Royal Reads: 6 Books About British Monarchs and Coronations
As King Charles III, the man formerly known as the Prince of Wales, is crowned on Saturday, some royal watchers will simply tune in and enjoy the pageantry; others prefer to come prepared. If you’re in the latter category, you may want to read up on who’s who, what to expect and what the Stone of Scone is.
Coronation: A History of the British Monarchy, by Roy Strong
Roy Strong, a historian and former director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, was only 16 when he stood on the Victoria Embankment in London on June 2, 1953, and watched the “encrusted golden coach” carrying Queen Elizabeth II to her coronation: “The queen’s smiling features and the glitter of her diamonds remain firmly fixed in my memory.”
Here, in novelistic prose, he whisks readers through every coronation since that of Edgar in A.D. 973, plucking fabulous tales of jewels, skulduggery and ceremony from the historical record. Some of the richly embroidered traditions that will be on view at King Charles’s coronation, he shows, can be traced back to Edgar’s 10th-century ritual.
Crowns and Coronations: A History of Regalia, by William Jones
If you’d like more details about the coronation regalia — the official term for the orb, crowns, ampulla, spoon, swords and the like that are part of the ceremony — try this illustrated, gossip-studded explainer, originally published in 1883 and still available. William Jones was quite opinionated: Queen Victoria’s crown, he wrote, “is exceedingly costly and elegant; the design is in much better taste than that of the crowns of George IV and William IV.”
Or you could just read this piece written for The Times in 1911, shortly before the coronation of George V, by the “Keeper of the Crown Jewels.”
Treasures of Westminster Abbey, by Tony Trowles
Since 1066, every British monarch except Edward V and Edward VII has been crowned at Westminster Abbey, the medieval church in London that is at the very heart of British culture. (The Prince and Princess of Wales married there in 2011.)
This book, which sketches its remarkable history, brims with wonderful photos: not just sweeping views of the church’s interior, but stunning close-ups of richly filigreed altar screens, intricate floor mosaics, jewel-hued stained-glass windows, bronze and marble tomb effigies, the delicately vaulted ceiling of the nave and, of course, the Coronation Chair, which is more than 700 years old.
Crown & Sceptre: A New History of the British Monarchy, From William the Conqueror to Charles III, by Tracy Borman
Beheadings, follies, trysts and plague: Can 12 centuries’ worth of monarchs be crammed into 500 pages, about the size of a standard biography? Improbably, yes.
Tracy Borman’s short, lively sketches of kings and queens sparkle with diamond-bright detail that may inspire you to dive into more comprehensive histories. Some of the coronations she describes were particularly memorable: Seven-year-old Henry VI “looked around ‘sadly and wisely’ as the crown was placed on his head”; Edward I, according to one account, “removed his crown during the ceremony and swore he would never wear it again until he had won back everything his father had lost”; George II became angry during the procession because “his crimson velvet cap, which was also lined with ermine, was too large for his head and kept falling over his bulbous eyes”; George IV, one witness said, made his entry into Westminster Abbey “‘buried in satin, feathers and diamonds … like some gorgeous bird of the East.’”
Prince Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life, by Sally Bedell Smith
“I found,” Sally Bedell Smith writes in the preface to her sympathetic 2017 biography, “that much about Prince Charles was poorly understood, not least the extent of his originality.” She reminds us that “his every step” has been “inspected and analyzed: his promise, his awkwardness, his happiness, his suffering, his betrayals and embarrassments and mistakes, his loneliness, his success.” According to our reviewer William Boyd, who went to school with Charles, Bedell presents him as “complex, somewhat troubled, sincere and questioning individual.”
Queen Consort: The Life of Queen Camilla, by Penny Junor
Originally published “The Duchess: Camilla Parker Bowles and the Love Affair That Rocked the Crown,” Penny Junor’s book is a measured biography of the queen and her relationship with King Charles. Ms. Junor, a British journalist, traces the arc of their relationship from the 1970s on, touching on divorce, scandals and tragedies as she explores the couple’s abiding affection. “The Duchess” includes basic explanations of titles and a short glossary of important locations that will help rookie royal watchers find their bearings in time for the big day.
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