces during the golden years of the Belle Époque. But as the curtain rises on the 20th century, they find themselves swept away by the convulsions that are shaking the continent. The extent to which the tragedy that engulfed Europe was of their own making is examined in this scholarly and engaging account.

Tsar Nicholas II and his family. Photography: Aliyah

6. Queen Victoria by Lytton Strachey (1921)
This slim biography is a work of art that also serves to illuminate Victoria’s family dynamic. Strachey seeks to enter the inner sanctum of his mind and he reveals the marriage to Albert as “an angry struggle of wills”; her continued relationship with him after his death as “devoted guardian of a sacred mission”; and her affair with Mr Brown as a demonstration of “the strength of her will”.

7. The White Queen by Philippa Gregory (2009)
In his series of historical novels, The Cousins’ War, Gregory uncovers the power struggles of the York and Lancaster dynasties through the eyes of his key women, starting here with Elisabeth Woodville. The conflicting ambitions of Elisabeth, Anne Neville and Margaret Beaufort prove to be a compelling vehicle for exploring the complexities of the Wars of the Roses.

8. Hall of Wolves by Hilary Mantel (2009)
Mantel brings the Tudor court to life with the immediacy of a flying documentary on the wall, its ambiguous ‘hero’ Thomas Cromwell giving us his private view of Henry VIII and his family. In her Reith Lectures, Mantel described the process of writing a historical novel as “entering into a dramatic process” in which she hoped to activate the senses and find “the single detail that illuminates the page”.

9. The Royal Road to Fotheringhay by Jean Plaidy (1955)
As a child I was inspired by Plaidy’s immensely readable royal historical novels and this dramatic tale of Mary, Queen of Scots has it all. After her arrival in Scotland, the ex-French queen soon became entangled in dangerous liaisons which have since sparked controversy. Plaidy explores Mary’s politically tense life as accusations of murder and treason follow her doomed career.

10. The story of my life by Queen Marie of Romania (1934-35)
As one of Queen Victoria’s grandchildren, Marie was part of an elite circle of European royalty at the height of her power. In her colorful memoir, she provides first-hand accounts of her remarkable family: her first cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm, who made her feel “all prickly of opposition”; his aunt, Princess Alexandra, whose beauty “caused the same joy as a rare orchid” and rising above them all, “Grandmama-Queen”, whose authority and prestige were almost “fetishistic “, inspiring both fear and anxiety.


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