By Thomas Filbin
Crown and Scepter is generally entertaining, and it has the educational benefit of helping readers keep straight the Williams, Henrys, Edwards and Georges who held the ancient throne.
Crown & Scepter: A New History of the British Monarchy, from William the Conqueror to Elizabeth II by Tracy Borman. Grove/Atlantic, 555 pages, $32.
Judging by the huge popularity of The crown, Downton Abbey, The Queen, and Helen Mirren, we Americans are not valiant Republicans (small r), but delusional monarchists and budding aristocrats. What else explains the cult of mysticism, this love of robes and crowns? Complex psychological theories can (and will be) invoked, but the simplest explanation is that an unreasonable love of fantasy, power, and spectacle dulls the banality of everyday life.
Tracy Borman, co-curator of historic royal palaces and author of numerous books on historical subjects, has written an entertaining one-volume compendium of conquests (political and romantic), successes, failures, triumphs, shenanigans and follies of forty-one monarch dating from 1066 to the present day. One of the curious similarities between the various houses – Normans, Plantagenets, Lancasters and Yorks, Tudors, Stuarts, Hanoverians and Windsors – is that very few could be considered strictly “English”. More French, Scottish and German blood flowed through the veins of British monarchs than any of them would ever care to admit. Perhaps, for American lovers of Masterpiece Theater and British sovereigns, that’s part of the dream: you can become “English” if you want to.
It would be a marathon of scrutiny to assess Borman’s view of all members of the royal family. Here is a fair sample of his selections, his method and his judgments. It begins its history with the accession to the throne in 1066 of Guillaume de Normandie, a bastard son who pleads for the right of descent but actually uses the right of conquest. International law has always recognized a certain validity to the winner when he declares that he has won won. The Normans were a fighting lot and were finally able to put down the Saxon resistance after many rebellions. A new England was created, one where kings spoke French for the first few hundred years. One of the Norman problems was that they now claimed to rule two geographies: England plus Normandy and all related French fiefdoms. Constant incursions to do battle with the King of France eventually led to the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453). Feudalism, Borman notes, was the basis of European social structure and “William reinforced it with more vigor than before…” with the king at the top of a social pyramid. In theory, he was the sole landowner – all others were landlords only at his discretion. the Dome Day Book, a list of properties for the time, remains a telling artifact. William’s choice to allow certain English government practices to continue – they were more effective than his Norman practices – led to a mixing of cultures, not an eradication of English processes.
Richard the Lionheart (1189-1199) was a legend, although Borman outlines much of what we know about Richard, his brother King John, and pop culture figures such as Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham are more fiction than fact, true in some details but not entirely accurate. Richard’s penchant for crusades, a habit of all medieval Christian monarchs, nearly bankrupted England. He took long absences from the country to fight Saladin with the evil John reigning in his place and endured being taken prisoner by Leopold of Austria (along with friends like this…). He was not released until a ruinous ransom was paid involving the intercession of his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, the pope and the emperor. Richard was shot by an arrow while suppressing a revolt in France; his wound was mistreated by a surgeon so he died of gangrene at age forty-one. Sic transit gloria mundi.
Henry VIII is one of the most interesting figures Borman deals with. She cuts to the chase right from the start, noting how hard Henry had sought from the beginning of his reign to differentiate himself from his father, Henry VII. Possessing a tall, imposing frame (6ft 2in and an athletic build), capable of weapons of war, horsemanship, music and dancing, Borman calls him an “outgoing, affable and outgoing, and could dominate as well as charm anyone”. picking.” On the negative side, he had inherited his grandfather’s vanity, gluttony, and license. Initially, the Tudor era promised greatness, but the scandal of Henry’s affair with Anne Boleyn and the battle to obtain a divorce from Queen Catherine plunged the country into civil war. The executioner’s ax continued to strike. Woe to those who stand between a king and his will to power.
Elizabeth I wins Borman’s admiration: “More than any other monarch, Elizabeth had learned from the mistakes of her predecessors.” Adept at propaganda and self-promotion, she surrounded herself with poets and playwrights who “conjured up powerful images to reinforce both the legitimacy and the strengths of her reign”. Because she never married to produce an heir, it would fall to her relatives, the Scottish Stuarts, to provide the next four monarchs. Borman argues that Elizabeth’s reluctance to commit to the prospect of marriage was a successful ploy. She wanted her courtiers to imagine her as an indecisive woman who needed direction. She could use the element of surprise to turn the tide, demanding action when necessary.
Charles I, in Borman’s opinion, would have been a better king had he not been addicted to women. If you gathered all his mistresses and illegitimate children, they would fill the throne room. That said, he brought “joy” back to England by reopening theaters after the dark interregnum of Cromwellian Puritanism. His brother, James II, lost the throne because of his crypto-Catholicism: he remarried an Italian princess who bore him a son long after it was assumed that his daughter Mary would inherit and continue the rule Protestant.
Borman quickly dispenses with Hanoverians: George I was “an honest and boring German gentleman”, George II a dunce, George III quite crazy at times and George IV a playboy addicted to gluttony, drunkenness and gambling while William IV , a young son, was amiable and informal and fathered Queen Victoria. Victoria gave her name to the age, her emblematic ruler of a period devoted to poise, formality and ironcladness. What the Hanoverians left in their wake was stability and illegitimate offspring, including the descendant of one of them who became Prime Minister: David Cameron.
Among the Windsors, Borman has little to say and maybe that’s a good thing. Historical judgments often need at least a century to ferment. Honesty grows over time. Will there be a monarchy in a hundred years? Guess what. Perhaps it will turn into a more modest, more buttoned-up institution, like those of the Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands. Kings wear suits and ties more often than crowns and scepters. The only hope that monarchs will not be canceled is to make them less elevated, to become on the level of the people they lead.
Crown and Scepter is not a deep dive; it’s an efficient and quick walk through the players and their times. The tale is generally entertaining, and it has the educational benefit of helping readers keep straight the Williams, Henrys, Edwards and Georges who held the ancient throne. Perhaps, taken collectively, these royals are no better or worse than the cast of presidents-elect we’ve endured.
I once saw the back of Queen Elizabeth’s head as she got into her car as she drove away from one of the colleges in Oxford where she had come to make a dedication. For me, a life where the daily routine is pre-arranged, filled with stilted visits, introductions, handshakes and bows would be boring. Are we not talking about life in a prison lined with ermine, the freedom to be spontaneously banished oneself? Maybe someday some wise ruler will throw it all away, return the keys to the joint, and admit that at this point it’s not worth the effort: “I’d rather have a life of my own, Thank you .”
Thomas Filin is a freelance book reviewer whose work has been published in Literary criticism from the New York Times, the Boston Sunday Globe, and The Hudson Review.