368 pages, History Book Club, ISBN-13: 978-1582880419
In Royal Panoply: Brief Lives of the English Monarchs, Carolly Erickson, author of several royal biographies, offers an entertaining history of all English rulers so far – from William the Conqueror to Elizabeth II – that proves why this rather old-fashioned genre is still popular. Erickson devotes about ten pages to each monarch (as much to Queen Anne as to Queen Victoria), regardless as to the relative importance of the monarch in question. Each chapter stands independently, with material often repeated about transitions in reign; thus, this book becomes rather convenient for use as a reference book, but is not really suitable for pleasurable reading. Obviously, some subtlety of interpretation is lost in this format: there’s no assessment of recent research suggesting Edward II survived his assassination, or analysis of the increasingly cultural role of the monarch in the early modern era. Yet patterns can be detected: kings and queens get fat, deteriorate mentally, and make nuisances of themselves; heirs misbehave, buck their parents, and…make nuisances of themselves; illegitimate children abound, likewise making nuisances of themselves (this is why monarchs get overthrown; really, who wants to put up with all of this crap? At least in a republic you’re usually only stuck with a schmuck for a term of office or two). Although Erickson doesn’t offer an overarching analysis, anyone who reads the entire book will see the steady change in the nature of kingship and be surprised when the author presents the current reign as a break with a past in which monarchs were held in awe rather than continued evolution. But taken as they are, these accounts remain fascinating and, in the end, great stories.