A life of opulence

<strong>Sun Kings: a History of Kingship</strong>

Hywel Williams <em>Quercus, 256pp, £16.99</em>

Roving from Ramses II through to King Hussein ibn Talal of Jordan, Hywel Williams has produced a lavish chronology of history’s supreme rulers in all their unfettered opulence.

Each “sun king”, a title originally adopted by Louis XIV in order to stress his divinity, manages to glorify his authority in his own deplorable way: Roger II of Sicily performed a ceremony once a year where he was crowned by Christ; Suleyman the Magnificent kept a “sultanate of women” for his own pleasure.

Williams’s commentary is straightforward, and only when depicting the evolution of constitutional democracy in the 19th century does the author delve deeply into historical analysis.

This transition, Williams remarks somewhat begrudgingly, is one of history’s most dramatic shifts: after five millennia of accepted, even encouraged, hereditary rule, everything has changed over the past two centuries – only the luckiest monarchs received figurehead status. With the onset of communist government in China, for example, the emperor P’u-i, whose Manchu dynasty had ruled the country for 267 years, was reduced to working in a workshop at a botanical garden in Peking.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Merchant adventurer