In this follow-up to her bestselling Sex with Kings, Eleanor Herman reveals the truth about what goes on behind the closed door of a queen's boudoir. Impeccably researched, filled with page-turning romance, passion, and scandal, Sex with the Queen explores the scintillating sexual lives of some of our most beloved and infamous female rulers. She was the queen, living in an opulent palace, wearing lavish gowns and dazzling jewels. She was envied, admired, and revered. She was also miserable, having been forced to marry a foreign prince sight unseen, a royal ogre who was sadistic, foaming at the mouth, physically repulsive, mentally incompetent, or sexually impotent--and in some cases all of the above. How did queens find happiness? In courts bristling with testosterone--swashbuckling generals, polished courtiers, and virile cardinals--many royal women had love affairs. Anne Boleyn flirted with courtiers; Catherine Howard slept with one. Henry VIII had both of them beheaded. Catherine the Great had her idiot husband murdered, and ruled the Russian empire with a long list of sexy young favorites. Marie Antoinette fell in love with the handsome Swedish count Axel Fersen, who tried valiantly to rescue her from the guillotine. Empress Alexandra of Russia found emotional solace in the mad monk Rasputin. Her behavior was the spark that set off the firestorm of the Russian revolution. Princess Diana gave up her palace bodyguard to enjoy countless love affairs, which tragically led to her early death. When a queen became sick to death of her husband and took a lover, anything could happen--from disgrace and death to political victory. Some kings imprisoned erring wives for life; other monarchs obligingly named the queen's lover prime minister. The crucial factor deciding the fate of an unfaithful queen was the love affair's implications in terms of power, money, and factional rivalry. At European courts, it was the politics--not the sex--that caused a royal woman's tragedy--or her ultimate triumph.
Still, it was pretty fascinating. Catherine the Great was awesome, and the thing about the horse is totally not true.
Although many ordinary people envied royalty's beautiful attire, rich surroundings and fabulous jewels, the fact is that queens had little freedom and led lonely, boring lives. They lived in foreign countries, far from their native languages and customs, and in most cases never saw family and friends for the rest of their lives. Servants did their work and took care of their children, leaving the queens to do little but embroider all day.
In order to avoid inbreeding and create international liaisons, princes and princesses where betrothed to royalty from other countries, often sight unseen. In some cases, the kings or princes were fat, ugly, uncouth, unfaithful, insane, gay, cold, or even impotent.
Frustrated women turned to other men for affection with varying results. Some queens were beheaded, imprisoned, exiled, or sent to convents, and some were tolerated and a few queens even thrived despite their illicit behaviors.
Many of the stories are quite funny, like the unfortunate woman who married an impotent king who was so fat that he had his servants roll him through his palace's corridors and insisted that priests say mass in his bedroom but were not allowed to awaken him. Many stories had tragic endings. But whatever the outcomes, the queens' stories made fascinating reading.
The first two chapters of this book give examples of so many kings and queens, some of whom I had never heard of, that my head was spinning. But starting with chapter three, Herman goes into depth about the love affairs of the wives of Henry VIII, as well as Catherine the Great, and many other queens, up to and including Princess Diana of England who was so desperate for love that her life was vastly more pathetic than I ever imagined.
If your prurient interests may be aroused by the funny, sad, uplifting and tragic tales of historical women who desperately sought love and sex despite potential consequences, I highly recommend this well-researched and very readable book.
I have learned though, that while it may have been good to be the King (and even that's really debatable: The last King I read about was pretty much tortured into insanity by his tutors in their attempts to make him a 'real man') it was not good to be the Queen. Married off in your early teens to a man who was often cruel, insane or at best neglectful, without any friends, the slave to the whims of your husband and a pawn to political factions? And if you did find love with a handsome courtier, you and he could be exiled, tortured or executed? No thank you.
As it turns out, not so much. Also as it turns out, being royalty kind of sucks. There's plenty of speculation that Prince Harry's trouble in finding a steady girlfriend is (at least in some measure) the pressure of becoming a member of the royal family. As an adult, the idea of trading living under a microscope, with public interest in your private life extending not just to juicy stories, but to snooping on your phone and long-lens photography hoping to catch you taking off your top to tan more evenly, is a devil's bargain for getting to wear some pretty headgear once in a while.
But as much as there are significant downsides to being royalty today, it used to be much worse, especially for women. Author Eleanor Herman details the very real drawbacks being a princess or a queen. Royal women weren't people, they were bargaining chips in international diplomacy. They were married off to princes and kings who were old and fat, who were impotent, who were gay. They were expected to tolerate their husband's infidelity without doing anything that would cast doubt on the true parentage of their children. Those children were frequently unceremoniously confiscated from them and raised according to the wishes of others. Their lush castles were drafty and dirty, and their expensive physicians were as likely to kill them as help them. Their access to funding was usually controlled by other people and so they were slaves to the whims of those who held the purse strings. They were often deprived of the company of those to whom they could speak their native languages...their ladies-in-waiting from their home countries could be dismissed without their consent and seeing their family members required long, complex negotiations that fell through more often than not.
Some princesses and queens, though, didn't follow the rules. They took lovers at great risk to themselves...and even greater risks for the men in question. It is those women (and their men) who Herman's Sex with the Queen is about. After detailing how awful it actually was (and still is, on a certain level) to be a princess, Herman moves into the good stuff: dishy gossip. From the Tudor queens Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard all the way to Princess Diana (it's not just English queens, there are stories from all over Europe), we're regaled with tales of forbidden passion and courtly intrigue. It covers the expected subjects (the aforementioned Tudor queens, Marie Antoinette, Catherine the Great) as well as some lesser-known stories, like that of Sophia Dorothea of Celle and Queen Maria Francisca of Portugal. There's not a lot of substance here, it's mostly well-written soap opera, but it's fun and frothy and easy to read.
I'm sure it has much to do with how tragic and depressing many of the stories are, as well as the hypocrisy in regards to infidelity on the part of the Queen vs. the King.
After awhile it just started to wear me down to read one depressing story after another and she seemed to dwell a lot on the really tragic ones and give the happier or less so less time.
I can't really tell how accurate her stories are, but she gives enough detail to make the stories engaging and interesting, to make the people talked about come alive and seem real.
Women who were Queen in their own right did somewhat better than adulterous royal consorts. Tsarina Elizabeth of Russia had four admitted lovers at a time, and her successor Catherine the Great (after Catherine’s annoying husband Peter III was strangled by her lover Gregory Orlov) had a whole stable of them.
Herman finishes the book with a tabloidesque discussion of the affairs of Princess Diana. I can’t quite get a feel for what Herman actually thinks about Diana; she reports every rumor of Diana’s affairs (including the one that Prince Harry is actually the son of James Hewitt) but also expresses some grudging admiration for someone who she believes stood up to the British establishment. Diana does come across as moderately wacko, but I might end up that way too if reporters followed me around trying to acquire my used tissues so they could get DNA samples out of it.
This book has much more prurient language that Sex with Kings, although most of the nastiness is direct quotes from original sources. Rumor has it that Herman’s next book will be about sex with Popes, which ought to complete the series. Lightweight reading, with some interesting history thrown in.