This year marks the 70th anniversary of Elizabeth II's accession to the throne, an accomplishment which provides the opportunity for another book about the British monarchy. Tracy Borman's "Crown & Sceptre" brings us in short, vivid chapters from William the Conqueror to Elizabeth herself, much of it constituting a dark record of bumping off adversaries, rivals and spouses, confiscating vast estates and military invasions. It is also an account of the rise and steady diminishment of royal power.
Borman offers brisk descriptions of the circumstances each monarch met in assuming the crown and nimbly sketches his or her character and talents — or lack thereof. She chooses to begin with William the Conqueror, as his reign (1066-1087) transformed the country by killing off the Anglo-Saxon nobility, replacing the language, establishing feudalism and furthering the influence of Western Europe over that of Scandinavia whence many Anglo-Saxons originally came.
Of paramount importance to the monarchy has been achieving an orderly succession in the face of regional and religious enmity, the ambition of powerful families and strife within the royal family. But discord between monarch and heir — or would-be heir — has been a recurring theme throughout British history.
It was so before the Conquest and continued with the Conqueror himself, whose wife, Matilda, and eldest son, Robert, conspired to usurp him. He survived, unlike Edward II (1307–1327), who met an (allegedly) ghastly and humiliating death after being deposed and imprisoned by his wife and her lover in favor of his 14-year-old son, Edward III (1327–1377).
George II (1727 –1760) spoke for more than one royal parent when he described his eldest son and heir, Frederick, as "a monster and the greatest villain ever born … the greatest ass and the greatest liar … and the greatest beast in the whole world."
To be sure, Frederick redeemed himself by dying before he could inherit the throne and, in time, the crown passed to his son, our own former king, George III (1760–1820). Alas, he, too, had his hands full with his own eldest son, the future George IV, a libertine and spendthrift whose carryings-on, Borman suggests, helped tip his father into madness.
Queen Victoria, the longest reigning monarch next to Elizabeth, was similarly appalled by her fast-living son, the future Edward VII. Indeed, Borman suggests that the prospect of this libertine becoming king kept the queen alive through sheer will power.
Though dynastic troubles are woven into the fabric of British history, it is only one element in this lucid, character-rich book. Throughout, Borman traces the changing relationship between a weakening crown and the growing power and makeup of Parliament, the country's true ruler since the 17th century.
And what of the crown today? Many British subjects would like to abolish it as an odious relic of the past, expensive and undemocratic. But what would that leave? Yet another overly wealthy family with no responsibilities, dignity or reason for being — and a bleak final episode of "The Crown."
Katherine A. Powers, a Minnesota native, also reviews for the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal.
Crown & Sceptre
By: Tracy Borman.
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press, 576 pages, $32. (In stores Feb. 22.)