The Kings and Queens of England: The Biography by David Loades (Review)

The Kings & Queens of England: The Biography stands out from other collective biographies of Queen Elizabeth UU and her predecessors because it begins with the unification of what is now England under the Saxon King Athelstan and ends with analysis of Prince Charles as the future King. Most studies of Queen Elizabeth II and her predecessors begin with William the Conqueror’s victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and end with the present reign. By expanding the scope of The Kings & Queens of England: The Biography, David Loades, author of over thirty books including Henry VIII, Mary Rose and The Boleyns: The Rise & Fall of a Tudor Family, reveals the origins of the relationship between England and the monarchy and the nature of the institution that will be inherited by the Prince of Wales.

Since forty monarchs reigned between 1066 and the present day alone, each chapter about an individual monarch is brief, focusing on key themes. Loades states in the introduction that his goal is to recover the identities of each ruler but he is far more interested in how successive monarchs engaged with their subjects, church and finances than the personal lives of Kings and Queens. This approach reveals some interesting trends in royal history. Despite his reputation for indulgent living, King Edward IV was the first monarch to die solvent since Henry II, setting a precedent for the frugality displayed by Edward IV. Long after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, constitutional monarchs continued to exert influence and Loades presents the Hanoverian Kings and their families as political figures rather than focusing on their dysfunctional family relationships.

The strongest section of The Kings & Queens of England: The Biography are the chapters about the Tudor monarchs, Loades’s field of expertise. Loades complicates the popular perceptions of Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Lady Jane Grey, Mary I and Elizabeth I. He explains that Henry VII did not live up to his reputation as a miser, spending large sums on court spectacles in keeping with the other monarchs of the time. The execution of the Duke of Buckingham, dramatized in the first season of the Showtime TV series, The Tudors, emerges as a turning point in the reign of Henry VIII, the moment when he developed a distrust of the nobility and came to rely on advisers from humbler backgrounds.

In a book covering over a thousand years of history, the occasional factual error is difficult to avoid. In the early chapters of the book, Loades occasionally misinterprets the personal lives, families and relationships of the medieval Kings. He states that the ultimate fate of Harold II’s children is “not known” even though the last Saxon King’s daughter Gytha made a prestigious royal marriage after the Battle of Hastings, becoming the consort of Vladimir Monomakh, Grand Duke of Kiev. The genealogical tables erroneously present King Stephen’s mother, Adela, as the daughter of Henry I rather than his sister.

Unfortunately, the number of factual errors increases in the chapters concerning Queen Victoria and her descendants. Loades states that the Queen had ten children, five sons and five daughters when even the genealogical tables in the book affirm that Victoria had nine children and only four sons. Loades asserts that Edward VII emerged from his childhood with “a highly developed moral sense” and that his “flirtations” “were all superficial,” an interpretation that does not match the portrayal of the future King in Jane Ridley’s Bertie: A Life of Edward VII  or Stanley Weintraub’s Edward the Caresser: The Playboy Prince Who Became Edward VII. Prince Charles is described as the first royal father to be present in the delivery room for the birth of his child, an inaccurate statement that was widely accepted as fact by the press during the weeks preceding the birth of Prince George of Cambridge in July, 2013

The Kings & Queens of England: The Biography end on a high note with a nuanced final chapter placing Prince Charles in historical context. Loades argues that the current Prince of Wales is the most active heir to the throne since King George II’s son Frederick became involved in opposition politics during the eighteenth century. The book ends with informed speculation regarding Charles’s eventual reign. Loades’s approach to the history of the monarchy reveals how the relationship between crown and country developed over the course of hundreds of years and continues to evolve in the twenty-first century.

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