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Royal Babylon: The Alarming History of European Royalty

Royal Babylon: The Alarming History of European Royalty

3.4 16
by Karl Shaw

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An uproarious, eye-opening history of Europe's notorious royal houses that leaves no throne unturned and will make you glad you live in a democracy.

Do you want to know which queen has the unique distinction of being the only known royal kleptomaniac? Or which empress kept her dirty underwear under lock and key? Or which czar, upon discovering his wife's


An uproarious, eye-opening history of Europe's notorious royal houses that leaves no throne unturned and will make you glad you live in a democracy.

Do you want to know which queen has the unique distinction of being the only known royal kleptomaniac? Or which empress kept her dirty underwear under lock and key? Or which czar, upon discovering his wife's infidelity, had her lover decapitated and the head, pickled in a jar, placed at her bedside?

Royally dishing on hundreds of years of dubious behavior, Royal Babylon chronicles the manifold appalling antics of Europe's famous families, behavior that rivals the characters in an Aaron Spelling television series. Here, then, are the insane kings of Spain, one of whom liked to wear sixteen pairs of gloves at one time; the psychopathic Prussian soverigns who included Frederick William and his 102-inch waist; sex-fixated French rulers such as Philip Duke D'Oreleans cavorting with more than a hundred mistresses; and, of course, the delightfully drunken and debauched Russian czars - Czar Paul, for example, who to make his soldiers goose-step without bending their legs had steel plates strapped to their knees. But whether Romanov or Windsor, Habsburg or Hanover, these extravagant lifestyles, financed as they were by the royals' badgered subjects, bred the most wonderfully offbeat and disturbingly unbelievable tales - and Karl Shaw has collected them all in this hysterically funny and compulsively readable book.

Royal Babylon is history, but not as they teach it in school, and it underlines in side-splitting fashion Queen Victoria's famous warning that it is unwise to look too deeply into the royal houses of Europe.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Anyone who loves scandal, particularly the juicy dish on royalty, will inhale this gossipy account by British writer Shaw (The Mammoth Book of Tasteless Lists). In a style reminiscent of low-end tabloids, the author presents a litany of negative and sometimes disgusting details about the personal lives of the men and women who ruled Britain, Germany, Russia, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Poland and Austria. Leaving the late 20th century mostly behind (his only mention of Charles and Diana is in the introduction), the author concentrates instead on royal misbehavior back to the 1700s. Entertaining overall, many entries are indisputably not for the faint of heart, such as the truly gross story of Russia's Peter the Great ("`Great' was generally a recognition of power or brute strength, no matter how they lived, how many people they had killed or how repulsive they were"), described by Shaw as a "paranoid sadist." This tsar was an alcoholic who tortured people for fun and once forced an attendant to bite into the flesh of a corpse. This chronicle is replete with royal sexual activities, including those of the Bourbons of France, whom Shaw credits with possessing "extraordinary appetites." Irony is Shaw's strong suit, which lends a great deal of humor to often humorless anecdotes. For example, he notes that Spain's King Philip IV fathered 30 illegitimate children "but being a good Catholic always felt bad about it" and forced his wife to have sexual relations three times daily. Like Michael Farquhar's A Treasury of Royal Scandals (see review below), this irreverent and amusing expos of royal indiscretions will appeal especially to those who like their history "lite." Illus. not seen by PW. (May 29) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

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Read an Excerpt

1. Lie Back and Think of Belgium

The Perils of Royal Marriage

When Idi Amin became President of Uganda in 1971 after a military coup, the Western world was slow to react, believing him to be a harmless, posturing buffoon. It didn't dawn on the international community that he was also dangerously insane until, in the interests of better diplomatic relations with Britain, he volunteered to marry Princess Anne.

Royal fairy tales are brittle to the touch, especially alliances between blue bloods and the ordinary red variety. Until relatively recent times, few people lost much sleep over whether or not their royals were happily married. The success or otherwise of all royal marriages was measured solely by the participants' ability to produce a healthy heir. Until that first great organized cull of European royalty, World War I, for centuries it was more or less taken for granted that royal marriages were dynastic arrangements designed to test the strongest of stomachs. When King George III went mad it was suggested that his condition may have been brought on by the trauma of having sexual relations with his exceptionally ugly German wife. Kings and queens went to bed together not as man and wife, but as country with country. Princesses were culture flasks for royal DNA: heir-producing material, served up as sacrifices to complete strangers as a matter of foreign policy, sentenced to a lifetime of massive privilege and marital misery in equal measure. Marriage for love outside royalty was forbidden. A Saxe-Weimar princess, told by her family that she couldn't possibly marry a Jewish banker, shot herself.


