Throughout history, all monarchs have lived with the same dichotomy of simultaneously being human and more than human.
In our time, when monarchs seem little more than tourist curiosities and democracy is taken for granted, it is easy to forget just how much power pre-democratic rulers once wielded. The rulers and holders of political power in this book were all possessed of vast – in many cases, absolute, – power: power which was often exercised arbitrarily and unjustly.
What unites the figures in this book is that they all, in one way or another, failed to live up to the extravagantly high hopes invested in them and, as a consequence, have been judged harshly by history.
A few, such as George III, might have been remembered more kindly were it not for mental illness changing their status from that of hero to villain. Some, like Louis XVI, were unfairly transformed into monsters by hostile propaganda, while others, such as Pete the Great, have been both celebrated as heroes and denounced as tyrants, often in the same breath. Finally, there are hose rulers who, like Caligula or Ivan the Terrible, may well fully deserve their evil reputations.
Ruthless Rulers is a study in how often rulers were carried away or overwhelmed by their exalted status, while a few were even driven over the edge into madness.
What unites the figures in this book is that they had badly disappointed the high, semi-divine hopes placed on them and, because of that, they have been judged by history as a bizarre curiosity, a living catastrophe, or both.
Well, sort of. But this is at least a better summary than Ruthless Rulers. Because not everybody in this book can be considered ruthless (or an infamous tyrant). There are also those who might have been remembered as unremarkable, semi-competent rulers if their reign had been during a quieter time but they had the misfortune of reigning during unrest, war, rebellion or other catastrophes and they were incapable of dealing with that. Others were mentally ill or suffering from a trauma that left them unable to cope with ruling (and sometimes even daily life). A couple were actually not that bad but had the misfortune of being hated by the historians who wrote about them. (And in a few cases we just don’t know how much of the stories about them are true and how much is just the result of propaganda).
As a result, I often felt that the common thread was missing. Especially the chapters, dealing with rulers who tried (and failed) to rule in tumultuous times often focus more on those times than the rulers themselves. I now know a lot more about the War of the Roses than I do about Henry VI…and the chapter on Nicholas II could have talked a bit more about the bad decisions he made but it’s just a bit biography, a bit about Rasputin (that is also partly wrong*) and a short overview of World War I, all with almost no attempt to connect it.
I can’t help but think that less would have been more. Some chapters are very short and it felt like they were only included to pad things out (and in general it seemed that the author cared less about those in Central- and Eastern Europe than those in the West). A proper focus on fewer rulers would have been better.
The book is a good starting point, though. Especially because every chapter gives you a list of the sources so you can easily read on. There is even some info on books and movies that deal with the subjects. (However usually a very short one; and while I get that one can never have an exhaustive list of ‘fictionalized accounts of royalty’, it is noticeable that there’s almost nothing from post-1990 on those lists which is not that great for a recently published book).
*I don’t really blame him for that since you’ll have a 9/10 chance of getting wrong information about Rasputin if you read/watch anything about him.
ARC received from NetGalley