In an uproarious, eye-opening history of Europe's notorious royal houses, readers will find a lively investigation that leaves no throne unturned and that will make them glad they live in a democracy. Illustrations.
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Three Rivers Press
May 28, 2001
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Excerpt from Royal Babylon by Karl Shaw
About 200 years ago, England's greatest republican confidently predicted the imminent downfall of the House of Hanover. "Hereditary succession is a burlesque upon monarchy," he wrote. "It puts it in the most ridiculous light, by presenting it as an office which any child or idiot may fill. It requires some talents to be a common mechanic, but to be a king requires only the animal figure of a man -- a sort of breathing automaton. This sort of superstition may last a few years more, but it cannot long resist the awakened reason and interest of men."
Thomas Paine had good reason to believe that he was on fairly safe ground. The reigning King of England was evidently insane and reduced to conversing with long-dead friends and indecently exposing himself to servants. The King's brother Henry had just become the first member of the British royal family to be sued for adultery. The rest of the royals, especially the King's seven sons, were reviled throughout the land. One of them was even suspected of having murdered his manservant and raping his own sister. The heir to the throne, an unstable, bloated philanderer unable to step outside his front door without risk of being pelted by the London mob, was locked in the most publicly disastrous royal marriage since Henry VIII was obliged to remove Catherine Howard's head.
Those of Her Majesty's subjects who saw the blitz of British royal embarrassments of the mid-1990s and concluded that the British monarchy had never been worse represented were presumably ignorant of standards set by earlier generations. In the realm of royal behavior, Prince Charles's devotion to his mistress, Camilla Parker Bowles, probably qualifies as fidelity. Most of the men who have held the title "Prince of Wales" were an embarrassment, none more so than Prince Charles's great-great-grandfather, Edward VII, a man who took the family motto, "I serve," into another dimension.
From the day the Hanoverians first set foot on British soil in 1714, apart from during the reigns of George V, George VI and Queen Elizabeth II, the British royal family has never been popular, nor does it deserve to have been. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, British kings and queens -- Shelley's "royal vampires" -- were subject to regular attacks from the press for their profligacy, their indolence, their stupidity or for their squalid private lives. And then a curiously repressed minor royal from Germany, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, made the situation of his family even more difficult by forcing them into a straitjacket labeled MORAL FIGUREHEADS TO THE NATION, dooming the British royals to an endless struggle to keep up appearances and keep a lid on their family scandals.