Friday Royal Read: The Romanovs: 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore

The Romanovs: 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore, author of Jerusalem: The Biography, Catherine the Great and Potemkin and Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar begins by comparing the circumstances of two teenage boys. The first Romanov Czar, sixteen-year-old Michael I, was at the Ipatiev Monastery in Kostroma when he was approached by a delegation of Russian nobles imploring him to end the Time of Troubles by founding a new dynasty in 1613. Czar Nicholas II’s only son, Alexei, was thirteen when he was murdered along with the rest of his family by Bolshevik Revolutionaries in Ekaterinburg’s Ipatiev House in 1918. Michael and Alexei were the first and last heirs to a troubled dynasty that shaped Russian history for more than three hundred years.

The most famous figures from the Romanov dynasty, Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and Nicholas II are well known and have been the subject of dozens of books. Montefiore provides a fresh perspective on these rulers but the book really shines in its reinterpretation of more obscure Russian rulers. Peter the Great’s father, Alexei I has long been stereotyped as a meek and mild figure because of his piety but Montefiore makes clear that he was “an intelligent, restless and sharp tongued reformer who did not suffer fools gladly.” Peter the Great’s niece, Empress Anna’s harsh treatment of her nobles is often dismissed a personal caprice but Montefiore places her actions in the context of Peter’s determination to keep the nobility from becoming too powerful and threatening the ruler’s prerogatives.

Montefiore demonstrates the enduring influence of particular noble families from the seventeenth until the twentieth centuries such as the Dolgorukys and the Golitsyns. The support, or at least the obedience, of the nobility was crucial to an Emperor or Empress’s success as a ruler and is one of the reasons why serfdom existed in Russia until 1861, long after it had been abolished elsewhere in Europe. (Readers interested in the fate of the Russian nobility after the Revolutions of 1917 should read Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy by Douglas Smith.)

Montefiore avoids the names and patronymics familiar to readers of Russian novels and instead makes extensive use of nicknames to differentiate between Romanovs with similar names or successive generations of the same noble families. (A cast of characters at the beginning of each section provides the full names, titles and positions of all the people discussed in the book).  There are times when this device is effective: the inclusion of Catherine the Great’s nicknames for her favourites such as Alexander “Iced Soup” Vasilchikov and Alexander “Mr. Redcoat” Dmitriev-Mamonov provides insights about how she felt about them and why some were far more influential than others. For the reign of the last Czar, Montefiore makes use of the nicknames used within the Imperial family, bringing the reader closer to Nicholas II’s conflicts with his relatives in the last years of the Romanov dynasty.

In the early chapters of the book, however, the nicknames make the powerful figures of seventeenth century Russia seem like characters out of folklore, undermining their political significance. The Polish noblewoman and warlord Marina Mniszech, consort of False Dmitri I and II is called “Marinka the Witch” in the book and Alexei I’s sister, Irina, is described as a malevolent spinster. Since there are no other figures in this section named Marina or Irina, these nicknames are unnecessary and provide a needlessly one dimensional image of these two powerful women.

Throughout The Romanovs: Ruling Russia 1613-1917, Montefiore makes clear that in an absolute monarchy, the personal is political and that the favourites and interests of each sovereign shaped state policy for more than three hundred years. Montefiore brings the Romanov rulers to life and addresses their impact on Russian politics and society today.

Other Books about the Romanov Dynasty:

The Romanov dynasty from beginning to end has been the subject of at least four major English language books before The Romanovs: 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore.

The magisterial The Romanovs: Autocrats of All the Russias by W. Bruce Lincoln separates the personal narratives of individual Czars from their domestic and foreign policies, providing a wider history of Imperial Russia as well as history of the dynasty. Like Montefiore, Lincoln devote an extended section to the last Czar and the collapse of the Romanov dynasty.

In The Romanovs: Ruling Russia 1613-1917, Lindsay Hughes provides an insightful analysis of the dynasty, highlighting the changing role of women in Imperial Russia. The impact of Peter of the Great’s reforms on the Russian elite  receives particular attention. Readers interested in the wider impact  of each Czar’s personality and policies both within Russia and abroad will want to turn to the books by Lincoln and Hughes after reading Montefiore’s The Romanovs: 1613-1918.

 The Romanovs: The Rise and Fall of a Dynasty. by Ian Grey is written in a dry style with a much greater focus on the well known Romanov rulers than the lesser known sovereigns. He challenges the idea that the Romanovs were a tragic dynasty throughout their history and argues that Nicholas II’s predecessors often ruled successfully. Grey was writing in the 1960s and the role of the Soviet Union in the Cold War influences his interpretation of Romanov Russia.

