Category Archives: Book Reviews

Elizabeth of York: The First Tudor Queen by Alison Weir (Review)

King Henry VIII’s mother, Elizabeth of York, has emerged from the shadows. After decades of obscurity compared to her son’s six wives, Elizabeth is now the subject of popular biographies and historical novels alike including Elizabeth of York: The Forgotten Tudor Queen by Amy License and The White Princess by Philippa Gregory. The England of Elizabeth’s lifetime has also captured the public’s imagination. The recent discovery of the remains of Elizabeth’s uncle, Richard III, has revived interest in the Battle of Bosworth Field where her future husband, Henry Tudor seized the crown and founded a new dynasty that united the Houses of Lancaster and York. In Elizabeth of York: The First Tudor Queen, Alison Weir, author of sixteen medieval and Tudor biographies and five historical novels tells the story of the first Tudor Queen and her tumultuous times.

Elizabeth was popular in her own lifetime and idealized by Victorian biographers because she appeared to be the ideal Tudor wife, mother and queen consort, providing quiet support and legitimacy for Henry VII’s rule. While source material concerning Elizabeth’s life, particularly before her marriage, is frustratingly incomplete compared to her more famous children and grandchildren, Weir emphasizes evidence that she exerted influence over her family and court. The “Song of Lady Bessy” imagined her actively plotting to place Henry Tudor on the throne and secure their marriage. Her account books as queen reveal her extensive charitable activities and court patronage. Elizabeth also worked with her powerful mother-in-law, Margaret Beaufort, to influence Henry VII’s policies, particularly the dynastic marriages of her children. There are a few places where speculation is presented as fact, most notably Weir’s controversial view that Elizabeth “was actively pushing” for a marriage to her uncle, Richard III, but most of the analysis of Elizabeth’s character is clearly supported by surviving source material.

In additional to revealing Elizabeth’s full role at the Tudor court, Weir provides an evocative portrait of her world. Elizabeth’s father, Edward IV, imitated the sumptuous display of the Burgundian court and the young princess therefore grew up in an atmosphere of great luxury. At the same time, the political circumstances of the Wars of the Roses made her position precarious. She experienced two periods of sanctuary in Westminster Abbey and was declared illegitimate by Richard III before becoming Henry VII’s queen. The disappearance of Elizabeth’s brothers, the Princes in the Tower, remains a mystery to the present day. Weir is critical of revisionist interpretations of Richard III’s reign and blames him for the death of his nephews, summarizing convincing evidence from her previous book, The Princes in the Tower.

The second two thirds of the book is stronger than the first because there are more sources about Elizabeth’s time as a queen than a princess. The early chapters would benefit from a more thorough discussion of English attitudes toward female succession in the Middle Ages. Weir writes, “in the fifteenth century it would have been unthinkable for a woman to succeed to the throne” but there had actually been plenty of debate about women’s succession rights. William the Conqueror’s granddaughter, Matilda, briefly held power in 1141, during a Civil War with her cousin, King Stephen.

England explicitly upheld women’s succession rights during the reign of Edward III when a proposal to introduce a Salic law was defeated by parliament. The Wars of Roses resulted in both men and women losing succession rights that they would have enjoyed in peacetime. Outside England, there were prominent examples of female rulers in the fifteenth century including Queen Isabella of Castile and Mary, Duchess of Burgundy. A key reason why Henry Tudor was determined to marry Elizabeth, and there was speculation that Richard III contemplated marrying his niece, was because she was a rival claimant to the throne.

Elizabeth of York: The First Tudor Queen is a well written and interesting portrait of Elizabeth of York’s life and times. Weir captures the unique circumstances of Elizabeth’s world, which combined sumptuous display and deadly political intrigue. Greater attention to the medieval English debate over female succession would have made the narrative stronger, demonstrating how Elizabeth’s granddaughters, Mary I and Elizabeth I were able to establish themselves as England’s first undisputed female rulers.


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Monarchy and the End of Empire: The House of Windsor, the British Government and the Postwar Commonwealth by Philip Murphy (Review)

The second Monday in March is Commonwealth Day and Queen Elizabeth II will mark the occasion by attending a multi-faith service at Westminster Abbey with the Duke of Edinburgh, High Commissioners, Commonwealth dignitaries and young people from around the world. Women’s education advocate Malala Yousafzai will deliver the keynote address. The 2000 person congregation will be the largest Commonwealth Day observance but similar events will take place around the world including a Canadian Commonwealth Day Observance Service in Toronto, in the presence of The Honourable David C. Onley, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario.

