For those people who have been eagerly awaiting Omid Scobie’s latest biography of the present-day Royal Family, following on from the bestselling Finding Freedom, the news is, alas, not good. Endgame has been published this week to a deafening chorus of derision from literary critics and royal commentators alike, many of whom have rightly pointed out that Scobie’s reliance on anonymous sources, who conveniently agree with his central thesis that Harry and Meghan have been wronged by the out-of-touch Royal Family, makes the book little more than the monarchical equivalent of Nadine Dorries’s similarly nonsensical The Plot.
Thankfully, other royal biographies are available. While it would be immodest of me to point readers to my own titles (The Crown in Crisis and The Windsors at War, available at a good bookshop near you), there is no doubt that writing about the Royal Family, both contemporary and historical, has evolved from the straightforwardly factual, even hagiographical, into a remarkably varied and rich series of books that will be of interest to committed monarchists and implacable republicans alike. Some are million-copy bestsellers, others brilliantly incisive titles that deserve to be examined afresh, but all – well, save perhaps the first one on the list – are classics of their kind. And will be remembered long after Finding Freedom and Endgame are deservedly forgotten.
1. Spare, Prince Harry (2023)
Prince Harry’s much-anticipated memoir will end 2023 as one of the year’s bestselling books, which it would have to be, given the extraordinary amount of money that Penguin paid for it: $20 million, if reports are to be believed. It deservedly attracted derision for some of its more tawdry details, such as Harry describing the loss of his virginity (in a field behind a pub with an older woman who “rode me like a stallion”) and the justly infamous episode in which he describes rubbing his mother’s favourite moisturiser, Elizabeth Arden cream, onto his frostbitten penis after a trip to the North Pole.
Yet once the absurdity is removed, readers are left with a remarkably well-written and thoughtful book – courtesy of Harry’s well-paid ghostwriter JD Moehringer – that offers genuine insight into what it must be like to be centre stage in the madhouse-cum-circus that is the contemporary monarchy. Readers may not end the book liking Harry more, but they will certainly understand the Clown Prince far better than hitherto.
2. Ma’am Darling, Craig Brown (2017)
After decades of being regarded primarily as a brilliant satirist, Craig Brown emerged as an author with this revelatory and formally daring biography of Princess Margaret, in which he imagined her life story through a series of ninety-nine vignettes. Brown mixed fiction, speculation, accounts of minor figures in her life, straightforward biography and often hilarious gossip in order to create a truly panoramic view of one of the Royal Family’s most controversial figures.
Brown is clearly so far removed from the usual troupe of royal commentators that he feels that he can say whatever he likes, and this sense of giddy liberation means that the book is enormous fun to read; it is hard not to come to the end of one of the more damning sections and not want to share the best lines with your nearest and dearest immediately. Obviously, the book was unpopular with those who knew Margaret, not least her friend Anne Glenconner, but its insanely readable and deservedly prizewinning bravura make this one of the finest non-fiction titles of the century so far.
3. The Queen, Ben Pimlott (1996)
There are countless biographies of Elizabeth II, most of which are without any serious insight or interest, for the simple reason that the royal archives relating to her have not been opened and because she never gave any revelatory interviews or made many public statements that amounted to more than pleasantries. (Her late, carefully phrased denigration of Meghan and Harry’s Oprah interview, “Recollections may vary”, was a remarkable, and pointed, exception.)
Therefore, the late political historian Ben Pimlott’s magisterial life of the last Queen remains by far the outstanding book in a crowded field, because Pimlott took her as seriously as a subject as he approached the likes of Harold Wilson and the Labour party. In his hands, Elizabeth emerges as a flawed but fascinating figure, entirely dutiful but also quixotic and capricious, and all the more interesting as a result of her all-too-human flaws. Pimlott died in 2004, alas; we could do with his equal to come up with a biography as rich and humane as his to do her last decades justice.
4. The Plantagenets, Dan Jones (2012)
Medieval history biographies often end up being clanky and chain mail-heavy, full of gore and descriptions of battles but perilously low on human interest or genuine insight. We should therefore be grateful to the brilliant medieval historian Dan Jones, who burst onto the scene with his second book, the bestselling account of the Plantagenet monarchs from King John to Richard III.
What Jones does so well is to simplify – but never dumb down – complex historical shenanigans to make eight generations of Plantagenet rule wholly accessible to the layperson, and to bring his monarchs to contradictory, often gruesome life. Jones began his career as a journalist and his ability to tell a good story in fascinating detail is foregrounded here, but his historical research is impeccable and this is that rare beast: a book about medieval times that will often make you laugh out loud. If you don’t own it already, stop reading this piece and buy it now.
5. That Woman, Anne Sebba (2011)
There have been many books written about King Edward VIII, the worst monarch of the twentieth century and beyond, and most people agree with me that he was little less than a whining, petulant failure whose abdication saved the country from a true catastrophe when the Second World War began. But what of his notorious wife, Wallis Simpson? Contemporary accounts of her portrayed her as little less than a harlot and a Jezebel, but Anne Sebba’s extraordinarily well-researched and nuanced account did not excuse her from accusations of caprice, selfishness or emotional cruelty, but also suggested that much of her treatment lay with the misogyny of the royal establishment and their hangers-on, both then and now.
