I sometimes feel sorry for the British royals. They are barred from the ordinary fun of playing miniature golf and meeting friends in pubs. They cut ribbons opening supermarkets but they don't shop in them. From the glimpses we get on television they seem dysfunctional, choreographed, scripted, artificial, guarded, insular, overrich and overdressed. You have to remember, though, they are the result of centuries of violent rivalry and inbreeding. If they are strange it is because their history is strange.
That history is the interesting subject of Michael Farquhar's newest book, "Behind the Palace Doors: Five Centuries of Sex, Adventure, Vice, Treachery, and Folly From Royal Britain." It isn't new ground for him; he is also the author of "A Treasury of Royal Scandals," which had some of the same faces but also included the Bourbons, the Habsburgs and the other European dynasties. All of them cousins.
Shakespeare wrote "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown" ("Henry IV"), and the hazard was far greater for women. Farquhar describes their plight in some detail. Queens feared childbirth but feared being unable to conceive even more. Royal history being all about marriage, there's a temptation to assume marriage then was the same as it is now. It wasn't. And royal marriage is always a very different institution, eminently practical, only sexual in the offspring sense. Royal reproductive success was a public event.
There were doctors to certify the legitimacy of royal brides and children. This created a tension between private and public selves, the private I and the royal We. Scandals erupted when private feelings weren't in line with dynastic policy. But apart from Henry VIII, Charles II (a true merry monarch), George III's wastrel regent son George IV, the self-indulgent Edward VII and the narcissistic Edward VIII, there isn't much sexual romping. The 18th-century Hanoverians were dull family men.
Victoria created the royal family as a fairy tale ideal for the nation, a model observed by the current queen, whose chapter is brief and worshipful, with barely a mention of the Diana scandal. I was also disappointed not to find a reference to the widely suspected death-by-physician-overdose of George V. The best and funniest chapter in the book is devoted to the king who only reigned for 10 months, Edward VIII.
The grimmest chapters detail the many executions of rivals, and cousins who worshipped differently. Tudor and Stuart England was wracked with violence as kings and queens left and rejoined the Catholic Church, dragging their subjects with them. Most of the book focuses on conspiracies, plots to seize power or squeeze more money out of the treasury, or (perhaps more horrifying) to lead ordinary unroyal lives.
It's surprising how few eyewitness accounts there are of royal goings on. Why mention "palace doors" in the title if you aren't peering through the keyholes observing scandalous behavior? Maybe the material isn't there. I suspect the royal libraries must be full of butlers' and footmen's and housekeepers' memoirs expensively purchased, privately bound in leather and set on a high shelf to keep them from the general reader.
Eric Hanson is a Minneapolis writer and illustrator, and the author of "A Book of Ages."