The Bourbon kings of France, as members of the most powerful family in Europe, were forced to endure some of the most dreadful royal marriages of all. The Sun King, Louis XIV, ruled with powers given to him directly from God, but his marriage to the last available sane member of the Spanish royal family was not made in heaven. When he made his vows to Princess Maria Theresa at the Saint Jean-de-Luz near the Spanish border, it was the first time he had ever seen her, and he found her to be obese, dwarfish and almost hidden beneath a forty-foot train of blue velvet. He nevertheless alarmed her by insisting on consummating the marriage that evening. Indeed, although the King was consistently unfaithful to his wife, he made a point of spending at least part of every night in her bed, apparently to keep a promise he had made to his mother. Maria Theresa consoled herself by stuffing her face round the clock with chocolate and garlic sauces. At the age of forty-five, her health impaired by a vitamin-free diet and seven pregnancies, she was bled to death by her enthusiastically incompetent physicians.

Even the ugliest of princesses, who if not for their status would have remained permanently on the shelf, became queens. Princess Agnes of Hesse took ugliness to the extreme—she was lame and hunchbacked—but was widely regarded as the wealthiest catch of all the German princesses of her day. Royal betrothals were a hazardous business, especially as princes were routinely expected to select their life partners without ever having met them in the flesh. Usually a trusted courtier would be sent to view the prospective bride and report back on any obvious defects in character or physical appearance. It was the courtier's first impressions that could either make or break the engagement—some courtiers were blessed with more reliable critical faculties than others.

Louis XIV's son and heir, Louis the Grand Dauphin, inherited more than his fair share of the family eccentricity and could have been even stranger had he lived longer (his Habsburg maternal grandfather, Philip IV of Spain, didn't develop a taste for human breast milk until well into his dotage). The bride selected for the Grand Dauphin by his father was a Bavarian princess, Marie Anne Victoire. Although Marie Anne was perfectly eligible and had all the right bloodlines, the King, recalling perhaps the shock of his own engagement, attempted to spare his son any similarly nasty surprises by sending his ambassador, Croissy, to Germany to get a sneak preview of the prospective daughter-in-law. Croissy filed an ambiguous report. His general impression was favorable: the princess didn't have any obvious enormous physical deformities, he noted, apart from brown stains on her forehead, sallow skin, red hands, rotten teeth and a very large, fat nose. The King dispatched a portrait artist to Munich with instructions that he was to paint a truthful, warts-and-all likeness of Marie Anne. When the portrait reached Versailles, the entire French royal family gathered to pass judgment on it. After much debate, Marie Anne was given the thumbs-up.

The painting, however, was also accompanied by a note from Croissy which hinted that in his opinion the likeness was outrageously flattering. Croissy drew attention in particular to the artist's creative interpretation of her nose. Although negotiations were now at an advanced and delicate stage, the King of France was prepared to abort the engagement there and then. His son would hear none of it. The Dauphin considered ugly women erotic—the uglier the better. The more he heard about Princess Marie Anne, the more excited he became.

When Marie Anne was summoned to Versailles it became obvious that Croissy had not exaggerated, especially the bit about the nose. The Grand Dauphin, however, was more than satisfied with his new bride. Louis XIV let it be known that his new daughter-in-law was to be admired: her nose was never mentioned again. Marie Anne and the Grand Dauphin were married and had three children. When Marie Anne died, at barely thirty years old, Louis took up with her ugliest lady-in-waiting, Mademoiselle de Choin, a huge woman well known for her large mouth, her pendulous breasts, but especially for her huge nose.

Over a century later, Louis XVI's hideously bloated younger brother assumed the title of Louis XVIII after the Revolution and tuberculosis had combined to make him next in line to the French throne. At the age of fifteen he was compelled to marry the none-too-fragrant Maria Guiseppina of Savoy, daughter of the King of Sardinia. Maria was small, dark, ugly, and a complete stranger to personal hygiene. The bridegroom's grandfather, Louis XV, had to beg her parents, the King and Queen of Sardinia, to persuade her to wash her neck and clean her teeth. Her favorite hobby was catching thrushes in nets and having them made into soup. As Louis XVIII was homosexual, impotent and preoccupied with the consumption of food to the exclusion of almost everything else, their bedrooms occupied separate floors.

The last French Bourbon king, Charles X, didn't fare much better than either of his elder brothers. He was married at sixteen to a Sardinian princess, Maria Theresa, daughter of King Victor Amadeus III. The bride was a vacant-looking dwarf with a very long nose. Charles's sense of duty overcame his repugnance just often enough for them to have two sons, and two daughters who died in infancy.