In the twenty-first century, the Queen as Head of the Commonwealth and the Commonwealth as a family of nations are synonymous in the popular imagination. Recent coverage of Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (CHOGMs) has emphasized the importance of these events for the Queen and the future of the monarchy. In 2011, coverage of the Perth CHOGM focused on the support for succession reform in the sixteen Commonwealth Realms where the Queen is Head of State. In 2013, the presence of the Prince of Wales in Sri Lanka, representing the Queen, sparked discussion of the changing face of the monarchy as the Queen’s children and grandchildren assume more of the royal duties and overseas engagements once undertaken by the monarch.

In Monarchy and the End of Empire: The House of Windsor, the British Government, and the Postwar Commonwealth, Philip Murphy, Director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and Professor of British and Commonwealth Studies at the University of London explains that the current “Royal Commonwealth” was a controversial idea for much of the organization’s history. As much of the former British Empire transformed into a Commonwealth of independent nations after the Second World War, it seemed inevitable that the connection with the monarchy would gradually weaken. Newly independent African nations were encouraged to become republics rather than constitutional monarchies. The Queen took her role as Head of the Commonwealth seriously and became the most traveled monarch in history but the desirability of a “ceremonial head” for the Commonwealth was a matter of debate.

For Canadian readers, there is plenty of fascinating material about the decline and rebirth of the Canadian monarchy during the reign of Elizabeth II. In recent years, Australia had a referendum about the future of the monarchy while Canada was chosen as a friendly destination for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s first overseas tour as a married couple in 2011. During the 1960s, Canada was the nation that appeared more likely to become a republic as the Quiet Revolution fostered negative attitudes toward the Crown in Quebec and prominent Canadians mused about the gradual decline of the monarchy in Canada. The Duke of Edinburgh’s remark at a 1969 Ottawa press conference, “We don’t come here for our health…we can think of other ways of enjoying ourselves” has been dismissed as a gaffe but Prince Philip was actually making a larger point about how monarchy exists in the interests of the people rather than the monarch.

Murphy also provides a fresh perspective on the Queen through his analysis of the Commonwealth. A number of recent biographies focus on her role as Queen of the United Kingdom and therefore emphasize her ceremonial role. By looking at the Queen through the context of the Commonwealth, Murphy reveals her multifaceted political influence around the world over the course of her reign. The Queen supported sanctions to aid the collapse of apartheid in South Africa and encouraged continued democracy in Ghana. Murphy also illuminates the influence of gender on public perceptions of the monarchy. Just as the public saw Queen Victoria as the “mother” of the British Empire, Elizabeth II has been viewed as a maternal figure for the Commonwealth.

Monarchy and the End of Empire: The House of Windsor, the British Government, and the Postwar Commonwealth is an erudite and engaging study of the relationship between the monarchy and the Commonwealth since the Second World War. For the past sixty-two years, the Queen has been the one constant figure in the organization, her role endlessly scrutinized by successive governments around the world. It remains to be seen if the current model of a “royal commonwealth” will remain successful during future reigns.

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The Mystery of Princess Louise: Queen Victoria’s Rebellious Daughter by Lucinda Hawksley (Review)

The Mystery of Princess Louise: Queen Victoria’s Rebellious Daughter, the full first biography of the controversial Princess in more than twenty years, makes an excellent first impression. The handsome cover depicts a colorized photograph of Louise, demonstrating her keen fashion sense. The author, Lucinda Hawksley, is a direct descendant of Charles Dickens and has written extensively about Victorian women and the arts in her previous books including Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel and Charles Dickens’ Favorite Daughter: The Life, Loves, and Art of Katey Dickens Perugini. The introduction presents the compelling argument that the Princess was not an obscure figure in her own lifetime but a celebrity and role model for nineteenth century women who questioned the social conventions of the period.

The Mystery of Princess Louise, however, does not live up to its early promise. While Hawksley presents a vivid portrait of the Victorian artistic milieu frequented by the Princess as a sculptor and painter, her analysis of Queen Victoria’s family dynamics contains inaccuracies and curious omissions. The chapters that cover Princess Louise’s time in Canada as consort of the Governor General also contain inaccuracies that suggest the author did little research regarding Canadian history beyond the public response to the presence of the royalty in the Dominion. The errors and omissions regarding known circumstances make it difficult to accept the author’s theories regarding why access to numerous archival collections related to the Princess remains restricted.

