Compiled by Annabel
It’s time for another one of our themed lists, and what better subject for the Coronation of King Charles III tomorrow than a look back through the Shiny archives for books featuring the Kings and Queens of England, and showing the times they lived in, be they novels or biographies. We’ll go in chronological order, so I refreshed my memory by watching the Horrible Histories Monarchs Song – all together now… ‘William, William, Henry, Stephen…’ Links in the titles will take you to the full original reviews.
Henry II – King of the North Wind by Claudia Gold
Henry II, father of Richard Lionheart and King John, husband of Eleanor of Aquitaine and murderer by instruction of Thomas Becket is, as Gold points out and the reviewers in the broadsheets emphasise, almost more known for those around him than for himself. She makes sure the history of the women in the families she discusses, whether strong and in control of their own destinies (Henry’s mother, Mathilda; his wife, Eleanor), or moved around like marriage trophies, is included and celebrated as well as the battles and diplomacy of the men. The effect of all the warmongering and civil warfare – and of changes in the law – on ordinary people are also explored, which makes it a modern-feeling and inclusive work of history. (Liz Dexter, 2018)
Richard I – Night Crusader by Ronald Welch
First published in 1954, this is the first of twelve adventure novels for children written by Welch, following the Carey family of Llanstephan in Wales, spanning the twelfth to twentieth centuries. The Knight Crusader of the title is Philip D’Aubigny, a soldier in the company of Richard Coeur de Lion. They are comparatively short, at around 250 pages, so the action is intense and some of the incidental character development fairly thin. What this allows is lots of action, ably supported by excellent period detail – the books are packed with information about the sort of things which traditionally interested boys growing up in the 1950s! (Jodie Robson, 2014)
Henry VIII – Anna of Kleve – Queen of Secrets by Alison Weir
It is well known that Henry VIII had six wives – and none more mysterious than the one that he married virtually unseen, and parted from almost immediately. The fourth in Weir’s wonderful series of fictional biographies of these women, tells the story of Anna, usually known as Anne of Cleves. Weir, who is known for her historical biographies, carefully notes that she signed herself Anna, and it is Anna that she is called throughout this book. As with the previous books in the series, Henry himself remains a shadowy figure whose whims and decisions have far reaching impact on the lives of those around him. Each wife is separate with their own identity in the series, and Weir can back up each strand of her novel with her research and knowledge of the period. A brilliantly written novel which is a powerful installment in a series that is uniformly well written and powerful. (Julie Barham, 2019)
Lady Jane Grey – Sisters of Treason by Elizabeth Fremantle
Back in our early days, Elizabeth wrote us a lovely piece introducing this novel which is about the Grey sisters, Lady Katherine and Lady Mary, who are two overlooked figures who were at the heart of the struggle for the Tudor succession. They live their lives in the shadow of their sister, the deposed Queen, Lady Jane Grey, who had been executed for the threat she posed to the crown. Lady Katherine unwittingly becomes the focus of schemes to overthrow Elizabeth, and her imprudent nature plays into the hands of the plotters making her story one of constant danger, heightened tension and ultimate heartbreak. Sisters of Treason is the middle part of her Tudor trilogy, the first, Queen’s Gambit having concentrated on Catherine Parr (see below also!)
Elizabeth I – The Temptation of Elizabeth Tudor by Elizabeth Norton
This novel concerns itself with the potential marriage between the teenage Elizabeth Tudor and Thomas Seymour. The book focuses primarily on Seymour, his story being less well documented. This is the story of his rise and fall and of the risks that the young Elizabeth faced as a princess without the protection of her parents. Seymour would marry Henry’s VIII’s sixth and final wife Catherine Parr for love. However, before this Seymour had already courted the attentions of Princesses Mary and Elizabeth, and also possibly the child Jane Grey, making his hope to marry into royalty and power clear from the start. The novel shows how a young royal could become trapped, used as a pawn, between the competing factions looking for political dominance in the court. The backstabbing and political machinations make for a deeply involving account! (Laura Marriott, 2016)
James I – The Drowned City by K J Maitland
A world turned upside down is the subject of this vivid historical novel: politically a new royal house is in power, in reality as water washes away all the landmarks of a prosperous port. The city of Bristol suffers a terrible event one year exactly after men are executed for their alleged part in the Gunpowder Plot; a huge, tsunami-like wave washes into the city and drowns hundreds of people. This novel is a tense historical thriller featuring a man who goes by the name of Daniel Pursglove, a magician, a man with a past. Incidents from the court of James I and the actions of Cecil, his chief adviser in some respects, appear throughout the novel, not narrated by Daniel, but with a theme of the king’s unusual behaviour. Acting under threats from the highest level, he feels obliged to investigate whether another Catholic plot is brewing, and specifically if a certain Catholic leader is working in the ruined city of Bristol. First in a series featuring the resourceful Daniel. (Julie Barham, 2021)
Charles I – White King by Leanda de Lisle
de Lisle manages to combine her research with an eye for a readable story in which seems an effortless combination, though I am sure it is the result of living with the research. This is the story of a king whose fate is well known, as he literally fought for his throne only to die in a public execution. Despite this, the book manages to convey the humanity of not only Charles “Traitor, Murderer, Martyr” as it states in the title, but also his family and those who followed him, even to their own executions. This book offers much to the non-specialist reader who is interested in the story of a king and those around him. It also serves as a basis for further study for those willing to pursue his story. (Julie Barham, 2018)
Charles II – The Lost Diary of Samuel Pepys by Jack Jewers
Out next week in paperback, I’m reading this at the moment!
