The Top 10 Royal Historical Novels

Why are royal families so fascinating? I think, as an American, the entire concept of royalty is so incomprehensible to me as to be wildly intriguing. And the plots in which these monarchs were embroiled - the violence and sexual escapades and atrocities and heroics - make for a damned good read.

I'm an unabashed Tudor nerd, and honestly, I just adore all royal history. I've read a ton of great non-fiction on the matter, but I'm also unashamed to admit that I can devour a good royal historical novel or ten. While the non-fiction offers indisputable facts and valuable information, the novels are juicier. They fill in those details absent from recorded history, speculating as to romances, motivations, and foils left undetermined by time. 

So behold! The top 10 royal historical novels. I freely admit, this lists skews heavily Tudor. I can't help myself! 

1) 'The Autobiography of Henry VIII: With Notes by His Fool, Will Somers' by Margaret George, 1998

George's mock autobiography is a massive read, one of those hefty tomes that just feels respectable in your hands. The book follows the entire life of the enigmatic king who married six women and executed two of them, a man who dismantled the Catholic church and neglected his daughters and coveted a son and beheaded some of his most loyal followers. The novel sheds light on some of Henry's most baffling decisions through George's clear insights. The narrative is interjected with impudent, hilarious commentary by Henry's fool, and the complete work is an absolute joy to read.


2) 'The Constant Princess' by Philippa Gregory, 2006

Gregory is the undisputed queen of royal fiction, having written dozens of novels, each one intricately researched and beautifully realized. The Constant Princess is one of my favorites, as it illuminates one of history's most inscrutable figures. Katherine of Aragon was Henry VIII's first wife, the stoic Spanish monarch who stood her ground through humiliation and rejection as Henry made every effort to throw her over for Anne Boleyn. Gregory offers the iconic tale through the perspective of the silent queen, beginning with her life in Spain and ending with her days in exile.


3) 'Elizabeth I' by Margaret George, 2011

George follows up her epic undertaking of Henry VIII with one of his youngest daughter, the Virgin Queen. Told from the point of view of Elizabeth's cousin Lettice Knollys, Elizabeth I follows the Tudor monarch through the days of her childhood, neglected by Henry after her mother was beheaded, until the years of her reign. A sharply written and keenly felt portrait of the fiery queen, George pulls no punches.


4) 'The Forever Queen' by Helen Hollick, 2010

Hollick brings to life a lesser known queen, Emma of Normandy. Emma was Queen Consort of England twice, once by her marriage to the deliciously named Æthelred the Unready and then by her marriage to his usurper, the Viking King Cnut the Great. Hollick tackles the vast scope of the royal landscape at the turn of the first millennium and honors a brave and fiercely loyal female leader.


5) 'Mirror Mirror' by Gregory Maguire, 2009

Maguire does his thing - unconventional retellings of traditional fairy tales - again with Mirror Mirror, this time telling the story of Snow White, the beautiful, hated step-daughter of...Lucrezia Borgia?! The wicked, poison-happy, possibly incestuous Borgias are one of the most fascinating families in history, and Maguire paints them with broad but deliciously juicy strokes as the villains in the beloved tale we know so well. As always, his language is rich and elegant and his characters are endlessly compelling.


6) 'The Other Boleyn Girl' by Philippa Gregory, 2003

Gregory's most popular novel, turned into a movie starring Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman as the Boleyn sisters, follows Anne's sister Mary, historically the first Boleyn to catch Henry's eye. Mary becomes Henry's mistress at the behest of her power-hungry uncle, but Henry soon loses interest after conquering her and turns his eye to the manipulative Anne. The novel is pure fun, a thrilling, sexy account of the life of a lady at court. 


7) 'Innocent Traitor: A Novel of Lady Jane Grey' by Alison Weir, 2007

Weir is another highly esteemed royal novelist and non-fiction writer, and with her 2007 book, she tells the story of The Nine Days Queen, one of history's most hapless political pawns. Lady Jane Grey was the grand-niece of Henry VIII and the cousin of Edward VI. Edward nominated her to be his successor when he was on his death bed, and her ascension was promoted by detractors of Mary I, the fiercely Catholic daughter of Henry. After taking the crown, Mary's supporters quickly intervened, Mary claimed the throne and Jane was convicted of treason and executed. Weir's novel is strenuously researched and fully absorbing, giving an authentic voice to the intelligent but unlucky Jane. 


