Imperial Russia Book Reviews: 1913 Diary of Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna and Maria and Anastasia: The Youngest Romanov Grand Duchesses in Their Own Words

Grand Duchess Maria (1899-1918) is the least well known of the four daughters of Russia’s last Czar, Nicholas II and his consort, Empress Alexandra. Her two older sisters, Grand Duchess Olga (1895-1918) and Grand Duchess Tatiana (1897-1918) came of age and made their debut in Russian high society before the outbreak of the First World War and continued to be prominent public figures in wartime as nurses and heads of charitable organization. Maria’s younger sister, Grand Duchess Anastasia (1901-1918) became famous after her death as she was impersonated by numerous women who claimed to have survived the massacre of the Imperial family in 1918. In the context of her family, Maria was overshadowed by her sisters and younger brother, the heir to the throne, Grand Duke Alexei (1904-1918) and there is evidence that she sometimes felt overlooked in her own lifetime.

 In recent decades, the publication of new primary source material concerning the imprisonment and murder of the Romanovs has done little for Maria’s reputation and historical legacy. A 1918 interview with Vassili Yakolev, the Bolshevik Commissar who escorted Nicholas, Alexandra and Maria from Tobolsk to Ekaterinburg (their final place of imprisonment), translated and reprinted in The Fall of the Romanovs: Political Dreams and Personal Struggles in a Time of Revolution dismisses Maria in a few lines: “Maria, the Romanovs’ daughter, is completely immature for her years. She has no understanding at all of life in the broad sense of the word. She is under the strong influence of her mother.” The 2005 book The Fate of the Romanovs, quotes extensively from biased Bolshevik sources and presents the teenaged Maria as a flirt who was censured by her family because of her friendly relations with the soldiers who kept the Romanovs under guard in 1917 and 1918.  Helen Rappaport’s books about the Imperial family are kinder to Maria but Rappaport still emphasizes Maria’s perceived flirtations, concluding that “Gauche and naive, she was an innocent abroad in the company of men” in The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg.

Two new volumes of Maria’s letters and diaries,1913 Diary of Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna: Complete Tercentennial Journal of the Third Daughter of the Last Tsar and Maria and Anastasia: The Youngest Romanov Grand Duchesses In Their Own Words: Letters, Diaries, Postcards, edited by Helen Azar, finally allow the Grand Duchess to speak for her herself and demonstrate that she was not fully understood by those who met her in passing during the final months of her life. Klavdia Bitner, a tutor employed in 1917 noted that the Grand Duchesses were unfamiliar with certain contemporary authors and concluded that they were indifferently educated but Maria’s 1913 diary reveals that at the age of thirteen and fourteen, Maria’s days were dominated by lessons. On February 5, 1913, she wrote, “Had lessons in the morning…[In the afternoon] Had a dance lesson. Had a music lesson…Then did homework.” A report card from that year demonstrates that Maria received top marks from all of her tutors and that she experienced a wide variety of educational opportunities from frequent visits to theatre and ballet to physics lessons in the science lab of a secondary school near the Alexander Palace.

During the First World War, Nicholas II spent months at a time at military headquarters as Commander-in-Chief of the Russian army and his daughters wrote him frequent letters. Of the four sisters, Maria may have been the most descriptive letter writer, providing detailed and thoughtful accounts of the hospital where she volunteered with her sister Anastasia. On May 29, 1916, Maria wrote to her father, “This afternoon we rode around then went to our infirmary. Almost all the wounded are lying in the tent…Those who are able, walk to the Catherine Park and sail around the lake in row boats. They really enjoy this and always ask the nurses to go with them.”

Both Maria’s 1913 diary and her wartime letters demonstrate how closely she and her sisters were integrated into their father’s close relationship with the military: all four of the Grand Duchesses became honourary Colonels-in-Chief of regiments from the age of fourteen, attended military reviews, organized social events for military personnel and volunteered in military hospitals. This routine meant that Maria was comfortable socializing with soldiers from a young age. Her interest in the daily lives of soldiers and ability to create a friendly rapport would be interpreted as flirtation by Bolshevik observers after her family was placed under guard following Nicholas’s abdication in March 1917.