Jewers’ debut novel picks up one week after the last entry in Pepys’ diary. It’s early June 1669, Pepys is 36 and a renowned womanizer. In the book, Pepys must turn detective to uncover the murderer of a Crown agent at Portsmouth and gets into deep water as he uncovers a deadly plot. This entertaining novel certainly brings the Restoration to life with Charles II on the throne, the period detail is detailed and well-researched. This book is great fun, and given Jewers’ career as a filmmaker, surely it would make a wonderful TV series. (Annabel, 2023)
Queen Anne – A Want of Kindness by Joanne Limburg
Finally! A historical novelist whose wit and insight and glorious prose might threaten to topple Hilary Mantel from her throne. If you are a reader who, like me, loves historical novels that take you properly back to the past, not to some pasteboard pastiche with all the values of the 21st century, then hie thee to a bookshop for a copy of A Want of Kindness, the story of the last queen of the Stuart dynasty, Queen Anne.
When the novel opens, Anne is just a child; by the time it ends she is a 37-year-old wreck, nearly destroyed by endless stillbirths and miscarriages, wounded by bitter arguments with all her family and struggling with her own obesity and ill-health. Yet we’re left knowing that this woman will soon be crowned for a twelve-year rule. (Victoria, 2015)
George V – Never a Dull Moment by Jane Ridley
By the time I had closed this book I found I had become fond of George and had enjoyed his company. Jane Ridley, whose writing is impeccable and research admirable, seems to have a knack for finding good qualities in her subjects. Although George’s political acumen was far greater than we would think, my fascination was in his family relationships. His mother, Queen Alexandra, clung to her children. George adored her, spoke to her every day, and allowed her to organise his life even after his marriage, to the annoyance of Queen Mary. Later, uncomfortable with his eldest son who he viewed as a bit of a wastrel, and disapproving of his love life, he said, in a famous quote, that David (the future Edward VIII) would ruin himself after his (George’s) death and he hoped that the throne would go to his brother and then to Lilibet. And of course he was right! (Elaine Simpson-Long, 2021)
Edward VIII – Traitor King by Andrew Lownie
Subtitled ‘The scandalous exile of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’. It is extraordinarily difficult to find anything positive to say about this ghastly pair and, in particular, the Duke. I found while reading this biography that I had to keep putting it down and taking a break as the awfulness and emptiness of their lives was really depressing. To sum up, this is a story of a man who hated being Royal and who married a strong ambitious woman to whom he was totally in thrall. Once away from his royal life, it seemed he longed to return and when it was made clear to him this was not possible, became bitter calling his family cold and unfeeling, complaining about money and selling his and his wife’s story to the press. Sound familiar? (Elaine Simpson-Long, 2021)
Elizabeth II – Queen of Our Times by Robert Hardman
Robert Hardman has written an admirable book. It is refreshingly lacking in hyperbole and he has a journalistic style which makes for easy reading. The Royal Family has its problems and one of the most recent was ‘Megxit’ and the ensuing interviews and publicity emanating from the US. Hardman deals with this in a measured and non-sensationalistic way and it is clear that, as a trusted and fair reporter and writer, he has been given a great deal of cooperation by his sources.
She has been on the throne longer than Queen Victoria and for generations she has been an immovable figure – we just accept that she is around somewhere and I, for one, find it very reassuring to have a stable figure in society. Having a King rather than a Queen is going to take some getting used to. I am an unashamed royalist and I admire the Queen enormously. Robert Hardman has done her proud in this excellent biography in this, her Platinum Jubilee Year. (Elaine Simpson-Long, 2022)
Charles III – Bournville by Jonathan Coe
We’ve not reviewed any books at Shiny that are set since Charles acceded to the throne, but are including Coe’s delightful novel, as three of the landmark events that frame his history of one family over 75 years and three generations involve a younger Prince Charles: his investiture as Prince of Wales in 1969, Charles and Di’s wedding in 1981, and Diana’s funeral in 1997.
I remember visiting Caernarfon Castle in 1969 and some of the flags and set-up from the investiture were on display. Coe’s Clarke family are on holiday in Wales for the Prince of Wales’s investiture too – they have the knack of being in the appropriate place or situation at the right time for each event – a neat device which allows Coe to make the most of the synergy he creates from this juxtaposition for some splendid set pieces. Most of the time, the events themselves are watched en famille on the television, something that most of us probably did, making for a comfortable nostalgia, tempered by Coe’s trademark warmth, witty observation, and social comment. (Annabel, 2022)
Whether you’re a monarchist or not, we hope you enjoyed our trawl through the Shiny archives in search of as many Kings and Queens of England as we could find – admittedly, there are some big gaps, but this reflects the publishing world’s love for all things Tudor and Windsor in particular! Do let us know your suggestions to fill in any of these gaps, we’d love to hear them.