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Five Centuries of Sex, Adventure, Vice, Treachery, and Folly from Royal Britain

by Michael Farquhar

Pub Date: March 8th, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-8129-7904-6
Publisher: Random House

A succinct romp through the perennially popular gyrations of British royalty.

There is no end to American fascination with British royalty, and no facet of this entertainment that Washington Post contributor Farquhar (A Treasury of Royal ScandalsA Treasury of Foolishly Forgotten American, etc.) will not ply. In fact, this snappy chronicle of English kings, queens and knaves proves a terrifically accessible history of English dynastic dysfunction, told in brief chapters, including genealogical charts gracing the beginning of each “house.” With the focus on the curious personalities themselves—and there are plenty, from monstrous Henry VIII to her limpid steadiness, Good Queen Bess—hilarity and pathos abound. Despite the surpassing familiarity of many of these tales, they become irresistible and even moving in Farquhar’s able hands. Among others, the author looks at the boy king, Edward VI, who inherited Henry’s throne at age 9 and proved, in his brief life, a surprisingly forceful leader, navigating the machinations of his two scheming uncles and throwing his two older sisters off from the right of succession; Charles I, who was beheaded, his remains sold as “ghoulish souvenirs” to the crowd; and the extravagantly licentious Charles II, along with his memorable mistresses Barbara Villiers Palmer and Nell Gwyn. There are a few moments of fresh splendor, such as the quixotic story of Bonnie Prince Charlie, the young Stuart grandson of James II and pretender to the English throne; the loathsome marital relations between George IV, “a selfish, overindulged libertine,” and his second wife (and cousin) Caroline of Brunswick; and the touching affection young Victoria expressed for her beloved husband, Albert (“my heart is quite going”).

A palatable, lively rendition of the British imperial blues.