Maria’s diaries and letters also provide insights concerning the daily routine and social circle of the Russian Imperial family during the 1913 tercentennial of the Romanov dynasty and the First World War. The involvement of two of Czar Nicholas II’s relatives, his cousin Grand Duke Dmitri and nephew by marriage Prince Felix Yusupov, in the 1916 murder of Grigori Rasputin seems to demonstrate a longstanding estrangement between Nicholas and his extended family but Maria’s letters and diaries demonstrate that Nicholas, Alexandra and their children had a warm relationship with numerous members of the Romanov extended family. Maria appears to have been particularly close to the “Ai-Todorsky,” the children of her Aunt, Grand Duchess Xenia, including Princess Irina, who married Felix Yusupov.

Maria was murdered with the rest of her family on the night of July 16-17, 1918, soon after her nineteenth birthday. Her final letters demonstrate that she was the most hopeful member of her family in their final months. In a letter written just two months before her death, Maria wrote, “It is difficult to write anything pleasant, because there is very little of it here to report, but on the other hand, God does not abandon us, the sun shines and the birds sing.” The publication of Maria’s letters and diaries provide valuable new insights about life within Russia’s last Imperial family from 1913 to 1918 and show Maria to be an intelligent and thoughtful observer of her family’s experiences during the Romanov tercentennial, First World War and Russian Revolution.

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Tudor Book Reviews: The King’s Pearl by Melita Thomas and So High a Blood by Morgan Ring

The King’s Pearl: Henry VIII and His Daughter Mary by Melita Thomas

The childhood of Queen Mary I has long been viewed through the perspective of her adolescence and adulthood. As Melita Thomas, observes, Mary was known for centuries as “Bloody Mary” because of the executions of Protestants during her short reign and has recently been rediscovered as “Tragic Mary” because of the devastating impact of the divorce of her parents, King Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, on her life. As a result, Mary is viewed as her mother’s daughter and the dynastic marriage negotiations of her childhood are often treated as doomed to failure from the beginning.

In The King’s Pearl: Henry VIII and His Daughter Mary, Thomas re-evaluates the relationship between Henry VIII and Mary I, emphasizing Mary’s political and personal significance to her father. The dynastic marriage negotiations of Mary’s childhood are taken seriously as Henry attempted to increase his prominence in European politics by securing prestigious marriage for Mary. Henry’s relations with Catherine’s nephew, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, are particularly well analyzed by Thomas as the prospect of having a grandson who would rule most of Europe seemed to reconcile Henry to the prospect of a female heir.

Thomas makes clear that popular opinion within England and the rest of Europe deemed Mary to be Henry’s heir until the birth of a younger brother, despite the efforts of Henry and Anne Boleyn to assert their daughter’s Elizabeth’s seniority in the succession through the Act of Supremacy. After Anne’s execution, there were doubts concerning whether Henry would have subsequent children with his third wife, Jane Seymour. Mary therefore remained politically significant event after she had been declared illegitimate.

Thomas devotes less attention to the personal bond between Henry and Mary beyond their shared love of music, gardens and courtly display as well as willingness to take risks to achieve their political ambitions but this imbalance reflects the available source material. There is more evidence of Mary’s personal relations with her successive stepmothers from her antipathy toward Anne Boleyn to her warm friendship with Katherine Parr. Mary’s determination to be an active rather than passive participant in Tudor politics is evident throughout the book. The King’s Pearl: Henry VIII and His Daughter Mary is an interesting and well researched counterpoint to prevailing image of Mary I as a “Bloody” or “Tragic” figure. Like her half-siblings, Elizabeth I and Edward VI, she was a child of Henry VIII and his influence had a lifelong impact on her politics and personality.

So High a Blood: The Story of Margaret Douglas, the Tudor that Time Forgot by Morgan Ring

One of Queen Mary I’s closest friends was her Scottish cousin Lady Margaret Douglas, daughter of King Henry VIII’s sister Margaret Tudor and her second husband Archibald Douglas, 6th Earl of Angus. Margaret Douglas was a prominent figure at the Tudor court during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I. Through her grandson, King James VI of Scotland/James I of England, she is an ancestor of Queen Elizabeth II. Despite her importance during the sixteenth century and the dramatic circumstances of her life – she was imprisoned in the Tower of London on more than one occasion – Margaret Douglas is little known today. Her long residence at the Tudor court resulted in her being marginalized in histories of sixteenth century Scotland while her Scottish ancestry meant that she received little attention in histories of England during the same period.

In So High a Blood: The Story of Margaret Douglas, the Tudor that Time Forgot, Morgan Ring presents Margaret Douglas a strong and adaptable personality, a key figure in the religious and political upheaval of Elizabeth I’s reign and a consummate survivor. Margaret enjoyed the rare ability of reconciling with Henry VIII after incurring his displeasure on more than one occasion because of her romances with members of the Howard family. The exclusion of the Scottish line from Henry VIII’s will, however, suggests that they were in conflict at the time of his death and Ring provides a convincing analysis of these circumstances in her book.

