Crown & Sceptre: A New History of the British Monarchy, from William the Conqueror to Elizabeth II by Tracy Borman

“The benefits of a good monarch are almost invaluable,” the journalist Walter Bagehot wrote in 1867, “but the evils of a bad monarch are almost irreparable.” While he was a widely admired constitutional expert, that seems hyperbolic. The long history of the monarchy demonstrates above all the capacity of the people to endure an abysmal King or Queen.

Tracy Borman has written extensively on the monarchy and serves as the chief curator of Historic Royal Palaces. An unashamed lover of the royal family, she believes that it “reinforces the self-esteem of the nation” and is “the living embodiment of the nation’s history”. In Crown & Sceptre she examines every monarch from 1066 to the present. While she doesn’t ignore the institution’s darker aspects, she’s nevertheless in thrall to its “other-worldliness” — its magic and mystery.

Good monarchs are like comets: stupendous, but rare. Edward III, who reigned from 1327-77, was, according to a contemporary, “glorious, graceful, merciful and magnificent”. Borman agrees. Similar superlatives are doled out to Henry V — “the greatest man that ever ruled England”. Elizabeth I, Victoria and the present Queen are also effusively praised. Henry VIII, despite his brutality, was “everything a king should be: magnificent, chivalrous, militaristic and awe-inspiring”. That, however, is about it for the really great ones.

Borman frequently damns with faint praise; George VI is lauded for his dullness, which pleasantly contrasts with the gluttony, avariciousness, insanity and licentiousness that was so common among kings. George III is praised for being faithful to his wife, an unusual characteristic. William and Mary were virtuous, but their lack of “vanity and voluptuousness” was criticized by those who craved magnificence. A monarch should never be boring.

After reading this book, I imagined a job description based on the characteristics of those who have occupied the throne. “The applicant for the role of monarch need not be British nor indeed speak English. Good physical and mental health are not required, nor is virtue. A fondness for extravagant dress is preferred, as is the ability to spend exorbitant sums on homes, holidays and jewels. Intelligence is not essential, but bad temper, promiscuity, gluttony and depravity are prized. Preference will be given to candidates from dysfunctional families in which members are inclined to despise and perhaps kill one another.”

That job description is, of course, nonsense, because being a king is not a job. “The … monarchy is the supremist thing on earth,” James I proclaimed. “Kings are justly called gods, for … they exercise … divine power on earth. They [are] accountable to none but God only.”

Henry VIII, despite his brutality, was “everything a king should be: magnificent, chivalrous, militaristic and awe-inspiring.”

The divinity of kings excused their misbehavior — they were never expected to act like normal people and were often criticized when they did. This belief in royal divinity has been remarkably resilient. In the early 1950s, for instance, 35 percent of the population believed that Elizabeth II had been chosen by God. At the risk of seeming heretical, I have to wonder why God sent so many abhorrent monarchs.

Until recently, almost all kings were blatantly promiscuous — occasionally predatorial. Charles II, who might have been a great king “had he been less addicted to women”, sired 14 illegitimate children. (The record goes to Henry I, who fathered at least 24.)

An exuberant philanderer such as Charles was widely admired because a healthy sexual appetite seemed to befit a god. “[The] playboy prince … put the smile back on his subjects’ faces after [a] bitter civil war,” Borman writes. Ditto Edward VII, whose promiscuity was “a welcome contrast to his straitlaced and didactic parents”, Victoria and Albert. That perhaps explains the behavior of George III, who adored his wife but carried on a long affair with Henrietta Howard simply to preserve the royal tradition of keeping a mistress.

Sexual profligacy usually went hand in hand with fiscal extravagance — monarchs tried to outdo their predecessors in lavish expenditure because frills and frippery suggested majesty. Few kings were as good at spending money as Henry III; by the end of his reign he was so heavily in debt that he was forced to pawn the Crown Jewels. His menagerie of exotic beasts included a polar bear and an elephant, animals not easily secured in the 13th century. Henry complained bitterly when his subjects were not sufficiently generous in the gifts they bestowed.

George III adored his wife but carried on a long affair with Henrietta Howard simply to preserve the royal tradition of keeping a mistress.

That same expectation characterized Elizabeth I, who amassed 6,000 dresses. Noblemen dreaded her visits because the luxuries she expected could bankrupt them. That extravagance was a family trait; her father, Henry VIII, started his reign with 12 royal palaces and ended it with 55.

Misbehavior had to be severe before public patience snapped. King John, deemed “a very bad man” for losing a war and excessively taxing his nobles, was brought to heel with Magna Carta. Charles I was similarly charged with “wicked designs, wars and evil practices”. While the former lost his power, the latter lost his head.

Good monarchs are like comets: stupendous, but rare.

Richard II’s “perjuries, sacrileges, sodomitical acts … and incapacity to rule” led to his being deposed in 1399, a fate that also befell Edward II in 1327. Parliament’s ability to depose a monarch seems to run counter to the principle of divine appointment, but sometimes it’s best not to look too closely at the interaction of heavenly and secular law.

Borman embraces a huge task, which she carries out reasonably well. A book of this sort requires not only biographical sketches, but also a solid historical context and an analysis of the monarchy’s evolution according to time and taste. The author is quite good with the sketches, but her background knowledge is occasionally shallow and inaccurate, especially when covering the 19th and 20th centuries. She discusses the changes in public attitudes toward the monarchy, but not with appropriate nuance. The main fault of this book, however, is that there’s not enough of the weird and wonderful stuff that makes the monarchy enthralling and, to some, repugnant.

During the First World War George V adopted a frugal lifestyle to express sympathy for the hardships of his people. He forswore alcohol for the duration of the war in the hope of persuading workers to do likewise. George VI’s wife welcomed the bombing of Buckingham Palace — “It makes me feel we can look the East End in the face.”

Then came Elizabeth, who bought her wedding dress with ration coupons and eventually opened the palace to the public. One struggles to imagine Henry VIII ever perceiving a need for frugality or indeed empathy. These gestures were intentionally designed to contradict a tradition of excess, part of the monarchy’s long-term strategy of survival.

Granted, the public today would not tolerate a miscreant like Charles II or a tyrant like Henry VIII. Yet throughout the long history of the monarchy the appeal of kings and queens has been based on their otherworldliness. That has diminished significantly.

Ever since the accession of Victoria, monarchs have been praised not for their majesty, but for their charity, service, devotion and stability. As the institution grew less magnificent, it became less exciting. “Britain,” Borman writes, “has arrived at a version of the monarchy that is for the most part inoffensive.” While that is perhaps admirable, the example of William and Mary is germane. The British will tolerate almost any excess or infirmity, but a monarch must never be boring.

Gerard DeGroot is a professor of modern history at the University of St. Andrews and the author of several books, including The Bomb: A Life and The Seventies Unplugged