The Mystery of Princess Louise has attracted extensive press attention in the United Kingdom because of Hawksley’s theory that the Princess had an affair with her brother Leopold’s tutor, Walter Stirling, and gave birth to an illegitimate son who was adopted by Queen Victoria’s doctor, Sir Charles Locock. There were certainly cases of eighteenth and nineteenth century Princesses who bore children fathered by male members of the royal household including King George III’s daughter, Princess Sophia, and Princess Thyra of Denmark, who was the sister of Louise’s sister-in-law, the future Queen Alexandra. Both Sophia and Thyra spent their pregnancies in seclusion, the former in Weymouth, Dorset and the latter in Greece.

If Princess Louise had found herself in similar circumstances, it is probable that she too would have been sent away from court and experienced a period of seclusion, Hawksley does not mention the experiences of Sophia and Thyra. Instead, she argues that a pregnant Louise carried out public engagements and danced at a Scottish ball, concealing her condition under a maternity corset and numerous shawls, muffs and dress ruffles. She further posits that the baby remained within the royal household as an infant, cared for by the servants until the adoption by the Lococks. While Hawksley correctly states that there were cases of Victorian servant women who concealed pregnancies while going about their household duties, the seclusion of Sophia and Thyra demonstrates that was not the experience for Princesses. If Louise had borne a child before her marriage with Stirling or anyone else, she would have spent months away from the public eye.

In other sections of the book, there are factual inaccuracies. Alice, Countess of Athlone was the daughter of Prince Leopold not Princess Helena. Louise was not the first “royal” to marry a commoner since 1515 but the first Princess as future James II married Anne Hyde in 1660. There are also questionable interpretations of Queen Victoria’s views. Regarding Louise’s marriage to Lord Lorne, Hawksley states, “The Queen must have had ulterior motives for ‘marrying off’ Louise…to someone of a lower rank to whom the marriage would be an honour.” In fact, there are numerous examples of Victoria supporting the marriage of her children and grandchildren into families that were not considered fully royal, such as the Tecks and the Battenbergs. Hawksley also speculates that Queen Victoria accepted an affair between her daughter and the sculptor, Joseph Edgar Boehm, which is difficult to believe considering the Queen’s disproportionate reaction to her son Albert Edward’s affair with the actress Nellie Clifden.

The chapters concerning Louise’s time in Canada also contain inaccuracies and omissions. As I state in my article, “Royalty at Rideau Hall: Lord Lorne, Princess Louise and the Emergence of the Canadian Crown” in Canada and the Crown: Essays in Constitutional Monarchy, Prime Minister John A. MacDonald did not actually greet the royal couple upon their arrival in Halifax. Hawksley also curiously refers to Quebec as “French owned” on two different occasions, which was certainly not the case in 1878. The need for more Canadian history and politics in the narrative is most evident when the author attributes Lorne’s difficulties as Governor General to his alleged homosexuality and a possible “bitchy feud” between Princess Louise and the Prime Minister’s wife, Lady Macdonald. There is no mention of the key political conflict between Lorne and Sir John A. MacDonald regarding the dismissal of the Lieutenant Governor of Quebec, Luc Letellier.

The Mystery of Princess Louise: Queen Victoria’s Rebellious Daughter ends as well as it started, revealing the full extent of Louise’s charitable activities and public appearances in her old age. Hawksley’s book will bring Louise to the attention of a new generation and provoke plenty of discussion and controversy. The inaccessibility of key archival material means that there are still plenty of unanswered questions about the life of this fascinating historical figure. Unfortunately, the errors and omissions in The Mystery of Princess Louise undermine Hawksley’s attempts to separate fact from scandalous rumour.

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In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn by Sarah Morris and Natalie Grueninger (Review)

If your plans for 2014 include travel in the United Kingdom and France, pack a copy of In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn by Tudor history enthusiasts, Sarah Morris and Natalie Grueninger. As the subtitle states, the book is “The visitors companion to the palaces, castles & houses associated with Henry VIII’s infamous wife” but the book is much more than a travel guide. Morris and Grueninger have written an unconventional biography of Anne Boleyn through the lens of the places she visited and provided a unique snapshot of Tudor court life by retracing Henry VIII’s and Anne Boleyn’s 1535 progress. In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn is also a unique architectural history of Great Britain and France and an enjoyable travelogue about the authors searching for long lost Tudor palaces and abbeys.

