When looking at biographies I’ve gravitated towards in the past, many of them involved standout female royal or noble figures from different historical times. I decided to put a book list together of my favorite female royal biographies, to be added to as I continue to explore the genre.
Here are 6 of my favorite of these biographies so far – mostly from European history. I do plan to expand this book list to include more diversity both in terms of historical period and in terms of geographical origin in the future.
The Life Of Elizabeth The I by Alison Weir
Published: October 1999
No list of biographies of historical women would be complete without a history of Elizabeth I’s life or without at least one work (and in this case two) by Alison Weir. This is an intensely personal portrait of arguably the most complex and compelling female monarch of all time. It reads like a novel but is based on extensively researched sources. Alison Weir brings Elizabeth intimately to life for her readers, spanning from the minutiae of her daily life – including food, dress and privy chambers – to the overarching issues of marriage, succession and intense court rivalries.
The Six Wives Of Henry The VIII by Alison Weir
Published: December 2007
Out of the three nonfiction books on England’s royals I’ve read by Alison Weir, this is my favorite. Henry VIII’s incredible life of marital subterfuges and spousal executions doesn’t need much spicing up, but Alison Weir adds personal details to the lives of each of the six royal women immortalized in this biography. The reader comes to know them and root for them, despite being fully aware of their impending doom in advance. As a fan of BBC’s The Tudors I can confirm that this biography is as salacious and titillating, though in its own more historically accurate way.
Georgiana: Duchess Of Devonshire (aka The Duchess) by Amanda Foreman
Published: September 2008
This biography inspired the movie starring Keira Knightley in which she interprets the beautiful and envied but tragically unhappy Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Like all noblewomen of her age, at only seventeen Georgiana made an unwilling marriage of convenience to a titled man she did not love, suffering the consequences of this forced union the rest of her life. Unlike other women of her age, she was celebrated as a fashion trend setter and eventually even as a political leader. Her story is equal parts sad and inspiring – another reminder that even in the straightened circumstances of their times, women have often been able to find a voice and a role beyond what would normally be permitted of them.
The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise To Power In Ancient Egypt by Kara Cooney
Published: October 2014
From ages 8 to 12 my primary aspiration in life was to be an Egyptologist – true story. I tried to learn hieroglyphics and immersed myself in studying the history and society of Ancient Egypt. Reading this book about one of the only known female Egyptain pharaohs of the era brought me back like a time machine to those years. Though many of the hard facts of Hatshepsut’s life are lost to history, Cooney skillfully traces Hatshepsut’s origins as daughter and sister of rulers into her transformation as a purposefully gender neutral regent and king of Upper and Lower Egypt.
Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser
Published: November 2002
Who doesn’t love the story of Marie Antoinette. Teenage daughter of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, she’s married at only fourteen to the Dauphin of France. Her place at court starts off as tenuous as she’s viewed as gauche, foreign and unable to produce an heir. Once Marie Antoinette establishes herself as the storied leader of fashion and court life, Antonia Fraser adds to the obligatory accounts of extravagant dresses and indulgent food an analysis of the political role of a young woman torn between her familial duties to Austria and her marital duties to France. This biography expertly weaves the doomed queen’s story as daughter, wife, and mother to its untimely end.
Madame De Pompadour by Nancy Mitford
Reading this biography of Louis XV’s famed mistress Madame De Pompadour made me want to tackle some of Nancy Mitford’s novels like The Pursuit Of Love and Love In A Cold Climate. In Madame De Pompadour, Mitford combined historical fact and backdoor gossip to tell the story of social climber extraordinaire Madame De Pompadour, who made her way from bourgeois near-nobody to the most powerful woman in France for many years. Though far from morally faultless, Madame De Pompadour has to be admired for her ability to control king, royal courtiers and lesser mistresses alike in order to maintain the position she has built for herself. An engrossing portrait of the subterfuges implicit in life at Versailles.
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