The most compelling books on royal families, for me, are those that entwine a gripping personal narrative with a national or international story and help to deepen our understanding of history. To appreciate what is at stake for the protagonists and how they make their choices depends on how skilfully the historical context is woven into the writing without overloading the prose. My favourite books are those that provide fresh insights on historical events while allowing the reader to inhabit the world of the royal characters.
In my new book, Queen Victoria’s Matchmaking, I set out to explore how seven of her grandchildren acceded to senior royal positions across Europe in the years leading up to the first world war. As I sat in the royal archives in the Round Tower at Windsor reading the extensive correspondence between the queen and her grandchildren, it was clear that the queen had a passion for matchmaking. She effectively ran the world’s most exclusive dating agency, where one good-looking princess might find herself sought after by the heirs to several thrones. At a time when some kings and emperors still wielded power as autocrats or semi-autocrats, these marriages mattered – and it was within Queen Victoria’s unique power to shape the political landscape of Europe.
Gradually, the queen’s matchmaking began to take shape as a very human story, which shed light on her character as well as a crucial part of Europe’s history. Victoria could not foresee that the family dynamic also contained the seeds of its own catastrophic downfall in which cousin was set against cousin, husband against wife and even sister against sister.
What follows in no particular order are my favourite 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 firsthand experience of haemophilia in his own family which allows him to brilliantly illuminate how the tsarina was tormented by her only son’s life-threatening illness and in turn, how this contributed to the downfall of the Romanovs. Although a few details of scholarship have moved on, the book remains a classic.
2. An Uncommon Woman: The Empress Frederick by Hannah Pakula (1996)
The story of Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter, “Vicky”, whose family life reads like a Shakespearean tragedy, shaped by her father’s “noble” ideals and destroyed by her own son. Despatched at a young age to Prussia to fulfil Prince Albert’s vision of using royal marriage to help 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 great plan.
3. The Ruin of a Princess as told by the Duchesse d’Angoulême, translated by Katherine Wormeley (1912)
This is one of the most shocking primary sources I have come across, which relates the catastrophic downfall of the French royal family at the height of Robespierre’s terror through the eyes of a key witness: Marie Antoinette’s daughter, Marie Thérèse. The only member of her family to survive the French Revolution, she wrote an account of her experience in prison as first her father, Louis XVI, then her mother and finally her brother were taken from her. Her heartrending story shows how rapidly the noble aims of the revolution had become inverted by the Terror and stands as a symbol for all time of innocent children caught up war and revolution.
4. Bertie, A Life of Edward VII by Jane Ridley (2013)
The playboy prince was linked to some 50 women while his beautiful Danish wife, Princess Alexandra, suffered in silence. His actions reverberated around the royal family; his mother could not look at him “without a shudder” and his sons were sent on long voyages around the world as though to avoid any moral contamination. Bertie’s rite of passage from erring husband to the elevated “Uncle of Europe” after the death of Queen Victoria, standing at the zenith of royal power is brilliantly portrayed in Jane Ridley’s revisionist biography.
5. The Three Emperors by Miranda Carter (2009)
This compelling history interweaves the lives of Kaiser Wilhelm II, George V and Tsar Nicholas II, who grow 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 up in the convulsions shaking the continent. The degree to which the tragedy that engulfed Europe was of their own making is examined in this scholarly and engaging account.
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 sanctuary of her mind and he reveals the marriage to Albert as “a struggle of angry wills”; her continuing relationship with him after his death as “the devoted guardian of a sacred trust”; and her liaison with Mr Brown as a display of “the force of her volition”.
7. The White Queen by Philippa Gregory (2009)
In her series of historical novels, The Cousins’ War, Gregory unfolds the power struggles of the York and Lancaster dynasties through the eyes of its key women, starting here with Elisabeth Woodville. The conflicting ambitions of Elisabeth, Anne Neville and Margaret Beaufort prove to be a compelling vehicle with which to explore the complexities of the Wars of the Roses.
8. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2009)
Mantel brings the Tudor court alive with the immediacy of a fly-on-the-wall documentary, 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 one detail that lights up 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 got everything. After arriving in Scotland, the former French queen is soon entangled in dangerous liaisons that have provoked controversy ever since. Plaidy explores Mary’s politically fraught life as accusations of murder and treason track 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 very peak of its power. In her colourful memoirs, she provides vivid firsthand accounts of her remarkable family: her first cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm, who made her feel “all prickly with opposition”; her aunt, Princess Alexandra, whose beauty “gave the same joy as a rare orchid” and rising above them all, “Grandmama-Queen”, whose authority and prestige was almost “fetish-like”, inspiring both awe and anxiety.
- Queen Victoria’s Matchmaking by Deborah Cadbury is published by Bloomsbury, priced £25. It is available from the Guardian Bookshop for £21.25 including free UK p&p.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010