Philip Mansel

The emperor as ruler of heaven and Earth

Geography, climate, economics and nationalism are often seen as decisive forces in history. In this dynamic, original and convincing book Dominic Lieven considers emperors and their dynasties as motors of events. Defying constrictions of time and space, ranging from Sargon of Akkad, the ruler of what is now northern Iraq (r. 2334-2279 BC), to the

Philip Mansel: King of the World

44 min listen

In this week’s Book Club podcast, my guest is the historian Philip Mansel. We talk about his new biography King of the World: The Life of Louis XIV. He tells me what really drove the great megalomaniac, whether he was a feminist avant la lettre, how his depredations in the Rhineland anticipated Putin’s in Ukraine

The Greeks’ bitter fight for freedom

Last year was the 200th anniversary of the outbreak of the war of Greek independence in March 1821. It has been celebrated by a flood of books and events, a particularly instructive exhibition at the Benaki Museum in Athens and this gruesome page-turner. Mark Mazower, professor of history at Columbia University and the author of

A prince among men: could Albert have changed the course of history?

Double identities have never been rare: Norman French conquered England. Anglo Irish led its armies to victory. German Jews helped create the modern world. Perhaps thinking of the many Germans living in London, and British in Hamburg, Munich and Dresden, Prince Albert’s eldest daughter Vicky, Crown Princess of Prussia, invented another hybrid: ‘Anglo-Germans’. This new

Where three empires met

Norman Stone has already written, with a brilliant blend of humour, understanding and scepticism, histories of the Eastern Front, Turkey, Europe between 1878 and 1919, both world wars and the Cold War. A history of Hungary is his latest book. He has one qualification increasingly rare in England. As polyglot as an educated archduke, he

The kings are holding court again

A hundred years after the Russian revolution, Russia has a tsar and a court. Proximity to Putin is the key to wealth, office and survival. The outward signs of a court society have returned: double-headed eagles, the imperial coat of arms, the cult of Nicholas II (one of whose recently erected statues has ‘wept tears’),

Holding court

A hundred years after the Russian revolution, Russia has a tsar and a court. Proximity to Putin is the key to wealth, office and survival. The outward signs of a court society have returned: double-headed eagles, the imperial coat of arms, the cult of Nicholas II (one of whose recently erected statues has ‘wept tears’),

The road to catastrophe

France’s problems today should lessen the condescension of posterity towards Louis XVI. Presidents of the Republic have proved just as incapable as the King of reforming privileged corporations — stemming the flight of skills and capital — and winning popular confidence. Louis XVI’s failure to manage France after 1789 is easier to understand after reading

Sodom in Potsdam

Reacquaintance with Germany is long overdue for most English people. Before 1914 it was at least as familiar as France and Italy. Tim Blanning, former professor of Modern European History at Cambridge, has already written brilliantly about Germany in books such as The Culture of Power and The Triumph of Music. His latest is a

Kaiser Wilhelm’s guide to ruining a country

The role of personality in politics is the theme of this awe-inspiring biography. This is the third volume, 1,562 pages long, of John Röhl’s life of the Kaiser. It has been brilliantly translated — the labyrinth of imperial Germany navigated by many headed subdivisions in each chapter — by Sheila de Bellaigue. The fruit of

Sublime port

Ports can challenge national stereotypes: think of the difference between St Petersburg and Russia, or Naples and Italy. Since England is so small, and London so big, few English ports have generated their own identities. In France, however, despite the alleged stranglehold of Paris, ports such as Bordeaux, Nice and Marseille have remained remarkably different

Love letters to foreign lands

Xenophilia is as English as Stilton. Despite a reputation for insularity, no other nation has produced so many writers who have  immersed themselves in other countries. From Borrow to Lawrence, Byron to Auden, the list is impressive. In one of the wonderful letters quoted in this perceptive, haunting and highly readable biography, Patrick Leigh Fermor

Charming, cold-eyed cosmopolitan

At last a diary as penetrating on Berlin as the Goncourt brothers’ on Paris has been translated into English. The author, Count Harry Kessler, resembled a character from Sybille Bedford’s masterpiece, A Legacy. Born in Paris in 1868, he was educated in England, France and Germany. His father was a Hamburg banker; his mother was

Gunboat diplomacy

Britain’s links with the Continent were once  deeper and more extensive than those of any other European country. Paris, Rome and German universities played as vital a role in British culture as many native cities. Mediterranean connections were especially strong. Most cities on its shores contain an English church and cemetery. From Minorca to Cyprus,

The battle for the holy city

In a tour de force of 500 pages of text Simon Sebag Montefiore, historian of Stalin and Potemkin, turns to a totally different subject: the city of Jerusalem. Founded around 1000 BC by Jews on Canaanite foundations, it has been, in turn, capital of the Kingdom of Judah; scene of the crucifixion of Jesus and

Under Eastern eyes

The Ottoman Empire inspired great travel books as well as great architects. Travellers like George Sandys, Richard Pococke or the Chevalier d’Arvieux in the 17th and 18th centuries were curious, erudite and less arrogant than their 19th-century successors. The Ottoman Empire inspired great travel books as well as great architects. Travellers like George Sandys, Richard

Through Levantine eyes

The corniche at Izmir had a magic atmosphere. Lined with cafés and orchestras playing every kind of music — Western, Greek, Turkish, Armenian — it had the reputation for making the gloomiest laugh. Though ‘terribly chee-chee’ (i.e., they spoke with a sing-song accent), the women were famous for their allure. The trade in figs, raisins

The king of peace

Philip Mansel reviews Lion of Jordan:  The Life of King Hussein in War and Peace by Avi Shlaim On 2 May 1953 two 18-year-old cousins were enthroned as kings, in Baghdad and Amman respectively. Faisal II of Iraq, the intelligent ruler of a wealthy country, seemed destined for a great future. Hussein of Jordan, king

The Viennese charades

Europe had a party during the Congress of Vienna in the last months of 1814. Monarchs, ministers, ambassadors and their wives and mistresses had learnt what Lord Castlereagh called ‘habits of confidential intercourse’ while engaged in defeating Napoleon. Between balls and banquets in the city’s many palaces, they seduced, betrayed and negotiated with each other.