Three books on British royals

Friday, October 1, 2010; 12:32 PM

Long before the term "glass ceiling" was coined, strong, inspired women were making their mark on history, despite a dizzying array of obstacles. Of course, it helps to have a privileged background like the people presented here, but the formidable determination of these royals serves as a model to women of all stations.

1. A Royal Passion: The Turbulent Marriage of King Charles I of England and Henrietta Maria of France, by Katie Whitaker (Norton, $26.95).

Henrietta Maria, the eldest daughter of King Henri IV of France, , arrived in England with a distinct disadvantage: -- She was Catholic. and a teenager, neither of which endeared her to the English public. Her marriage, crafted with diplomatic panache and a dispensation from the pope, had a rocky start but soon the couple fell in love. Unfortunately, Charles and Henrietta were oblivious to the rumblings of a disaffected public and an incensed Parliament right until the bitter end (Charles's beheading). Whitaker's portrait of the king and queen is more intimate and sympathetic that past histories. Their steadfast relationship and stubborn adherence to the divine rule of kings fomented a yearning for liberty and the rule of law that would irrevocably change the political landscape of England.

2. Elizabeth's Women: Friends, Rivals, and Foes Who Shaped the Virgin Queen, by Tracy Borman (Bantam, $28).

Elizabeth I, whose ebullient reign is often cited as England's Golden Age, is famous both for being derisive of her own sex and reveling in its charms and pleasures. While she had numerous relationships with men, her personal world, the one she was born into, was dominated by women. Tracy Borman acquaints us with a diverse cast, from governesses, ladies in waiting and courtiers, but the most well-known include her mother, Anne Boleyn, and her stepmother, Katherine Howard, both beheaded under orders from her father. Mary Tudor, her half-sister, was intensely jealous of Elizabeth and would later imprison her. And then there was the epic, cloak-and-dagger rivalry with Mary Queen of Scots, the cousin who considered Elizabeth a heretic and a whore.

3. Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen, by Anna Whitelock, (Random House, $28).

Mary Tuodr, the child of Henry VIII and his first wife, the Spanish Katherine of Aragon, has a rather unsavory reputation, one conjured up by Elizabethan propoganada and perpetuated in countless histories over the years, including the films 'Elizabeth,' with Cate Blanchett, and the wonderfully moving 'Lady Jane' with Helena Bonham Carter. But what is the true story? The book's subtitle delineates preceisely Mary's predicament: Born a princess with an excellent education and formidable pedigree, she ws declared illegitimate after her parent's divorce but then later crowned as England's first queen regnant. Ironically, the precedents she set aided her half-sister, Elizabeth, when she took the throne. Whitelock sets the record on Mary straight with flair and grace.

-- Christopher Schoppa

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