Admirers of Anne Boleyn usually imagine the controversial Queen in three settings: Hever Castle, where she spent part of her childhood, Hampton Court Palace, where she presided over the Tudor Court with Henry VIII, and the Tower of London where she spent her last days before her execution. All three of these places are tourist attractions that attract thousands of visitors every year, who often forget that the sites no longer look the same as they did in Anne’s lifetime. Morris’s and Grueninger’s research reveals that Anne may have visited more than seventy places scattered throughout England, France and Belgium over the course of her short life.

By examining Anne’s life through its settings, the authors bring often overlooked aspects of the Queen’s character to the fore. Her time as a member of the household of Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy and Queen Claude of France meant that she was far more well traveled than Henry VIII, who never saw the Chateaux of the Loire Valley. Anne’s travels also revealed that she had a wide network of social and political connections and was clearly comfortable engaging with everyone from Kings, Queens and Duchesses to humbler clergymen or gentlefolk who hosted the royal party on their progresses. Most biographies of Anne Boleyn focus on her relationship with Henry VIII or her Boleyn and Howard relatives. Morris and Grueninger bring the full extent of Anne’s experiences and social circles to the fore, including key primary sources along with descriptions of palace and abbeys.

The travelogue aspects of In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn are just as interesting as the source material about Anne Boleyn’s life and Tudor times. In the modern age, any house where Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn stayed during their courtship and marriage is worthy of preservation in its original state but that was not the view in past centuries. The dissolution of the monasteries during the English reformation that permitted the marriage of Henry and Anne, resulted in the destruction of abbeys that the couple once visited together. Casualties of the English Civil Wars in the 1640s included key Tudor historic sites and Napoleon III’s transformation of Paris in the 19th century destroyed much of the medieval city. The settings of Anne’s life that survived into the 18th and 19th centuries often experienced “improvements” by Romantics or Victorians designed to evoke the feeling of a bygone age rather than the precise architecture. As a result, a book like In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn is necessary for tourists to distinguish original Tudor buildings from modern innovations.

Morris and Grueninger include their own impressions of each site in the narrative including frank comments about whether each the various obscure settings of Anne’s life are worth visiting. I have visited many of the palaces in the book, following the footsteps of Queen Henrietta Maria rather than Anne Boleyn and it’s great to read the impressions of other travelers who have walked around the ruins of Wolvesey Castle in Winchester and journeyed to Saint-Germain-en-Laye outside Paris to find traces of royal life in the rooms that now house the National Museum of Archaeology. I have noted some places in the book for my next visit to the United Kingdom and France this August.  In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn will appeal to a wide audience of readers interested in Anne herself, the times she lived in, how the architecture of England and France has changed over the centuries and planning a trip to historic sites off the beaten path.

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My article, “Royalty at Rideau Hall: Lord Lorne, Princess Louise and the Emergence of the Canadian Crown” published today

My article about Queen Victoria’s daughter and son-in-law in Canada, “Royalty at Rideau Hall: Lord Lorne, Princess Louise and the Emergence of the Canadian Crown” has been published today in the new book Canada and the Crown: Essays on Constitutional Monarchy, edited by D. Michael Jackson and Philippe Lagassé. This volume is an essential addition to any collection of books about the monarchy and/or Canadian history and politics, containing chapters about the role of the Crown in Canada from numerous perspectives including history,  the media, the constitution, the First Nations and French Canada.

Here is the abstract of my contribution to Canada and the Crown: Essays on Constitutional Monarchy, ”Royalty at Rideau Hall”:

Princess Louise in Canada, suitably dressed for winter weather.

Princess Louise in Canada, suitably dressed for winter weather.

In 1878, Queen Victoria’s son-in-law, John Campbell, Lord Lorne was appointed the fourth Governor General of Canada since Confederation. The arrival of Lord Lorne and his wife, Princess Louise, in Halifax to travel through Quebec City and Montreal to Ottawa to take up residence in Rideau Hall was the first post-confederation royal tour. Princess Louise was the first female member of the royal family to cross the Atlantic and visit North America. Historians often discuss Lord Lorne and the other British born Governors General of the 19th centuries as examples of Canada’s continued British identity after Confederation. The arrival of Lord Lorne and Princess Louise in 1878, however, provided an opportunity for Canadians to assert their nascent national identity by expressing their expectations of the new Vice Regal couple as Canadians. Newspaper coverage, correspondence and popular publications discussing the appointment of Lord Lorne and the arrival of the royal couple highlighted three key aspects of the emerging Canadian identity in 1878.

