A Treasury of Royal Scandals: The Shocking True Stories of History’s Wickedest, Weirdest, Most Wanton Kings, Queens, Tsars, Popes, and Emperors by Michael Farquhar. Recommended.
If you eagerly await each issue of The National Enquirer but wish it were less about Jennifer Lopez and more about Henry VIII, this is the book for you. In it, Michael Farquhar has collected charming tales of Europe’s royal elite at their finest — fornicating, battling, murdering, backstabbing, beheading, inbreeding, mincing, politicking, and going stark raving mad. You’ll read about the touching love of Philip the Fair for Joanna the Mad (who’s called that for a reason, as you’ll see), the familial love of Napoleon for his brothers, and the not-so-familial love of Caligula for his sister.
Farquhar’s gift is not so much for digging up tales of shame, but for the irreverent sarcasm with which he dishes them out. Of King Frederick William of Prussia: “The reply [to his son] was written in the glowing warmth of the third person.” “Peter the Great was what might be best described as a super-tsar.” [Groan.] “If Louis XIV was France’s Sun King, then his brother, Philippe, duc d’Orléans, was its Drag Queen.”
Sarcasm and bad puns aside, let’s get back to the comparison to The National Enquirer. Unless you are truly the type who subscribes to Playboy/Playgirl for the articles, chances are that you readThe National Enquirer for the titillating hints of the scandals, improprieties, infidelities, gifts to the Democratic Party, and other acts calculated to provoke moral outrage that today’s royal icons, celebrities, have virtually trademarked.
If you have any common sense (and how would you? Look at what you’re reading!), of course you realise that little of The National Enquirer is burdened by the weight of the truth, but it is seasoned just right to tempt your sense of gullibility. (For example, a cover lamenting Cher’s “heartbreaking disease” — surely cancer, or at least diabetes? — led to a story about her deadly adult acne problem.)
Farquhar takes much the same approach to his subject. Royal Scandals is replete with “reported that” qualifiers as well as apocryphal stories. Perhaps the most obvious is the one about the assassination of England’s Edward II, or rather the description of the gruesome way in which it was allegedly committed. You’d be hard pressed to find a historian who doesn’t scoff at the anecdote, but you are guaranteed to flinch at it. Farquhar will have you hooked.
While Royal Scandals does not quite qualify as history — don’t cite it in your next paper, kids — it may pique your interest in such characters as Bloody Mary, Mary Queen of Scots, the Virgin Queen Elizabeth, and the hapless Jane Grey (whose mother was, “by some accounts . . . romping with a servant fifteen years her junior” at the time of Jane’s beheading).
When you’ve finished reading Royal Scandals, you’ll realise Hollywood has nothing on history — or the embellishments thereof.
The appendices, showing British, French, and Russian monarchs, and a timeline of events in the western world are useful. An index would have been helpful as well.
2 May 2005
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf