Category Archives: Royal Art Patronage

Princess Louise and the Founding of the National Gallery of Canada


Princess Louise in Canada, dressed for an Ottawa winter.

Princess Louise in Canada

My column in this weekend’s edition of the Kingston Whig Standard looks at the role of Queen Victoria’s daughter, Princess Louise in founding of the National Gallery and Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. Louise’s husband, Lord Lorne was Governor General of Canada from 1878 to 1883 and the Princess resided at Rideau Hall, Ottawa for long periods during that time. Louise was a trained painter and sculptor and she was eager to develop national institutions where Canadian artists could share their work with the public and attract patrons.

Click here to read “Princess Louise and the Founding of the National Gallery of Canada” in the Kingston Whig Standard.

Interested in learning more about Princess Louise in Canada. See Carolyn Harris, “Royalty at Rideau Hall: Lord Lorne, Princess Louise and the Emergence of the Canadian Crown” in eds. D. Michael Jackson and Philippe Lagassé, Canada and the Crown: Essays on Constitutional Monarchy (2014)

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When Catherine the Great Invaded The Crimea And Put The Rest of the World On Edge

Portrait of Catherine the Great as a Legislator in the Temple Devoted to the Godess of Justice by Dmitri Levitsky, early 1780s.

Portrait of Catherine the Great as a Legislator in the Temple Devoted to the Goddess of Justice by Dmitri Levitsky, early 1780s.

My article in Smithsonian Magazine, “When Catherine the Great Invaded The Crimea And Put The Rest of the World On Edge” looks at the original annexation of the Crimea by the Russian Empire during the reign of Empress Catherine II in the late eighteenth century. Catherine presented herself to the world as an “enlightened” despot who ruled according to the law, and considered the welfare of her subjects.  Her foreign policy and treatment of internal dissent, however, demonstrated that she saw did not observe any constraints on her power. For centuries the Crimean peninsula and other regions of the modern day Ukraine have been one of Europe’s battlegrounds. Today, Russian President Vladimir Putin is following in a long tradition of Russian leaders expanding their political influence at the expense of Ukrainian autonomy.

Click here to read “When Catherine the Great Invaded The Crimea And Put The Rest of the World On Edge” in Smithsonian Magazine. 

Interested in learning more about Catherine the Great and The History of the Ukraine?

Books about Catherine the Great

Simon Dixon, Catherine The Great (2010).

Isabel de Madariaga, Catherine the Great: A Short History; Second Edition (2002).

Robert K. Massie, Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman (2011).

Books about the Ukraine

Anna Reid, Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine (2000).

Paul Robert Magocsi, Ukraine: An Illustrated History, (2013).

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The Queen’s Crumbling Palaces


The site of Greenwich Palace, favourite residence of King Henry VIII

The site of Greenwich Palace, favourite residence of King Henry VIII

My column in this weekend’s edition of the Kingston Whig Standard looks at the recent scrutiny of the Queen’s finances. While press coverage focuses on the Queen being “down to her last million” in her reserve fund, the most important issues raised by the UK Treasury report are the urgent repairs necessary for the royal palaces. The disappearance of the Palace of Plancentia at Greenwich, the setting of key events from King Henry VIII’s reign demonstrates that is is possible for neglect to render a palace uninhabitable.  In contrast, the survival of Windsor Castle for nearly a thousand years reflects a succession of visionary plans for the historic royal residence.

Click here to read the full column, “The Queen’s Crumbling Palaces” in the Kingston Whig Standard

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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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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 Kings and Queens of Scotland by Timothy Venning (Review)

There are two kinds of Scottish King and Queens in the popular imagination. There are the larger than life figures who have passed into legend such as MacBeth, St. Margaret, Robert the Bruce and Mary, Queen of Scots. Then, there are the monarchs considered forgettable or ineffectual, ascending to the throne as children, fighting losing battles against the English or their own rebellious nobles and often dying violently in the prime of life. In The Kings & Queens of Scotland, Dr. Timothy Venning, author of The Kings & Queens of Wales and The Kings & Queens of Anglo-Saxon England, places Scotland’s legendary monarchs in their proper historical context and reassesses the lesser known King and Queens, revealing their achievements as well as their challenges before the Union of Crowns in 1603.