These cultural trends were loyalty to the crown (in contrast to the United States), a democratic society without class distinctions (in contrast to Great Britain) and a uniquely Canadian engagement with winter sports and the natural world. The enthusiastic welcome provided for the royal couple as they traveled from Halifax to Ottawa combined with the popular concerns that they would expect the same degree of deference accorded to members of the royal family reflected the emergence of a unique national culture in nineteenth century Canada. Lord Lorne and Princess Louise achieved popularity during their first months in Canada by responding to these expectations, holding broadly accessible events at Rideau Hall and embracing Canadian outdoor pastimes such as curling, fishing, skating and tobogganing. The arrival of the royal couple in Canada in 1878 provided the impetus for the articulation of a Canadian identity distinct from both Great Britain and the United States.

Click here to purchase Canada and the Crown: Essays in Constitutional Monarchy from Amazon.

Click here to purchase Canada and Crown directly from McGill-Queen’s University Press.

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Red Fortress: History and Illusion in the Kremlin by Catherine Merridale (Review)

The Moscow Kremlin is one of the world’s most recognizable landmarks. The imposing red brick walls and towers surrounding five cathedrals and four palaces appear to represent stability, enduring through Russia’s turbulent history. In Red Fortress: History and Illusion in the Kremlin, Catherine Merridale, professor of contemporary history at Queen Mary University in London and critically acclaimed author of Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945, reveals that it is a miracle that the Kremlin is still standing in the twenty-first century.

The fortress endured a medieval Mongol invasion, a foreign occupation during the seventeenth century Time of Troubles, neglect after Peter the Great moved his court to St. Petersburg, a city wide fire following Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and bombardment during the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Merridale’s exhaustive research, including visits to sections of the Kremlin rarely seen by the public, reveals that the how the Fortress and its significance has changed over the centuries. Whole buildings behind the walls have disappeared and other have been absorbed into new structures. With each new Russian ruler, the structure and symbolism of the Kremlin changed to reflect new ideas about the Kremlin’s place in Russian history and government.

Red Fortress is filled with fascinating details about the Russian leaders who left their mark on the Kremlin. In many English language works about the history of Russia, the personalities of the Grand Dukes of Muscovy and Czars of all the Russias who ruled prior to Peter the Great blend together, with the exception of the famous Ivan the Terrible, Merridale depicts each ruler as a unique individual with his own vision for the Kremlin. Ivan the Terrible’s grandfather, Ivan the Great (r. 1462-1505), who commissioned the modern red brick walls was “reputed to be so terrifying that his glance alone made women faint.”

Ivan the Great met his match in his second wife, Sophia, the niece of the last Byzantine Emperor. Members of Sophia’s household spread the rumour that “she nagged him twice a week” while an Italian poet described her as “a mountain of fat.” Sophia’s extensive knowledge of Renaissance European art and architecture transformed the Kremlin as she persuaded her husband to appoint Italian engineers, architects, cannon-founders and silversmiths to contribute to new buildings and defenses.

The founding of the Romanov dynasty in 1613 brought new Czars with new interests to the Kremlin. Peter the Great’s grandfather, Mikhail Romanov, the founder of the new dynasty may have been illiterate and dependent on his father in matters of state but he was fascinated by western technology such as mechanical clocks. Mikhail also commissioned the Terem Palace, which is now part of the official residence of the President of Russia. Peter the Great’s father, Aleksei I imported European science books for his library and installed a palace laboratory for science and alchemy experiments. Peter the Great himself had little use for the Kremlin as a seat of government but he recognized that it was the site of immense public interest, becoming the first Russian ruler to charge sightseers admission to tour the grounds.

Merridale’s narrative slows in the middle as the Imperial Russian court moved to St. Petersburg from 1713 to the abdication of Czar Nicholas II in 1917. During this period, Russia’s Czars were visitors to the Kremlin for major events such as coronations instead of permanent residents. When the capital returned to Moscow in 1918, the Kremlin was once again at the centre of events. Although Merridale does not draw direct comparisons between fifteenth and sixteenth century Muscovy and the twentieth century Soviet Union, readers will notice a number of parallels between the court of Ivan the Terrible and Stalin’s inner circle.

Red Fortress: History and Illusion in the Kremlin ends with the Kremlin bells ringing to greet Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh during their unprecedented state visit to Moscow in 1994. The fall of the Soviet Union ushered in a new era for Russia’s most famous landmark. The Kremlin continues to change with the times, serving as the seat of President Vladimir Putin’s government and the most popular tourist attraction in Russia.

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The Top Ten Royal History Books of 2013

During this past year, I have had the pleasure of reading and reviewing dozens of royal history books for this site. Here are my top ten favorites from 2013.

 1) Counting One’s Blessing: The Selected Letters Of Elizabeth The Queen Mother edited by William Shawcross. The life of Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother encompassed the entire twentieth century. Her lively correspondence is filled with fascinating details about royal life including overseas tours, royal engagements during the London Blitz and her close relationship with her grandson, the Prince of Wales. Click here to read the full review.

2) The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England’s Most Notorious Queen by Susan Bordo. King Henry VIII’s controversial second wife Anne Boleyn has inspired historians, novelists, artists, playwrights and screenwriters for centuries. This fascinating book combines history and popular culture to reveal how the Queen came to be seen as a villain, vixen or victim and how much remains unknown about the real Anne Boleyn. Click here to read the full review.

3) Kate: The Future Queen by Katie Nicholl. The Duchess of Cambridge has been the focus of royal news throughout 2013 as the world waited for the birth of her first child, Prince George of Cambridge, in July. Nicholl reveals new details about the history of the Middleton family, how William and Catherine first met, and just how much Catherine’s life changed when she began a relationship with the future King. Click here to read the full review

4) Prince Edward, Duke of Kent: Father of the Canadian Crown by Nathan Tidridge. Queen Victoria’s father, the Duke of Kent resided in Canada for most of the 1790s and yet his achievements during this period usually receive little attention. Tidridge restores the Duke of Kent to his rightful place in Canadian history. Click here to read the full review.

5) Daughter of Empire: Life as a Mountbatten by Pamela Hicks. Pamela (Mountbatten) Hicks, Prince Philip’s cousin and one of the Queen’s bridesmaids and ladies-in-waiting knew most of the royal personages of the twentieth century. As the daughter of Lord Mounbatten, she was also present for key historical events including the partition of India. Her entertaining memoirs capture the essence of her life and times. Click here to read the full review.

6) The Assassination of the Archduke: Sarajevo 1914 and the Romance That Changed the World by Greg King and Sue Woolmans. Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie are best known for their deaths, which served as the catalyst for the outbreak of the First World War. King and Woolmans illuminate their lives including their controversial romance, the Archduke’s vision for the future of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the tragic lives of their children. Click here to read the full review.

7) Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang. The Dowager Empress Cixi has been stereotyped as one of Chinese history’s great villains but she reigned at the same time as Queen Victoria and initiated reforms that continue to shape China today. Chang takes her reader into both the secluded world of the Forbidden City and the rapidly changing China beyond the palace walls. Click here for the full review,

8) The Crown and Canadian Federalism by D. Michael Jackson. In recent years, there has been a revival of interest in the monarchy in Canada. Jackson discusses the role of the crown in Canada’s provinces in a book that speaks to both scholars of Canadian history and politics, and general readers interested in learning more about the role of Canada’s monarchy. Click here to read the full review

9) The Diary of Olga Romanov: Royal Witness to the Russian Revolution edited by Helen Azar. The diary of Czar Nicholas II’s eldest daughter, Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaievna and other primary sources related to her life reveal her coming of age during the First World War and Russian Revolution. Click here to read the full review

10) Bertie: A Life of Edward VII by Jane Ridley. The best biography of Edward VII as Prince of Wales and King to date. Ridley has uncovered new sources about the Prince’s turbulent relationship with his parents, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and the influence of the various women in his life. Click here to read the full review.