During the reign of Elizabeth I, Margaret, a devout Roman Catholic who had enjoyed a close friendship with Mary I, opposed the Queen’s Protestant religious settlement. Margaret also favoured the marriage of her elder son, Lord Darnley, to Mary, Queen of Scots in opposition to Queen Elizabeth I’s wishes. After Darnley’s death, Margaret blamed Mary, Queen of Scots and enjoyed an improved relationship with Elizabeth that lasted until Margaret’s younger son married without the Queen’s permission. As the mother of two sons who survived to adulthood (a circumstance that was rare among the Tudors) and then as the grandmother of the King of Scotland, Margaret was an important political figure throughout Elizabeth I’s reign. Ring restores a little known member of the Tudor dynasty to her rightful place in sixteenth century history.

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The Table of Contents for Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting

The Table of Contents of my forthcoming book, Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting is now available online:

Table of Contents

Introduction  Raising a Royal Child

1     Edgar “the Peaceable” (c. 943-75) and Elfrida of Northampton (c. 945-1001)
2     William “the Conqueror” (c. 1028-87) and Matilda of Flanders (c. 1031-83)

Genealogical chart depicting King Henry II of England and his children

3     Henry II (1133-89) and Eleanor of Aquitaine (c. 1124-1204)
4     Henry III (1207-72) and Eleanor of Provence (c. 1223-91)
5     Edward III (1312-77) and Philippa of Hainault (1314-69)
6     Richard III (1452-85) and Anne Neville (1456-85)

Charles I, Henrietta Maria and their two eldest children

7     Ferdinand II of Aragon (1452-1516) and Isabella I of Castile (1451-1504)
8     Henry VIII (1491-1547) and Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536)
9     Frederick V, Elector Palatine (1596-1632) and Elizabeth of England and Scotland (1596-1662)
10    Charles I (1600-49) and Henrietta Maria of France (1609-69)
11    Peter I “the Great” of Russia (1672-1725) and Catherine I (1684-1727)
12    Anne (1665-1714) and George of Denmark (1653-1708)
13    George II (1683-1760) and Caroline of Ansbach (1683-1737)

Nicholas and Alexandra present their daughter, Olga to Queen Victoria

14    Louis XVI of France (1754-93) and Marie Antoinette of Austria (1755-93)
15    Victoria (1819-1901) and Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (1819-61)
16    Nicholas II of Russia (1868-1918) and Alexandra of Hesse-Darmstadt (1872-1918)
17    Juliana of the Netherlands (1909-2004) and Bernhard of Lippe-Biesterfeld (1911-2004)
18    Elizabeth II (1926-) and Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark (1921-)
19    Prince Charles (1948-) and Lady Diana Spencer (1961-97)  20    Prince William (1982-) and Catherine Middleton (1982-)

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and their children, Prince George and Princess Charlotte arrive in Canada

Epilogue    The Future of the Royal Nursery

Acknowledgements
Notes
Further Reading
Index

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

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Review of Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada in the Saskatchewan Law Review

My book, Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada: Democracy, Law, and Human Rights has been reviewed by Steven Laroque at the Saskatchewan Law Review. Click here to read the review in the Saskatchewan Law Review, Volume 79, Number 2, 2016, p. 327-330.

Here’s an excerpt from the review:

Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada contains many facts and stories within a small number of pages. Throughout the book, printed with a gloss finish, are pictures and artwork surrounding the places and historical events relevant to Magna Carta. These aid in bringing life and colour to many of these great historical moments. This book provides an easy read and brief introduction for those who are interested in the main historical developments relating to Magna Carta over the last eight hundred years.”

Click here to read the review in the Saskatchewan Law Review, Volume 79, Number 2, 2016, p. 327-330.

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

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The Weekend Bookshelf: The Tudor Brandons, Ivan’s War and Water for Elephants

 Royal History: The Tudor Brandons: Mary And Charles – Henry VIII’s Nearest & Dearest by Sarah-Beth Watkins by Sarah-Beth Watkins.