Although even the homeliest of royal princesses were never usually short of willing suitors, Queen Elizabeth II's great-grandmother, Princess Mary Adelaide of Teck, rewrote the rule book. She was born in 1833, the daughter of George III's seventh son, Adolphus Duke of Cambridge, and known as Fat Mary—on the face of it an unnecessarily cruel nickname to inflict on a young girl, but conferred in these circumstances with some understatement. She was extremely short and weighed about 252 pounds. Her favorite pastimes were gluttony and dancing, the two combining with often dangerous results. She would thrash about on a crowded dance floor, squashing any unfortunate prince who got in her way. She alone could turn a quadrille into something not unlike a football-stadium disaster. Fortunately, Mary was not the sensitive type, and was bumptiously oblivious of the stares and sniggers that followed her everywhere she went. When she and Queen Victoria met in 1866, Mary had to be accommodated by two chairs. "Mary is looking older," Victoria bitched in her diary, "but not thinner."

Fat Mary's matrimonial prospects were understandably slim, a situation not helped by the attitude of her absurdly hard-to-please parents, who went about applying criteria for possible suitors as though their daughter was a supermodel. One of the more realistic candidates was Louis Napoleon III's obese cousin, "Plon-Plon." Victoria's consort, Prince Albert, vetoed the love match when it became apparent that Plon-Plon was so dissolute that even the French, immunized by centuries of repellent royals, found him disgusting. Prince Oscar of Sweden was a hot favorite for a while, but his thoughts quickly turned to the first train home just as soon as he saw her. The British Foreign Minister of the day, Lord Clarendon, wondered whether any foreign prince in his right mind would be up to "so vast an undertaking."

By the time Fat Mary had reached her early thirties and almost resigned herself to spinsterhood, a husband was miraculously found in Franz, a prince of Teck. Franz's prospects in the royal-marriage stakes were poor because he was tainted by morganatic blood. His father, Duke Alexander of WYrttemburg, had forfeited his children's rights to the throne by marrying Claudine, a very beautiful but low-born Hungarian countess. Theirs was a blissful arrangement, tragically and abruptly terminated when she was trampled to death by horses at a military review.

Franz's family was also relatively poverty-stricken, which made his eligibility even more flawed. These problems, however, combined to make him ideal marriage fodder as far as Mary was concerned, whose parents' search for a son-in-law had long since passed through a slightly more realistic stage, gone on to a much more realistic phase, and had by now taken on an air of grim desperation. When a union was suggested to Franz, he eagerly agreed, much to the astonishment of everyone, especially those who knew about his taste for willowy blondes. It was, he thought, an end to his financial problems. He didn't find out until it was too late that Fat Mary was also broke.

Franz had plenty of time for bitter reflection on his marriage. After several years of living in his wife's shadow, his behavior became increasingly erratic, and his blood pressure soared higher as his wife's girth expanded. One morning in 1884, he woke up completely paralyzed down one side of his body and unable to speak. His wife diagnosed slight sunstroke and skipped off to a light five-course breakfast. Only after a great deal of persuasion by her doctors did she come round to accepting that her husband had suffered a stroke. From that day on, Franz's mental health deteriorated and, although his wife's cholesterol count ensured that he actually outlived her, he spent the remaining three years of his life in isolation guarded by medical attendants.


Emperor Wilhelm I and his wife, the Empress Augusta, were locked into Germany's most enduring and most turbulent royal marriage. In 1885 the Empress Augusta lost the use of her legs and was confined to a wheelchair. By this point, the Emperor hadn't seen her legs for forty-odd years.

Augusta, sometimes known as the "Dragon of the Rhine," was highly strung and said to be the most argumentative woman in Europe. She became more unpredictable as she grew older, occasionally making passes at her ladies-in-waiting and often disappearing for months on end. The Emperor and Empress shared a lifelong mutual loathing and it was said that barely a single day of their marriage, which lasted nearly sixty years, passed without a fearful row. On their days off, they simply refused to speak to each other and conducted their arguments via a third party. If Augusta addressed the Emperor, even though he was directly in front of her, he would ignore her and ask some nearby aide to repeat what she'd said. Wilhelm did not even bother to inform his wife when he became Emperor: she got to hear about it from one of her black footmen.

The Empress, once envied for her perfect cheekbones and porcelain skin, was reluctant to acknowledge that the passage of time had long since relieved her of both assets. In old age she invested in vast quantities of industrial-strength cosmetics, with results that became increasingly difficult for squeamish visitors to behold, and a personal wig collection which was considered in some quarters to be the eighth wonder of the world.