The Tragic Dynasty: A History of the Romanovs by John Bergamini is written in an accessible style and covers the entire three hundred year scope of the Romanov dynasty. Like Grey, however, Bergamini was writing before the collapse of the Soviet Union and therefore did not have access to the full range of sources available to historians today. The book also contains numerous genealogical errors.

Next: Royal Tourists, Colonial Subjects and the Making of a British World, 1860-1911 by Charles V. Reed

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Friday Royal Read: On The Trail of the Yorks by Kristie Dean

Medieval royalty were always on the move. The monarchs from the House of York who ruled England in the late fifteenth century (Edward IV, Richard III and the short lived “Prince in the Tower” Edward V) traveled around their kingdom dispensing justice and asserting their authority. Royal children were fostered in noble households then young men traveled on military campaigns, sometimes accompanied by their wives. Royal women who made dynastic marriages  to foreign princes traveled far from home to their new households.

The  Wars of the Roses resulted in unexpected travels for royalty who were forced to flee abroad or into places of religious sanctuary when events turned against them.  In On the Trail of the Yorks, Kristie Dean, author of The World of Richard III, follows in the footsteps of the House of York, visiting the sites of castles, cathedrals and towns associated with Richard III as well as his parents, siblings, children, nieces and nephews.

On the Trail of the Yorks is both a series of short biographies of the key figures from the House of York and a guidebook detailing the history and visitor information for the places familiar to them. Dean begins with Richard, Duke of York and Cecily Neville, parents of Edward IV and Richard III, examining how their sudden changes of fortune during the Wars of the Roses sent them as far afield as Ireland and France.

The travels of the famous Yorkist kings and their siblings are then discussed in detail. While numerous books about the Yorks end with Richard III’s defeat at the Battle of Bosworth field, Dean continues into the reign of Henry VII, visiting the places significant to the first Tudor queen consort, Elizabeth of York and her book will be of interest to those interested in Henry VIII’s childhood.

In addition to providing a fresh perspective about the House of York, On the Trail of the Yorks reveals how the House of Plantagenet acquired properties over the course of successive reigns and what eventually happened to these estates. With the notable exception of Margaret of York’s marriage to the Duke of Burgundy, Yorkist royalty married members of the English nobility and acquired properties inherited by landed heiresses such as Cecily, Isabel and Anne Neville. Members of the landed gentry convicted of treason often forfeited their estates to the Crown and these new lands were integrated into the royal domains.

There is a popular perception that the British Isles are filled with medieval castles but On the Trail of the Yorks reveals how few of the buildings familiar to fifteenth century royalty are still standing. The dissolution of the monasteries during the reign of King Henry VIII, the English Civil Wars of the 1640s, The Great Fire of London in 1666 all contributed to the destruction of medieval royal residences and places of worship.

The only trace of Palace of Placentia at Greenwich beloved by Elizabeth of York is a plaque commemorating the birth of her son Henry VIII and granddaughters, Mary I and Elizabeth I. The medieval St. Paul’s cathedral burned down in the Great Fire and was replaced by the modern cathedral designed by Sir Christopher Wren. There is now a Travelodge hotel on the site of the Blue Boar Inn where Richard III reputedly spent the night before the Battle of Bosworth Field and the Duke of Buckingham is reputed to haunt the Debenhams department store near the site of his execution. On the Trail of the Yorks bridges the divide between how these sites appear to a modern visitor and how they would have looked to the House of York.

There are two kinds of readers who will be interested in On the Trail of the Yorks: armchair travelers interested imagining the settings of the Yorkist court and actual travelers looking for information about which sites are open to visitors and whether parking or transit connections are available. Dean provides a wealth of information for both kinds of readers. On the Trail of the Yorks brings the settings of the Yorkist court alive and encourages readers to follow in the footsteps of Richard III and his family during their own travels to the United Kingdom, Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands and France.

Click here to purchase On the Trail of the Yorks from Amazon.

Next week: The Romanovs: 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore

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New Canadian Encyclopedia Article: Letters Patent, 1947

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth at Toronto City Hall in 1939

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth at Toronto City Hall during their 1939 Canadian tour

My recent article in the Canadian Encyclopedia discussed the Letters Patent, 1947.

The Letters Patent Constituting the Office of Governor General and Commander-in-Chief of Canada, usually shortened to Letters Patent, 1947, was an edict issued by King George VI that expanded the role of the governor general, allowing him or her to exercise prerogatives of the sovereign. While Letters Patent delegated Crown prerogatives to the governor general, the sovereign remains Head of State.

Click here to read Letters Patent, 1947 in the Canadian Encyclopedia

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New Canadian Encyclopedia Article: Sovereign

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh leaving the Royal York hotel in Toronto on a tour of Canada in 2010.