When Michael Hirst wrote the screenplay for the Showtimes series, The Tudors, he was fascinated by King Henry VIII’s lifelong friend and brother-in-law, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. Hirst wrote in The Tudors: Its’ Good to Be King, “Charles Brandon, was, perhaps, the only man in all of England to successfully retain Henry’s affection over a span of forty years.” Over the course of his reign, Henry remained close to Charles even though his friend committed the transgression of marrying the King’s widowed sister Mary without permission. Charles remained in favour even as Henry ordered the executions of formerly trusted advisers, Thomas More then Thomas Cromwell and queens, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard. Hirst made Charles a prominent character in The Tudors, giving the Duke and Duchess of Suffolk their most notable appearance in popular culture since the 1950s Walt Disney film, The Sword and the Rose.

Watkins, author of Lady Katherine Knollys, The Unacknowledged Daughter of Henry VIII, provides a short, readable biography of Charles and Mary in The Tudor Brandons. At the centre of the couple’s story is their elopement in 1515. Mary was the widow of King Louis XII of France and she married Charles Brandon to avoid being compelled to make another dynastic marriage. There would not be another instance of an English princess marrying a subject until Queen Victoria’s daughter Princess Louise married John Campbell, Lord Lorne in 1871. Watkins provides a thoughtful analysis of the circumstances surrounding the controversial royal wedding including reasons why Henry VIII was inclined to forgive the match and the implicit challenge to his authority.

The Tudor Brandons also includes Brandon’s family history (he descended from a long line of opportunists who were often on the wrong side of the law) and Mary’s continued role in Anglo-French relations including her presence at the Field of the Cloth of Gold summit between Henry VIII and Francis I. Mary also exerted a cultural influence at court, shaping trends in fashion and country house gardens in addition to popularizing picnic suppers for the elite. Charles and Mary’s granddaughter Lady Jane Grey, the nine days queen, became a significant figure in later Tudor history and the family remains a part of popular culture today (For another biography of Henry VIII’s younger sister, see Mary Rose by David Loades). ***

History: Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945

There have been numerous books written about the experiences of the British “Tommy” or German “Fritz” fighting on the front lines of the Second World War. In Ivan’s War, Catherine Merridale, author of Red Fortress: History and Illusion in the Kremlin, examines the daily life of “Ivan,” the Soviet soldier in what became known in Russia as The Great Patriotic War. Merridale provides the details of daily life at the front. In the early days of the war, adequate training (not to mention regular rations) were in short supply. Unless soldiers brought their own socks, they spent the war marching in one size fits all foot wrappers. There was no standardized system of leave and military service therefore meant long separations from families who also suffered hardships during the war.

In addition to reconstructing the daily lives of soviet soldiers during the Second World War, Merridale examines broader questions about the motives and worldviews prevalent within the Red Army. What motivated individual soldiers to keep fighting under such harsh conditions? What were the differences in perspective between older people, who might have had military experience from the First World War and the reign of Nicholas II and younger people, who had never known any other political system than the Soviet regime? How were women and religious majorities perceived? What were the factors that contributed to the atrocities committed by the Red Army in Romania, Hungary and East Prussia? Merridale concludes with a thoughtful analysis of the lasting impact of the wartime experience and includes the perceptions of the surviving veterans. ****

 Historical Fiction: Water for Elephants: A Novel by Sara Gruen.

When veterinary student Jacob Jankowski loses his parents in a car accident, he leaves Cornell university and runs away with a 2nd tier traveling circus during the depression. The book was adapted into an Academy Award Winning film, Water for Elephants, starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson.  In the novel, Jacob is ninety – or perhaps ninety-three, he can’t quite remember – looking back on his youth at the circus from his retirement residence. There’s a realism to his old age but his past unfolds like a fairy tale where the heroine is a elephant named Rosie.

Gruen based the novel on a series of true events that took place in Depression era American circuses and the setting is compelling, filled with intrigues on trains between small towns and tensions between performers and roustabouts. The characters have rather one dimensional personalities, however, and the ending is unconvincing. For circus themed historical fiction with more compelling characters, I recommend The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin or Chang and Eng by Darin Strauss. ***

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The Weekend Bookshelf: Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, The Luminaries and How to Be a Victorian

Royal History: Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville: A True Romance by Amy Licence When King Edward IV of England announced to his council in 1464 that he had secretly married Elizabeth Woodville, his advisers responded “she was not, all things considered, a suitable wife for him, nor a woman of the kind who ought to belong to such a prince.” Elizabeth was not the wealthy foreign princess expected to become queen but the widow of a knight as well as the mother of two young sons. The unlikely royal romance has become part of popular culture, inspiring Philippa Gregory’s novel, The White Queen and a TV series of the same name.

