Two royal book reviews

Time for a couple of royal book reviews! I was fortunate enough to receive review copies of both of these books. Although they’re both about British royal history, they’re quite different in tone and subject matter. As it turned out, I liked them both.

Behind the Palace Doors: Five Centuries of Sex, Adventure, Vice, Treachery, and Folly From Royal Britain by Michael Farquhar takes a look at the personal lives of monarchs from Henry VIII to Elizabeth II. Actually, though, the author doesn’t have much to say about Queen Elizabeth II except that she is hard-working and dutiful.

Luckily (at least for writers) previous royals weren’t always so well-behaved. You probably know about Henry VIII’s six wives, but did you know that James I (VI of Scotland) was obsessed with witches, or that George III’s sister Caroline Matilde married a crazy Danish king and had a doomed love affair with her husband’s doctor?

Farquhar is selective about the stories he tells, so you’ll learn a lot about Elizabeth I’s rival Mary, Queen of Scots, but little about Elizabeth’s own romantic entanglements. Still, the book provides a good introduction to the subjects it does cover. I particularly enjoyed the chapters about future king Charles II’s adventure-filled escape from Parliamentary troops and George IV’s extremely wretched marriage to Caroline of Brunswick. For a fun, sometimes racy look at British royal history with all the boring parts left out, I recommend this book.

Giles Tremlett’s Catherine of Aragon: The Spanish Queen of Henry VIII is a more serious book, but again the author has done a good job of selecting his material and presenting it in a lively way. This book is not bogged down with dry, unnecessary details about politics or anything else. It sticks close to its subject, Catherine of Aragon, presenting her life story through her own eyes.

Catherine was Henry’s first wife, the one he decided to shed after he fell in love with Anne Boleyn. For years Queen Catherine fought doggedly for her rights and those of her daughter, Mary, making herself a virtual prisoner and preparing for the very real possibility of martyrdom as the frustrated king tried to terrorize her into submission.

As the atmosphere of fear thickened in May 1534, Catherine received yet another bullying visit from Henry’s emissaries… Catherine, they complained afterward, reacted “in great choler and agony and always interrupting our words.” She was not Henry’s subject, she retorted scornfully, but his wife… They had come armed, however, with a new threat. “They threatened her expressly with the punishments contained in the [Act of Succession], making it clear that this included death,” an indignant [Holy Roman Empire ambassador] Chapuys reported…

Catherine hurled it back in their faces. If any one of them wished to be her executioner, she said, they should step forward and perform the act there and then.

Catherine of Aragon was a bold and intelligent woman, and Tremlett presents her stubborn warrior spirit with sympathy without overlooking her faults. This is one of the best Tudor-era biographies I’ve read. Highly recommended!

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