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh leaving the Royal York hotel in Toronto on a tour of Canada in 2010.

My latest article in the Canadian Encyclopedia discusses the role of the sovereign in Canada’s government.

Under Canada’s constitutional monarchy, the sovereign is head of state, the legal foundation of the executive branch of government and one part of Parliament — along with the Senate and House of Commons. The current sovereign of Canada is Queen Elizabeth II.

Click here to read my article on the Sovereign in the Canadian Encyclopedia.

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Ms. Suffragette Interview Part 2: Queens Behaving Badly

Part 2 of my interview with Ms Suffragette – five University of Alberta law students blogging about the women’s suffrage movement in Canada – discussed my latest book Queenship and Revolution in Early Modern Europe: Henrietta Maria and Marie Antoinette. Both Queen Henrietta Maria, consort King Charles I of England and Scotland, and Queen Marie Antoinette, consort to King Louis XVI of France were controversial figures who were criticized as wives and mothers during time periods when the role of women within their families was under scrutiny.

Click here to read Part 2 of my interview with Ms. Suffragette: Queen’s Behaving Badly

Click here to read Part 1 of my interview with Ms. Suffragette: “What exactly are “suffragettes”, and Why did Queen Victoria hate them?”

Click here to purchase my book, Queenship and Revolution in Early Modern Europe: Henrietta Maria and Marie Antoinette

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Ms. Suffragette Interview: Queen Victoria’s Opposition to Women’s Suffrage

Queen Victoria at the time of her Diamond Jubilee in 1897

Queen Victoria at the time of her Diamond Jubilee in 1897

I discussed the campaign for women’s suffrage in 19th and early 20th century Britain and Canada with Ms. Suffragette, five University of Alberta Law Students who are blogging about the women’s suffrage movement.

In the interview, I discuss the differences between “suffragists” and “suffragettes” and how they were perceived differently over the course of the campaign for women to receive the vote.

I also discuss Queen Victoria’s opposition to women’s suffrage. Although Queen Victoria was the Head of State, she held traditional views about separate spheres for men and women and opposed women voting and running for public office. In contrast, her daughters were more sympathetic to women of all social backgrounds assuming a greater role in public life and supported philanthropic endeavors that improved women’s lives. Queen Victoria’s fourth daughter Princess Louise quietly received suffragists and was connected to prominent figures in the women’s suffrage movement.

Click here to read: “What exactly are “suffragettes”, and Why Did Queen Victoria Hate Them?” on the Ms. Suffragette blog

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BBC News Interview: When the Duke of Windsor met Adolf Hitler

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor meeting with German Chancellor Adolf Hitler in 1937

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor meeting with German Chancellor Adolf Hitler in 1937

A collection of 60 photographs of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor – the former King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson – touring Nazi Germany in 1937 has been auctioned for £6,830 this week. I was interviewed by BBC News about the controversial royal visit and am quoted in the article “When the Duke of Windsor met Adolf Hitler.

Following his abdication in 1936, the Duke of Windsor was eager to carve out a new role for himself and ensure that his wife was treated as a full member of the royal family even though she had not received the title of “Her Royal Highness.” There was no precedent for an abdicated sovereign assuming an active public role on behalf of the current sovereign and the Duke was frustrated that he appeared to be expected to live a quiet life in exile.

The Duke of Windsor was familiar with Germany and had numerous relatives there. He seems to have envisioned a diplomatic role for himself as a mediator between Britain and Germany. Right up until the outbreak of the Second World War, there were senior figures in the British government who thought a lasting peace could be negotiated through diplomacy and the the Duke seems to have shared their views. When war was imminent in 1939, the Duke contacted Hitler hoping to negotiate a peaceful solution, attempting to draw upon the rapport they developed during the 1937 visit.

The Duke of Windsor’s ties with Nazi Germany made him a liability for Britain during the Second World War and he was appointed Governor of the Bahamas, which removed him from Europe for the remainder of the war. In the Bahamas, the Duke and Duchess  continued to cause anxiety for the British government as their visits to the United States attracted an enormous amount of public attention and the Duke expressed pessimism about a British victory. He would not receive further official positions following the end of his term as Governor of the Bahamas.

Click here to my interview with BBC news in the article “When the Duke of Windsor met Adolf Hitler”

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor in Government House in 1941

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor in Government House in 1941

For more about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in the Bahamas, see my blog posts:

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s Arrival in the Bahamas in 1940

Miami and a Murder Mystery: The Duke of Windsor as Governor of the Bahamas 1940-1945

For further reading about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, see my book reviews:

That Woman by Anne Sebba: Book Review of the latest biography of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor

Friday Royal Read: Princes at War: The Bitter Battle Inside Britain’s Royal Family in the Darkest Days of WWII by Deborah Cadbury

The Woman Before Wallis: Prince Edward, The Parisian Courtesan and The Perfect Murder by Andrew Rose (Review)


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My 3rd Book: Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting is now available for pre-order

I am excited to announce that my 3rd book, Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting will be published by Dundurn Press on April 8, 2017.

