The best books on the modern British monarchy

Who am I?

I’m an American who was taken by his parents to live in England for a year when he was a kid of eleven. The accents? The traditions? The school uniforms? All the traffic tangled up for a day because the Queen was riding to the State Opening of Parliament? It frightened me. It repelled me. I ended up loving it. I wrote my PhD thesis on the Victorian monarchy. A substantial part of all three of my first nonfiction books are about it. My novel on the current Queen of England has been a bestseller. It’s all about setting out to master what first strikes you as incomprehensible.

I wrote...

Mrs Queen Takes the Train

By William Kuhn,

Book cover of Mrs Queen Takes the Train

What is my book about?

Elizabeth II, Queen of England and all she surveys, is feeling low. The Diana debacle has shown her just how much the British public rates her lifetime of service. As a cure for her depression, she decides to make an impromptu outing to Scotland. She’s going all by herself on a public train. A mismatched group of staff members are on her trail and following close behind. They’re trying to bring her back before the tabloids find out what’s happened. In the course of her journey she makes a surprising rediscovery, her vocation.

The books I picked & why

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Elizabeth: A Biography of Britain's Queen

By Sarah Bradford,

Book cover of Elizabeth: A Biography of Britain's Queen

Why this book?

In the guise of a biography of the current queen, this is one of the best books on the modern British monarchy as an institution. Sarah Bradford talked to all the palace insiders, an amazing feat given how touchy and protective everyone around the queen is. Bradford has the best sense of the strengths of the current queen and her weaknesses.  Because Elizabeth II is now the longest-reigning monarch in British history, she epitomizes most of the advantages and disadvantages of the institution in her own single lifetime.  You will find out which of the episodes from Netflix’s The Crown are all made up, and which are close to the truth.

The Queen: A Biography of Elizabeth II

By Ben Pimlott,

Book cover of The Queen: A Biography of Elizabeth II

Why this book?

This is another biography of the current queen that shows how the monarchy works. It differs from Sarah Bradford’s biography. Pimlott was a historical expert on the labour party during the twentieth century. He brought to his book all the skepticism about the crown that people on the political left traditionally have in Britain. Perhaps surprisingly, then, he comes out admiring Elizabeth II. He sticks much more narrowly than Bradford does to political crises in which the queen had some noted or decisive influence.

The Diana Chronicles

By Tina Brown,

Book cover of The Diana Chronicles

Why this book?

This is a third book which appears to be a biographical account of Diana Spencer’s life in the royal family. It really focuses on the interaction between the monarchy and the press. The two are in a relationship that is sometimes acrimonious and sometimes symbiotic. It’s impossible to understand how the media establishment and the monarchy function without reading Brown’s book. She was herself the editor of major magazines on both continents. For a while, she ran Vanity Fair and later The Daily Beast. She was married to a prominent newspaperman who held prominent roles in London and New York. She knows what she’s talking about.

Royal Bounty: The Making of a Welfare Monarchy

By Frank Prochaska,

Book cover of Royal Bounty: The Making of a Welfare Monarchy

Why this book?

This is the first history that details how the late nineteenth-century monarchy became an engine of philanthropy. As kings and queens were sidelined, or reduced to insignificance, in political transactions, they increased their role in assisting non-profit institutions that contributed to the public good. They gave their patronage, for example, to hospitals, veterans’ associations, and civic charities. This gave the royal family an outsized influence in the do-good world, and this itself increased the respect in which the monarchy was held by people of all parties. Frank Prochaska is an American historian of Great Britain, so he brings a healthy objectivity to literature about royalty that is sometimes too credulous and deferential.

The Quest for Queen Mary

By James Pope-Hennessey,

Book cover of The Quest for Queen Mary

Why this book?

This is the hilarious account of an official biographer tracking down European royalty. They were the extended family of Queen Mary, the current queen’s grandmother. Pope-Hennessey had been commissioned to write the official biography of Mary, the wife of King George V.  He talked to a full range of eccentrics who were either relations of Queen Mary, or knew her well.  The behind-the-scenes gossip he was given, as well as the insight into the absurdities of having a royal family in a democratic country, are both priceless.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the British Monarchy, Elizabeth I, and King George V?

5,215 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the British Monarchy, Elizabeth I, and King George V.

The British Monarchy Explore 4 books about the British Monarchy
Elizabeth I Explore 25 books about Elizabeth I
King George V Explore 9 books about King George V

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Queen Mary, The Last Queen: Elizabeth II's Seventy Year Battle to Save the House of Windsor, and The Uncommon Reader: A Novella if you like this list.