Licence, author of Anne Neville: Richard III’s Tragic Queen and Elizabeth of York: The Forgotten Tudor Queen examines the marriage of Edward and Elizabeth and the culture of their court. The book stands out for its careful examination of the reputations of the King and Queen. Edward IV’s younger brother, Richard III, claimed the throne on the grounds that Edward and Elizabeth’s children were illegitimate. Edward’s reputation as a womanizer and Elizabeth’s image as a schemer suited Richard’s purposes and continue to appear in popular biographies and historical fiction to the present day. Licence examines Edward and Elizabeth within the context of their times, attempting to separate the surviving evidence from Edward IV’s reign from later speculation about the characters of the controversial King and Queen. ***

History: How To Be a Victorian: A Dawn to Dusk Guide to Victorian Life by Ruth Goodman Histories of the Victorian era often focus on the lives of the wealthy and powerful. Goodman is interested in the daily routines of ordinary people in nineteenth century England from the city clerks (whose offices were only heated to 10 degrees in the winter, if at all, necessitating heavier business suits than those worn today) to the farm labourers (who ate better meals in the north where potatoes and oatmeal were widely available than in the south where bread was the staple food). The book is structured as a day in the life for the average Victorian, from stepping out of bed onto a tiny homemade rug made from woven rags to washing dishes by gaslight after the evening meal.

Goodman is uniquely placed to explain daily life in the nineteenth century as she starred in the the BBC historical documentary series, Victorian Farm. Goodman combines diaries, letters and advertisements from the Victorian era with her own experiences doing laundry with a hand cranked washing machine, keeping clean with a pitcher and basin, going to the seaside in a voluminous nineteenth century bathing suit and wearing a corset for months at a time. How To Be a Victorian is a treasure trove of fascinating details about an era that still influences the structure of daily life today. ****

 Historical Fiction: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton In Catton’s novel (winner of the Man Booker prize and Governor General’s Literary Award), a series of unexplained events occur near the New Zealand goldfields in 1866. An enormous fortune appears in the cabin of an intoxicated hermit, one of the wealthiest prospectors disappears and a “camp follower” appears to have attempted suicide. Newcomer Walter Moody stumbles upon a meeting of twelve men at a local hotel determined to get the bottom of these mysteries and he becomes involved in the investigation. The Luminaries includes the classic structure and plot elements of nineteenth century novels. Chapters have headings like “In which Harald Nilssen reneges on a contract; the holy book; Cowell Devlin is confounded; and George Shepard forms a plan.” Characters hold seances, struggle with opium addiction, attempt to hide family secrets and seek their fortunes. Over the course of eight hundred pages, details emerge connecting the characters one another – and the wider mystery – in unexpected ways within a broader astrological framework. The perfect book for a long train journey. ****

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CTV News coverage of my Magna Carta book tour

While I was in Saskatoon last week, CTV news visited my book signing at the University of Saskatchewan. I was interviewed about the my book Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada: Democracy, Law, and Human Rights and the cultural impact of Magna Carta.

Click here to watch my interview with CTV News Saskatchewan

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Friday Royal Read: The Crown and Parliament, edited by Michel Bédard and Philippe Lagassé

Crown and Parliament cover In 2011, the Queen and the Commonwealth Heads of Government met in Perth, Australia for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference. All sixteen Commonwealth realms agreed in principle to succession reform that would introduce absolute primogeniture. The monarch’s eldest child, male or female, would succeed to the throne. The succession reforms also addressed the 1701 Act of Settlement, which did not allow those married to Roman Catholics to retain their succession rights and the 1772 Royal Marriage Act. which required the descendants of King George II to receive the monarch’s permission to contract a valid marriage. The introduction of gender of equality in the British and Commonwealth monarchies followed the trend established by the other European monarchies but succession reform proved to be far more complicated for the House of Windsor.

While the sixteen commonwealth realms agreed on the importance of gender equality, reopening the question of the royal succession demonstrated the difficulties of sixteen commonwealth realms with different relationships with the monarchy passing similar legislation. In the United Kingdom, succession reform was criticized for not taking into account the land holdings that have traditionally passed to the heir to the throne through male preference primogeniture. In Australia, succession reform demonstrated the independence of the states in a federal system as Western Australia became the last region of the commonwealth to pass a royal succession bill before the changes came into force. In Canada, the government’s decision to assent to the British succession legislation rather than formulate its own reform legislation was controversial and is currently facing a court challenge.