The book examines How twenty-five sets of royal parents raised their children over the past thousand years, from keeping the Vikings at bay to fending off paparazzi.

William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, are setting trends for millions of parents around the world. The upbringing of their two children, Prince George and Princess Charlotte, is the focus of intense popular scrutiny. Royalty have always raised their children in the public eye and attracted praise or criticism according to parenting standards of their day.

Royal parents have always faced unique privileges and challenges. In medieval times, raising an heir often meant raising a rival, and monarchs sometimes faced their grown children on the battlefield. Kings and queens who lost their thrones through wars or popular revolutions found solace in time spent with their children. In modern times, royal duties and overseas tours have often separated young princes and princesses from their parents, a circumstance that is slowly changing with the current generation of royalty.

The book is currently available for pre-order from Indigo, Amazon and other booksellers.

Click here to pre-order Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting from

My other books also available from Amazon:

Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada: Democracy, Law, and Human Rights

Queenship and Revolution in Early Modern Europe: Henrietta Maria and Marie Antoinette

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Friday Royal Read: Agincourt by Anne Curry

2015 was not only the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta but the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt during the Hundred Years’ War. Like Magna Carta, the first example of an English monarch accepting limits on his power imposed by his subjects, Agincourt, a key English victory over France took on new significance as the centuries passed. Both Magna Carta and Agincourt became symbols of what it meant to be English, informing a developing national identity. In Agincourt, part of the Great Battles series, historian Anne Curry, author of Henry V: From Playboy Prince to Warrior King and co-author of Bosworth 1485: A Battlefield Rediscovered traces Agincourt’s cultural and political influence from the Hundred Years’ War to the present day.

The Battle of Agincourt took place in 1415, in the midst of a time of transition in English history and literature. King Henry V, the victor of the battle, and his father Henry IV conducted the business of state in English instead of the Norman French used by their predecessors since 1066. There was a growing middle English vernacular literature informed by the work of Geoffrey Chaucer, poet laureate during the reign of Henry V’s great-grandfather, Edward III. The decades long conflict with the French contributed to an emerging sense of English identity.

One of the key themes of Agincourt is separating the facts of the battle from the legends popularized by William Shakespeare’s play Henry V. The stirring St. Crispin’s day speech by Henry V in the play was treated as historical fact from the eighteenth century until the twentieth century and was reprinted in its entirety in The Times for the 500th anniversary of Agincourt in 1915.

As Britain’s Empire expanded over the course of the 19th century, the battle became synonymous with courage in times of adversity. The play was staged during times of military conflict and the famous 1944 film version starring Lawrence Olivier was informed by the Second World War. There was no French translation until 1999 and the play was unsurprisingly not as well received in France as it has been in the English speaking world.

The impact of Agincourt on nationalism continues to the present day. Although Wales was governed by England at the time of the battle, stories of the importance of Welsh archers to the victory over France contributed to modern Welsh national identity. In 1995, Baroness White of Rhymney, wrote to The Times that the victory over the French would not have been possible without “the 5,000 longbowmen, mainly from Gwent.” mid-21st century analysis of the surviving muster rolls, which reveal comparatively limited Welsh participation has done little to changes views of the significance of Agincourt in Wales.

The legacy of Agincourt spread throughout the English speaking world including Canada. In her discussion of the mythology of the battle, Curry discusses the legend of how the Toronto suburb of Agincourt received its name. In 1858, a general store owner in the area named John Hill needed financial support to expand his business and open a post office. A friend from Quebec agreed to invest on the condition that a French name was given to the settlement. Hill chose Agincourt because it was the only name fulfilling the conditions of the investment that was also acceptable to the English and Scottish residents of the community. Curry concludes that the story “may be apocryphal” but is one more example of the Battle of Agincourt’s enduring cultural influence.

Click here to purchase Agincourt: Great Battles Series by Anne Curry from

Click here to purchase my book Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada: Democracy, Law, and Human Rights from

Next: Braddock’s Defeat: The Battle of the Monongahela and the Road to Revolution by David L. Preston

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Upcoming Guest Lecture: Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada at the King Township Historical Society

I will be giving a talk about my book, Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada: Democracy, Law, and Human Rights at the King Township Historical Society’s Annual General Meeting on March 6.

For more information, click here to read the KTHS newsletter.

Click here to purchase your copy of Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada: Democracy, Law, and Human Rights

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