Reviewed by Clare Brook
For those readers who grew up having a parade of incomprehensible English Kings marched into their brains, they might shy away from Stephen Bates’ The Shortest History of The Crown believing no good could come from attempting to master this royal pageant. But be assured Bates has provided a most interesting read, think Game of British Thrones.
Whereas the British monarchy has its critics both in Australia and Britain, it has survived for almost two thousand years as the most famous royal family in the world. Bates presents readers with a factual and entertaining tour of the English monarchy from the departure of the Romans to the present day. This short history is divided into six chapters – ‘Angles, Saxons, Vikings, Chieftains and Warlords’, ‘Feudal Royalty’, ‘Monarchical Revolution’, ‘Divine Right Rebuffed’, ‘The Hanoverian Hegemony’, and, ‘The Middle-Class Monarchy’.
Bates includes a family tree time-line for each section, and a ‘Timeline of Royal Compromises’ that maps out developments within areas of justice, parliament, church and taxes, allowing quick access to an overview of English political history. A lack of an index, perhaps not expected in a short history, nevertheless it was missed. I might mention a typo that was briefly perplexing: page 181, the heading ‘Queen Anne (1702-1707)’ should be 1702-1714.
Along with the politics and power struggles, readers are presented with a glimpse into royal lives, from regional Kings such as Alfred the Great (849-899), a clever and devout man, the only king to have written a book, along with Henry VIII. Then a very competent Athelstan, first king of a united England (927-939), and onward to King Charles III.
All of the above in two hundred and eighty-eight pages is a tall order, but Bates manages to breathe life into this skeleton history giving readers an appreciation of the many faces of the Crown, what they did and why and to whom. So doing he plots the monarchy’s regression from absolute power to being a unifying institution in society and a figure head without executive power within the Westminster parliamentary system; as such it simultaneously documents an evolving democratic system.
It becomes clear that the longevity of the Monarchy was due to a pragmatic acceptance of change imposed upon them by the Church and regional barons.
Kings were willing to accept a compromise of their executive power as many of them had their minds on glory and regaining territory in France, more than a desire for executive power within England. A great step forward toward a just society was the implementation of a legal code applicable to everyone, including the king, along with the establishment of a Parliament. Eventually, elected Ministers took over the running of the country, replacing regional barons and the Church, therefore including a wide section of educated society into the political establishment.
Bates plots the development of the above and more, in an easy-to-read style that gives the reader the ability to digest English history and the remarkable longevity of the Crown.
By Stephen Bates
ISBN: 978 176064 461 1