La Couronne et le Parlement/The Crown and Parliament, which emerged from the May 2014 conference by the Canadian Study of Parliament Group is an essential resource for the debate concerning succession reform in Canada. The four chapters in the book concerning succession reform address all sides of the debate. Anne Twomey’s chapter, “The Succession to the Crown of Canada” is particularly fascinating as it compares Canada’s approach to succession reform to the changes enacted in other Commonwealth realms and compares modern succession reform to the Dominion response to the Abdication crisis of 1936. In the chapter on “The Crown and Constitutional Amendment” in Canada, Philippe Lagassé and Patrick Baud examine Section 41a of the Constitution Act of 1982, which concerns changes to the office of the queen, looking at the implications of the various interpretations of this passage for succession reform and the broader role of the Crown in Canada. In contrast, Mark D. Walters and The Honorable Serge Joyal discuss the Canadian assent to British succession reform legislation in successive chapters, discussing crown identification and the development of the constitutional monarchy in Canada.

In addition to explaining all sides of the Canadian debate on succession reform, the essays in La Couronne et le Parlement/The Crown and Parliament provide important historical and political context for the modern relationship between the Crown and Parliament, beginning with an overview of the history two institutions by André Émond. Political innovations that reflected the circumstances of individual reigns set established precedents in the relationship between Crown and Parliament. For example, prior to the reign of Henry VIII, royal assent was granted by the monarch in person at a ceremony where the entire text of a bill was read aloud. That changed in 1541 when Henry VIII expressed reluctance to give personal royal assent to the Bill of Attainder that condemned his 5th wife, Catherine Howard to death. The result was a new process of granting royal assent to legislation, royal assent by commission.

As David Smith, author of The Invisible Crown: The First Principle of Canadian Government observes in his chapter about Parliament and the Crown, there is a divide between public perceptions of the Governor General’s position and the constitutional role of the Crown. La Couronne et le Parlement/The Crown and Parliament bridges this divide by bringing together a broad range on scholarship on Canada’s political institutions. The book is essential reading for any Canadian who wants to learn more about the crucial relationship between the Crown and Parliament.

Next Week:  The Tudor Kitchen: What the Tudors Ate & Drank by Terry Breverton

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Friday Royal Read: Family Politics: Domestic Life, Devastation and Survival 1900-1950

The first half of the twentieth century was a turbulent time for Europe’s royal families. The First World War precipitated the collapse of the German, Austrian and Russian ruling houses. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and Emperor Karl of Austria-Hungary fled into exile with their families while Nicholas II of Russia was murdered with his wife, children and servants in 1918. The Turkish War of Independence led to the overthrow and exile of the last Ottoman Sultan in the 1920s. The Greek royal family (including the infant Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh) also experienced exile in the 1920s. King Alfonso XIII of Spain went abroad in 1931 and his dynasty would not be restored until his grandson Juan Carlos became constitutional monarch in 1975. Italy’s reigning House of Savoy lost power in 1946. Not only did Umberto II have to leave the country but his male descendants were forbidden from visiting Italy until 2002.

Family Politics: Domestic Life, Devastation and Survival, 1900-1950 is the story of what happened to German, Russian, Turkish and Spanish families after the fall of each country’s monarchy and Italian families during the last years of the House of Savoy. While countless historians have analysed the politics and wars of 20th century Europe, the impact of these cataclysmic changes on ordinary families has received little attention. Ginsborg combines short biographies of key figures with careful analysis of changes to family law in the early 20th century including the resistance to these developments. The new regimes that came to power often distrusted the traditional family that emerged from the 19th century, fearing that loyalties to other individuals would supersede loyalty to the state. Successive conflicts including the Spanish Civil War to the Turkish Wars of Independence divided families and tested the bonds between spouses, siblings, and parents and children.

Family Politics: Domestic Life, Devastation and Survival, 1900-1950 is often a heartbreaking book, particularly the last couple of chapters that discuss the destruction of millions of families in Nazi Germany during the Holocaust and Soviet Russia during the Holodomar and Stalinist Terror. Amidst the devastation, individual tales of heroism and family solidarity emerge from a Soviet lamp factory worker who refused to disown her husband after he was sent to a gulag to a lawyer’s wife who disguised herself as a street vendor to safeguard her children during the Spanish Civil War.  Family Politics is never an easy read but it is a very important one that illuminates how the family endured through  war and revolution across Europe.

Next week: Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared To Execute Charles I by Charles Spencer

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