We know the austere, unsmiling faces peering out of our history books, the faces associated with greatness, bloodshed and conquest. The great leaders and speakers and men who inspired thousands to ride into battle in their name, the women who flew in the face of the social norms of their time.
But who would guess at the burning passion, the humanity and vulnerability beneath the legends and histories that became synonymous with these kings and queen’s names?
This is what Daniel Smith uncovers in his book ‘Love Letters of Kings and Queens’, a compilation of the love letters sent between kings and queens and their spouses, lovers and great lost love stories, faded by the relentless march of time.
What shocks readers at the first glance of this gorgeous book published by Quercus, is the sheer amount of prominent royalty whose letters survived the great expanse of time. The earliest date back to 1325, with Edward II and Isabelle of France, and it goes right up to the crown’s latest Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson in 1937 – that’s 612 years of letters for anyone who’s keeping track.
And it’s not just the sheer amount that survived, it’s that the content of these letters that managed to survive for years without scandalous reveal to the monarch’s subjects, only to be unearthed years later in our modern culture of exposition. It’s hard to think now of their equivalent’s being released when we think of the secrecy and calm front that today’s monarchy strive to portray.
We can’t imagine the texts between Will and Kate in their early days being released any more than Henry VIII’s subjects would have been able to imagine his saucy letters to Anne Boleyn being splashed about in pamphlets to the peasants – and yet we’d be just as intrigued as they would have been at the time.
We imagine these letters being hidden by their receivers and senders in the bottom of sock drawers, under pillows and beneath mattresses – there’s something strangely intrusive about reading them, as if we’ve caught these great monarchs in their underwear – we’re simultaneously embarrassed and delighted – and no one would ever believe us if we told them. One of France’s most famous and fearsome military leaders, Napoleon, becomes a puppy dog instead of a Rottweiler whilst writing to his first wife, Josephine, who was six years his senior and was later forced to divorce him after not producing an heir.
‘I awake with my thoughts full of you…Sweet and incomparable Josephine, what a strange influence you have on my heart. Are you cross? Do I see you sad? Are you uneasy…You are going away at noon. I shall see you in three hours. Meanwhile my sweet love, accept a thousand kisses, but do not give me any, for they burn up my blood.’
Well, that’s slightly better than a ‘You up?’ text.
Fans of the likes of ‘The Crown’ will enjoy this glimpse at the more personal side of the historical monarchs and also revel in the scandal that these letters reveal. The extra marital affairs, the secret, potentially gay, lovers, the political intrigue forever mixed up in the marriages that can cause more conflict than the lovers do sometimes!
Of course, it’s not all fiery passion and political gymnastics – there were plenty of unhappy but ‘dutiful’ marriages. Legitimate heirs needed to be provided, appearances needed to be kept up and kings and queens needed to bolster their power – or the entire system crumbles. Mary Queen of Scots loses her power when her scandalous letters to her long-time lover were released to the press and the courts when she was facing trial – letters that claimed she had a hand in killing her husband to be with her lover – a move that was key in leading her to her death later by beheading. Of course, there’s always speculation that the letters were fraudulent and Mary denied ownership of them…
And Catherine II, or Catherine the Great as she was more commonly known, seized her power back by staging a coup on her husband – who was her real claim to the throne – changing the course of history forever and asserting her dominance over a Russia searching for a firm leader. Which is how a relatively unknown Austrian princess came to rule one of the largest domains in the world!
Edward and Wallis and the press frenzy they speak of in their letters help us to better understand the monarchy and their relationship with the press in modern times. And as we read their lovelorn and hassled letters to each other in the days leading up to his abdication, we better understand the pressure on modern young royals and the responsibilities and duty that is their birthright but also weigh them down. It sheds a grim light on today when we see Wallis worrying about the brick being thrown through her car window and comments from the public about how she’s ‘American’, ‘divorced’ and therefore a double threat to the crown.
A fabulous read for anyone into their history, fans of The Crown or is just a little nosy! Check out the book here and enjoy a great weekend read.