8) 'The Canterbury Papers' by Judith Koll Healey, 2005

Healey gives us an account of Eleanor of Aquitaine, the wealthy and powerful Duchess who became Queen Consort of France and then England in the 1100s. Eleanor - cunning and manipulative - sends her ward Alais to retrieve a stack of incriminating letters hidden deep within the Canterbury Cathedral. Healey's novel is the first in the series following Alais as she battles with the challenges and triumphs inherent in being close to one of the most powerful women in Western Europe during the Middle Ages. 


9) 'The Three Musketeers' by Alexandre Dumas, 1844

The first royal novel I ever loved, The Three Musketeers is a true classic. Dumas follows Athos, Porthos, Aramis and D'Artagnan as they engage in general derring-do in service of King Louis XIV. The (four, actually) musketeers combat assassination attempts, betrayal, romantic entanglements, and coup conspiracies with wit and panache. The novel's exciting and fun, an absolute riot. 


10) 'Wolf Hall' by Hilary Mantel, 2010

This list is ordered alphabetically; if these books were numbered by quality, Wolf Hall would without a doubt be #1. The book tells the story, once again, of Henry VIII, but this time from the angle of Thomas Cromwell, his little understood advisor. Almost nothing is known of Cromwell's childhood or background, but Mantel weaves a richly textured portrait of the man who helped Henry abandon the Church, divorce one wife and execute another. The novel is razor sharp, gorgeously written and absolutely riveting. It's the first in a proposed trilogy; the sequel comes out next month and I simply cannot wait.


I insist you all join me in the comments, listing your own favorite royal historical novels or non-fiction. Speak up, readers! If there's anything out there I haven't read, I need to know about it immediately.

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Don Hamilton's picture
Don Hamilton April 24, 2012 - 11:25pm

Hi, Meredith.  While not strictly a historical novel about royalty, I loved The Scarlet Pimpernel, which of course, is set during the French Revolution and revolves around the aristocracy of both England and France. The Scarlet Pimpernel is an early action hero and a precursor of modern action heros who live dual lives with their true identities unknown to their admirers.

As a small boy, I read everything I could about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, including, The Legends of King Arthur and His Knights by James Knowles and The Boy's King Arthur by Sidney Lanier.  I know there were others, but I can't remember their names.

More recently I have been greatly entertained by "The Tudors" and "The Borgias" on Showtime.  I particularly was enthralled with The Tudors and greatly admired the portrayal of  Henry the VIII by Jonathan Rhys Meyers.

As always, Meredith, I loved your column!  Keep them coming!

Don Hamilton's picture
Don Hamilton April 24, 2012 - 11:39pm

I don't know how the comment posted twice and could not figure out how to get rid of the 2nd one. I deleted it under the edit option, but it required some comment, thus this explanation. Perhaps your editor can delete this.

Meredith's picture
Meredith from Houston, Texas is reading His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman April 25, 2012 - 7:28am

Thank you! I love The Scarlet Pimpernel too; that almost made the cut. 

winteradker's picture
winteradker September 27, 2013 - 12:21pm

I highly recommend "Shadow on the Crown" which I have found mesmerizing, right up to the standards of Philippa Gregory and Anya Seton !!  This book is the first volume in a trilogy in progress by Patricia Bracewell, and opens in the year 1002 with the very young Emma of Normandy still at home, but soon to be sent off to England to be wed to Æthelred and crowned as Queen.  I have only just visited your "Top Ten" and see Hollick's book listed, of which I was previously unaware, and I am delighted to be offered the opportunity to read another version of the same story-- although for now, Patricia Bracewell has me in her firm and lovely grip !!!

Cate Hogan's picture
Cate Hogan August 12, 2015 - 11:39pm

Thank you for this fantastic review! "The Forever Queen" is a definite favourite of mine. Here is my list of top 15 historical romance novels of all time: Some classic and more current titles. I'd love your feedback!