Well Read: Crown & Sceptre

Talking to Tracey Borman about the revealing, archival nuggets that illuminate her new book

“Tudor mince pies? They taste quite . . . special,” laughs Tracy Borman. “They were made with meat, spice and currants. The Tudors didn’t distinguish between sweet and savoury foods the way we do today. They’d serve roast beef with whipped cream – just bung it all together.”

Pruney mutton aside, the 49-year-old historian and Joint Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces says she always looks forward to December. “Hampton Court in particular looks and, more importantly, smells really festive,” she says. “They put orange peel and cinnamon sticks in the trees, so breathing it all in feels amazing. We’ve also got an ice rink again which looks fantastic, although I’m never tempted as I’m like a giraffe on skates.”

On Channel 5’s catch-up site history buffs can still watch an evocative documentary – Christmas at Hampton Court – in which Borman shows us the room, accessed via a secret staircase below her office, in which Elizabeth I received thousands of presents in a long, formal ceremony in 1577. Along with enough gold and jewels to sink an armada, the Virgin Queen’s gift list included all the classics: perfume, gloves and “gynger candy”.

A monarch could show who was in or out of favour by accepting or rejecting gifts, which were exchanged on New Year’s Day rather than at Christmas. So, in 1532 Henry VIII, who preferred to keep Christmas at Greenwich Palace, accepted a set of Pervinian boar spears from Anne Boleyn but rejected “a gold cup of great value and singular workmanship” from his queen, Catherine of Aragon. Henry – who had secretly married Anne a month earlier – gave his next queen “a bed covered with gold and silver cloth, crimson satin, and embroidery”.

This is the kind of revealing, archival nugget that illuminates Borman’s glorious new Crown & Sceptre: A New History of the British Monarchy from William the Conqueror to Elizabeth II. Although a walloping book, it’s a delightfully conversational read. Each monarch gets a chapter, which in most cases readers would be able to knock off in the time it takes to drink a glass of mulled wine. Each chapter comes with a catchy little subheading, drawn from a contemporary verdict. So Richard I gets “courage carried to excess”; George III “an ulcer’d mind”; Victoria “I will be good”; Edward VII “a thorough and cunning lazybones”; and Elizabeth II “fundamentally sensible and well behaved.”

“I’m interested in the personalities,” says Borman. “I love to go back to the original sources. For each monarch I include quotes from at least two or three documents and it’s in the archives that I become a real nerd. But you learn so much more about the state of people involved from the original documents. Often the handwriting is very telling. I’ve been to the Vatican to see Henry VIII’s love letters to Anne Boleyn. His penmanship was quite spiky and, as you might imagine, rather hurried. Thomas Cromwell had a very neat secretarial hand. But when he was begging for his life in the Tower of London it becomes a desperate, chaotic mess full of crossings out and parts you can barely read. There’s this frantic postscript crying for “mercy, mercy, mercy”. That’s where he comes alive for me.”

Born and raised in the village of Scothern, near Lincoln, Borman tells me she was always beguiled by “the romance” of history. During her A-levels, she tells me, her first summer job saw her “dressing up as a Victorian jailer in Lincoln Castle prison and showing people around – terrific!” She studied and later taught the subject at the University of Hull.

She published her first book, Henrietta Howard: King’s Mistress, Queen’s Servant, in 2007 and broke through into the mainstream two years later when her second, Elizabeth’s Women, was Book of the Week on Radio 4. In it, Borman speculated that the reason Gloriana wore such chalky-white make-up was to avoid looking like her disgraced mother, still remembered for her “sallow” skin. She reminded readers of the powerful women who had influenced the young Elizabeth but also revealed that the older queen wasn’t all that big on the sisterhood, stealing the gowns of any maids of honour who threatened to outshine her.

Borman was appointed to her job at the Historic Royal Palaces in 2013. The same year she published Witches: A Tale of Sorcery, Scandal and Seduction, which tempted her to try her hand at historical fiction set in the same period, publishing the first of three novels, The King’s Witch, in 2018. “I wanted to convey the horror of being alive at such a dark time,” she explains. “I’d definitely have been accused of witchcraft back then: I was a single, cat-owning, writing woman.” She has since married – at the Tower of London – and now lives in South London.

“I’ve always been an avid reader of historical fiction,” she says. “I love Hilary Mantel, and C J Sansom. Alison Weir is a huge role model for me, as she also crossed the divide from history to fiction. Her Six Wives series is astonishing.” She notes that high-end historical novels are now much more accurate, with authors feeling “a greater responsibility to the facts”. She admits she probably ended up doing more varied research for her novels than for her history books. “You can’t even write a sentence like ‘She picked up a glass of wine’ without asking: would she have been drinking wine? If so, from a glass or a goblet?”

When it came to writing Crown & Sceptre, Borman admits she was daunted by the volume of work required. But she was on a mission to look at her subjects as “human beings, with human traits and relationships, not just instruments of state”. And she was continually surprised. “I found myself fascinated by monarchs in whom I’d had absolutely no previous interest. I would have struggled to tell you anything about Henry I before writing and I became completely enthralled by his story. He was the youngest son of William the Conqueror and laid the foundations of government. He also fathered more illegitimate children than any other monarch: 24 of them!” He was a lover, not a fighter? “Exactly, he brought England 33 years of peace.”

She particularly enjoyed examining the characters of those rulers whose public image was at odds with their private personality. “Somebody like Charles II has the reputation of the ‘Merry Monarch’. We like to think of his later life as one long party. But actually he was cold and unknowable. Understandable, perhaps, given what happened to his father and his own long years in exile. He had low expectations of everyone he met and didn’t expect them to think highly of him, either. He trusted no one.”

Borman also “found I really loathed Edward VIII, whom I think we’ve romanticised a bit because of his love affair with Wallis Simpson. But he was a nasty piece of work, really cruel and vain. When his thirteen-year-old brother John died, he wrote to his mother Mary telling her to get over it. He described his brother’s death as ‘a regrettable nuisance’. Eugh!” Her book quotes a source describing the King as “quite unmoved” before broadcasting his abdication speech and leaving the country. Apparently, he sat in his bedroom and drank a whisky and soda while having his toenails done before telling an adviser: “It is a far better thing I go to.” Unsurprisingly, Borman thinks that the TV series The Crown “got Edward VIII right” but “the programme romanticised the relationship between Princess Margaret and Peter Townsend. She went off the idea of marrying him but presented herself as thwarted by the establishment.”

As Elizabeth II celebrates the 70th anniversary of her accession next February, Borman believes “it feels an ideal moment to set the Queen’s reign into context and to ask ourselves how and why the British monarchy has survived for so long.” For her own part, she comes “from a perspective of being slightly sceptical of the institution but wanting to support it. As a historian, I came to admire the continuity. It’s adapted and modernised as monarchies across Europe fell at a rate of knots.” Although Elizabeth I is still Borman’s “top monarch”, writing the book deepened her regard for Elizabeth II. “Her consistency and commitment to duty is remarkable. Even hardened republicans can’t help but respect her. She has been described as ‘boring’ for not expressing her opinions but she was very wise to know that was what was required of the position.”

Borman hopes that readers will feel free to “dip in and out of Crown & Sceptre”. But she also hopes that others “will read it all the way through and get an enjoyable grounding in one thousand years of royal history.” She sighs, happily. “It’s a good old yarn!”

Tracy Borman’s Crown & Sceptre: A New History of the British Monarchy from William the Conqueror to Elizabeth II is published by Hodder & Stoughton.

Helen Brown is an arts journalist writing regularly for The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Financial Times and The Daily Mail


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