As colonials we eschewed England's monarchy. Apparently, though, we seem never to have lost our fascination with royalty.
Jeremy Paxman, a British journalist, presents a highly readable analysis of royal roles through the ages, starting with the aftermath of World War I when the Albanians searched for a king, "an English country gentleman preferred, because Albanians detested politicians."
He then takes us on a journey through monarchial institutions, from divine right to figurehead, that have survived wars, dictators, parliaments and dissenters.
When Edward VIII of the House of Windsor abdicated so that he could marry the divorced Wallis Simpson (Paxman notes that he never really was king because there had been no coronation), it was said in Parliament that "monarchy was an idea deeply cherished and what was meant was that it was an idea deeply cultivated."
He continues, "The appearance of enormous antiquity is essential, for the central premise is that the person being crowned is merely the latest custodian of a role which has lasted for centuries.
"The symbols employed -- jewel encrusted crowns (the crown dates back at last as far as the pharaohs,) orb, the robes modeled on those of Byzantine or Roman emperors, the three sceptres and five swords: the Wedding Ring of England to signify the marriage between monarch and people -- are consciously anachronistic."
Although the constitutional monarch may have no real power, says Paxman, "the possibility that a monarch might refuse to sign a really bad law might deter the politicians from going ahead with it."
Paxson also devotes part of a chapter to the deaths of young royal women and the effect on the populace. He even discusses the many conspiracy theories about the deaths of monarchs.
Paxman has done considerable research on his subjects. Notes and bibliography take up a goodly portion of the book.
Maybe that makes this the definitive volume on royals and how they got that way.
Erna Eaton is a veteran news reporter.
On Royalty: A Very Polite Inquiry Into Some Strangely Related Families
By Jeremy Paxman
Public Affairs, 371 pages, $26.95