The aged Augusta lived on and on, one part human and three parts makeup. No one was quite sure what kept her going. Immobilized by infirmity and the weight of her wig, she occasionally gave out signs that she was still alive by trembling with the palsy. In 1887 the invalid Augusta was wheeled out to break the ice at her husband's ninetieth birthday, looking, according to one of the lucky partygoers, "like someone dug up from the dead . . . something of a skeleton and something of a witch." The only visible parts of her body, her hands, head and shoulders, were so thickly encrusted in white enamel that when she moved some guests thought they were looking at an automaton, presumably one of the Emperor's birthday presents.

Later that year, when the Empress became seriously ill, Wilhelm became visibly upset. A puzzled visitor asked one of the Emperor's aides why this should be so: after all, the constant rancor between the two was common knowledge. "Wait till you have been married for fifty years and have quarreled with your wife every day," explained the aide, "and then, when you are faced with the alternative of this habit coming to an end, you will be unhappy too." Augusta finally expired from influenza in 1890 aged seventy-eight, outliving her husband by nine months.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Royal Babylon 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 16 reviews.
Aramink More than 1 year ago
The title of this review sums the book up, but I will elaborate since B&N has provided all this lovely space in which to do so. Actually, I should take that back. It doesn't tell ALL. It leaves out an awful lot of why things were they way they were, and it is horribly unflattering of every royal character it touches. The book covers the misbehavior of royals from a wide variety of European countries since medieval times. Each Royal is given just a few pages, at least one of which is devoted to a drooling description of how ugly he or she was and how horrible looking everyone associated with him or her was. The physical descriptions of European royalty lead the reader to assume that the entire intermarried bunch were disgusting to look at from afar and even worse up close. The author revels in these descriptions of every hideous royal person. In fact, he takes so much pleasure in describing the physical flaws in whichever king, queen, prince or princess he attacks, one would believe the person acquired those looks on purpose just to make the populace vomit whenever the royals waved from a balcony on holidays. Personally, I have always thought that making fun of how people look is tantamount to making fun of them because of their race. They cannot help it, and there's probably not much they can do to change it, if they can do anything at all. Leave them alone. At least, that's what I taught my children. Mr. Shaw's mother obviously felt differently about it, or else she is mortified at his treatment of these people. Most of the Royals have only a few pages devoted to telling his or her story. Such a short space necessarily leads to abridgement, but sometimes the story is so abridged that essential facts are left out. The tales need to be retold in a forum with more space to do them justice. As an avid reader of history, I have encountered many of these stories before, but most of them were barely recognizable. Shaw tells each tale with the breathlessness of a celebrity gossip columnist, hitting the high points but completely leaving out any mitigating facts. Anything even remotely flattering or favorable to the Royal in question was apparently discarded before Shaw even began to put this book together. Even Rasputin's death, as famous as it was and as many times as it has been retold in history, was told in such a short, breathy gasp that the reader's head spins a bit. Had the Author spent a little more time explaining the influence Rasputin had on the Tsarina, and why, and why Tsar Nicholas put up with it, the reader approaching this story for the first time might gain an understanding of why Rasputin was so hated that men would go to such lengths to kill him. (And I beg to differ with the author - Nicholas II and Alexandra were not unattractive, nor were their children. Rasputin, on the other hand, was a greasy and disgusting slimeball.) Had the author spent less time running down the looks of the Royals and more time telling the stories, the book would have been better. As it stands, it makes for good bathroom reading. About all one can stomach of it is a story at a time, and reading a story takes about as long as one serious visit to the loo. Too bad I bought the Nook edition - I'm not leaving the Nook in the bathroom.
TexasStarVA More than 1 year ago
In America, we love our celebrities, and none more so than those who are celebrities from birth, such as royalty and the children of movie stars. This book is an eye-opening reminder of why our forefathers and mothers fled Europe for a chance to live free of kings. Kings were worse than dictators, and with all the inbreeding, it's a wonder anyone would even consider marrying into the royal family to this day. After reading this book, I realized the monarchy is an institution that has as much relevance today as whale-bone corsets. Highly recommended for anyone with an open mind for the truth about the bad old days.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Drivel, plain and simple.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Way better than the tabloids...
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I found the flow to ebb a bit mid-stream, and the end seemed a bit abrupt, but overall this is a laugh-out-loud history of European royalty. Certainly not the staid version we received in high school. Readers will be entertained by the royal hijinks, and comforted by their own 'commoner' status.