The strongest chapters of the book deal with the five successive Stewart Kings named James who reigned from 1406 until the ascension of the six day old, Mary, Queen of Scots in 1542. In contrast to their more shadowy predecessors, there is more surviving source material about Stewart Kings and the emerge as distinct personalities as well as political figures. James I of Scotland was a Renaissance man, who read classical philosophy, composed love poetry to his future wife, Joan Beaufort while a prisoner in the Tower of London and introduced tennis to the British Isles. His son James II introduced new military technologies to his kingdom, losing his life when one of his new cannons misfired during a siege.

James III was an anglophile who relied heavily on the advice of his mother, Mary of Guelders, one of Scotland’s most capable regent Queens, and pursued interests in literature, music and architecture. In contrast, James IV befriended the enemies of the Tudor dynasty, supporting rebellious Irish magnates and Perkin Warbeck, the most significant figure to claim to be one of the “Princes in the Tower.” James’s marriage to Henry VII’s daughter, however, gave his descendants a strong claim to the English throne.

Mary, Queen of Scots’ father, James V, was known as the “People’s Prince” and might have enjoyed a successful reign if he had not died at the age of thirty. Venning considers each reign within the broader context of Scottish history, revealing how some of the seemingly obscure or ineffectual monarchs contributed to the centralization of the state, legal reform and cultural patronage. Even, Mary, Queen of Scots, who is better known for her failures than her successes on the throne emerges in Venning’s book as “a competent and adroit sovereign” during her first years as an adult Queen in Scotland. Venning blames her second and third marriages for her her ultimate downfall.

Unfortunately, the opening of The Kings & Queens of Scotlanis densely written and may not have as much appeal for general readers. Venning devotes the first chapter to the convoluted genealogies of the Kings of the Picts, Dal Riada and Strathclyde. Although there are clear family trees included revealing the complicated rotations between different ruling families and the significance of female descent, this early history is difficult to follow and readers may want to  begin with chapter two and rise of the House of Dunkeld. The early chapters also focus quite narrowly on the relations between each monarch and his nobles. More detail about how royal decisions affected ordinary Scotsmen and women would enhance Venning’s analysis of the successive monarchs.

Venning concludes the book with the 1707 Act of Union that created “Great Britain” from the formerly distinct kingdoms of England and Scotland. Charles I was the last Stuart King to have a separate coronation in Edinburgh and the later Stuarts paid little attention to their northern kingdom. Venning ends with “the extinction of one [Stuart] line and the rigid Francophile Catholicism of others” but it would have been interesting to read subsequent chapters about the revival of the monarchy’s interest in Scotland during the reigns of King George IV and Queen Victoria and the effect that devolution may have on the current Queen’s relationship with Scotland. The Kings & Queens of Scotland is an excellent introduction to Scottish royal history that will leave readers interested in learning more about Scotland’s monarchs.

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Kate: The Future Queen by Katie Nicholl (Review)

More than two years after her marriage to Prince William, and two months after the birth of her son, Prince George, the Duchess of Cambridge, better known to the world as Catherine “Kate” Middleton, remains something of an enigma. As the first “middle-class” woman to marry a direct heir to the British throne since Anne Hyde married the future James II in 1660, Catherine is described as both a cornerstone of the modern monarchy and a social climber. The Duchess received near universal acclaim from the public in Canada and the South Pacific during her overseas tours but has been the subject of scathing critiques by prominent Britons including award winning author, Hilary Mantel and fashion designer Vivienne Westwood.