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The Diary of Olga Romanov: Royal Witness to the Russian Revolution by Helen Azar (Review)

For decades after the murder of Russia’s last Imperial family in 1918, the public learned about Czar Nicholas II’s children through published memoir literature. There was demand for stories about the family life of Nicholas, Alexandra and their children so surviving relatives of the Imperial family and members of their household included this material in their memoirs regardless of how much time they actually spent behind palace doors. The result was a body of questionable received wisdom about the Czar’s daughters, Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia that persists to this day. Countless biographies of the Imperial couple and studies of their court describe the Grand Duchesses as “children” with little social life beyond their immediate family and few official duties.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s,  diaries and letters by the Imperial family and those who knew them well have been translated and published in volumes such as A Lifelong Passion: Nicholas and Alexandra Their Own Story, The Fall of the Romanovs: Political Dreams and Personal Struggles in a Time of RevolutionThe Diary of Grand Duchess Olga Nicholaievna 1913 and The Last Diary of Tsaritsa Alexandra, gradually revising longstanding popular perceptions of the Romanovs.  The Diary of Olga Romanov: Royal Witness to the Russian Revolution, translated and published with with other primary sources of the period selected by Helen Azar, allows Grand Duchess Olga to speak for herself, revealing a young woman coming of age at a time of war and revolution.

Olga was eighteen when the First World War broke out in 1914. In common with other young women of her generation, the Grand Duchess discovered leadership opportunities and personal fulfillment through war work. The diary describes her training as a nurse and duties at the Tsarskoe Selo hospital including organizing activities for the convalescents, assisting at operations and maintaining hospital equipment. The inclusion of the reminiscences of Olga’s colleagues at the hospital alongside her diary entries provide a sense of how the Grand Duchess and her war work were perceived by patients and fellow nurses alike. While the wounded men were honored to receive visits from the Czar’s children, they were confused by the sight of Grand Duchesses performing seemingly menial tasks such as sterilizing hospital equipment, wondering why they did not ask their attendants to do these tasks for them.

Olga also engaged in considerable charitable fundraising during wartime and sat on the boards of committees. Since Nicholas II spent much of the war at military headquarters and Alexandra was consumed by her own war work, political activities and ill health, Olga developed an active social life that revolved around her war work instead of her parents. Studies of the extended Imperial family, such as The Flight Of The Romanovs emphasize the increasing gulf between Nicholas and Alexandra, and the Czar’s relatives during the years immediately preceding the Russian Revolution but Olga maintained active relationships with her aunts, uncles and cousins, including those who had experienced disfavour from her parents.

In her diary, Olga describes spending time with her great-uncle Grand Duke Paul’s morganatic second wife, Olga Paley and enjoying poetry written by Pavel’s and Olga Paley’s son, Vladimir. There are teas with Grand Duchess Victoria, who Olga called “Aunt Ducky.” Victoria was the former wife of Alexandra’s brother Grand Duke Ernst of Hesse who remarried Nicholas II’s cousin, Grand Duke Kyrill against the wishes of the Imperial couple. Only after the murder of Grigori Rasputin by Prince Felix Yussupov, the husband of Olga’s cousin Irina, and Czar Nicholas’s cousin, Grand Duke Dmitri, in December, 1916 is there a marked decrease in visits between Olga and members of her extended family.

Olga’s diary and the accompanying documents provide glimpses of the life the Grand Duchess might have led if she had not been murdered with the rest of her family in 1918. Throughout the journal, Olga expressed indifference or irritation regarding the princes considered suitable marriage partners for a Grand Duchess at the time. She criticizes the Romanian royal family, which included her suitor Prince Carol, for not committing Romania to the allied war effort in 1914. Prince Konstantin Konstantonovich, whom Olga frequently encountered while visiting his sister at the Pavlovsk palace is dismissed in the diary as “a pest.” In contrast, Olga had warm feelings toward some of the patients she nursed in her hospital, most notably an officer named Dmitri Shakh-Bagov. In 1916, Olga’s aunt, Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna married a commoner and it’s possible that Olga would have endeavored to do the same if she had survived the revolution.

Olga’s diary ended the day of Czar Nicholas II’s abdication in March, 1917. Azar speculates that the Grand Duchess may have stopped writing in her journal because of depression but it is just as possible that was concerned that any post-revolutionary diary entries might compromise the safety of her family. Azar present Olga’s last months in captivity with her family through the diary of Nicholas II, memoirs of key figures and Olga’s letters to her friends. By the end of the book, Olga emerges as a complex figure who was never able to realize her full potential because of her death at the age of twenty-two. The Diary of Olga Romanov: Royal Witness to the Russian Revolution presents the last years of Olga’s life in her own words and the words of those who knew her best, shattering longstanding  stereotypes about the lives of Nicholas II’s daughters during the First World War and the Russian Revolution.


