Monarchy - David Starkey
Starkey is a good popular historian, probably most famous for his recent TV series on Elizabeth I and Henry VIII's wives. Here he takes on a much larger and more daunting task, the entire tale of the monarchy from Henry VII to the present day, and with only a short book in which to do it. The effect is startlingly like a time-lapse video - with the narrow focus and accelerated timeframe, what emerges is a fascinating picture of the evolving British monarchy, as it twisted and turned across the centuries in response to pressures both internal and external. Rather than the usual in-depth biographies, this book takes a broad view of each monarch's reign and looks specifically at how each of them treated and developed the institution that they belonged to. It's a fresh and interesting approach to British history, and worked extremely well.
The book opens with the War of the Roses, where the crown passed bloodily back and forth between the ruling houses, and the succession was largely determined by battle and murder. With the dubious legality of Henry VII's ultimate ascension to the throne, it was very much in his interests to protect the crown from any similar threats in the future, and much of his reign was spent breaking the power of the rival dukes to leave the ruling family unopposed. The subsequent Tudor monarchs continued on this path towards despotism, but never managed the absolutism of their European counterparts, not because of powerful royal rivals, but because of Parliament.
From the Stuarts onwards, the balance of power began to swing back and forth between Crown and Parliament, with violent consequences. From the Civil War through the Protectorate, Reformation and Glorious Revolution, a great tug-of-war ensued for the reins of authority; Starkey pinpoints the reign of William and Mary as the moment when Parliament really took the ascendancy. The Dutch king relied heavily on Parliament to uphold his authority, and in return they received enough power to begin ruling in their own right. His reforms gave the monarchy enough flexibility to weather the revolutionary storms that soon battered France, and Britian emerged as a major world power. Thus, despite the incompetence and unpopularity of the Hanoverian kings, the crown was able to survive in parallel to the actual government, and produce our current "royal republic" with its incumbent crop of vacuous weak-chinned toffs...
One thing I like about Starkey's writing is his ability to give interesting new perspectives on established thought. One of the surprises here was how nice he was about Queen Anne's reign - she normally gets a rough deal from historians as a sickly and weak woman surrounded by favourites, but Starkey shows that in the context of the monarchy's survival, she actually did a fine job, and her reign was characterised by lasting innovations such as the Bank of England. He also sheds a different light on the relationship between Victoria and Albert, showing him as a cold disciplinarian, modernising the crown while bullying his lively wife into submission. I wasn't entirely convinced by his upbeat analysis of the monarchy's future, with Prince Charles as some benevolent charity benefactor who will fill the holes in the welfare state, but I was only in this for the history, anyway, and the history here is top-notch. Recommended.