Now that baby George has arrived, Catherine’s choices as a mother are under intense scrutiny because the decisions she makes and the products she purchases will influence millions of parents around the world. Meanwhile, William and Catherine have said little about their relationship on the record since their engagement interview. In response to the royal couple’s discretion and determination to protect their privacy, speculation regarding their courtship, marriage and parenting has flourished.

In Kate: The Future Queen, Katie Nicholl, Royal Editor and columnist for the Mail on Sunday and contributing editor to Vanity Fair attempts to separate the facts about Catherine’s life from the speculation through extensive interviews with teachers, friends and acquaintances. This fascinating biography fills in key gaps in Catherine’s biography such as when she first met Prince William and how the supposedly “middle class” Middleton family were able to send their children to some of the best schools in the United Kingdom while they built the Party Pieces business that would make them millionaires.

One of the greatest strengths of Nicholl’s work is her decision to place Catherine firmly at the center of the story. Too many books about William and Catherine focus on the impact of the Duchess and the Middleton family on the monarchy. In contrast, Kate: The Future Queen focuses on Catherine’s life before she met William and how her life changed once she decided that the Prince was the man she wanted to marry. Although Nicholl states that William and Catherine chose to omit the word “obey” from their wedding vows because it “somehow seemed so incompatible with the equality on which their relationship was founded,” the courtship brought more changes to Catherine’s “middle class” life than William’s royal existence.

Nicholl provides vivid descriptions of Catherine’s life before William and how dating a Prince changed almost everything. Before William, Catherine Middleton had a wide and varied social circle, held a diverse range of summer jobs from waitress to deckhand, traveled to Florence as an anonymous art history student and was involved in amateur theatricals as well as sports. Life with the Prince entailed sharply curtailing her social circle to include only the most discreet friends, adapting her work schedule to the William’s calendar of military training and royal engagements, and avoiding activities, such as a planned charity Dragon Boat race across the English channel, with the potential to attract a media circus. Certain aspects of Catherine ‘s life before William have survived her transition to Duchess of Cambridge, most notably her close relationship with her family, but Nicholl’s sources demonstrate just how great a change occurred in her life when she began the path to royal life.

Nicholl is at her best when she writes about Catherine, her family and the pressures of dating and marrying royalty but the brief sections involving royal history could have used a little more attention and expansion. There are a few typographical errors – such as King George VI being referred to as “George V” in a passage about the Queen’s engagement to Prince Philip and there not enough comparisons between Catherine and other royal spouses who faced a similar situation to her own. The correspondence of Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon reveals that she hesitated before accepting the future George VI’s proposal and the life of royal duty that accompanied it. More comparisons between Catherine’s situation and that of other non-royals who married royalty would have enhanced Nicholl’s work.

Advance reviews of Kate: The Future Queen focused on Nicholl’s controversial evidence that Catherine changed her university plans once William’s intent to attend St. Andrew’s were made public. Nicholl certainly implies that William’s university plans influenced Catherine’s decisions about her future but she allows the reader to draw the final conclusion, writing, “The truth is Kate did change her mind and reapplied to St. Andrews, knowing that the prince was going there, but only she truly knows whether her change of heart was because of William.” Since William and Catherine remain private about the circumstances of their courtship, the Duchess of Cambridge will remain the focus of conjecture but Nicholl’s engaging biography provides fresh insights about her life as well as informed speculation about how she found her prince and what her future will hold as a wife, mother, philanthropist, Princess and Queen.

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Rose Bertin: Marie Antoinette’s Trend-Setting “Minister of Fashion”

During a month when New York, London, Paris and Milan host successive fall fashion weeks, my column in this weekend’s Kingston Whig-Standard discusses Queen Marie Antoinette of France’s dressmaker Rose Bertin, the first “celebrity” fashion designer in the late eighteenth century. Today, there are plenty of examples of fashion designers becoming famous because royalty wear their collections but Bertin was the first to publicize that she served the Queen, achieving fame and fortune during the years preceding the French Revolution.