Wallis emerges from these pages not as a vixen but as a survivor, someone who was willing to do whatever it took to come out on top, and if people condemned her for it, tough. A shame that Madonna wasn’t able to use this definitive book for her catastrophic Edward and Wallis biopic W.E.
6. Young Prince Philip, Philip Eade (2011)
We all know what to make of Prince Philip by now, don’t we? Grumpy, vaguely xenophobic and racist, a determined philistine and more interested in carriage driving than his family? Well, think again. Philip Eade’s sympathetic and richly detailed biography paints a picture of a young man who overcame relatively grim circumstances not only to serve with distinction in the British Navy during WWII but also ignored the sneers and contempt of the Royal Family to woo, and then marry, his distant cousin Elizabeth Windsor, before becoming her consort unexpectedly early upon the death of George VI.
Eade’s skill is to make Philip’s often difficult and volatile nature seem comprehensible and even sympathetic – how many men, after all, have not been allowed to pass on their surname to their child? – and the excerpts that he quotes from the late Prince’s correspondence show him as a wry, humorous and intellectually engaged figure, a million miles away from the splenetic cliché that he became during his lifetime.
7. The Diana Chronicles, Tina Brown (2007)
We may well be lacking the definitive book about Princess Diana. The notorious Andrew Morton title, 1992’s Diana: Her True Story, was both poorly written and questionable in its gossipy insights, and since her death, most writers have either fled headlong into empty praise or consoled themselves with prurience. Thank God, then, for Tina Brown, the former Vanity Fair and New Yorker editor who brings proper journalistic rigour to scrutinising the late Princess.
In her clear-sighted but always sympathetic view, Diana emerges as a fascinating, multifaceted character, near-Shakespearean in her contradictions; as soon as you start to feel sympathetic towards the young woman who was sidelined and belittled by the family that she married into, she does something outrageous or spiteful that sends the pendulum swinging back towards the Firm, and then the same thing occurs once again. On balance, Brown is clearly sympathetic towards Diana, but her lack of hagiography makes this compulsively readable and, often, very funny.
8. Queen Victoria: Daughter, Wife, Mother, Widow, Lucy Worsley (2018)
The clichés about Queen Victoria are now so widespread as to be almost risible: “We are not amused”, the woman who ruled over the largest Empire the world has ever known, the near-scandalous friendship with her ghillie John Brown, etc etc. Lucy Worsley, then, was faced with the near-impossible task of making her seem less the forbidding old trout of legend and more someone who managed to take the monarchy in a new and dynamic new direction after she inherited the throne at a frighteningly young age.
It is to Worsley’s credit that her painstakingly detailed book, in which she zooms in on 24 separate days of Victoria’s life, manages to make her seem less the stark figure that countless schoolchildren grew up revering and more a fascinatingly nuanced woman whose great love for, and heartbreaking loss of, Prince Albert came to dominate her life, even as it made her the most famous widow in Europe.
9. A Gambling Man, Jenny Uglow (2009)
Charles II, the so-called “merry monarch”, is one of the most contradictory figures in the history of the British monarchy. The well-worn reputation that he has of being a bon viveur who bedded mistresses by the scores and presided over a new, licentious Restoration age has to be balanced by the realisation that he fled his country amidst the chaos and violence of the Civil War and, when he finally returned to power, spent as much energy as tracking down the men who signed his father’s death warrant and executing them as he did reopening the playhouses.
Jenny Uglow’s magisterial biography of him paints a fully rounded picture of a man who lived and died at a level of full-bore intensity that was extraordinary, even for his period, and carefully deconstructs many of the salacious myths around him. Still, it is hard not to warm to a man who, on his deathbed, said to his doctors “You must pardon me, gentlemen, for being such an unconscionable time a-dying.”
10. Backstairs Billy: the life of William Tallon, the Queen Mother’s Most Devoted Servant, Tom Quinn (2015)
There are countless biographies written of the Royal Family, but comparatively few devoted purely to the courtiers around them: the men and women who were responsible for the thousand and one menial and often demeaning tasks that their overlords expected as their birthright. William “Backstairs Billy” Tallon has seen his story told in a new West End play, with Luke Evans playing him (opposite Penelope Wilton as his employer and occasional friend, the Queen Mother).
But Tom Quinn’s minutely detailed and richly hilarious story of his rackety life remains one of the definitive accounts of what it was like to be in the orbit of one of the Royal Family’s most charismatic figures, who certainly liked a drink or two. The late Queen Mother’s well-documented bibulousness accounts for one of the best anecdotes told here about Billy, namely that, overhearing him and his boyfriend bitching about some handsome young footman, she declaimed that “if you two old queens are finished, this old queen would like a drink.”