Having covered off British Prime Ministers and American Presidents, popular broadcaster Iain Dale now turns his attention to the monarchy. His latest book, ‘Kings and Queens – 1200 Years of English and British Monarchs’, offers readers a compilation of no fewer that sixty-four chapters on every English/British king and queen from Alfred the Great in 871 AD through to Charles III in the modern day.
This whistle-stop tour of monarchical history comes in at around 550 pages, so simple mental arithmetic shows that each chapter is short, averaging under ten pages. That’s around one year of history each half page. When you consider how many volumes have been dedicated to accounting for the life and influence of each monarch, ‘Kings and Queens’ by necessity gives only a brief snapshot of their epochs. These chapters are the edited highlights of their reign, achievements, occasional points of notoriety and their influence on world events. If you want a quick reminder of the broad sweep of English history since Anglo-Saxon times, then ‘Kings and Queens’ is the perfect place to start since the monarch invariably drove or was at the heart of significant events. Each essay is engaging and enjoyable. Sometimes they are provocative (with contributors like David Starkey who tackles Henry VIII and announces his subject as the first properly educated king in our history, what else might one expect?) But each section will, for the lay reader, liberally splash interesting and enlightening facts across its pages.
Although ‘Kings and Queens’ acts as an amuse-bouche, pointing keen readers of popular history to eras into which they may wish to delve deeper, it does provide some context to the broad sweep of English and later British history. This is in spite of every chapter having a different author. If nothing else, this unifying thread demonstrates that the monarchy has always been inextricably interwoven within the national story and the nation’s psyche.
In a book on kings and queens, the dreaded Interregnum is included. In a sense, the nation has never fully recovered from the execution of King Charles I and Oliver Cromwell’s subsequent term as Lord Protector of England. Even though the Restoration under Charles II occurred nearly four hundred years ago, its influence can be felt in the reigns of every monarch thereafter. Dr Kirsteen M MacKenzie contributes a short essay on Richard Cromwell, Oliver’s eldest son, who submitted his resignation to Parliament a full year before Charles II’s accession to the throne. The reinstitution of monarchy under the Stuarts brings with it a seismic shift, and a reappraisal of the respective roles and powers of the monarch and Parliament.
In their own rights, each story is dramatic, proving that recorded history is never dull and ever epoch has its share of big personalities or outright egomaniacs. I found it enjoyable learning about some names, like Canute, that are familiar but known only for the apocryphal story of his demonstration of the limitations of rulers’ power by commanding the tide to stop rising. It is intriguing to learn that Canute was a successful Viking ruler who won over the affections of the English. At the opposite end of the book, Queen Victoria, known for her long period of mourning for Prince Albert and for her austere demeanour, is humanised through an account of the men in her life, including servants, with whom she enjoyed close and affectionate friendships. Edward VIII is primarily known for abdicating the throne in order to marry a divorcee, but Damian Collins provides some details about his personality. This glides seamlessly into Jane Ridley’s account of his nervous brother George VI’s unexpected reign. She notes how “the chief reason why the King feared Edward was because he was pro-Nazi”. This can’t help but cast the previous chapter in a whole new light. Readers may wonder how different history might have been had Edward VIII not abdicated. We certainly would not have had the long, steadying and enriching reign of Elizabeth II (George VI’s eldest daughter), who was the one constant in the nation’s tumultuous times from Churchill’s post-war premiership through to the nation’s recovery from the Covid pandemic seventy years later. Julia Langdon ably captures the rapid national changes during her reign.
Part of Dale’s gift is being a unifying force and someone who delights in hearing a range of voices. His philosophy in life is in evidence in his selection of contributors. From the political left there are journalists and presenters including Matthew Stadlen, Julia Langdon and Harry Lambert. Among well-known media conservative voices are Tim Stanley, Camilla Tominey and Simon Heffer. You’ll find familiar historians such as Tom Holland, Michael Wood, Emily Fox, David Starkey, Dominic Selwood, Gareth Streeter, Annie Whitehead and Jane Ridley. Among politicians there’s Alex Burghart, Stephen Parkinson, Alexander Stafford, Nick Thomas-Symonds and Damian Collins. You’ll also find contributions from authors such as Justin Hill, Paula Lofting and Steven Veerapen.
Bringing together the thoughts and analyses of contributors from such disparate backgrounds, worldviews and professions ensures that ‘Kings and Queens’ is universally accessible to adult readers and has plenty of political balance. It will especially appeal to keen readers of popular history. For those, like me, who enjoy history but have large knowledge gaps, ‘Kings and Queens’ is a good place to absorb enough facts to bluff your way through. It’s light, breezy, entertaining, well-researched and eminently readable.
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton Publication date: 14th September 2023 Buy ‘Kings and Queens’