Click here to read “The Trend-Setting ‘Minister of Fashion’” in the Kingston Whig-Standard

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The Medieval Book Reviews 8: The Gothic King: A Biography of Henry III by John Paul Davis

Henry III (r. 1216-1272) is one of England’s least known Kings. Despite reigning for fifty-six years – the majority of the thirteenth century – there are few people today who can list the main achievements and accomplishments of his reign. Henry III’s father, King John, is famous as the villain of the Robin Hood legends and his son, Edward I “Longshanks” became part of popular culture through the Oscar winning film, Braveheart. Henry III, however, remains an enigma.

The chronicles written in the King’s own lifetime provide a mixed account of his character, praising his private virtues but critiquing his statesmanship. In The Gothic King: A Biography of Henry III, the first popular biography of this obscure King since the nineteenth century, John Paul Davis, author of Robin Hood: The Unknown Templar and Pity for The Guy: A Biography of Guy Fawkes reveals the full impact of Henry III’s reign on thirteenth century England – and the royal palaces and cathedrals that still stand today.

Henry III’s most lasting legacies were his building projects and Davis’s chapter on the King’s architectural interests, “Henry the Builder” is the strongest section of the book. A devotee of Edward the Confessor, Henry commissioned the rebuilding of Westminster Abbey from a Saxon monastery to the soaring Gothic church that is the setting of royal weddings and coronations today. Henry III also made improvements to numerous palaces including Windsor Castle and the Great Hall of Winchester Castle. Like Edward the Confessor, Henry III was renowned for his piety and was inspired by the architecture of his time.

The best known political events of Henry III’s reign were the battles of the Second Barons Revolt led by his brother-in-law Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester which are dramatized in Sharon Kay Penman’s historical novel, Falls the Shadow. As a founder of the modern system of parliamentary democracy, Montfort is far more famous than Henry III, and his wife, the King’s sister, Eleanor, was recently the subject of an engaging biography by Louise Wilkinson.

Another one of Henry III’s famous opponents was Llywelyn the Great, Prince of Wales, who remains a legendary figure in Wales and the subject of historical novels such as Penman’s Here Be Dragons. Describing these conflicts from Henry III’s perspective, Davis turns a critical eye to both Montfort and Llywelyn, revealing the Welsh Prince’s ruthlessness in the border regions and the reforming Earl’s lack of support from his fellow barons and critical junctures. The result is a more balanced account of both the long conflict between thirteenth century England and Wales and the numerous disputes between Henry III and his barons.

The Gothic King is not simply a biography of Henry III but a complex portrait of his times. The King ruled an England that was increasingly intertwined with the rest of Europe and the wider world. Davis describes how fish merchants in Yarmouth were bankrupted when demand for pickled herring in what is now Russia collapsed because of the turmoil created by the invasion of Genghis Khan’s Mongol Hordes. The King’s long and happy marriage to Eleanor of Provence made him part of a vast royal extended family as the queen’s sisters married rulers of France and Sicily. Henry III’s own sisters married the King of Scotland and Holy Roman Emperor, increasing the links between thirteenth century England and the rest of Europe.

While Davis provides a detailed account of the political events of Henry III’s reign and the King’s extensive building program, he devotes far less attention to the social history of the era. Since Henry III is relatively unknown to popular audiences, more details about the flavour of his court would have made the biography more engaging. There are repeated references to the places the King held his Christmas celebrations with little description of what these festivities entailed or the King’s role as leader of such grand occasions. The reader is also left to wonder how the royal family dressed, what they ate and the nature of thirteenth century English court etiquette. Henry III’s mother, Isabella d’Angouleme also receives little attention in the narrative.

In The Gothic King: A Biography of Henry III, John Paul Davis brings one of England’s most obscure monarchs to life. Henry III reigned during a time of unprecedented change, which saw the birth of England’s parliamentary democracy, new links between the British Isles and the rest of the world and changes to palaces and churches that still stand today.

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