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The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 by Margaret MacMillan (Review)

 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. There have been numerous books published about the causes of this cataclysmic event sharing a common theme: conflict was inevitable considering the circumstances of early 20th century Europe including the arms race between the Great Powers and the rise of militant nationalism. In The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914, Margaret MacMillan, the award winning author of Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World, focuses instead on the key individuals who made the decision to go to war. Early 20th century Europe experienced numerous crises that made a general war appear inevitable but the eventual outbreak of hostilities occurred because Heads of State, government ministers and military strategists made choices that gradually ended a century of comparative peace in Europe.

 While MacMillan discusses all the key figures who contributed to Europe’s decision, the abrasive personality of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany stands out above all others in The War That Ended Peace. The Kaiser emerges as the most undiplomatic figure who even considered himself to be a master of foreign affairs. While the Kaiser argued that his intentions toward his fellow Great Powers were peaceful, his bombastic speeches consistently soured relations with other nations, most notably Great Britain. Over the course of the narrative, Wilhelm spoils otherwise productive state visits with ill timed remarks about German supremacy, “listens at the keyhole” when his cousins King George V of England and Czar Nicholas II of Russia attempt to speak privately at his daughter’s 1913 wedding and offends senior members of the Russian government with his loud, tasteless jokes. By 1914, there was a wide gulf between the Kaiser’s peaceful intentions and the public perception of his behavior across Europe.

 In the shadow of the Kaiser’s overbearing and counterproductive attempts at “diplomacy,” MacMillan brings comparatively obscure figures out of the shadows and takes a fresh look at those considered most responsible for the failure of peace. For example, while studies of the outbreak of war on the Eastern front usually focus on Czar Nicholas II, MacMillan looks at the key figures who influenced him in the years and months prior to the outbreak of war. Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov emerges as a key figure who believed that Russia’s historic mission was to protect the Balkan nations. A chapter devoted to war planning including the notorious Schlieffen plan reveals that the blame for Germany’s offensive military strategy should not rest on the shoulders of Alfred von Schlieffen alone. Instead, there was a larger pattern of civilian leaders leaving military planning up to “the experts” and not coordinating diplomatic and military initiatives.

The final chapters detailing the final weeks of peace reveal just how significant chance factors were to the outbreak of hostilities. Key figures who had argued for peace during previous crises were dead or incapacitated by 1914. MacMIllan observes that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand removed one of the most prominent advocates for peace in the Austro-Hungarian empire in addition to precipitating a larger crisis. In Russia, faith healer Grigori Rasputin was recovering from assassination attempt in Siberia and was only able to communicate his pleas for peace to the Czar through letters. The 1914 crisis also occurred when governments were out of session and leaders on summer holidays. British foreign secretary Edward Grey was on a bird watching trip at the time of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination and French president Poincaire was aboard a ship in the Baltic sea for part of July, 1914. These circumstances contributed to the breakdown of peace in Europe in 1914

In The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914, Margaret MacMillan reveals the human drama that led to the outbreak of the First World War, presenting the choices of Europe’s political figures and military strategists in slow motion. Throughout the book, MacMillan presents  parallels between the Europe of 1914 and our own time including the continuing development of nationalism and fears of increasing terrorist activity. MacMillan observes that President John F. Kennedy was mindful of the lessons of 1914 when he resolved the Cuban Missile Crisis and encourages twenty-first century readers to apply the lessons of the past to the present.

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Canada and the Crown: Essays On Constitutional Monarchy Now Available For Pre-Order

Canada and the Crown: Essays On Constitutional Monarchy, edited by D. Michael Jackson and Philippe Lagassé, is now available for pre-order. The book will be published in January, 2014. Canada and the Crown is an essential addition to the library of anyone interested in royalty, the monarchy as an institution and/or Canadian history and politics. There are chapters by numerous emerging and established scholars of the Crown in Canada, considering the Canadian monarchy from a variety of perspectives. The chapter I have written, “Princess Louise, Lord Lorne and the Emergence of the Canadian Crown” discusses the appointment of Queen Victoria’s son-in-law, Lord Lorne as Governor General in 1878 and how the arrival of the vice-regal couple in Canada provided an opportunity for Canadians to assert their new national identity by expressing their expectations of how the the new vice-regal couple should behave as distinctly Canadian royalty.

Click here for more information about the book and contributors

Click here to pre-order Canada and the Crown: Essays On Constitutional Monarchy from Amazon

Click here to pre-order Canada and the Crown from McGill-Queen’s University Press.

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