Over the years, thousands of biographies on royals have been published. Most are good, some are awful and some are excellent. So if you want to find out more about a particular royal, and go to your local bookshop or library to choose a biography, which should you choose? Here are my favourite royal biographies and why I like them.
Let’s start with The Queen. For an account of her childhood and life up to and including the birth of Prince Charles, the best book is The Little Princesses by Marion Crawford. The Queen and Princess Margaret’s former governess, Miss Crawford was never given royal approval for her book, written after she left royal service. She paid a heavy price for what was seen as her disloyalty – the royal family never spoke to her again. The book is rather saccharine but in this day and age of warts and all biographies, it is rather nice to read a favourable life story from a woman who clearly cared deeply about her charges, and the book remains the only comprehensive history of the Queen’s childhood.
For an overall look at the Queen’s life, it is worth reading any biography written about her by Sarah Bradford. The one I own is Elizabeth and it was published in 1996 but Ms Bradford has since updated her biography and it has become Queen Elizabeth II: Her Life In Our Times published in 2011. I haven’t read the latter book, as Elizabeth was simply so good!
Sarah Bradford has written my favourite biographies on the Queen’s father George VI (in a book of the same name) and Diana, Princess of Wales (in her book Diana). All three biographies I own by this author are, in my opinion, well researched and written, and as impartial as it is probably possible to be when writing about the life of another person.
To read up on the marriage of The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh, try Gyles Brandreth’s entertaining book Philip and Elizabeth Portrait of a Marriage. Mr Brandreth has known Prince Philip for many years and he paints a sympathetic portrait of the couple. It is fascinating to watch an account of their relationship and personalities over the years.
Similarly, Gyles Brandreth has also written Charles and Camilla Portrait of a Love Story which is equally entertaining and with very many footnotes. Incidentally, if, like me, you like being sent off on a tangent, you will love all the footnotes in these two books. Otherwise, I would imagine they could be extremely irritating! It must be said though, that this book does give a chatty but in depth portrayal of the relationship between The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall.
If you wish to know more about Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother, the first port of call should perhaps be her official biography, which took 6 years to write, Queen Elizabeth by William Shawcross. It is certainly comprehensive, which it should be as Mr Shawcross was given unrestricted access to the Queen Mother’s papers and to members of her family. The book, and it’s companion, Counting One’s Blessings, The Selected Letters of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother are interesting, and are important reference materials to me. But if you, like me, enjoy an engaging as well as informative read, try Elizabeth The Queen Mother by Hugo Vickers. This is my favourite biography of an amazing woman, with many pictures of her life and its size will not put off any potential reader (unlike William Shawcross’s two books, which are enormous!).
If you are interested in reading more about the Queen Mother, My Darling Buffy by Grania Forbes is a glossy look at her childhood, and reads quite like a magazine article with lots of pictures, many of which I had not seen before. For behind the scenes information about the final years of the Queen Mother’s life, Behind Palace Doors by Major Colin Burgess is about the daily life in Clarence House told by the Queen Mother’s former equerry. It reads rather like a diary, is informal and amusing, and all in all, an easy read that I go back to time and time again.
A number of books about The Duchess of Cambridge have been hastily written, but if you wish to read about Catherine, I would recommend Kate by Sean Smith. This book is written in chatty, glossy magazine style, but was interesting (and the pictures were excellent). Just make sure you buy the updated version which includes William and Catherine’s wedding and the year afterwards.
And finally, for some recent royal history, try Battle Royal by Kirsty McLeod for a truly gripping read about the feud between brothers George VI and The Duke of Windsor including the abdication crisis. This book reads like a novel but unbelievably, the characters are real. For Queen Victoria it is hard to narrow the choice down to just one biography, but the most comprehensive but still engaging book I have read about her is Queen Victoria, A Personal History by Christopher Hibbert.
So there you have it, my favourite royal biographies, all of which I have read more than once, some many more times than that. I have bought most of them from second-hand bookshops as many of these seem to have excellent royal sections and stock books that are now out of print. Otherwise, most (if not all) of the books I have mentioned can probably be found on the internet. Happy reading!
What do you think are the best royal biographies you have read? Tell us your views in the comments box below.